Distribution of `Out' Lesbigays in Academia

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Variant 4.5 (December 1992): 4-9.
© 1992 by Variant; © 2004 by Louie Crew

The Survey

From December 1-4, 1991, I circulated by e-mail a survey asking faculty members to estimate the numbers of `out' lesbian and gay colleagues at each rank in their own department and to estimate the total numbers of their colleagues at each rank.

"In this query, `out' means 'anyone who has revealed lesgay sexual orientation at the institution,'" I stated on the form. Note the active voice: I asked respondents to count lesgays who had given this information about themselves; I did not ask for hearsay. Note the venue: 'at the institution.' I did not ask for private and confidential revelations.

The survey appeared on several lists (See Appendix A). On the form, I urged interested persons to post the survey on yet other lists, as many did.

Eighty-eight persons replied, but I quantified the responses of only the 30 who provided all the data requested. (See Appendix B)

Major Finding

The higher the rank, the smaller the percentage of `out' gay males:

                       Gay Male Percent of Males at the rank of
                       Full Professors                    5%            
                       Associate Professors               4%            
                       Assistant Professors               9%            
                       Below                              0%            

              Gay male decline:  

              ================================================= 10%
              |          0                                    |  9%
              |                                               |  8% 
              |                                               |  7%
              |                                               |  6%
              |                                       0       |  5%
              |                         0                     |  4%
              |                                               |  3%
              |                                               |  2%
              |                                               |  1%
              =================================================  0
                        Asst.         Assc.         Full
Lesbians compared with other females, survive at the higher ranks more than do gay males compared other males:
                    Lesbian Percent of Females at the rank of
                    Full Professors                   15%    
                    Associate Professors               6%    
                    Assistant Professors              13%    
                    Below                              4%    
Lesbian vulnerability derives more from lesbians' status as women 
than from their status as `out': 
                    Female (Strait and Lesbian) Percent at the rank of 
                    Full Professors                   27%                            
                    Associate Professors              32%                            
                    Assistant Professors              47%                            
                    Below                             64%                            
           Female decline:  
           ================================================= 100%
           |                                               |  90%
           |                                               |  80% 
           |   o                                           |  70%
           |                                               |  60%
           |                 o                             |  50%
           |                                               |  40%
           |                              o                |  30%
           |                                          O    |  20%
           |                                               |  10%
           =================================================   0
           Below          Asst.         Assc.         Full                        

Using Kinsey's statistics1, which addressed males only, most researchers estimate lesgays, not just those who are 'out,' to be about ten percent of the population. In academia as my respondents described it, only those `out' at the lowest ranks approach that number. Note that computed this way, lesbians and gays fare equally at the top, whereas lesbians fared better than other women and gay males fare less well than other men.
    Lesgay % of all at the rank of         | Lesbians   Gay Males        
    Full Professors                    8%  |    4%         4%
    Associate Professors               5%  |    2%         3%
    Assistant Professors              11%  |    6%         5%
    Below                              3%  |    3%         0%

    'Out' lesgay overall:  6%

Since these statistics do not manifest the presence of closeted lesgays, presumable their addition would show lesgays as

What I still want to know.....

Why do `out' lesgays, and especially `out' gay men, show up in smaller proportions the higher the academic rank? Will these percentage hold true with larger samples? With anonymous surveys?

Do colleagues fail to tenure them? And if so why? Are colleagues happy to have lesgays working in the "kitchen" but not the "front office"? Does being `out' increase the risk of a bad tenure decision?

Do `out' lesgays eliminate themselves by moving on to what they consider more comfortable venues for being `out'? Does a generation gap account for the discrepancy: Are full professors more likely to have considered themselves "too old" to participate in the wave of coming out that began in general with Stonewall in 1969 and in academia with the formation of the Gay Academic Union in 1973?

Why do lesbians relative to other women fare better than gay men relative to other men?

Of lesgays `out' as full professors, how many of them waited until they achieved tenure before coming out?

This study cannot answer those questions, but I hope that it prompts others to investigate.

The survey itself raises some questions not only about this project but also about the use of e-mail, which is not anonymous, to gather data about any sensitive subject.2


1 Kinsey, Alfred Charles, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia, W. B. Saunders Co., 1948.

2 Two decades ago, much greater controversy abounded when Laud Humphreys used automobile license plates to trace the identity of persons having anonymous in public restrooms. See Tearoom Trade; Impersonal Sex in Public Places, Chicago, Aldine Pub. Co., 1970. I asked no one about any sexual behavior nor did I ask anyone to reveal her or his own sexual orientation, though a few, lesgay and strait alike, did volunteer that information. The risk respondents to my survey faced was the risk of being known as the source of sensitive information. Some also talked about the risk of making a target out of their department or university.


Special thanks to political scientist to Ken Sherrill who first prompted me to think about these questions and to my colleagues at MBU-L (Megabyte University) and ComComDigest (A Digest of Discourse about Computers and Composition) who raised my consciousness about the need for statistics about gender and the distribution of power in our own discipline. I have to take full responsibility for the design of my own survey.

Appendix A: Where the Survey Was Posted

I list below the groups to which I posted the survey. Others posted it elsewhere and some sent copies to people privately. It is impossible to know how many received the survey or how many read it after seeing the subject line.

Group                   Group's official description on the Rutgers
                        news server (if any):

alt.discrimination      alt.homosexual
bit.listserv.erl-l      Educational Research List
bit.listserv.history    History List
bit.listserv.mbu-l      Megabyte University - Computers and Writing.
bit.listserv.politics   Forum for the Discussion of Politics.
bit.listserv.rhetoric   Rhetoric, social movements, persuasion.
bit.listserv.words-l    English Language Discussion Group
misc.education          Discussion of the educational system.
soc.motss               Issues pertaining to homosexuality.
soc.rights.human        Human rights & activism (e.g., Amnesty International).

Through the postings of others, it also appeared on Women's Studies List and other lists not known to me.

Appendix B: Those who responded:

Females distributed in among my respondents rather much as they are distributed in the departments which they described:

                            My Respondents     Their Departments

Male                              53%                59%   
Female                            40%                41%   
Not Revealed                       7%                      

My respondents hold positions disproportionately in the lower ranks of the departments which they describe.
                            My respondents      Their Departments

Full Professors                   13%                27%
Associate Professors              30%                28%
Assistant Professors              37%                25%
Below                             20%                20% 

When I asked them to describe themselves, most (70%) checked: "I consider myself more likely than most other colleagues to know the sexual orientation of lesgay colleagues." Another 27 percent considered themselves "about as likely....to know" and only 3 percent said they were "less likely... to know." Whatever else this may or may not mean, the response demonstrates that the survey attracted people who think themselves knowledgeable about such matters. Almost all (93%) requested me to send a copy of the results.

Respondents represent 50/50 the humanities and the sciences+: more specifically:

                                         % of all departments        
          Humanities                         50%                  
                   English               23%                      
                   History                7%                      
                   Linguistics            7%                      
                   Classics               3%                      
                   German                 3%                      
                   Library Science        3%                      
                   Religion               3%                      
          Sciences....                       50%                  
                   Computer Science      10%                      
                   Mathematics            7%                      
                   Nursing                7%                      
                   Psychology             7%                      
                   Anatomy                3%                      
                   Earth Sciences         3%                      
                   Finance                3%                      
                   Industrial Engineering 3%                      
                   Psychiatry             3%                      
                   Sociology              3%                      
              Average Department Size        26                   
              Average Number of Majors      167                   

Data came from the following universities:

Arizona State
Brock University
Carnegie Mellon
Central MO State University
Lakeheads University City
McGill University
Mississippi State
Montclair State
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
Ohio State
Oxford University
Rhode Island School of Design
St. John's
Texas A&M
UC Irvine
University Florida
University Maryland/Baltimore Co
University Missouri/KC
University New Hampshire
University Washington
University of Calgary
University of Illinois-Chicago
University of Mississippi
University of North Carolina/Wilmington
Vermont College
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Western Michigan

Average full-time student population 14,327


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