“What is Queer Leadership?” – HigherEdJobs

by Raymond E. Crossman, Ph.D.

“What is Queer Leadership?” – HigherEdJobs

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Is being queer a superpower for leaders, something we manage as part of our intersectional identities, or is it just another attribute of accomplished leaders? My colleagues in an organization of LGBTQ presidents and chancellors in higher ed (now called LGTBQ Leaders in Higher Education) have debated for years whether there is such a thing as queer leadership. So, when we set out to write a book about the subject, the debate continued.

I worry these debates are tied up with our internalized heterosexism. The LGBTQ leaders I know vary in the degree to which they believe there is even such a thing as queer leadership — let alone viewing such leadership as a superpower. I believe we have much to learn from other identity groups, such as women and people of color, who seem more willing to say there’s such a thing as female, Black, or Latinx leadership. Or that leadership is driven by intersectionality.

I am a leader because I am gay, my leadership is distinctively queer, and I am better when I consciously make use of my queerness as a resource. And yes — being queer is a superpower for me as a leader. I was delighted to read the same perspective in NPR journalist Ari Shapiro’s new memoir: “It felt like a superpower, this ability to move between worlds… boundary-crossing skills I had picked up as the Jewish kid in Fargo and as the gay teen in Portland could serve me as a reporter.”

For me, my superpower isn’t the kind in which I move between worlds or leap buildings in a single bound. Rather, my superpower is my humanity. For example, my early years of physical and emotional abuse as a gay boy led to an awareness of what oppression and privilege look like and mean. I developed a heightened sensitivity and prescience for what may be imminent, hidden, or overlooked. As a child, and then as a young man, this meant incessantly scanning my environment — both to avoid danger and to find queer people and camouflaged markers of queer culture. Now, as a leader, it’s an automatic reaching to find the outlier idea or voice, the hidden resource, the fabulous. If something is associated with the majority culture or considered to be conventional wisdom, my first impulse is to run away, subvert, or re-appropriate. If there’s a minority report or dissenting opinion, I want to read it. This is how I understand the development of what I call my superpower of queer intuition.

My leadership comes from my struggle of living in a heteronormative world, but it is not only driven by oppression. It also comes from finding and loving myself on the dance floor and in the professional world. This process — a course of self-discovery and working it out in a heteronormative world without LGBTQ precedents — was inherently and consistently messy. Higher ed presidencies are not designed to reward authenticity and vulnerability, but I’ve slowly realized the power of vulnerable leadership as an antidote to my closed and solitary childhood. I noticed early in my presidency that things went better when I talked about my process openly. Acting reliably on this realization is a challenge. But after I made the professional disclosure of my HIV status in recent years, I’ve been surprised that my queer intuition is clearer and that I can better reach for the fabulous. When I step forward also with the queer exuberance that is distinctive to the culture of gay men my age, I am better able to appreciate and support others with whom I serve.

Queer leadership is important at this moment, and more broadly, diversity in leadership is important to meet today’s challenges for higher education and human rights. To me, it’s not about representation. Yes, it’s important for queer children to see themselves in leaders in a way that I did not see as a child. But more importantly, diverse leaders are able to see the design problems, for example, inherent in our higher education system that disenfranchise everybody except white straight males. The first step of accountability is noticing that a problem exists. The next steps require new solutions — the creativity of queer intuition and leadership. Ari Shapiro seems to concur as he realized he “didn’t have to accept the hard-boiled world of news for what it was with all its flaws…I could be part of a new generation of journalists, with the power to nudge our industry and shape it from the inside.”

I believe queer and diverse leadership are paramount to advancing social justice. At the same time, what I’m calling queer leadership may perhaps one day become a footnote because the social determinants of it are certainly in transition. The meaning and intersectionality of all social identities are changing, and my LGBTQ generation seems to fight assimilation more than the generation coming of age now. I’ll be proud if the legacy of current LGBTQ leaders for future generations is that fabulousness becomes ubiquitous. For now, our work is not done, and queer leadership is well suited to a higher education system in search of new and more inclusive solutions.

Disclaimer: HigherEdJobs encourages free discourse and expression of issues while striving for accurate presentation to our audience. A guest opinion serves as an avenue to address and explore important topics, for authors to impart their expertise to our higher education audience and to challenge readers to consider points of view that could be outside of their comfort zone. The viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions expressed in the above piece are those of the author(s) and don’t imply endorsement by HigherEdJobs.

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