One of the things that I know has been on a lot of people’s minds about the magical disappearance of Coach Howe’s employment from Belmont University is just how widespread the magical disappearance of jobs for gay people might be. Is there anyone else other than Howe to whom this or something similar has happened?
Keep in mind that the job market is terrible. If people are running into problems with Belmont, coming forward, knowing they may be labeled troublemakers, means risking their careers, not just at Belmont but in academia.
And even in the face of that, sometimes, someone will say, “Hey, something happened to me, too.”
In this case, that someone is Nashvillian, Rebecca Chapman, who tells me she took a job with Belmont only to find it magically disappearing on her as higher-ups became aware she is gay.
She was kind enough to answer some questions I have about this whole Belmont situation.
Here’s the background Chapman gave me. Chapman did her graduate work at Vanderbilt. Earlier this year, she was fortunate enough to get an interview at Belmont for a tenure-track position in the English Department. The English Department loved her. She loved them. She was offered a contract. She accepts. She writes up her bio, orders books for her classes, and gets security clearance. And then a Dean asks to meet with her, she assumes to clear up some benefits issues pertaining to her partner, who they know about and have known about, and she’s told the job she was hired for has been given to another person and that she could have a one-year tenure-track contract, but that he would understand if she needed to resign.
For those of you who aren’t academics, think of it like this: being hired for a tenure-track position is like getting on a bus to go from Nashville to Chicago. You get hired, you ride the bus by publishing and attending conferences and being a great teacher. The longer you do these things, the closer you get to Chicago. Once you get to Chicago, if everyone in the department thinks you did a good job of getting there, you get to stay. Ta da, you have tenure.
Yes, you may be kicked off the bus any time between Nashville and Chicago, but, if you do what you’re supposed to do, you stay on that bus.
What the Dean told her, in effect, was “You can get on the bus to Chicago, but your ride ends in Bowling Green.” As Chapman told me, the job “had now transformed into an oxymoron (a one-year tenure-track contract?).”
So, I asked Chapman if she’d, perhaps, hidden her gayness from Belmont. She said
While I never came out in my application materials—which would be odd and unnecessary, I think—I reflect in those materials my desire to work with and mentor LGBTQ youth. I also made it clear during my campus visit that same-sex partner benefits would play a factor in whether or not I accepted an offer from an institution. To be clear, I never told anyone at Belmont my sexual orientation; I did, however, make it known unequivocally that I have a female partner, that we have exchanged rings as symbols of our commitment to one another, and that we would hold a commitment ceremony sometime in the future. I made no attempt to hide my relationship, nor did the members of the search committee in the Departments of English or History (lovely folks, by the way) ask or expect me to. Quite to the contrary, I asked explicitly of the climate at Belmont toward LGBT staff, faculty, and students, and was assured by multiple faculty members that the University has made leaps over the past few years in creating a safe and supportive atmosphere. I don’t think for a moment the faculty members attempted to hide or misrepresent anything. I imagine many if not most faculty members at Belmont currently find themselves in an intractable situation. The faculty at the Department of English are fabulous folks, and my heart goes out to them.
This gibes with what the stories at Belmont Vision say—that faculty are feeling like their understanding of Belmont and the atmosphere there has been turned on its head.
I asked Chapman whether she felt surprised that this would happen at Belmont, and she said
I have lived in Nashville for seven years now. I hear people from other regions comment on examples of injustice in the South with phrases like, “Well, what do you expect?” and “Are you really surprised?” I sincerely hope that injustice always catches us by surprise. I lived in southern California before I moved here, and, sadly, I felt just as unable to show affection on a date with my wife there as I do here. In my case, I was shocked by my treatment, especially because Belmont has a distinct public persona here. Its undergraduates are not only bright, but also very active in the community and understood as primarily liberal and alternative. The faculty are equally active and, from what I’ve found, incredibly compassionate teacher-scholars who value diversity. This is one of the reasons I was so thrilled to have accepted the position. I think this persona holds true for every aspect of the institution except for a select few administrators, who unfortunately appear to also be those in the highest positions of power at the University.
The conversation then turned to the “It Gets Better” campaign, which I have really mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I do think it’s incredibly powerful for kids to hear from adults, especially adults they look up to or could imagine being like, that there are reasons not to kill yourself, no matter how bad things are right now. On the other hand, it doesn’t get unequivocally better and we shouldn’t think kids don’t watch the news and see what happens to GLBT people in our own state. Which you know, because I’ve ranted about it before.
Anyway, here’s Chapman’s take on “It Gets Better,” especially as it pertains to her situation:
If I have learned anything from the “It Gets Better” campaign, it is that attempts to promote open dialogue on important issues like teen suicide can lead to cultural complacency at a startling rate. Conversations on gay and lesbian death rates shifted so quickly to the newest “It Gets Better” videos on youtube that the glitz of celebrity somehow sutured over the tragedy of the situation. Belmont has offered an addendum to the movement: it does get better, and then when you least expect it, you find yourself in an impossible situation, wondering why entire institutions present your sexual orientation as a public topic of discussion and debate on morality; and then it feels as though it cannot get any worse, until you read or hear about others facing similar situations or lobbying on your behalf, and then you realize it does get better sometimes; and you learn it is a constant negotiation, in which you sometimes feel supported and sometimes targeted.
So, here are the important things we can glean from what we’re hearing out of Belmont. One, the current situation is untenable and will destroy the school. If departments cannot make offers to candidates in good faith that the deals they make with those candidates will be honored by the administration, they will stop getting job applicants. Yes, even in this terrible economy. It’s bad enough that Chapman’s job was changed on her after she signed a contract, but imagine if she and her family had moved here to take the job?
No one is going to move to Nashville to take a job with an institution that is known to magically disappear the jobs of people it decides it doesn’t like. Yes, things go wrong all the time, everywhere.
You still don’t want to be known as the school where job candidates cannot know if they can actually count on the job they thought they were taking being there.
Two, even if somehow the school were to miraculously survive gaining a reputation for disappearing the jobs of gay people, they’d be severely limited in the quality of faculty they’d be able to attract, not just because openly gay people wouldn’t want to work there (no job security), but GLBT-friendly straight people would always be wondering when the witch-hunt would come to them. Could you be singled out as a “problem” if you taught, for instance, the sperm-squeezing chapter in Moby Dick? Or the complexities of Lincoln’s sexuality?
Would you be punished if you didn’t lie to students?
Just go back and read that sentence again. Because you can’t be a university, not a real, world-class university on par with Vanderbilt and Duke and such if your faculty can’t be sure they won’t be punished for not lying to students.
This has become a complex story since it broke. Is Belmont actually GLBT-friendly? What happens to a university where the students and faculty are so at odds with members of the administration? What does it mean to be a “Christian” university? Does it mean presiding over an atmosphere of terror? What would a gay-friendly, Christian Belmont look like? Now that Mike Curb’s spoken in favor of GLBT-friendly reforms because of the presence of gay people in the music industry, will we see repercussions in Nashville’s notoriously fucked-up-about-gay-people music industries? Or will it still be fine and normal to be gay behind the scenes but basically never out front? What role do faculty and students have in shaping their community? Can the faculty depend on the word of the administration? And on and on and on.
Time will tell the answers to these questions. But the thing I hope you take away from this is that what happened to Coach Howe wasn’t a one-time thing. At least one other person, Rebecca Chapman, says she found her job disappeared on her, too, once her sexuality became an issue for the administration.