One week from now, the School for Cultural & Social Transformation (nicknamed Transform)— which houses the divisions of Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies, alongside the Disability Studies Program—celebrates its fifth year as a college for intersectional inquiry at the U. Asked to personally reflect on this happiness, the inaugural dean of Transform, professor Kathryn Bond Stockton, harks to her early days at the U just below.
Picture 1987. “Gays” are seldom in the news, except to be linked to the AIDS epidemic. The word “lesbian” is still considered shocking, or so I’m told, in the public domain. And the U has no non-discrimination clause that covers LGBT individuals. Partner benefits? Decades away.
This was the U I joined in ’87 as a new, untenured, assistant professor in the English department. I came from the east coast—Brown University—where, after interviewing at the U, I couldn’t get Utah out of my mind. (Interviewing at a different university, one considered particularly “elite,” I was told by a famous scholar at that school not to even think about coming out in interviews—and to fly my girlfriend there, as needed, only under the cover of secrecy. Which I did.) Utah won my heart. But could I be out to my Utah students? I learned there were numerous LGBT faculty—impressive scholars—at the University of Utah, but no one publicly “out” in the classroom. A few of us decided to live that experiment. The result? Surprising warmth, disagreements I cherished with students I treasured and students constantly coming out to me, given they couldn’t come out to their families.
And something else. Something so critical. Something that changed my focus as teacher-scholar-activist.
I discovered in ’87 how rarely White students talked about race. How little they’d been taught about U.S. racial history—or explored with curiosity their racial formations. Coming from the east coast, I felt shocked. But the situation moved me, especially as I worked with numerous students of color in my classrooms. By my second year, I made a decision. I was going to shift from my field of training—British Victorianism—so as to teach and write on U.S. racial issues in literature, culture and critical theory, alongside and within the brand-new field (by 1990) of queer theory. The latter new field was itself rather White. This, despite there being a vibrant scene of writers, scholars, artists and activists who were taking on (and profoundly living) queer issues of color.
Who tutored me? The people I read. (James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Hortense Spillers, Robert Reid-Pharr and many others.) But no other writing brought it home so succinctly, so supremely urgently, as the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977, which schooled me as I shifted my scholarly focus. It is now widely credited for directly conceptualizing racialized gender, authored by a group walking under the signs of “Black,” “woman,” “lesbian” and “working-class.”
Race and gender. Anti-racism, anti-sexism. Black and woman: How could Combahee’s activists choose between these terms that were attached to them at birth? And how could Black feminist lesbians be reduced to the terms “Black” and “woman” if they acknowledged their sexuality, itself suspect and shocking in mainstream 70s culture? Even their class made these creative activists suspect that capitalist dreams did not include them.
You get the idea. Ethnic studies and gender studies, alongside matters pertaining to (dis)ability, cannot be lived, or truly thought, apart from each other. Our campus needs to grasp these intersecting issues that cut differentially through us all, as we owe our gratitude to Combahee’s confluence.
That has meant that two longstanding programs here—Ethnic Studies (formed around 1970) and Gender Studies (founded from our 1970s Women’s Studies Program)—have needed to partner. For all their formidable, individual strengths over all these years, they have needed to join, not just in spirit but truly in structure, which is no small thing. Both programs, pre-Transform, had always been friendly with regard to each other, but had stayed largely separate. Until five years ago. Then came the moment to connect over hiring, programming, co-curricular innovations and a passion to support disability studies as a newly gathered program. Also, the moment had arrived to be vanguard. This type of entity barely existed anywhere else as a free-standing college (still true today).
And so, through student voices—a story in itself—we proposed Transform as, yes, “a school for intersectional inquiry.” On July 15, 2016, it passed through its sixth and last official body, the Board of Regents, and became a college. Since that time, we have hired 13 new faculty members among the fields of Pacific Islands studies, American Indian studies, Black queer studies, Blasian (Black and Asian) studies, Iranian and Muslim studies, comparative racial politics (Brazil and the U.S.), community-engaged research, carceral studies, gender justice and queer disability studies, with a search this fall in Black feminist studies.
Back in 1987, I didn’t see this bounteous partnership coming. Utah’s changed my sense of the needed and the possible. What a collective effort has unfolded, honoring the urgency Combahee expressed.