Why is Philosophy So Straight?

Asks Esa Diaz-Leon.

There are many philosophers who date other philosophers, but to this day, I haven’t met a professional philosopher (i.e. working in a philosophy department at a post-secondary institution) who is openly dating another professional philosopher of the same sex.

27 thoughts on “Why is Philosophy So Straight?

  1. I do know both female and male philosophers who are openly guy, but there partners are not philosophers (but some are academics within other subjects).

  2. Broaden your definition of ‘philosopher’ and there are some very famous examples! e.g. Judith Butler & Wendy Brown.

  3. I know several such couples, but am not going to out time on a blog. But I can think of four couples off the top of my head. I am not sure there is a phenomenon here.

  4. There are gay philosophers.

    Fact is its been a straight white male field nearly exclusively since the medieval period.

  5. Here’s a suggestion. I’m ambivalent about its plausibility, but it at least seems to accord with my observations:

    (1) Not-straight philosophers are more likely to socialize with non-philosophers than straight philosophers.
    (2) Those who socialize with non-philosophers are more likely to date non-philosophers.
    (C) Not-straight philosophers are more likely to date non-philosophers (and therefore less likely to date philosophers).

  6. Thanks for sharing! I know some openly gay and lesbian philosophers too. But the point I was trying to emphasize in my post is that, whereas there are many straight couples in philosophy, some of which are very prominent in the profession, I know no same-sex couples where they are both professional philosophers, let alone where they are both well known philosophers. In my view this contrast reflects the lack of visibility of gay and lesbian philosophers, and contributes to the feeling of invisibility and isolation that many LGB philosophers experience.

  7. Thanks for this! Rebecca: I think that the fact that you don’t want to out them (very reasonably) is pretty significant here. The fact that we cannot easily mention a well known same-sex couple is significant.

  8. Esa —

    I presume your AOS is far from our own, but I like to think that I (Harvard) and Tom Ricketts (Pittsburgh) are pretty well-known in our end of the subject. We’ve been together for 37 years.

  9. I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t want to out ANYONE with respect to their private sexual/romantic/family lives without their permission on a blog. It’s nothing special about philosophy whatsoever. I don’t expect my outing them would have any negative consequences – it’s just not my call to make.

    I dunno, we would need actual stats I guess and not anecdotes. But in both my current department (at a Catholic school no less) and at my last one (a big public university in the South), about a quarter to a third of the grad students in philosophy were/are openly queer. Of course philosophy is heteronormative in various ways – the whole world is. But I have a whole ton of openly queer philosophy friends. Way higher percentage than in the public at large. Selection bias, perhaps, but I just remain unconvinced there’s a distinctive thing here.

  10. well, I agree that there is almost certainly a phenomenon here–or, rather, several, such as heteronormativity in the field, heterosexism in the profession and social conditions around academic employment, etc.–all worth thinking about. But like Rebecca I can think of examples but feel uncomfortable naming them–not outing them, since the ones I can think of are completely out and open about being couples, but it nonetheless feels inappropriate…

  11. I’m a professional philosopher in the UK who dates women. And maybe I’m just out of the loop or my gaydar is broken but I don’t know one other UK female philosopher I know for sure is gay. I don’t take polls at conferences.. The social and professional cost of getting it wrong and flirting inappropriately is potentially higher (does she think *I’m* gay?!!) And then you have to find the single ones.. So I guess part of the explanation is that when you’re straight you can usually safely assume people you fancy are straight, without social cost, even when you’re wrong. This makes it easier to initiate relationships or try to.

    But another part is of course that the pool is smaller and you’re less likely to find someone you like who likes you back. Also who isnt a better philosopher than you. That part’s important.

  12. I don’t find that particularly surprising. Assuming that 5% of philosophers are homosexual and that 20% of them are in a relationship with another philosopher, that only makes 1% of philosophers who are in a relationship with another philosopher, with half as many couples. Even if homosexual philosophy couples are just as likely to be known outside of their group of friends as heterosexual philosophy couples, it seems to me that we shouldn’t expect to know of many homosexual philosophy couples.

  13. ‘I know no same-sex couples where they are both professional philosophers, let alone where they are both well known philosophers.’

    I can think of at least one gay couple, both members of which are quite prominent philosophers, and two prominent hetero couples, at least one member of which is openly bi.

    I wouldn’t want to minimize the concerns of the op, which I think are totally legitimate, but I also want to point out another risk which I worry the op may be flirting with (and which e.g. commenter 4 indulges in), namely the risk of straight-washing the history of a historically very queer field.

  14. P. S. Just to be clear, when I say that “20% of them are in a relationship with another philosopher”, “them” refers to philosophers who are homosexual, not philosophers in general. I’m not assuming that homosexual philosophers are just as likely to be in a relationship with another philosopher as heterosexual philosophers. As someone already noted in comment 5, there may be a reason why this is not the case. Moreover, the figures I give are just wild guesses to illustrate my point, but I tried to err on the side of caution.

  15. Sorry, I made a mistake in my first comment above, you should of course read “that only makes 1% of philosophers who are in a *homosexual* relationship with another philosopher” instead of “that only makes 1% of philosophers who are in a relationship with another philosopher”. Also, when I use the term “homosexual” about individuals, I just mean people who could potentially be in a relationship with someone of the same sex, which includes people who are bisexual. So, in my numerical example above, the assumption is that 5% of philosophers could potentially be in a relationship with people of the same sex and that 20% of the philosophers in question are not only in a relationship with someone, but their partner is both a philosopher and of the same sex as them. Hopefully that’s a little bit more clear.

  16. In most cases, unless I know the philosophers in question, I have no idea if they are a couple, regardless of whether they are gay or straight. I do happen to know of at least one same-sex philosopher couple, and both philosophers are excellent, high-profile in their fields, and at top (even very top) departments. As far as I know, their relationship isn’t a secret. (It wasn’t a secret to their colleagues or grad students, and was pretty widely known, I thought.) Now, I won’t say who it is, not because I think this says anything deep about how most philosophers feel about same-sex couples, but because I don’t want to post about other people’s relationships, regardless of their sexual orientation.

  17. Thanks everyone for your comments! To clarify: my claim was not that there aren’t any same-sex couples in philosophy, but rather that when I wrote the op, I hadn’t heard of any same-sex couple in philosophy, whereas I had heard of so many prominent straight couples. And in a sense, this fact contributed to the feeling that gay and lesbian philosophers lack visibility in the profession.I know many gay and lesbian philosophers, and I’m lucky to have several gay colleagues in Barcelona, but in other departments and in many conferences and events in philosophy, being gay seems to me to be the thing that no one ever talks about. I wanted to talk about that experience.

  18. Warren: Thank you so much for sharing that, and congratulations to you and Tom! I hope to meet you two in person one day.

  19. In the article linked above the OP also criticises that (1) it is despite any evidence often simply assumed that she has a male partner and (2) she generally seems to feel some discomfort when her single status is noted and deemed insufficient (unsolicited advice on online dating, not part of discussions anymore etc.). The OP seems to take offence at both points, probably rightly so but I sense that her discomfort is due to a perceived intrusion of privacy. Example: “I have been asked by a colleague (from another department) to bring my husband to a Christmas party (when of course I have no husband and I had never mentioned having a partner)”. Hence, I find the complaint by the OP that gay philosopher couples should be widely known to the philosophical community (including the OP) rather odd. I am saying this as an openly gay woman who happens to be a philosopher, knows other gay philosophers, has a well working gaydar but does not wish to date another philosopher. More importantly, I do not wish to discuss my private life (no partner, partner, relationship model, etc) at work unless I’m volunteering information. I reckon I am not the only one who feels this way – straight, gay, bi, or monogamous, poly or whatever. My experience in the UK is that most people are socially apt enough to set this as their default mode when interacting with other philosophers.

  20. According to Gallup, only 3.8% of the population identified as lgbt. http://www.gallup.com/poll/183383/americans-greatly-overestimate-percent-gay-lesbian.aspx

    Given those numbers, it’s really not a surprise that one may not know any prominent homosexual philo couples.if there are 10k philosophers, then only about 380 would self identify as lgbt. While that sounds like a decent number, once it’s dispersed across the profession, it might be a bit harder to see.

  21. Aporia: Thanks for this. I agree that there seems to be a tension in my OP, in the sense that I value privacy but I would also like to have more LGB role models in the profession. But as I say in the article, I do not want to argue that LGB philosophers have a duty to come out. I think this is entirely up to them and what they feel comfortable doing. I myself am a private person and I don’t like discussing my private life, but this is in part because I am part of a minority. In any case, my point is that whereas many philosophers value privacy and don’t want to discuss their personal lives for a variety of reasons, many others do talk a lot about their relationships and their families. Both attitudes are perfectly OK and valuable in different ways. But my impression is that in philosophy, there are very few LGB people who talk openly about their relationships, in the casual way that many straight people do. And this striking contrast might contribute to creating a feeling of isolation for (some) LGB philosophers. My main aim was to describe my experience with the hope that it might be useful for others. And some people have been kind enough to tell me it resonated with their experiences.

  22. Greetings all,
    First, I think we have to say that was a pretty awesome mic drop on Warren’s part.:)
    But second, and more substantively, I think part of what is going on here is that to a certain extent, the difficulties that protected classes (NB: sexual orientation is, apropos EEOC 15 July policy, covered by title VII) have in academe, and in philosophy in particular, been framed by language of “underrepresented minorities”, and it seems to me that the present discussion illustrates a few ways in which that framing is problematic. I do not know whether lbg and t (the latter separated out because trans folk weren’t part of Esa’s original piece) are underrepresented in philosophy. I do know, however, that we face level and degrees of discrimination, bias and animus — at least in some quarters– that are horrific, and remarkable along various comparative dimensions. Take, as just one example, this: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/murphym/APAStatement-Murphy.htm. When the 2009 “debates” about whether job discrimination against lbg folks should be deemed as acceptable by the APA were going on, I showed that document to folks in various other humanities departments. They were not only horrified, but stunned that there would even be such a debate.Or consider this: http://winst.org/wp-content/uploads/WI_Marriage_and_the_Public_Good.pdf. People, including philosophers, are willing to say quite horrifying things about queer folk–sometimes even in public documents– that they would never in a million years dream of saying about women, racial minorities, religious folk. And those are examples I can cite because they are public knowledge. Things are not good, to put it mildly, for lbgt folks in a lot of the profession, and that’s true irrespective of whether or not we are “underrepresented”. And they are bad enough for me that I’m posting this anonymously (which is not my habit), just to avoid things becoming even worse.

  23. here is a thought about the apparent tension in Esa’s op in relation to privacy/visibility:

    if respecting privacy and keeping personal life separated from professional life meant just that, then I don’t see any problem, and in particular I don’t see a problem for LGB philosophers. But there is a problem, and I think that is one of the things Esa’s piece tries to point out, when that separation carries with it the presumption of heterosexuality (and also of being actually engaged in a monogamous relationship). It is then that the question of whether philosophy should be more open to the personal life of philosophers, and the visibility of LGB philosophers, become relevant questions.
    And perhaps the question of visibility has special subtleties in the case of sexual orientation. I’m not sure at all about this, but perhaps it is easier, at least in some cases, to be visible as a not-white, not-man philosopher, than it is to be visible as a not-heterosexual philosopher. Someone sympathetic, like Esa seems to be, to the idea that visibility is a good thing in general for minorities (e.g. to create a more welcoming space), seems to be “forced” to making public personal information that, had the presumption of heterosexuality not being in place, she would have kept private.
    The problem, then, is not about valuing privacy, but about the problems that “heterosexuality by default” brings.

  24. Thanks for writing this, Esa. I think it’s a really brave and honest and often successful attempt at capturing something important that I’ve struggled to articulate over the years– especially when trying to explain the atmosphere of the discipline to gay, non-philosopher friends. Some of the other comments seem to take the above quote out of context. I hope they’ll read the entire post. I have trouble believing that any LGB person working in this field could fail to find something resonant there. Thanks for writing this and putting it out there.

  25. There are two questions that can easily get mixed when discussing LGBT visibility in general, the number of people identified as such, and the obstacles they might face. Esa’s piece, if i understood it right, is not a plain complaint about the apparent low number of LGB philosophers, but it rather calls our attention to the fact that the assumptions that are made about philosophers (e.g. at dinner conversations) make it difficult for LGB philosophers to be visible and sometimes to feel confortable. Whether or not there are well-known not-heterosexual couples is not the focus of attention, and so the fact that many of us happen to know no such couple is just an illustration of the problem, not the problem itself (and so, the fact that some of us know some same-sex couples is not evidence that there is nothing interesting/problematic going on here). What I take from this piece is the claim that independently of the number of LGB philosophers, or whether or not we/they are a minority, there are some practices that make our profession less welcoming for those who are not-heterosexual and not in a romantic, monogamous relationship.
    i forgot to say thank you for writing and sharing this. I just assumed it was obvious I was grateful. Like anon grad wrote, I think it’s brave and honest and successfully captures something important.

  26. I am openly lesbian, engaged to another philosopher!! I hear you, but I have met many LGBTQ… philosophers, some of whom are out, some who are not. We are in a discipline that is centered around judgements and judging. It can be hard to come out at work. We are lucky to have a super supportive community who loves us. Shout out to Waterloo Philosophy!

  27. Please accept my apologies: I had no time to read all the comments, Yet, this thread is very interesting. Here my two coins:

    (1) I think “not-straight philosopher” is right: not-philosophers tend to socialise more with non-philosophers
    (2) but the reason for (1) is that, in fact, the discipline is very heterosexual. I am not saying that non-straight philosophers risk to be bullied or ostracised by the straight philosophers and stuff like that. Gorsch, not at all! I am just saying that the majority of the people in the profession simply take for granted that everyone in the room is straight. This may also be because the non-straight philosophers may tend to be very “discreet”.

    I’ve read the first comments and the last couple of comments. To repeat: I am not saying that straight philosophers are homophobic or bullies. However, it can just be very annoying to keep doing a “coming out” to every conference you go simply because all the other people in the room have never conceived the possibility that some philosophers may not be straight. Should you feel condemned to a perpetual coming out? How ghastly!

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