Heterophobia? Straightwashing on the Academic Job Market

tags: discrimination, LGBTQ history, academic labor

Rebecca L. Davis is the Miller Family Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware and co-editor of Heterosexual Histories (New York Univ. Press, 2021). She tweets @historydavis.

Fifteen years ago, in the midst of a job interview, someone asked me if I was heterophobic. That jarring experience has resonated across my career—and in my personal life—ever since.

The question arose during an on-campus interview for a tenure-track position as a historian of sexuality in the United States. I was in my final year of graduate school and anxious to impress the members of the department. My dissertation charted a history of marriage counseling in the United States, and it considered how secular and religious counselors tried to teach husbands and wives to be particular kinds of men or women and to develop particular sexual identities. I had no inkling at that time that I might someday co-edit a book about histories of heterosexuality nor attempt to write a single-volume history of sexuality in the United States. Yet I can trace much of what has followed in my professional life to that question and its reverberations.

The interview day otherwise went smoothly. From the moment I arrived on campus, the members of the search committee were welcoming and kind. I did not have the moxie to think my project brilliant, but I felt reasonably confident as I walked into the conference room to present my research.

I stood at the front of the room wearing a suit from Ann Taylor Loft, brown with red pinstripes, purchased for the occasion. The suit jacket was boxy, and the pants had the then-stylish wide-leg fit that, I later appreciated, made me look smaller and shorter than I already am. I wore brown pumps, and by the time of the talk, my feet ached. Sweating and chilled at the same time, I cued up my slides and gave my 35-minute presentation, hoping it was good enough. My talk generated a lively discussion. I am really doing this, I thought. They are interested in my ideas.

And that’s when it happened.

He stood up, or maybe he just leaned forward. He had a question. He had read only the introduction to my dissertation, but he noticed that I cited a book by Judith Butler. Was it fair to conclude, he asked, that I was heterophobic?

I had never heard the word “heterophobic” before. Nor did I know that it circulated within reactionary, homophobic, and antifeminist political networks. Put on the spot in that conference room, I mentally derived its meaning: if homophobia means the fear or hatred of homosexuals, then heterophobia means . . . oh. A woman who hates heterosexuals is, presumably, a lesbian, and one with an “agenda” at that. The relationship between my sexuality and my scholarship was the obvious subtext of his question.

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