August 2018 Recent Installments in the Series

Weird Academica: Life in Academia as a Non-Binary Appalachian

I have found that academia can offer a lower-class West Virginian from a single-mother family the chance to live an illusion. I have been able to travel countries, gain audiences of affluent scholars, and been given a platform for my voice that I would not have received outside of academia.

by Zoie McNeill

Let me introduce myself. I am an MA graduate in the midst of applying for PhDs. In my BA I received eight academic awards and grants, followed by 3 in my MA. I have belonged to 9 honors societies. I have had papers accepted to eight conferences. I have written a capstone and a thesis. I just had a chapter proposal accepted to be published in a book on queer performance. I am a liaison for the Sociologists for Trans Justice Initiative. I have attended two private universities—one abroad. My fields of research are oral history, black feminism, queer theory, and rural LGBT studies. I have written on how social movements have gained social, political, and economic capital by oppressing the most marginalized within their community. (This is a depressing pattern. For example, the white suffrage movement using white supremacist tactics to gain the right to vote or the white LGBT movement prioritizing white, upper class needs over QBPOC.)

I have found that academia can offer a lower-class West Virginian from a single-mother family the chance to live an illusion. I have been able to travel countries, gain audiences of affluent scholars, and been given a platform for my voice that I would not have received outside of academia. I have attempted to become a chameleon—pretend that I too grew up living in penthouses, traveling to Italy every summer, and having a nanny. I’ve pretended that I always believed that I too could afford an MA/PhD education. But I still couldn’t fit in.

My MA was in political science. Let me emphasize the science aspect of it. We were to remain unbiased researchers observing phenomena around us. To be an activist would skew our research. I had a professor tell me that any article spoken about in the news, an article that could be understood by non-academic audiences and inspire actual action, was not a good article. I never really had a choice of whether or not be an activist. I didn’t have that luxury. My identities are inherently politicized. I am not just lower-class, or a West Virginian, I am also queer, a femme, and non-binary.

I have found that academia can offer a lower-class West Virginian from a single-mother family the chance to live an illusion.

To me academia is a way in which to attack social injustices from the platform of privilege afforded to academics. I’ve never understood how people could take a course on social movements and not be moved to get involved. I’ve never felt able to just observe and attempt to explain. I want to change and influence and fight.

My MA thesis was originally supervised by a famous political economist from Hungary. He taught a class on contentious politics and social movements that I took. He was excited about my thesis proposal on the Black Pride 4 (a small group from Columbus, Ohio that blocked the Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade to protest racism and transphobia in the LGBT movement). He was interested in how the traditional method of resource mobilization (how groups acquire social/economic capital) could be molded with new theories from gender studies, such as queer of color critique. A month before my final thesis draft of 60 pages was due, he changed his mind, dropped me as an advisee, and pushed me out of my department.

There was a running joke in my political science department about gender studies. They were seen as overly emotional, ‘fake’ scholars that were always causing trouble when academics (with questionable views about LGBT people) came to visit. When my advisor decided that my research would be better suited to that department, he was making a political decision. He was saying that I too was not a real scholar.

He said that he was unsuitable to be my advisor because he wasn’t ‘comfortable’ with my research. His excitement had quickly shifted to discomfort when I sent him my first chapter. In it, I had meticulously gone over my positionality as a white, non-binary queer femme from Appalachia. I had outed myself. As an older ‘traditional’ Hungarian man, he could no longer agree to advise me. Beyond that, he told me that I had no place in academia, should’ve never come to that department or university, and that I should never apply for a PhD.

Yeah, that hurt. When I changed advisors and departments, I had to completely shift my research focus and entirely rewrite my thesis. In three weeks. It was extremely rocky, but I finished on time. Graduated. And here we are.

When my advisor dropped me, he was saying that political science was a ‘traditional’ discipline where LGBT people, activists, and gender studies interdisciplinary scholars did not belong. Being out meant being pushed to a department full of ‘people like me’ (i.e. other queer people).

A few months ago, I submitted a photo and short description of myself to the Instagram account, “I Look Like a Professor.” They highlight marginalized folk from academia, such as single moms, ex workers, disabled folk, POC, and LGBT queer queens. Despite my university (a school that prides itself on being a liberal bubble in a far-right country) actively trying to push me out of this career, I’m still here. I’m still fighting for belonging, for space, for support, for fucking human rights.

I had outed myself. As an older ‘traditional’ Hungarian man, he could no longer agree to advise me. Beyond that, he told me that I had no place in academia, should’ve never come to that department or university, and that I should never apply for a PhD.

Academics from marginalized communities are fucked in a lot of ways. But us just existing and fighting for space in academia changes the discourse. I look like a professor because I am one. Because I exist and we have existed, no matter how straight-, rich-, and cis-washed our history is. We make academia what it is and push it to be better. The more visible we are, the more students won’t be surprised when we are their professors.

What’s next? I do believe that some people in political science that were treated the way I was should stay, but I am out. I’m moving to communities that can support me and my research. Right now, I’m interested in mixing queer theory, environmental humanities, and rural LGBT studies. I am going to queer the fuck out of Appalachia. I’m looking at universities from Sydney, Australia to Nashville, Tennessee to support this queer ecology project. While I work on those applications, I am acting as an editor for the massively popular Queer Appalachia Electric Dirt Zine and exhibiting some of my work at an art exhibit in NC. I’ve also received a grant to do an art exhibit in WV on queer ecologies and LGBT folk, am writing that chapter on trans performativity and dialogic art, and working on my own zine, Marx in the Mountains. I like to keep busy, if you can’t tell.

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It seems like everyone I went to high school with is now openly LGBT or communist. People who were white supremacist assholes or transphobes or bra-pluckers now seem to have completely flipped. I go to the bar and run into people I went to school with and we have conversations about how WV has the highest percentage of trans kids from any state and plan a letter-writing-thon to our local representatives. West Virginia is a fun place to be right now. I believe it has the potential to be the start for the next wave of leftist politics. We saw this during the Bernie Sanders campaign or, more recently, the Teacher’s Strike. I would recommend reading What You’re Getting Wrong About Applachia if this information confuses you. Or, just Google where the term “Redneck” comes from.

I am going to queer the fuck out of Appalachia.

Academia needs to be open to the change we push for. Academia needs to be flexible, address the systems of oppression it supports, and recognize that institutions aren’t ‘unbiased.’ Institutions have their own problematic political agendas. Queer/BPOC/femme academics need to be given space in academia, need to be recognized as prestigious scholars, and need to be listened to. If we say something is fucked up, address it, don’t push us out. We’re changing academia for the better. We’re leading the change.

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Zoie McNeill is a recent MA grad from Central European University in Political Science with a specialization in gendered politics. Right now they are researching the intersections of rural LGBT politics and environmental humanities in Appalachia and are working as an editor for the massively popular zine, Queer Appalachia, and their own creation, Marx in the Mountains. They recently had a chapter proposal accepted for the book, The Palgrave Handbook of Queer and Trans Feminisms in Contemporary Performance, and will have their art exhibited at the Queering the Mountainside Exhibition in NC and Queer Appalachia’s exhibition in TN. 

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