The Importance of Understanding

A Q&A with Dr. Kaila Story

Kaila Story, Ph.D., is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies with a joint appointment in the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, where she also serves as the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality Studies. With co-host Jaison Gardner, she conducts a weekly podcast called “Strange Fruit,” which airs on Saturday nights on 89.3 WFPL, to discuss thoughts and current events surrounding politics, pop culture and black gay life. She has published numerous research papers on the intersections of race, sexuality and pop culture portrayal and contributed her expertise to national media outlets.

For all her accomplishments, Dr. Story is well aware that she’s considered a rarity – an intellectual diamond pressed from the weight of the stereotypes and expectations so commonly associated with her race, gender and sexual orientation. With her endearingly authoritative tone, she granted Modern Louisville an interview to discuss why she became an educator, what makes her gears turn and what she’s discovered through her extensive research.

How do you explain queer theory to someone who is unfamiliar, and what piqued your own personal interest?

Queer theory is essentially a critical theory that is post-structuralist in nature that came to be housed within academia around the early 1990s as queer activist groups like ACT UP and the like began to approach gay and lesbian liberation and politics through a more radical lens. Queer theory includes analyses of texts, ideologies, embodiment and activism through gendered and racialized lens and is therefore interdisciplinary in nature. Gay and lesbian liberation sought to be accepted through the teaching and praxis of “tolerance” and “sameness” whereas queer activism and liberation didn’t seek to be accepted from mainstream society, and rather sought to convey a message that the LGBTQ community deserved justice and fairness because of its humanity, not because of its “sameness” or proximity to straight people and mainstream society.

My interest in queer theory began at the same time that my interest in black feminist theory began. Being a black lesbian cisgender woman, I had been subjected to discrimination all of my life based upon my race, gender and sexuality. I wanted to be able to figure out the root of this discrimination and how I could change it.

When I was completing my bachelor’s degree in women’s and gender studies at DePaul University, I was introduced to black feminist theory and queer theory and praxis through the teaching and activism of my mentor, Dr. Ann Russo. Through Ann’s mentorship and my study of both theories, I understood that one, knowledge was formal (academic), and two, knowledge was experiential (lived). I wanted to make sure that, when I reached my scholarly goal of becoming a professor, my teachings, writings, activism and life reflected the overwhelming truth that knowledge can truly affect social change.

What do you feel is the significance of gender and queer studies? Why should they be taught in an academic setting?

I think that non-traditional disciplines like women’s and gender studies, pan-African studies and queer studies are extremely important to students and faculty and staff within academia. The academy is a microcosm of the society we live in. Therefore, traditional disciplines like history, English, political science, anthropology and the like oftentimes unfortunately reflect the same socio-political ills, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, that we see in society. Disciplines like women’s and gender studies, pan-African studies and queer studies not only serve to correct other traditional disciplines’ inaccuracies when it comes to teaching and research that only seeks to exalt and valorize certain scholars, but they also gives students and faculty and staff a much more accurate and holistic picture of the people, both past and present, who have contributed to and attempted to change the social ills of society.

What has been the most meaningful course to teach for you personally?

This is a very hard question. I have created so many courses over the years, and all of them are personally meaningful and significant to me. At Temple University while still in graduate school, I created the course Introduction to Black Women’s Studies. While at UofL, I have created five courses: Black Feminisms in Action; Black Lesbian Lives; Queer Perspectives in Literature and Film; Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Studies; and Queer Performance. All of these courses have and hold personal meaning for me because they all directly deal with my personal identity as a black femme lesbian woman. So every semester I get to teach them, they serve a two-fold purpose: My students get to learn about others and themselves, and I get to learn more about others and myself.

Can you give an example of how your own life has directed your study?

Once I came out at 16 in Michigan and have been out ever since, I faced discrimination and stereotypes that had to do with my race, gender and sexuality. For me, when I became interested in black feminist theory and other queer theory in college, it really propelled me to investigate not only where the discrimination stemmed from but what I can do about it in terms of becoming an educator. How can I somehow work to actively change people’s thoughts when it comes to people different from themselves? That’s how I get into my research, and I think most professors and scholars, you could argue, have a personal relationship to the material. My research agenda, like a lot of black feminists, has to do with the feminist adage of “personal” being “political.” My personal experiences with discrimination, sexism, racism and homophobia had kind of propelled me to create courses that have more insight into where these things come from and how we can change them.

What prompted you to connect race with gender studies, and what are some of your most noteworthy discoveries about the intersection?

I am not the first scholar who has done this. Black feminist theorists since the 1800s have been connecting race and gender through their academic and activist work, so there is a long and rich history of this intersection both within and outside of academia.
Black feminists like myself continue to make their presences felt and known through their activism and academic work in order to illuminate the fact that our collective oppression has functioned primarily through the racialization of our gendered and sexual identities and our relationship to the state.

You’ve explored characters in pop culture and their relevance to your field of study, including Lafayette from “True Blood.” What prompted this endeavor and what have you discovered?

I have always loved television – particularly shows that explored socio-political characters like Lafayette. I think that the ways in which marginalized characters are written about and presented through the medium of mainstream television provides great insight into how real living people think about concepts of race, gender, sexuality and gender identity.

Our society is so segregated, and most of the time, Americans grow up in households and communities with people who look the same as them, are the same racially and in terms of socio-economics – their window into other cultures does not happen at the personal level so much as it does at the visual level. Oftentimes, it seems that when a person first sees black life or black culture, it’s been deposited to them through a television show or through reality TV. I’ve found that a lot of students will be 25 or 26 years old and say, “You’re the first black teacher I’ve ever had,” or “You’re the first lesbian I’ve met.” It seems to me as if there’s not a lot of exposure to difference in our society because it’s so segregated.

Researching pop media and the stereotypes displayed therein becomes that much more important because it gives me a chance to write and teach about how the images of black characters or gay characters are often steeped in stereotype and ignorance, and also to give more of a clear understanding and perspective of who these people really are. The reason why I really love Lafayette as a character is because I felt that he was pretty authentic in terms of a black, gay, Southern male experience and how he navigated that. The actor who played him, Nelsan Ellis, is actually straight. However, the way in which he embodied that type of marginalized identity, and did it in such a way that it wasn’t reflective of stereotypes about black gay men, is the first time I’ve ever seen a popularized television actor bring that type of humanity to a role.

I also wrote about Shug Avery, the character from Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” which is based on the novel by Alice Walker. I think that fictional character really ran counter to messages about black womanhood in and around the turn of the century. She’s a really phenomenal, brave character who I think is important for students to know about. We typically see black people in caricatures of who they actually are. That’s why I often find that when people meet me, they’re kind of surprised by how formally educated I am. They’ve grown up thinking that African-Americans are either intellectually inferior or they haven’t met any with doctorates. My father also has a doctorate, so it’s perplexing to me that people are so shocked.

What are your personal opinions on the portrayal of queer fictional characters and/or reality icons?

While I loved shows like “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word,” and while I watch shows like “Empire,” “The Fosters” and “Orange Is the New Black,” I still feel they all have problems with presenting black and gay identity in an authentic way. For example, “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word” all had characters that were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly wealthy, and when black and gay characters were presented on these shows, they always had to be presented as having no ties whatsoever to a black queer community. While shows like “The Fosters,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Empire” have gotten better at representing more authentic portrayals of black and gay characters they still – especially when it comes to lesbian characters – have to posit black gay desire as solely aimed at white gay bodies/people/communities. I don’t think I can actually recall a show that seeks to present two black lesbian women in a loving and healthy relationship.

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges last year, a clear discrepancy has emerged between legal progress and social progress. What do you believe has to change for the queer community to achieve actual equality?

Just because laws have been changed doesn’t mean that individuals thinking in society has. This has happened in terms of civil rights legislation as well as feminist legislation. Just because marginalized communities “make progress” legislatively doesn’t mean that these same groups have been making progress in terms of individual thinking and behavior. In order to truly make social progress, we need laws and ideology to work in tandem to change the ways in which individuals think about people who are different from themselves. This is where education comes into play for me. We have to change the thought before it becomes a practice.

What have you found to be misconceptions about queer identity?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about queer identity that I see outsiders propagating is the conception that queer identity is a chosen identity and therefore, hoping and expecting queer people to “choose” otherwise. I see my identity as a lesbian the same way I see my identity as a woman and as an African-American: natural. Innate. Not a “choice.”

Why would an individual choose to be discriminated against, choose to live in fear, choose to not be treated justly? I see gay and queer identity the same way I see anything else. If I did somehow have a choice, I wouldn’t choose not to be black or to be a woman or to be a lesbian. I think that society as a whole is just behind in terms of that understanding. If we go far into the past before civil rights legislation, before women got the right to vote, so on and so forth, we see the people who were opposed to those measures as sitting on the wrong side of history. The further we go when it comes to accepting the LGBTQ community, the folks who are homophobic, transphobic or trans-antagonistic – they will also be seen on the wrong side of history. They think they’re right in 2016, and 50 years from now, they’ll realize they’re dead wrong.

Do you think it’s possible that issues surrounding homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism could essentially “age out?”

I think so. We’re always going to have people who live in isolation and try their best to avoid change, even for younger generations. I do think that overall, we’ll reach a point where – hopefully – we can think of women as just as capable of making political, economic and transformational decisions as men and stop thinking of people of color as intellectually inferior or inherently criminal. The same thing goes for the queer community. When it comes to the murder of trans women, it’s ridiculous what’s going on across the country and people using this sort of “trans-panic” defense where they say, “I didn’t know!”

Individuals and organizations like the ACLU are trying to do away with such archaic laws and thoughts. But in some ways, you can see discrimination as getting worse. I think that with the advent of social media, now we have more access to that perspective. The beauty of it is that everyone gets a platform, and the curse is that everyone gets a platform. People get exposure to everyone’s opinions, good or bad.

How can an individual positively affect the way the next generation views race, gender identity and sexuality?

I think one way to do this is to teach others to think critically and differently about themselves and others. This is how I see the work that I do as an educator and activist – destroying discrimination at its root before it becomes a practice by individuals/or groups.

How can straight or cisgender individuals best contribute to the goal of eradicating discrimination?

I think a lot of folks misunderstand what ally-ship means. It doesn’t mean coming to a space of people who are marginalized and somehow taking it over. I tell my students that a true anti-racist ally, as an example, doesn’t sit around and talk about how many black friends they have or how much they love black people. They go to their family members and people in their community who despise black people and teach them to think differently. That’s what ally-ship is and that’s where the work lies.

It’s the same for the gay community. It’s frustrating to me that when I go to gay nightclubs, there’s nothing but straight bachelorette parties. This was happening even before the Supreme Court passed gay marriage, so even though these straight folks were about to be married and they “support LGBT people” – hence their being in an LGBT space – they still didn’t recognize that coming into a gay space to support their straight wedding reeks of privilege.

Everyone gets that gay space is comfortable for straight women so they don’t agitate their male fiancés or they feel safe there because they tire of going to straight clubs that function as meat markets where they’re consistently objectified. I think gay people understand why there’s a want to come into those spaces, but there has to be an acknowledgment that those were created for LGBT people to celebrate themselves and feel safe.

What do you consider your most significant articles or presentations and why?

One of my favorite presentations – and, to me, my most significant – was when I presented my paper, “(Re)Presenting Shug Avery and Afrekete: The Search for a Black, Queer, and Feminist Pleasure Praxis” for the Black Portraiture[s] Conference in Florence, Italy, in 2015. It was one of my first international presentations, and I learned so much throughout my stay in Florence and at the other sessions. My paper was later published in a special edition of the academic journal Black Scholar.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on several projects, none of which I want to elaborate on at this moment because they’re still in progress. One that I am particularly excited about is a new book project that explores the representation of black lesbian identity as it is posited within popular media.

Outside of your own research projects, what’s going on of note in the field of gender/queer studies?

There are so many interesting and noteworthy projects that are happening within the disciplines of queer studies, pan-African studies and feminist studies right now it is hard to name them all. Many black, queer and feminist scholars are doing such exciting work; I encourage folks to investigate these very necessary and insightful works on their own.

What are you optimistic about for the queer community in Louisville and on a broader scale?

I think that Louisville is making great strides in terms of its celebration of the queer community here. I think the best is yet to come.