Margot Backus’ students to study LGBTQ culture in Ireland.
By Lourdes Zavaleta
When University of Houston professor Margot Backus was 18, her adoptive father was outed as gay and publicly humiliated.
“It was intolerance that led my dad to believe he had no other options than to hide,” recalls the 57-year-old Backus, who identifies as bisexual. “Between intolerance, HIV, and self-hatred, I am so lucky that he survived through the ’80s.”
Prejudice against LGBTQ folks such as herself, her father, and her younger brother, who was also bullied for being gay, inspired Backus to put queer visibility at the forefront of her work.
This summer, she will lead UH’s first queer-focused study abroad, a two- week English course about Ireland’s LGBTQ history. From May 21 through June 2, “Irish Heritage and the Queering of Contemporary Ireland” will take Backus and her students to Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Killarney, and Northern Ireland to explore connections between the country’s heritage and its contemporary queer culture.
“Ireland has a huge tourist industry, but it’s usually marketed in such a vanilla way,” Backus says. “Most people think the country is sweet, conservative, and traditional—almost like 1950s America. But it’s not. There’s something so fun about getting to be a part of what Ireland really is.”
In 2015, Ireland became the first nation to legalize marriage equality by popular vote. Backus says this represented an extraordinarily rapid shift out of a period of extreme sexual conservatism, even though gender and sexual diversity are deeply rooted in Ireland’s early history.
The first time Backus visited Ireland in 1989, she was celebrating the completion of her master’s degree in English literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She studied at Ireland’s Yeats International Summer School with fellow UT alumnus Ed Madden, a closeted gay Arkansan who had been raised by religious fundamentalists.
Among other things, Backus and Madden met LGBTQ people who had returned to Ireland and created safe spaces after leaving to flee persecution from the Catholic Church.
“About a year after our trip, Ed finally came out,” Backus recalls. “He gives the time he spent with me wild amounts of credit for accelerating his coming-out process. I just did what I always do, which was chatter away about queerness.”
Backus has returned to Ireland a number of times since, including when she taught in Belfast for a semester in 2015. During her upcoming study abroad, Backus hopes to replicate her initial visit to Ireland while teaching her students what she has learned about the country over the years.
Though she now resides in Houston, Backus grew up moving around the Midwest with her adoptive parents, Russell Thomas and Suzanne Fitzgerald, and her younger brother, Tom.
When she was old enough to move out of her parents’ home, she relocated to San Francisco, where her father helped her land a position in IBM’s mail room. While living in the city, she fell in love with a woman from New England and decided to move there to be with her.
In Boston, Backus discovered her desire to become an English professor. While working at the Boston Public Library shelving books, she came across examples of queer writing that she never knew existed. Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, a study of romantic relationships between women from the Renaissance to the present, and other books like it, led her to study English literature at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she graduated in 1987.
Though most Bostonians put on a liberal façade, Backus discovered that many of them were racist. She decided to move to Texas for graduate school because it seemed like an easier place to avoid people who did not share her intersectional feminist values.
“Boston was a very racist city in the ’80s, and other white people interacted with me as if I held their same attitudes,” Backus says. “I felt that if people in Texas had problematic beliefs, they would be up-front about it and I wouldn’t have to waste my time on them.”
After completing her doctorate in English literature at UT in 1993, Backus served as an assistant professor at St. John Fisher College in New York for seven years.
When Backus and her then-partner decided to have a child together, the two got married and moved to Houston, where Backus gave birth to their daughter. Motivated by the idea of working for a university that represents Houston’s diversity, Backus applied for an opening in UH’s English department.
“UH was urban, offered inexpensive credits, and had loads of people who come from many different experiences,” Backus says. “I knew that was where I wanted to teach.”
Backus has been a full-time English professor at UH since 2000. She teaches modern Irish literature and a queer-theory course on Irish author James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. Backus is also working on her third book, The Crux of the X: Literary Dispatches from Ireland’s War on Children, a study of sex scandals in Ireland, with co-writer Joseph Valente.
“My goal is to create safer spaces by acknowledging the reality of difference,” Backus says. “I have been very fortunate in finding places where people see me as having something to offer and facilitate me doing that work.”
This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.