Gratuitous and a distraction

Today made me happy. Today the Supreme Court said that part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that applies to sex discrimination encompasses discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Today Brett Bigham shared this thread on twitter about his experience being a gay math teacher. He won Teacher of the Year in 2014 and that same year he experienced … a lot. I entreat you to read it all.

 

 

We are in the math education community, and we are not immune from homophobia. Even from our own kin.

For the past couple of years, I debated sharing a story of my own. A very small story, compared to Brett. And not a story I’ve ever shared in full to anyone but one or two people.

In 2018, I submitted a short article to a respected math teacher journal on a prompt asking why we teach, and why we continue to teach. For me, it was an article about identity, and how math teaching can be a bridge allowing us to form lasting and meaningful connections with each other, no matter how different we may be.

Here’s the opening paragraph. The opening sentence was meant to be jarring because of what came after. Obviously the sentences that follow, my life trajectory, the things about me that make me unique, different, contradict the opening sentence.

I’m not so different from you. First generation kid of immigrants from India. Had only a single friend for most of my childhood. Lived in an extended family household of nine for junior high and high school. Switched high schools after freshman year when my dad got transferred to a different state. Studied math in college. Came out as gay at age 19. Studied history of science in graduate school for four years before deciding academia wasn’t for me. I just turned 37 and am starting my twelfth year of teaching.

The article is framed around the idea of identity, and my search for belonging when for many years I never felt like I ever truly fit in. And for me, one place I found that sense of belonging was with math teachers who connected online. I wrote:

I started to belong. Even though I had very little experience, people showed me that my voice mattered and I actually did have something to contribute to the world of math education. I was accepted from the start – this awkward, neophyte, math-obsessed, showtunes-loving blogger. Over time, people in the community turned from icons and handles on the computer screen to friends, and now they are a chosen family. I’m not capable in words of expressing how I feel about these people in my heart. From times when I was the most down, when I felt worthless and wanted to leave the profession, they kept my spirits up. They saw me in a way I couldn’t see myself. They continue to help me be my best teacher self. When my mother was in the hospital with complications from chemo, they called and wrote and visited. They celebrated me when I shared a cool project one of my kids had done or I shared part of a nice card a student wrote me. And they come running up to me hugging me at conferences and make me feel loved. Yes, this online community of math educators changed my classroom, but they also gave me something more precious: acceptance and unconditional support and love. This community has become a place of support not only for the classroom but for the heart.

You see, I told you. I told you! I’m not so different than you! Because although our journeys are wildly incongruous, they each led us to a place where we can connect. You and me, we both relish our time working with budding mathematicians. Our hearts beat faster when we’re hearing their exhortations of delight when something clicks, or we see in slow motion the face of a kid morph into a toothy grin when we hand back particularly good test, or we see a spontaneous high five when a group conquers a seemingly-impossible problem. And no one else – not even someone freakishly just like me but who decided on a different profession – could ever get that part of me. They have to have experienced that racing heart. You have lived and breathed it. And starting from there, we can build a bridge between us.

I received news that the article was accepted provisionally. They wanted to publish it, but they only had room for a shorter version. And they mentioned that as they put together the journal, there was a chance the shorter version might not be published because of space.

Understood.

I cut it down. I sent it back. And I got this email in return:

Thanks, Sameer.  You neglected to add your signature.  We need name, email, school affiliation and location and date of the letter.

We will be taking out the sentence about your coming out; it is gratuitous and does not help the letter.  This decision was made above me, but I agree with it.  Such statements, while they are certainly important to you, don’t really belong in the journal.

If you still want us to publish the letter, please get me the signature info asap.  Thanks for turning this around so quickly.  For what it’s worth, it seems stronger to me in this form.

Let me remind you of the entire first paragraph, and highlight the one thing that was asked to be excised from it:

I’m not so different from you. First generation kid of immigrants from India. Had only a single friend for most of my childhood. Lived in an extended family household of nine for junior high and high school. Switched high schools after freshman year when my dad got transferred to a different state. Studied math in college. Came out as gay at age 19. Studied history of science in graduate school for four years before deciding academia wasn’t for me. I just turned 37 and am starting my twelfth year of teaching.

I received their email when I was at school. I felt so many things. Anger. Confusion. Defensiveness. Shame. My stomach was churning. I wrote this back before going to teach my next class:

I think coming out to be as important a part of my identity as my extended family and moving from one place to another — if not more. And the fact is this is a piece about identity and connection, and finding commonalities when none might seem apparent.  The fact that this is the one thing the higher up editor felt important to communicate about what needs to be cut is problematic for me. I am fine withdrawing this article from consideration for [Journal]

The reply:

I will try again but remember, this is an academic journal.  Your coming out may be important to you, but I see it as a distraction to our readers

I couldn’t focus on anything but the words gratuitous and distraction. I didn’t understand what being an academic journal had to do with this. The piece wasn’t about a project using algebra tiles, it was centered around the idea of identity. Soon after, I replied:

I am sorry, but I do not agree. I think asking for this one erasure — of this one thing that you want to take out but not mentioning any of the other things about me (moved, extended family, first generation) — is problematic. I don’t know why it feels more “gratuitous” than anything else in the first paragraph. And I certainly don’t see it as a distraction for readers. For this one piece to be singled out over all the others, and having it be called a “distraction” and “gratuitous,” doesn’t sit right with me. Especially for a piece that centers around the notions of identity and connection.

I know [organization] has been working hard on diversity and equity issues. In my eyes, the fact that this has even come up means that [organization] has a lot more work to do to live its mission.

I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I am withdrawing this article from publication by [Journal].

After a few more back and forths with false pleasantries, the conversation ended.

My article was withdrawn.

I was still feeling all the things.

When the school day ended, I went to talk to a teacher friend who often gives me wise counsel. In my head, I could hear a voice saying “it’s just one sentence.” Deep down, I knew she wouldn’t ever say that but I was worried that she’d think that. I was feeling defensive, like I wasn’t certain that my feelings were valid and that what had just happened to me was wrong, full stop. I remember trying to explain to her the situation and giving her so much context. If I explain it just right, maybe she’d understand and agree? I made her read the article to understand. I gave her some of the background. I let her read the email exchange.

Credit to her, she got it right away and helped me see I wasn’t overreacting. She too, when she got to the word “gratuitous,” flipped out, and again at the word “distraction.” Her own righteous anger validated all my feelings.

My biggest fear when approaching her is her thinking “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.” I actually fear that now. Like people won’t understand when reading this post how this was homophobia–period. Like people won’t get how being told that being gay is “gratuitous” and a “distraction” is like being told that part of you is invalid. Like people won’t understand why this is an episode in my life that I will get past but never be able to let go. That email exchange and that day — thinking of all the emails and all the days in my life that I forget — stick with me. My hands were actually shaking when I was opening the email thread to re-read it to write this post. It brings back a lot.

I think that’s why I wanted to share this. Partly to show people that homophobia still exists in the math education community. But I think it goes further. I wanted to recount this to remind myself and others that concepts of identity can seem academic, but when we talk about erasing and denigrating parts of people, it is anything but academic. It’s not just one sentence. It’s one part of me that you don’t like. It’s one part of me that you find uncomfortable. It’s one part of me that you wanted to excise. But it’s one part of me that makes me who I am, that I want to be proud of, that you are diminishing and making me feel ashamed about. 

Maybe that wasn’t the intent. I know I’ll never know the intent. But that was the impact.

 

PS. Because I did not want something like this to happen to anyone else, I did contact someone high up in the organization who was immersed in diversity and inclusion work, and huge props to them. They recognized how problematic this was and did not sweep it under the rug.

PPS. Even as I am about to publish this, I’m terrified about getting an angry email in my inbox from the editor who emailed me. If you are somehow reading this, please don’t email me. I don’t want an email from you. This post isn’t about you.

17 comments

  1. <3 Fellow queer, aspiring educator, and homophobe-phobe here. Your article sounds beautiful, and it is infuriatingly, blatantly, sickeningly obvious why the organization asked you to remove THAT SENTENCE specifically. Thank you for sharing, so we know we're not alone in experiences like these and so people can learn to be better.

  2. I read Brett Bigham’s twitter thread, too. Wow! I’ve never faced such adversity. I think that is heroic.
    And thanks for sharing your story. It’s poignant that an editor thought they could improve your story by deletion. But better to experience that rejection, than to do the deleting on oneself.

    1. Absolutely heroic, Brett. And how he went to bat for his kids. I aspire to be like him one day, fighting for right at the expense of personal security.

  3. Sam, I am really angry about what happened to you—this was no molehill!!! You are wonderful, and I’m so glad you defended your full self. Just pissed that you had to. We have so much work to do. Standing proudly with you. Tracy

  4. Holy Shit! Jesus! What the actual … are we really that clueless …. or do we think he will go quietly …. or I am soooo uncomfortable so the 7 word deletion I ask for is okay … fuck! La la la nothing to see here, folks, just some bland homophobia occurring … microMACROaggression much? … okay, I think I am done. Thanks for sharing. The more we hear stories of injustices, the more fuel we have for continuing to push back to all wrongs against humans.

  5. Thank you for unpacking all of this Sam. I wonder if the review team ever saw the contradiction in their work. I can only imagine how challenging it was to write and publish this, despite thinking you might get angry emails. Please realize that there must be many people who will read this and finally feel seen and be extremely grateful.

  6. Oh Sam. I don’t even have the words. You are such a brilliant, beautiful soul, and I’m glad our paths crossed. One day, I truly hope we can be our most authentic selves without fear.

  7. “It’s one part of me that you wanted to excise.”
    That hit me hard. Your whole person is valuable, and if they don’t accept that, they don’t deserve your article. Good for you, digging your heels in, insisting on full acceptance.

  8. I think you handled the situation with incredible grace. Thank you for sharing this story, I can only hope our students that identify as LGBTQ+ are more supported in our academic environments than you were :(

  9. I am proud to be a part of your community! I can say we connect over math- and your obvious brilliance and caring in your teaching. But that would ignore the goodness within you- to your very bones. We will all keep moving forward, in community. Wonderful words, Sam! Blessings and hugs.

  10. Your humanity, strength, passion, and grace shine brightly. To think of how homophobes spout off like raving lunatics, your eloquence shows which side deserves honour. Thank you for a powerful post, Sam.

  11. Sam, thank you for this brave and heartfelt piece. If we embraced and welcomed the details of each others’ lives, they would be mentioned more often as a matter of course, and then they would seem part of the diverse fabric of humanity and wouldn’t be labeled “gratuitous” or “distractions”. Thank you for being your whole self, I am so proud to know you, and immensely grateful for how generous you are sharing your journey with us all.

  12. Thank you for sharing this experience. I cannot imagine what it feels like to be asked to delete your identity. Identity is neither gratuitous nor a distraction. Identity is the core of your being,

  13. Hi Sam!
    I know we haven’t talked a lot but I think of you as my friend. I refer to you as my friend when I share your stuff to other math teachers. I second everything Tracey said – I’m angry you had to have this happen to you. You’ll never be gratuitous or a distraction, you’re important and very relevant. ❤️❤️

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