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What’s the right reaction to being called a slur?

brian mustanski
Brian Mustanski. Photo by Michael Goss

When Brian Mustanski was out for a run recently, a young man in an SUV pulled up next to him. “Faggot!” he yelled out the window, laughing as he drove away. 

In that disturbing moment, Mustanski, a psychologist who has spent his career advancing the health and well-being of the LGBTQ community, resorted to an old behavior. 

“I was just the same Brian who had been called ‘fag’ countless times — and had learned in such situations it was safer to keep quiet,” Mustanski writes in an editorial in the journal Science.

His reaction in that moment caused him more lingering pain than the insult.

“There is the insidious part of you questioning yourself, thinking ‘I should have stood up for myself, I should have done more.’ You replay comebacks and reactions in your head of what you wish you would have said. My own research on microaggressions — or common and frequent slights that communicate derogatory attitudes toward marginalized groups — had shown how questioning one’s own reaction has this insidious effect.”

The editorial was born from a talk Mustanski, director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, gave about his experiences with homophobia to colleagues at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Originally, he was going to discuss his research about victimization and micro-aggressions. But his department chair asked him to make it personal.

A private person, Mustanski resisted sharing his personal experiences. But then he decided sharing personal vulnerability might be one of the only ways to deepen the discussion of stigma and discrimination beyond the typical academic, intellectual realm.

I wanted to humanize how discrimination and oppression affect people.”

Brian Mustanski
Director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing

“I wanted to humanize the reality of how discrimination and oppression affect people, affect me, with the hopes it would motivate action to improve inclusivity,” he said.

“Most people want to think of academia as a bastion of progressive values, but homophobia doesn’t just happen beyond the university walls,” Mustanski said. “I’ve had horrible things happen to me in academia.” 

He recalled one faculty job interview some years back when he told a member of the search committee about his LGBTQ health research focus. “He literally got up and walked out of the room.” Or, when he was warned early in his career not to put the words ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ in the title or abstract of a grant application, because it risked its funding.

Another pain point for gender minority people and other minority groups such as African Americans and women is the fear of sharing who they are in the workplace. Mustanski described times when he censored himself from talking about his same-sex partner —an experience he has heard over and over from colleagues who question the ramifications of coming out. Minority faculty and staff can feel pressured to change their behaviors or hold back aspects of their identity to fit into a white heterosexual culture, which Mustanski said is defined as “code shifting.” 

“When the dominate culture defines what is professional in the workplace, it can be exhausting for minority people to need to monitor and shift their presentation to match the context,” he said.  

Mustanski initially expected to simply share his remarks at the faculty meeting, but the outpouring of messages from colleagues about how his remarks had impacted them encouraged him to find an outlet where he could publish the essay.  

“I know that the young man who yelled ‘faggot’ at me probably doesn’t read Science. But this is the world we control — academia. What can we do to make academia a more inclusive place for people? I hope sharing my experiences can help motivate sustained action on diversity, equity and inclusion in science and academia.”

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