I learned an astounding thing today in my workshop on the impact of transsexual transition on friends, colleagues, students, and administrators, a workshop that was part of this week’s LGBT Awareness Week. After introducing the topic, the people in the room were invited to pipe in about how they felt a coming-out impacted the organization. Some said that they were concerned for me. Others said they had initially worried about Mary Jo. Still others said they were dumb-struck.
But the bit of information that simply floored me came from one of my new doctoral students, whom I had met in a recruiting weekend during the late springtime as one of my last public duties as George. She told the room that she had been accepted to two excellent doctoral programs, ours and one in Seattle. She was leaning towards ours, but was concerned about the cultural climate of Bedford Falls and was seriously questioning whether she could move here for 4, 5, or 6 years until her dissertation was finished.
Just then, she told the room, she received my coming-out letter, which I emailed on April 9th. After reading it, she said she knew that Bedford Falls was where she wanted to come to school, as she could feel the trust, the commitment to communication, and the inclusiveness of the organization running through my letter. To her, this letter was concrete proof of a quality that she hadn’t previously been sure existed in our institution, but that she was pretty sure existed at the Univ of Washington, not because of any communications from them, but because she assumed that because they were in Seattle, they would naturally be inclusive, tolerant, and accepting of difference. The letter, in other words, revealed qualities about her new program, faculty, classmates, and institution.
I am quite surprised by all of this — I had figured on coming out as being mostly neutral, and occasionally negative. But I had not considered this sort of personal disclosure as something others would react positively to; for me, it wasn’t a sign of anything other than my own historical despair and my need to do something about it.
I also find myself wondering why these values of pluralism, diversity, acceptance, and openness were NOT visible to her during our correspondence or her visit to the campus. In putting on our best face in the midst of professional correspondence, do we also mask our deeper and more emotional values? I think that departments in the midst of recruiting feel, rightly or wrongly, that their “dirty laundry,” or more generally, their broad social and philosophical values are best left at home, and that we should focus on learning outcomes, faculty scholarship, and job placement rates.
This woman’s wonderful story causes me to sit back and re-examine those assumptions.