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September 28, 2009

Homophobia at U VA law school, circa 1985 - UPDATED

10/6/09 UPDATE - Since the following post was published, multiple blogs have picked up the story; current Virginia Law Dean Mahoney issued a denial that discrimination was a factor in Bill's tenure denial; Bill replied that Mahoney was mistaken; and a U VA student blog republished an article from the student newspaper in January 1986 quoting many students as "shocked" that Bill did not receive tenure and voicing suspicion that something fishy was going on (the main belief being that Bill's criticism of law and economics scholarship was behind the decision).  In other words, the end point of this story seems to be a he-said-he-said dispute, with a conclusive adjudication of exactly what happened and why probably impossible. Bill is a friend and co-author; I believe his testimony. The bigger point is that he has opened a window into what the world was like for gay men and lesbians in law teaching in the 1980's - it wasn't pretty.


As part of his testimony at last week's House hearing on ENDA, Bill Eskridge retold a story that many people find it difficult to believe: that he was denied tenure at the University of Virginia Law School in substantial part because he is gay. What follows is an excerpt from the full testimony (pp.83-93):

    …Although I was gay and was dating men in Washington, DC during my tenure at Virginia, I was never publicly “out,” largely because I thought that such a status would be lethal for tenure purposes; from time to time, I heard snide anti-homosexual comments from senior faculty. But because I was closeted, I was vaguely optimistic about tenure when my case came up in the Fall Term, 1985. … [A faculty subcommittee reviewed Eskridge’s work and enthusiastically recommended tenure. The full appointments committee, in a virtually unprecedented move, rejected the recommendation.]

My understanding was that the subcommittee’s report was supposed to serve as the factual record for the Appointments Committee to consider in making its tenure recommendation to the faculty.   Before my case, the Appointments Committee had generally included at least one faculty member who was also on the subcommittee, and the report was always accepted as the primary basis for the final recommendation.   In my case, however, there was no overlap of personnel, and the Appointments Committee wrote its own report, apparently the first time that happened under this bifurcated system. … According to faculty colleagues, the committee’s meeting was an emotional one, filled with tension and anxiety.

…The morning after the committee’s negative meeting, I remained unaware of the committee’s recommendations and of its substantive objections.   Apparently, other senior faculty members became aware of the committee’s negative leanings and the fact that the committee had kept me in completely in the dark and was not following the procedures that had been duly established by the faculty.   While I sat in my office preparing for class that morning, stormy conversations were apparently occurring at various parts of the law school’s building.  Late in the morning, as I was finishing up my class preparation, the chair of the committee stormed into my office and screamed at me for 10 minutes or so.  With clenched fists and a beet-red face, the chair of the committee threw a tantrum that included a string of accusations, such as “stabbing me in the back” and behaving in the treacherous manner that he and his colleagues ought to have expected of a “faggot.”   Apparently, the chair thought I had complained to the dean that he had been derelict in following the established law school procedures and that I was sneaking behind his back to discredit him.  In fact, I remained utterly clueless as to what those procedures were and was reduced to tears as the chair of the committee spat on me and called me dirty names.   During this tirade, the chair of the committee never shared with me his committee’s reasons, their recommendation, or the news that I had a right to appear before the committee.  Nor did he share this information with me thereafter.  (Nor did he apologize for unfairly screaming at me, spitting on me, or calling me a “faggot.”)…

            After the committee’s report was ratified by the faculty, blood was in the water.  For the remainder of my tenure at the University of Virginia School of Law, I was harassed on a regular basis by faculty colleagues and parts of the law school’s administration.   Several faculty friends and at least one member of the committee explicitly urged me to get out of Charlottesville as quickly as possible, partly because there was so much hatred toward me on the faculty and partly just for my own mental sanity and physical safety (during the tirade by the chair of the committee, I believed that he was going to assault me).   So I visited at the Georgetown University Law Center in academic year 1987-88 and accepted a permanent position there in 1988. …




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I had always suspected that this was the story behind him "leaving" Virginia. I interviewed with Virginia as an openly gay male and had a terrible experience with one member of the appointments committee who asked absolutely pathetic questions about gay people and my scholarship. I am glad I never had the chance to live in such dense homophobia.

I was accepted to graduate school at the University of Virginia. After a quick visit to Charlottesville, I got the vibe that there were a lot of closeted people there, but at the time (early 1970s) no openly gay people. I decided to go to Yale instead. Reading about Eskridge's experience makes me glad that I did.

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