UTAH MADE ME A QUEER PIONEER

By Estela Hernandez, public relations specialist for the Office for Equity and Diversity; and Annalisa Purser, communications specialist for University Marketing and Communications

Kathryn Bond Stockton, distinguished professor in the University of Utah’s Department of English, interim associate vice president for the Office of Equity and Diversity and an internationally renowned queer theorist, was recognized with the 2015 Allies Award at Equality Utah’s 14th annual Allies Dinner on Oct. 3.

The award, which has been given every year since 2002, recognizes the courage, integrity and leadership that awardees have demonstrated through unwavering support of Utah’s LGBTQ community. Stockton was recognized for her commitment and “world-class, rockstar academic talent” as an educator and leader for the LGBTQ community and Utah.

The theme of thKathryn Stockton 2e event, Queer New World, could not have been more appropriate for Stockton, who works to inspire her students to reclaim the word “queer.” She has been recognized for her groundbreaking lectures on queer theory and her dedication to students with the Presidential Teaching Scholar Award for Teaching Excellence, the Ramona W. Cannon Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities and the Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, the U’s highest honor for teaching, research and administrative efforts.

Next spring, a cluster of U faculty, including Stockton, will teach a graduate seminar on interdisciplinary issues in gender and sexuality.

“Since she arrived at the University of Utah in 1987, Kathryn has had a transformative impact on the local discussion of gender and race, both through her compelling, hugely popular classes and her public presence in the community,” said Barry Weller, professor and chair of the U’s Department of English.

Before assuming the role of interim vice president for the U’s Office for Equity and

Diversity, Stockton spent 10 years as the director of the Gender Studies Program at the U.

“She raised up the Gender Studies Program from infancy to its current level of academic rigor and broad reach,” said Susie Porter, associate professor in the Department of History and current director of the program. “She is deeply committed to academics and the life of the mind, but always with an urgent sense of how our ideas are relevant to our daily lives in all their fullness.”

C. Kai Medina-Martinez, director of the U’s LGBT Resource Center was honored to present Stockton with the award at the Allies Dinner.

“Kathryn is always willing to engage in difficult and very critical conversations about how policy at the U interlocks with race, culture and gender expressions,” said Medina-Martinez, whose introduction was followed by a video made by Stockton’s closest friends and colleagues.

Kathryn Bond Stockton spoke to @TheU about her journey to discovery, queerness in herself and ways others can (and should) do the same.

You were a pioneer in queer theory, which emerged in the early 1990s. How did you find yourself among the first scholars to explore this field?

Utah made me a queer pioneer. I came to a land of many kinds of feminists, including, of course, many feminists of faith. Feminist theory birthed queer theory, in many ways, since it became obvious that not just straight girls but many gay men, alongside lesbians—and trans folks always in the mix—didn’t fit the confines of so-called normal sex and gender. Thus, many feminists felt at home in the study of sexuality’s strangeness and its bent genderings (the matters queer theory warmly embraces). Wonderfully and surprisingly, and to this point, I was hired by our English department to teach and research “Gender Theory”—before even Elton John came out as gay (and a decade before Ellen DeGeneres emerged from her closet on network TV).  Utah, as usual, was avant-garde.

You’ve been known to say that you and your girlfriend of 25 years are not lesbians. What do you mean?

I was female-assigned at birth, though thought I was a boy mistaken for a girl. (Born now, I might be “trans.” But I had no such concept as a child or a teen.) Like a “normal” boy, I was drawn to girls (after we as boys got over hating girls); but since my world saw me as a girl, though I was, to my mind, the ultimate straight man seeking “normally feminine women,” I turned out a “lesbian” against my will–but in accord with my desires. As for my girlfriend, she was female-assigned at birth, and grew up, to her mind, normally feminine, as a rural Mormon raised in rural Utah. Though she is not a lesbian, she’s in love with me, which has made her queer. I’m not a lesbian but a gayish queer; she’s not a lesbian but a straightish queer; yet we’ve been a lesbian couple now for 25 years.

You have been at the University of Utah since 1987. How have your students and lectures changed over the years?

The students are still exquisitely engaging. They’re serious, curious, open and often quite different from me, which is what I crave. That’s education. I don’t seek agreement. I do seek reading-in-common, reading-as-kissing (ponder that, then call me). We say student writing has eroded, and it has. Writing has decayed because no one reads as much as they once did. I am evangelical on this point. And with my law professor envy—I play one in the classroom—I call on students with mad abandon, making them responsible to craft their voices in light of the (rich, magnificent, luxurious) reading we experience with each other. My job is orchestral. I conduct their voices, improv-style, and fit my lectures into the cracks and crannies of their speaking. There is no other communal experience quite like this. Hence, my craving.

How has being in Utah affected your scholarly work and process?

I was excited to leave the east coast and get myself educated about a new land and new beliefs. And since I went to divinity school, and I was completing a book on spirituality-as-sexuality, “God Between Their Lips,” I felt Utah was perfect for me. Moreover, since Utah presented as rather white in 1987, many of my students felt they didn’t know enough about U.S. racial formations to grasp the challenging texts they were reading (or how they were living). So, I myself shifted my focus to race and sexuality—something now called “queer of color critique”—and wrote a book entitled “Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where ‘Black’ Meets ‘Queer.’” This book about what creative forms of living have been crafted by black folks and queer folks and queer black folks from their enforced relations to shame was a helpful run-up to my last book, called “The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century.” Many local folks have told me they relate to it—indeed, they helped conceptualize it. As I always say, “The queerest thing about me? I love Utah!”

How have you encouraged people to reclaim the word “queer,” and how have you seen the term evolve over the years?

Honestly, I encourage all my students to consider their queerness—and my straight students are the ones most intrigued (and sometimes thrilled) to find they’re “queer.”  How can this be? Although the word has historically been used as “derisive slang for homosexual,” my dictionary tells me, the word quite simply also means “strange.” All sex is strange. Why am I attracted to this specific person but not to that one who is also wonderful? Why did my burning attraction fade when I wished to keep it vibrant? Why do I like this bodily sensation but not that one (even though, in some cases, I don’t want to want it—though I desire it). Why have we imagined that sameness in class and race are crucial components for marriage (see Jane Austen and racist U.S. laws against interracial marriage) but sameness in sex and gender, until recently, has been deemed corrosive for commitment? And isn’t this thought especially queer: raising two people as sex-and-gender “opposites” and then asking them harmoniously to cohabit and nurture children? My straight students are increasingly finding these “opposite-sex” presumptions strange, particularly when women more and more can’t grasp how they’re “opposite” from men, in a world where women can do everything men do. Queer theory’s growth potential is among straight folks.

How will the new graduate seminar in interdisciplinary issues in gender and sexuality affect the LGBT community?  

In a nutshell: LGBT people, inside and outside the U, will encounter these ideas—ones expressed here, which are sometimes news to them (!)—and so much more. (What is a queer perspective on income inequality and the redistribution of wealth? How is reading queer?) Any student of the seminar will enjoy access to well-known experts in (racialized) genders and sexualities, from the standpoints of history, literature, film, law, medicine, psychology and other disciplines. Who wouldn’t seek, yea desire, this bounty?