Dr. Sean G. Massey and his husband, Loren Couch, lived in New York City from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s and witnessed the impact the AIDS epidemic had on the gay community.
Massey, an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Binghamton University, a State University of New York (SUNY) institution, is leading research on the Gay Men’s Health Crisis History Project.
“One of the things I’ve been able to do is bring stories and, in some ways, convey a vividness or emotion about the times we’re talking about,” says Massey, who teaches a course in LGBTQ history.
Massey also co-facilitates the Binghamton Human Sexualities Lab with three colleagues. Undergraduate students engage in research about a wide range of subjects including the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) History Project. GMHC, which still exists, is a community-based AIDS service organization in New York City, where Massey volunteered from 1988 into the late 1990s.
“I’m writing a book about GMHC, about the time from the beginning of the epidemic to a few years after protease inhibitors,” Massey says. “It’s about the challenges the organization and the people working and volunteering there faced as the AIDS epidemic changed — also, dealing with what an epidemic means.”
A team of about six students is working with Massey. They read archival materials, such as newsletters, board meeting minutes, and reports from volunteers and workers helping people with AIDS, some of whom were facing imminent death. The project involves collecting oral histories from former GMHC staff and volunteers. About 70 stories have been collected so far.
“It’s been incredibly moving and, I think, transformative for the students,” Massey says. “The working title of the book is The Most Important Thing I Ever Did because most of the interviews we’ve done — with all that trauma and all that stress and pain that these volunteers and staff went through — they also talk about it being formative in their lives. It transformed them and everything they are today is because of that experience. This is part of what the students get to hear about and bear witness to, which is pretty powerful.”
Massey’s own activism began as a freshman at University of Texas at Austin in 1985. He came out during his freshman year and joined the Gay Lesbian Student Association (GLSA), which was mostly a social group, but he says they decided to do “a little bit of activism.” After initial pushback from organizers, GLSA participated in the student association annual parade, called The Round Up Parade. Five people rode in a convertible with some balloons and a banner reading Gay Longhorns.
Along one area of the parade route, some people started throwing debris and bottles at them. The driver managed to get them out of the line of fire. What was Massey’s first experience being a gay man in public went from some innocent visibility activism to being the subject of overt hatred.
“It made an impression on me,” he recalls. “The importance of activism, but also the risks.”
After a couple of years, he dropped out of the University of Texas. In time, he met Couch and they decided to leave Texas and move to New York where activism was part of daily life. In the 1980s and 1990s, their activism was focused on AIDS services; Couch worked at GMHC while Massey volunteered.
In 1993, then-Mayor David Dinkins issued an executive order establishing domestic partnership. They registered as domestic partners and sent an announcement to the wedding section of The New York Times, which declined to print it, but offered congratulations and the hope that in the future such announcements would be included. Twelve years later, when Couch and Massey married in Canada, their wedding announcement ran in the Times. In the early 2000s, they adopted a son, who is now a college student.
Massey decided to return to school, not long after arriving in New York. He graduated from Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, with a degree in psychology. His honors project examined how the development of gay identity impacts self-esteem. The faculty person overseeing his project encouraged him to attend graduate school, which he did, earning a Ph.D. in social personality psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center. He began his career at Binghamton soon after.
There have not been problems pursuing the research areas that interest him, but Massey says he has had to be mindful of the professional expectations in the academy. This includes producing work in scholarly venues, such as academic journals, which he has done. He says he figured out how to do work that serves the issues that matter to him while fulfilling what’s expected at a research university.
“All the while I was an assistant professor on tenure-track, I also maintained involvement with community organizations,” says Massey. “First, the Binghamton Area Rainbow Association, which was a gay rights group locally, that then became the Binghamton Pride Coalition. I was also involved in Citizen Action of New York, which is an organization that works on economic, racial, environmental justice.”
Massey subsequently served four years on the City Council. He says being involved in community organizations while working on scholarly pursuits was meaningful to him. He used his research skills in the community context, drafting and passing ordinances, resolutions, and local laws that included legislation establishing Binghamton’s “Human Rights Law,” which prohibits discrimination based on a range of characteristics such as gender identity and expression.
Making formal academic work accessible to a broader audience is also something he has learned and utilized. Whenever something is published that speaks to a larger social issue or something he wants to have read more widely, professors can write a press release that will be disseminated through the university’s communications office. Massey has done that several times.
“One time, we [Massey and two co-authors] did a study on attitudes toward same-sex parenting,” says Massey. “We published this in the Journal of GLBT Family Studies (2013), and we wrote a press release. It was the first time I’d done a formal press release about a study. … It became the most read/downloaded paper ever in that journal’s history and certainly in my academic career.
“If I hadn’t written the press release, it would never have happened,” he continues. “It was so important to translate the academic language in the original article into a more journalistic, readable, consumable format for a general audience and make sure it gets disseminated. I’ve had similar results with [other studies].”
Impact of race and economics
Not all of Massey’s work is related to LBGTQ issues. It also includes issues of racial bias in educational and law enforcement contexts. This involves either doing research as part of a coalition or movement that’s using research to inform the movement and its advocacy goals as well as translating research that has been published in academic journals and making it accessible to a wider audience.
Over the past few years, he and a couple of colleagues have been able to get access to restricted data from the New York State Education Department relating to enrollment, discipline, and outcomes including graduation rates and performance scores for every public school in New York State since 2011.
Massey and his colleagues examined trends in exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions, as they relate to race, economic disadvantage, and disability status. They found a prevalence of racial disproportionality and examined how it impacts outcomes. Massey says the goal is to impact public policy, which involves generating scholarly material for academic journals as well as taking it directly to those who can enact meaningful change.
“We were able to look at the influence of economic disadvantage, and it had a bit of an effect on rates of suspension,” explains Massey. “But even when controlling for that, race was a huge predictor of suspension. Upstate, a Black male who is economically disadvantaged is almost six times more likely to be suspended than a non-economically disadvantaged white boy in the same area.
“We’re aiming to publish it, but I also presented it to the New York State Board of Regents and it’s in a school reform report that was generated by one of the commissioners of student support services,” he says. “That has the potential to have a direct impact on policy or at least the policy makers. You have to be willing to translate your work to something they can understand.”