Does one’s sexual orientation matter when working or studying at a postsecondary institution? For most people, the answer is “no.” For other people – and I’m one of them – the answer is a definite “yes.” Such responses depend on one’s assumptions about what “sexual orientation” is in the first place.
Sexual orientation is presumed to be a private matter only. What one does and does not do sexually is not appropriate for conversation on campus. However, there is another aspect of sexual orientation that is appropriate on campus. I refer to this as public sexuality identity.
To see how it works and why it matters on campus, consider these situations:
- Your partner or spouse drops you off at work and you give them a quick peck on the lips goodbye before they drive away.
- You hang a picture of your partner or spouse on your office wall or place a framed picture of them on your desk.
- In class, you happen to mention your wife or girlfriend (if you are male) or your husband or boyfriend (if you are female).
Although these situations are mundane, they communicate to others your sexuality identity. Whereas “sexual orientation” indicates how you are oriented sexually, “sexuality identity” is a public expression that announces your sexual orientation without saying a single word about your actual sex life. Very few people, if anyone, will notice or care about quick pecks, mentioning of wives and husbands, or pictures on walls or desks, provided these expressions are in reference to the opposite sex.
But what about when these public expressions are in reference to the same sex?
Consider those same mundane situations for lesbian and gay staff, colleagues and students, as well as those who are bisexual and who happen to be in same-sex relationships. Straight couples can walk hand-in-hand on campus and engage in other public displays of affection without having to consider for even a moment the possibility that others might find it offensive. This means that straight people are accorded a measure of privilege that lesbian, gay and some bisexual people are not. By contrast, we may become the focus of gawks and giggles when we publicly express ourselves in the exact same ways. We may also be told, verbally or silently, to keep our sexuality to ourselves, to stop “flaunting it.” We may be called nasty names or even gay-bashed.
As an out gay professor, I cannot afford to engage in the mundane expressions of sexuality identity without considering my emotional, psychological and physical safety.
The message, then, is this: straight people on campus have a measure of privilege that is unearned and widely unacknowledged. However, when LGB people express themselves in the exact same public ways that straight people do routinely, we may become the target of forms of injustice that we do not deserve. For straight people, it is a privilege to not have to think about one’s privilege.
How can the climate of university and college campuses be shaped so that everyone, not just the privileged majority, can express their sexuality identity on campus without fear of negative repercussion? Indicating in policy that no staff member, university instructor or student will face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is minimal action because it is also required by law. For some of us, more action is required to support our right to publicly express our sexuality identity on par with straight people.
Regardless of our role on campus, we all have measures of responsibility. Those involved in campus social policy have a responsibility to draft and implement policy that educates about sexual orientation and sexuality identity in ways that I have tried to do here. Straight people have a responsibility to recognize that others on campus cannot take for granted expressions of their sexuality identity as unquestioned freedom. Straight people, then, need to think twice when flaunting their privilege, even if in ignorance, and to use language such as “partner” instead of “wife,” “husband,” “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.” LGB people on campus also have a responsibility. We need to be out about our sexual orientation by asserting our rights to public expressions of our sexuality identity equally with straight people. The closet needs to become an artefact of the past, once and for all.
Fortunately, some of my straight colleagues and students are excellent allies, in part because they are aware of their privilege. Unfortunately, some of my lesbian, gay and bisexual colleagues remain closeted, thinking that their sexual orientation is no one’s business but their own.
They are wrong. Just as straight people on campus do not have to compartmentalize their sexual orientation to the private realm and render their sexuality identity publicly invisible, neither do we.
Gerald Walton is an associate professor in the faculty of education at Lakehead University.