Justin: I was going to be a pharmacist – that was my life goal. I had been working as a pharmacy technician for 2 years in high school, and I thought it’s what I wanted. One day, my mom asked me, “Why don’t you think about becoming a pharmacist?” I thought, “Oh, it’s healthcare related, which I assumed made a lot of money, and it didn’t require cutting anybody open.” It just took me a really long time to realize that I hated it.
A math class is the reason I am a communications professor. My junior year, I enrolled in Calculus 2. And one Friday afternoon, I remember strolling down a hill thinking, “I literally have no idea. I’m legit gonna fail this test.” I didn’t go to class. Instead, I went to my speech teacher on campus, and I’m like “Karen, I’m freaking out. I don’t know what to do here.” At the time, I was still “straight,” and very religious, and I said, “The only things I know are Jesus and speech, and I don’t know what to do with that…”
And she had the simplest answer: “Well why don’t you just be a speech teacher?” I looked at her and said, “You can do that?” She said, “What do you think I do?” And so I changed my major.
JOSH: AND I’M GUESSING THERE ARE A FEW LINKS BETWEEN SECRET GAY JESUS JUSTIN AND TODAY.
Justin: Before I graduated college, I knew that I would have to get a Ph.D. I saw that the professors who got to teach the fun classes had Ph.D’s, and the professors who taught the intro classes had the masters.
I came out the summer between fourth and fifth year of undergrad. I’ve always been a very rational thinker – I’m not a very emotional person – and I’ve always thought that if I have a question about something, an answer exists somewhere. I asked myself, “Is it possible to be a gay teacher?” What I found was very discouraging. Research I found stated, “Students will inherently view you as less credible, less authoritative, less knowledgeable, and they will rank you lower on your evaluations.” All those things have a huge impact on a person’s ability to get hired, or promoted, or to get tenure. The question that I carried with me to my masters degree was, “If you’re going to be a gay teacher, do you tell your students, or do you hide it?”
JOSH: WHAT WAS THE CONCLUSION?
Justin: A lot of professors did it – for authenticity, for genuine relationships with their students. One said, “It’s impossible to take a class with me and not get to know me.”
JOSH: OKAY, SO HERE’S THE DEAL.. CAN YOU PLEASE TELL ME WHAT COMMUNICATION ACTUALLY IS? I MEAN I CAN LIST EXAMPLES, IN THEORY, BUT… FOR OUR READERS?
Justin: Dear Reader! A lot of people think of speech, and they’re not wrong. But there are a lot more dimensions to public speaking. If you think about a public speech, there’s choosing a topic, audience analysis, organizing and writing a speech, and the delivery. The field focuses on meaning. We come from the assumption that there’s nothing natural or inherent about what things mean. It applies to the way we use tables, the way we interact with people – everything’s based on meaning, and how it’s created, and how it’s changed over time.
JOSH: AND WHAT SPECIALIZATION DO YOU HAVE IN THE FIELD?
Justin: I focus on performance and identity. How do people understand themselves? How do they perform themselves on a daily basis, and how does that affect who we interact with, how we interact with them, and how others’ responses to us affect our self-understanding?
JOSH: CAN YOU ILLUSTRATE THAT?
Justin: Yes. One of the things I used to do a lot more is paint my fingernails. It was a way to signal to others that I was gay.
JOSH: YOU USE IT AS A METHOD TO IMMEDIATELY TELL SOMEONE YOU’RE GAY. YOU AVOID THE TOPIC. YOU DON’T HAVE TO COME OUT TO THEM.
Justin: Yes. My entire Ph.D dissertation was actually about that. It’s very tiring for a queer person to have to tell someone constantly that they’re gay – especially when straight people don’t have to do it. I know from personal experience there are a lot of things I try to do to indicate it without having to say it. I wanted to know what they do, why do it, those kinds of things. It’s one of the reasons I do makeup.
JOSH: I HAVE A RAINBOW NECKLACE. THREE YEARS AGO, I STARTED AT THIS COMPANY THAD A LOT OF VERY MINNESOTAN, RURAL EMPLOYEES. I NEVER KNEW IF IT WOULD COME UP, BUT I WORE THE NECKLACE ONE DAY SO I COULD AVOID THE CONVERSATION. IT TOOK THE BURDEN AWAY. WHAT OTHER MEASURES DO PEOPLE TAKE?
Justin: If you read my dissertation, you’ll see there are 4!
The first is very typical artifacts, or a body aesthetic. A lot of people say, “You can tell she’s a lesbian if they’ve got short, pixie hair with crazy colors.” The second is something I call, “Heterosexual failure.” They’re moments that straight people rely on. It’s a shared understanding. There are times when we fail to meet that, or don’t do heterosexuality in the right way.
JOSH: WITH THE SAME OFFICE, I REALIZE NOW THAT I WAS DRIVING UP WITH A CAR OF STRAIGHT DUDES GOING TO GRAND RAPIDS. AT FIRST, THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT THE VIKINGS, AND THEN THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT HOT ACTRESSES THEY WANTED TO SLEEP WITH. AND I WAS JUST LIKE, ‘YEAH! MILA KUNIS IS SO BEAUTIFUL!” I WAS TRYING NOT TO BE OTHER. AND NOW I LAUGH. WHAT ARE THE OTHER TWO?
Justin: The third one I call “queer associations.” It’s connections to, or affiliation with, things that have significance for the queer community. If you’re a dude and you have a fondness for theater or the opera, or if you’re a woman who’s really into cars, then someone might think, “Well that’s a little different.”
The fourth one is the most obvious, but also the most frustrating – gender inversion. If you see someone who is presumably male but embraces and performs some brand of femininity, the mix doesn’t signal, “You’re feminine,” it signals, “Oh, you’re gay.” The same with queer women. If you present as female but you enact masculinity, you’re a lesbian.
JOSH: DAMN, YOU’RE COOL. MY MIND IS BLOWN. DO YOU SEE WHY I ENJOY THIS? I THINK ANYONE IN THE COMMUNITY COULD INSTANTLY NAME EXAMPLES OF THOSE IN THEIR OWN LIVES.
BEFORE I FORGET. I UNDERSTAND THE PAST THREE YEARS HAVE BEEN WONDERFUL FOR YOU PROFESSIONALLY, DESPITE THE DIFFICULTIES. I ALSO UNDERSTAND YOU GOT SOME VERY GOOD NEWS.
Justin: What? Oh yeah! I forgot we didn’t record that part. Just on Friday, I just submitted my materials for tenure and promotion. They’re a year ahead of schedule. Contractually, the period for tenure is 5 years. Two years ago, my boss told me I should consider going up early. We’ll see what happens. I find out this summer. The good thing is that if I get turned down this time, I can try again next year, on schedule – with just a little more resentment and bitterness.
JOSH: LET IT MOTIVATE YOUR TEACHING! JUST KIDDING. BE A BETTER PERSON THAN I AM.
Justin: What I’ve seen time and time again over the last 7 semesters I’ve taught, is the students leave the classes better people because I’ve put so much effort and care into it. Elementary and middle and high school teachers do too, but so much of what they’re able to do is scripted by legislative bodies. I don’t have that pressure, so it’s easier for me to create those meaningful moments with students.
Last year, I created an assignment called “Performing the Other.” I had the students identify someone meaningful in their lives, but who was different from them in some significant way – race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, income, education level. I asked them to interview the person about that difference. After that, they would create a performance that brings to life an experience that is not their own. I told them to share a story with us that they didn’t understand. How do they do justice to those experiences when the other person is not here to correct them?
JOSH: YOU’VE JUST DESCRIBED MY ATTEMPT TO CAPTURE THE STORIES OF HUMANS OF TWIN CITIES GAY MEN’S CHORUS. TODAY WITH YOU, I GET TO “PERFORM THE OTHER.” I HOPE I’VE DONE YOU JUSTICE.