Vice President for Student Development Anne Ehrlich’s first same-sex relationship began four years ago and is still going strong. She plans for this to be her last relationship.
“I’ve had partners in my life before and now I have one who is a woman,” Ehrlich said. “I was just sort of always open to whatever love came my way and it’s been men until now and this time it’s a woman.”
When it comes to her sexual orientation, she is hesitant to label herself as bisexual – an orientation she thinks is closest to hers.
“It’s perhaps because this shift came so late in life … it feels odd to label myself,” she said.
Working at Knox while queer “is an honor, first of all,” Ehrlich said.
In her background as a therapist, Ehrlich was taught to use herself in her work. At 22, she did not fully understand what this meant. Now she believes that using her queerness in her role at the college allows her to be more empathetic towards students in a way that her other identities as an educated, white woman from a background of privilege do not. Having her identity be an important part of her work is rewarding for Ehrlich, who feels grateful and celebrated. She feels especially supported by President Teresa Amott.
As an executive of the college and as a woman with what might be considered a traditionally feminine sense of style, Ehrlich has found that some of the older alumni and donors make assumptions about who she is. She notices the double-takes when with her partner but attributes these interactions to differences in life experience.
“If they’re going to assume I can’t do my job or think I’m less of a person, that’s unacceptable,” she said. “But if they’re going to assume I have a husband and when they realize I don’t, they say, ‘Oh, okay’ … I’m okay with that because we are educating them even in that process.”
Many queer faculty and staff members have a group of one or two other queer co-workers with whom they like to spend time. As a generally private and introverted person, Ehrlich prefers to be with her partner and their dog and cat at the end of the workday. Despite not being very public about her sexuality in the past, Ehrlich wanted to be interviewed for this feature in TKS because of Knox students.
“In this national climate it is more important than ever that we support all marginalized people,” Ehrlich said. “If students can see people that they see every day who have been successful in life and who are comfortable with their identity and willing to talk about it in a public forum, that’s great.”
Visiting Professor of Sociology Chris Conner thinks that queer faculty and staff are not as well-supported as they could be. Conner is an openly gay, cisgender man. With his research being focused on LGBT issues, Conner believes that being out and being proud is a part of his job. He hopes that his presence on campus will encourage a greater sense of community among LGBT faculty and staff.
“I was one of two gay grad students in my program […] it’s a lonely road, being a scholar,” Conner said.
Although very fond of memories and experiences at his previous workplace, Conner notes that he was blown away by how much more accepting Knox was.
“I went from being the only faculty member who [asks for students’ pronouns] to one of several faculty members who do that,” Conner said.
As a gay man, Conner has to confront issues that his straight colleagues do not have to worry about; however, he is very happy at Knox and feels completely accepted. Even Galesburg seems to have found its way into Conner’s heart.
“For small-town, Middle America, Galesburg is a pretty okay place to live. […] There’s no Boystown but I do not feel unsafe here,” Conner said with a laugh.
As of this term, Conner has been trying to start conversations with the senior staff on how to better support queer faculty and staff members at Knox. Conner believes that there needs to be a group for queer faculty and staff.
“Faculty members are people too,” Conner explained. “We want a community.”
For Conner and others too, he hopes, this group will be a way to meet new people and make friends. Through his own experiences and the experiences of his friends, Conner has noticed that faculty of Midwestern institutions are not always loud and out.
“There is a fear, in particular in the Midwest, from some people who work at institutions that if they are caught online somehow that will misconstrued or perceived in a negative light,” Conner mentioned. “Universities are shaped by the environment that they are in. Illinois, for all of its flaws, tends to be pretty liberal. […] I don’t feel the anxiety that I’ve felt in other parts of the Midwest.”
After being fired for being queer in 2009, Assistant Librarian for Research and Instruction Rebecca Yowler had to change careers and became conscious of choosing queer-friendly workspaces. She says that is why she works at Knox.
Yowler is queer and she has been out for 10 years; she discovered that she was not straight in 2003 when in seminary. She is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which has no national policy on LGBTQ+ persons.
“There are affirming congregations that are accepting and there are congregations that aren’t,” Yowler clarified.
She worked as director of christian education at a large Methodist church that had a national anti-LGBT policy of which Yowler was aware. The day after Yowler was outed without her consent, she was fired.
“Once you’ve been fired from ministry for anything related to sex or sexuality, […] nobody wants to hire you,” Yowler says.
After finishing library school, Yowler started searching for schools at which she could and wanted to work. At this time, a trans Knox alumnus who had started his transition when he was a student told Yowler to consider Knox.
“That to me was a huge endorsement that he had felt safe here as a student but also as an [alumnus], he was proud,” Yowler says.
Yowler feels safe in Galesburg but even safer on campus. Having lived in big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, she misses drag brunches and gay bars. Although Yowler thinks that having an organized group of queer faculty and staff would be fun, she recognizes that everyone is out on their own terms.
“I’m femme. I’m white. I’m cis. There’s an assumption of straightness when people see me,” Yowler said. “And because my partner is trans and male, there is an assumption of heteronormativity about my relationship.”
Yowler often outs herself in the classroom as a point of connection. She believes that it is a part of her job to be herself, to be out and to be nice.
“Queer people are normal. We have jobs, we have lives. We can be grown ups,” Yowler said. “There is life beyond figuring out who you are. Once you’ve figured out who you are, there’s still life and there’s still day-to-day stupidity and bills to pay and work to do and fights to fight and fights to let go. But it’s all wrapped up in, you know, my queerness. It’s the lens through which I see everything.”