Jay Irwin, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He received his PhD in Medical Sociology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2009. He is heavily involved in activism and advocacy both on campus and in the larger community. His research and teaching involve LGBT health, trans identities, and sexualities.
I have just completed what has to be the most bizarre and emotionally draining first week of a semester – potentially in my entire academic career, both past and future. I had a rough summer to start. I had an invasive back surgery in July and was recuperating while teaching an online class from a rented hospital bed in my living room. I had a lot of time to think this summer and was excited for the Fall term to begin. I had modified my courses and was ready to engage students in new and exciting ways. My body wasn’t fully ready to go to work, but regardless, I had to go back to work and was intellectually charged to go engage with students. And then I had one of the most exhausting, bizarre, and hurtful first weeks ever.
THE PERSONAL MEETS THE PROFESSIONAL
Actually, this all started the Saturday before classes began. I teach an Intro to LGBTQ Studies course. To be more specific, I created the course, and I am the ONLY faculty member teaching this course. In this class we are conducting oral histories of LGBTQ people in the local community, part of a larger archive project my University just began this summer (http://queeromahaarchives.omeka.net/). I was contacting people all summer to gather a list of people whose history NEEDS to be recorded, and in my class, I am specifically prioritizing people over 50 years old, QTPOC, and trans folx, as their histories get lost the quickest. One person in particular was very excited to participate, but was currently in hospice care. They were an influential and important member of my University community as well, so the archivist and I conducted the interview ourselves, on a Saturday, in their home, while their daughter and granddaughter sat by their side, holding their hand and giving them emotional strength. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. They spoke about things – aloud – to people they’d not met before, about topics they’d spoken to very few people about. I felt honored that they let me into their life. I met their generous and amazing children and partner, who fought back tears as we said our goodbyes after the interview. Two days later they passed away. I learned about their passing in an email 15 minutes before I was to go teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class, where I would detail the oral history project to the students. And their history was the first life story contributed to this project.
I completely broke down. Thankfully my partner was able to talk with me and get me ready to go to class. When going over the syllabus and the project, I was honest with my students about how important this project is both personally and to the community. Our history in the local community is LITERALLY disappearing and will be forgotten if it’s not captured soon, and my community is not unique in this respect. I managed to not cry in front of the students, but I did see a few students wipe away a tear for a person they had never met. In fact, I knew this person formally for all of an hour and a half, but I can’t begin to explain the impact they have had on my life. I have never been so committed to a project like I am now with this oral history project. I refuse to let my local LGBTQ history, and more specifically the people attached to that history, go unrecognized and unremembered. I have a small suspicion that the person we interviewed held on a bit longer to life to be able to tell their story. To tell us their life. To gift us with their experiences. And I am forever changed as both a person and an academic because of it.
THE PROFESSIONAL MEETS THE PERSONAL
In this same week, I’ve helped students navigate the typical starting back to school stresses – where are my classes, what classes are still open as I haven’t enrolled yet, where do I find parking? But, as the only out trans faculty member on my campus, and someone that our students know from the larger community, many LGBTQ students come to me for support and affirmation of their identities. For example, I had a student show up outside my classroom door as I came in to teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class that first day. This student, who uses they/them pronouns, said to me “I need to get into your class.” No problem I said, I can get you a permit code, come on in. They said, “No, I NEED your class. I just got out of a class that was terrible and I NEED your class to feel safe.” I again assured them, no problem, and let’s talk about that other class after our class. I met with them, and they told me their concerns, largely that they felt invisible as a queer non-binary trans person in a white, cis, heteronormative space, and that they felt they had to educate their classmates on their own identities in a class dedicated to gender studies. Later in the day, I met with the professor who had unintentionally excluded this student by not being purposeful in including non-binary or LGBT students. I had to be careful in this conversation as to not make the faculty member feel shamed, but also to advocate for my student and to educate the faculty member on topics I assumed they already knew based on their own disciplinary background. It was an incredibly draining conversation, navigating multiple political levels, on my first day back at work after months off due to surgery, and on a day that I would work 11 hours due to my teaching schedule.
Next, at the end of the first week of classes, I got a call from the director of our LGBTQ center on campus, telling me she may need my help. She had just received an email that a student was in a course where the professor used the word “fag” in reference to gay people. Just in passing. Not as in the historical context of the word or referring to cigarettes in the British usage of the term. Just calling gay people “fags.” I was livid, as was the student and the director. Thankfully, my institution has mechanisms in place to address these situations, and those wheels are turning. But I couldn’t fathom, in 2016, how anyone involved in teaching would think that was acceptable.
To top it all off, a social media flare-up happened during the weekend after my first week of classes, all having to do with they/them singular pronouns. Yes, we’ve come full circle. I had posted, on behalf of my research collaborative’s official Facebook page, a video about how they/them pronouns are not new, are appropriate, and should be used. A debate ensued in which I felt personally insulted and attacked as a trans person. But, being the perpetual educator, I tried to rationally and reasonably respond to rather childish behaviors on the part of other professors at other institutions. As Facebook threads go, the conversation was on-going for about 3 days before it all settled down, but I refuse to be silenced and marginalized by other academics, whose expertise does not fall in LGBTQ or trans studies. I refuse to allow them to tell me and others within my community that they are not valid. That their pronouns are not valid. This is not how academia should work, and I’m consistently saddened to see that this is still sometimes how academia works.
OUR BLURRY AREAS NEED SUPPORT STRUCTURES
Thankfully, I have a healthy community of queer and trans spectrum friends and chosen family, both locally and from all over the world. They have reached out to me when I, the eternal external processor on social media, have posted vulnerable and raw posts discussing each of these issues. With every post, I’ve received love, encouragement, and affirmation. On Sunday, the day when all of the events of the week were being personally processed, I posted regarding my absolute exhaustion, but also my refusal to give up. My continued commitment to fight for those who are invisible in our society – the queer man who “looks straight”, the non-binary student who uses they/them pronouns but “looks like a girl”. And because my LGBTQ friends and family are amazing, I got lots of love. And then, something amazing happened. An academic inspiration to my own career – Jennifer Finney Boylan, the first trans academic that I ever saw, who helped me know that I could be an out trans academic – commented on my post and gave me support and love. It was the first time I had cried happy tears all week, a week of lots of unhappy, sad, frustrated tears.
I’m also incredibly thankful to work at an institution that, while not perfect (nor ever claiming to be), is making real systemic steps to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all forms of bias campus wide. I have received so much support from administrators regarding the work that I do, which is not always the norm in academia. Support from my colleagues, department chair, dean, and upper administration has allowed me to continue to do the work that I do both inside the academy and outside in the advocacy world. I am grateful and lucky to work at such a university, a privilege I do not take lightly.
SUGGESTIONS FOR NAVIGATING THESE MURKY WATERS
I want to end my own, selfish processing session with some suggestions.
1.) We talk about self-care so much in academia and advocacy circles, but from my own experience, we are terrible about putting self-care into action for ourselves. Do not neglect self-care. Yes, advocate when and where you can, but know when you have to take a step back when your body, brain, and heart can’t go any farther without burning out. There’s a saying in activism circles about self-care: it’s like the safety instructions you get on an airplane – put on your own oxygen mask before you put on anyone else’s. You can’t be an effective advocate for others if you have suffocated yourself by working yourself to exhaustion.
2.) Surround yourself, as much as possible, with those that lift you up. You need those friends and family to keep going. Allow yourself to open up to them and be honest in those conversations. Tell them what you need. Ask for them to support you if they aren’t. And allow them to hug you (if you are one who’s into hugging, as I’m trying to become more comfortable with myself). Human contact can be so healing for us. If you are partnered, allow your partner(s) to comfort you. I can’t even begin to thank my partner for helping me so much this week, by holding me while I cried, by listening to me again complain and rage against injustice, and by just being an amazing human and loving me constantly. Find that one person you can tell anything to, who can be there to support you when you need it the most, whether it be a romantic partner or just a really close colleague.
3.) Find the balance that works for you. Not every academic who works with marginalized groups operates the same in terms of activism and rabble-rousing. I’m comfortable in that world (after slowly ramping up my work in advocacy over the last 10 years), but that’s not everyone’s sweet spot. Find how you are your best in regard to being a professionally engaged academic who is also fighting for social justice. There is no mold, and one size certainly does not fit all.
4.) To academics, just because we have a PhD does not make us experts in all of the human condition. Be open to learning more, and be willing to be challenged by your students. It is the height of academic elitism to assume we are the holders of all knowledge and that it is our job to impart it all to our students. My students teach me new things each and every day, and for that I am grateful. It does not make me less of an expert, but it does make me a better teacher.
In loving affirmation and solidarity, always.
Jay A. Irwin, PhD
Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Nebraska at Omaha
 I am using they/them pronouns to protect the anonymity of this person. These pronouns are not necessarily a direct reflection of their personal gender pronouns.