A look into UK’s relationship with queer studies

Emily Girard, Features Editor

Editor’s note: This article was written and had its topic chosen by the features editor, who is a member of the queer community currently taking classes in gender and women’s studies. It has been thoroughly edited to confirm that no obvious biases are apparent in its coverage.

Queer studies is not just limited to the Gender and Women’s Studies Department; its theories permeate several other fields of study.

This is also true at UK, and several students and professors have witnessed the field’s prevalence and promotion.

‘Community … was kind of lacking’

Kristen Mark, a former professor of health promotion and human sexuality at UK, obtained her degrees in Ontario and Indiana. She did graduate training at the Kinsey Institute, a research institution at Indiana University that describes itself as “the trusted source for scientific knowledge and research on critical issues in sexuality, gender, and reproduction.”

When she came to UK, however, she found that the community of sexuality researchers was much smaller than she was used to. Despite this, she said she appreciates the time UK was willing to dedicate to her field of study.

“Having to build our own (community) was both challenging and also rewarding, and I’m glad to see that (UK) did decide to invest in it early on,” she said. “I think that said a lot about the institution … Putting your money where your mouth is a hugely valuable and important way to show support.”

Mark worked at UK from 2012 to 2020. In that time, she ran the Sexual Health Promotion Lab in the College of Education and helped create UK’s undergraduate certificate in human sexuality. In addition, she was a faculty representative on UK’s LGBTQ Task Force, a group established in 2011 to promote inclusivity.

Mark was also UK’s first LGBTQ Faculty Fellow, a position she used to facilitate the launch of UK’s Office of LGBTQ* Resources in 2015.

“It was really important for us as a task force to have a resource center. We couldn’t really believe that there wasn’t one, given other universities in the area or just across the country,” she said. “If there’s not an office of resources, you don’t have funds coming in to be able to do programming or to be able to be able to have any sort of supports in place for queer and transgender and nonbinary folks on campus.”

Mark said the task force wasn’t focused on what specific resources to provide at first; establishing the office itself was its main priority. However, over time, the office began offering graduate assistantships and campus events to further promote the community.

“(We wanted a) space for queer (students) and for the LGBTQ community as a whole to come and feel like they had a place to go for any assistance at all, and also just to build community, which was really important and something that was kind of lacking at UK prior to the office being established,” Mark said.

In collaboration with the office, She also developed and led a sexuality-focused study abroad program. The program, “Sexual Health and Sexuality Education in the Netherlands,” analyzes sexual and LGBTQ health programs in Amsterdam, which has historically ranked highly in sexual health outcomes within the general population. Mark ran the program for six years.
“I’m a sexuality and LGBTQ scholar, so I wanted students to learn from a place where they’re far more advanced than us,” she said. “I was able to expose people from Kentucky to a culture that really was much more accepting and open.”

Overall, Mark said that attitudes toward LGBTQ-centered curricula in her program have seen an “increased interest” due to current events.

“We’ve seen a lot more attention paid to gender and sexuality, for better or worse,” she said. “There’s been a lot of negative components of that around people’s rights being taken away and challenged and a lot of politicization of it all, which has certainly garnered more attention from the field.”

‘The demand increased’

Professor of English and gender and women’s studies (GWS) Carol Mason has been involved with feminist work since 1989 and has taught GWS for 20 years. She said that the biggest change she has noticed in the GWS department is an increase in diversity in the voices people study.

“As the field of gender and women’s studies grew, it became less of a corrective of saying we need more women’s voices and became a field that wasn’t reacting to that, but generating its own content and producing more insights from a variety of people,” Mason said.

Mason said she recognized the importance of including queer studies into GWS, which led her to establish UK’s first Intro to Queer Studies course. She noted that the course was “one of the first courses at UK with ‘queer’ in the title.”

Mason explained that there is a lot of intersectionality between gender studies and queer studies, a fact that was noticed around the 1980s, when the field shifted to questioning more of what gender is.

“(We’re) really sort of looking at the category of gender and how the category of gender shapes the world,” Mason said. “The issue of sexuality has always been part of women’s studies and gender studies, but it, too, has grown and flourished in a way that we refer to it in its own kind of capacity.”

She also pointed out that, in addition to observing the whole spectrum of gender and sexuality, the GWS department is “highly transnational,” including perspectives from countries outside the United States.

Eventually, the department established a certificate in sexuality studies, a field of study that includes queer studies.

Mason said the GWS department has seen increased demand for training in queer and sexuality studies in recent years.

“I think that the perceptions have changed a lot for the better … The demand increased so much that we decided we would have not only a graduate certificate but also a doctoral program,” she said. “So we’re one of, I think, 18 doctoral programs granting PhDs in gender and women’s studies in the country.”

‘We don’t actually give anything back’

Shawna Irissarri, a third-year PhD student in gender and women’s studies, initially began her academic career as a psychology major but started studying GWS due to its more diverse perspectives.

“(Psychology) was very straight/cis normative, very white-guy-centric … I ended up finding women’s studies and falling in love with that, so I double majored in that for my bachelor’s,” she said.

Irissarri initially attended Fresno State University, where she was on the front lines of promoting the LGTBQ community on campus. She took queer studies classes the first years they were offered at Fresno State, helped plan the college’s first queer studies conference and planned events for the Cross-Cultural and Gender Center.

Upon transferring to UK in 2020 for her PhD, Irissarri noticed that while UK’s queer studies department was more developed, it did not practically apply its curriculum. She described Fresno State’s queer studies program as less theoretical, with many community impacts.

“I remember in one of our classes, we actually all worked together to create a paper on trans homelessness in Fresno, and we were actually able to give that to the … community that we collaborate with, and they were able to lobby for the first LGBTQ+ youth Center in Fresno,” she said. “We haven’t really been as involved with the community since I’ve been here.”

Irissarri said she worries that the curriculum is too “highbrow,” and that scholarly papers that come out of queer studies will not be accessible to the queer community. She said the queer community in general would not understand many academic papers because of their “jargon.”

“It’s really hard to get into it without the proper education. Even I don’t fully understand what queer theory is, even after all this time,” Irissarri said. “It’s not something that’s really applying to activism very much, at least not in the context here.”

Irissarri has not narrowed down a topic for her dissertation yet, but she intends to focus on lesbian identity and gender fluidity within the lesbian community.

Her main goal is to combine queer theory with activism to create more collaborative research, instead of simply taking details to publish.

“A lot of times, we go to study a community, and we … don’t actually give anything back to the community. A lot of times, it tends to be kind of exploitative, that we get to profit off of talking about their community without actually doing anything for them,” she said. “I would be interested in using queer theory to kind of look at more community-based research participation models.”

‘Be there for them’

B Bailey said that asking how they got into gender studies was asking a “complicated question.”

“I knew I was queer from a really young age. My stepmom was queer, so it was pretty easy for me to know that there were other ways of being from a really young age,” Bailey said. “I’ve always been drawn to like not only researching queerness, but expressing my own queerness through my research.”

Bailey is a fourth-year PhD student in the English department, focusing on gender and sexuality studies. Growing up queer in an accepting family, something they acknowledged they were lucky to have, Bailey got a unique perspective on queer experiences.

Thus, when Bailey came to UK and got involved with queer studies, they said that their first impressions were that the curriculum “could use some work.”

“I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just think we don’t always perceive the harm our curriculum choices do. For example, in the WRD department, which I’ve taught in, there is a really popular essay, ‘The Danger of a Single Story.’ It’s an audio essay by Ngozi Adichie, who’s a TERF (​​trans-exclusionary radical feminist), so she’s very transphobic,” Bailey said. “I understand why we teach that text … but I think there’s maybe some passivity, like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t find anything better.’ I was like, ‘Well, maybe then it shouldn’t be there at all.’”

Bailey has also counseled trans and genderqueer students having issues with being misgendered by students and professors – another issue that concerns them, specifically regarding the passivity with which it is treated.

On campus, Bailey has been an RA and developed curricula for SafeZone training, double checking that the terminology used in the training was up to date. They cited their prior experience as a student at Agnes Scott College, a historically women’s college, for their consistent involvement with queer theory and culture in academia.

“Those types of places tend to be a little bit more progressive when it comes to gender and inclusivity,” they said. “That’s not a blanket statement, but we were pretty forward-thinking.”

To foster change in their own field and assess academic shortcomings, Bailey makes sure to point out to professors where curricula could be more inclusive. They said they know a lot of professors who care about issues and being accommodating to all students, but don’t see the more subtle intricacies of how to be inclusive.

Bailey also stresses inclusivity within the WRD courses they teach.

“One of my first things I do every class I teach for as a teacher is I point out the ombudsman, I point out Title IX, I point out how to report anyone for discrimination, so that, one, they know I care about these things, but, two, they know they don’t have to come to me and that there are resources,” they said. “I never tried to do anything that would make a student feel hurt. But the fact of the matter is, nothing’s ever happened, but something could happen.”

As president of UK’s English Graduate Student Organization, Bailey has frequent conversations with the department chair about inclusivity within the department. However, they said that as a “stressed grad student,” they can only do so much, encouraging others to take action.

“If you can be an ally to people in situations, I think that’s one of the most powerful things, because people are going to be afraid,” they said. “I’ve been through so much for so long that I’m like, even if I’m nervous that during the time of talking to these people (academic officials), I’m gonna do it. I’m used to it at this point. But I just think it’s important to know that if you feel comfort in a situation and someone you know doesn’t, maybe it’s your time to be there for them.”