Five Questions with First-Years: An Interview with Cooper Weissman

IMG-5829It’s the final week of (virtual) classes and our final installment of Five Questions with First-Years. Today, we bring you Cooper Weissman. Cooper comes to UT by way of the Pacific Northwest where his interest in outdoor recreation activities sparked his research on racialized experiences of “the outdoors.” Read on to learn more about Cooper’s plans at UT, as well as his future plans to live on a farm and “use homegrown veggies to cook recipes that Coyote Shook sends me from their archival research.”

What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your research?

My research interests actually grew out of the short thesis I wrote for my Gender & Queer Studies minor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. I examined a contemporary mountaineering magazine to explore how language used to describe climbing mountains still employs many of the same Eurocentric, hypermasculine, and imperialistic narratives that were used when mountaineering first became a sport in the mid-nineteenth century. This interest emerged from my own outdoor recreation experiences. I did not grow up in an outdoorsy family, but when I moved to the Pacific Northwest for college, I became more interested in activities like hiking, backpacking, and kayaking. As I ventured to places like climbing gyms and R.E.I. for the first time, I was frankly struck by their whiteness and how unwelcoming they could be at times to the uninitiated. While I continued to love spending weekends at Mount Rainier National Park, I also sought to better understand how these dominant cultures of outdoor recreation and environmentalism came to be.

Since my undergraduate studies, I have continued to be passionate about how different groups of people conceptualize their relationships to the natural world, especially as a consciousness of ecological crisis becomes more widespread. While completing my M.A. in American Studies at Yale, I became fascinated by the peculiar fact that so many early conservationists were also ardent eugenicists and my research interrogated the affective and intellectual overlaps between these two ideological movements. I have also written about several different nativist currents within mainstream environmentalism during the twentieth century. While I am still invested in critiquing dominant environmental ideas and movements, since coming to UT, I have increasingly been interested in thinking through alternative histories and futures of human relationships to the natural world. I have looked for these in the actions of migrants today who are forced to make dangerous crossings through deserts and rivers, histories of fugitive enslaved people who lived clandestinely in the woods and swamps of the U.S. South, and the fictional worlds of Octavia Butler.

Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?

What initially drew me to AMS at UT was the brilliant work being published by the faculty. I was also excited about the opportunity to work closely with students and professors in other departments such as African and African Diaspora Studies and Geography. As I became more interested in the program, I looked into what the other graduate students were studying and I was struck by the amazing interdisciplinary scholarship that they were doing in addition to the creative courses they were designing and teaching. I knew that if I came here, I would be a part of an intellectual community that would broaden my perspective and challenge me to think in new ways. When I had the chance to visit the campus and meet the faculty and graduate students, their kindness and generosity sealed the deal.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

Foundational work on race and the environment by scholars like Dorceta Taylor, Laura Pulido, Stacy Alaimo, and so many others continues to help me think through the historical and ongoing entanglements of race, colonialism, and notions of nature. Caribbean thinkers such as Sylvia Wynter and Éduoard Glissant aid me in understanding the destructive force of colonial modernity while also inspiring me to imagine alternative modes of relationality. More recently, books like Mishuana Goeman’s Mark My Words, Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, and Tiffany King’s The Black Shoals have provided wonderful models for how to do interdisciplinary scholarship that reaches toward alternative worlding practices that are at once history, present, and future.

Most importantly, I am constantly inspired by the brilliance and fellowship of my cohort in addition to everyone else who is and has been part of my academic community.

What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

I am currently most passionate about a project that examines histories of marronage in the U.S. South and considers the insurgent ecologies that these fugitive acts point toward. While scholarship on marronage has primarily focused on the more established communities, and even pseudo-state formations, of fugitive enslaved people in the Caribbean, scholars are increasingly examining the histories of enslaved people who lived alone or in small groups in the woods and swamps of the U.S. South. I am in the early stages of thinking about how these fugitive ways indicate alternative conceptualizations of “the outdoors” and alternative ecologies or modes of relationality with other forms of life and non-life. I envision this project involving a good deal of archival research in addition to a deep engagement with black literary work.

What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

As far as goals for graduate school, I just want to stay curious and passionate about the work I’m doing and to do my best to support others around me whether that be other graduate students, undergrads, our department as a whole, or my loved ones outside of the academy. Once I am finished with graduate school, I would love to be able to turn my research into a book-length project. It has also long been a dream to teach in some capacity. In an ideal world this would be as a University professor – and in a really ideal world this would be somewhere in the Pacific Northwest so I can live on a farm and write books and make goat cheese and eat marionberries and use homegrown veggies to cook recipes that Coyote Shook sends me from their archival research. Of course, I am aware that the academic job market is not as strong as it once was, so another goal of mine for the next couple years of graduate school is to develop skills and networks that might help me to find a fulfilling role in other related fields such as documentary filmmaking, podcast journalism, and museum work.

Bonus: In your own words, what is American Studies?

American Studies is a place in the academy for interdisciplinary scholars of all kinds to come together and share their work. It is a place where scholars refuse to draw boundaries and are willing to read and engage with scholarship that might not immediately seem relevant to their own because they know it might radically change the way they think. Ideally, it is a force that works to revolutionize the academy while also remaining active in transnational freedom struggles that are led by those beyond its walls.

Five Questions with First-Years: The Hartlyn Haynes Edition

Processed with VSCO with c9 presetWe’re back with our fourth installment of “Five Questions with First-Years!” Today, we bring you Hartlyn Haynes. Hartlyn joins UT AMS with a background in Women’s and LGBTQ+ Studies and research interests in HIV/AIDS memorialization and quotidian surveillance. She’s also a roller derby player with a truly aspirational plan to “support an array of dog-children.”  Read on to learn more about Hartlyn!

What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your research?

I received my B.A. in English from UC Berkeley and my M.A. in Women’s and LGBTQ+ Studies from San Diego State University (SDSU). While I pursued my M.A., I also worked at Lambda Archives, a grassroots archive that preserves and teaches San Diego’s LGBTQ+ history. Materials I discovered at Lambda served as the basis for my master’s thesis on quotidian surveillance and homonationalism and sparked an interest in HIV/AIDS memorialization on a broad scale, which I hope to interrogate in my dissertation.

These experiences also deeply inform my pedagogy. When teaching an introductory course on feminist theory at SDSU, I encouraged students’ creative cultural production as a valuable mode of scholarship and attempted to trouble what constitutes “legitimized” forms of knowledge production. Accordingly, I collaborated with the university library’s Special Collections and Archives to include my students’ academic zines in their extensive Zines and Minicomics Collection; this collaborative project offered a way to disrupt historical gatekeeping about whose work can and should be included in the archive.

Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?

I was struck by the interdisciplinarity of the faculty and the department’s many impressive public-facing projects. To be frank, reading posts from this very blog humanized the department and made AMS at UT seem like a fruitful place to grow as a scholar—yay, AMS::ATX! I was also struck by UT’s vast humanities archives, which have certainly not disappointed! I was excited to learn that scholars like Dr. Simone Browne and Dr. Alison Kafer were also working elsewhere on the UT campus.

I had also been to Austin before and fallen in love with it. As an avid roller derby player and fan, learning that Austin has oodles of roller derby (and that Austinites are really excited about it!) drew me to the city. The river, BBQ, fabulous vintage offerings, live music, and millions of other activities didn’t hurt, either!

What projects or people have inspired your work?

Dr. Simone Browne’s Dark Matters has been endlessly inspiring and models the type of expansive and incisive scholarship that I hope to one day produce. Dr. Inderpal Grewal’s Saving the Security State and Dr. Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages have been similarly influential. Dr. Amira Jarmakani—my beloved thesis advisor and mentor (and, honestly, life coach) at SDSU—has published incredible work at the intersections of transnational feminisms, Arab American studies, and cultural studies. I strive to emulate the intellectual rigor and deep empathy and kindness she exudes as a scholar, educator, and tireless student advocate.

What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

As I mentioned previously, my time at Lambda spurred an interest in HIV/AIDS memorialization, and I am curious specifically about AIDS memorials installed in parks and other public spaces, what sort of cultural work they do, and for whom. I am also curious about the fiscal sponsorship of such sites—thanks to Dr. Alex Beasley’s wonderful Capitalism and Culture seminar last semester, I was able to investigate some of the ways in which globalization, corporatization, and HIV/AIDS memorialization intersect via the sponsorship of biomedical and oil companies, which is a line of inquiry I plan to continue exploring. Knowing that so much scholarship has grown out of serendipitous moments in the archives and elsewhere, I remain open-minded to the fact that this project may (and, surely, will!) grow in a lot of different directions.

What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

My goals for graduate school are to do work I am proud of and be supportive and kind to those around me (and, I suppose, to myself—always working on that one!). While I have long dreamt of pursuing traditional academic tenure after graduation, my experience at Lambda and exposure to other potential archival and curatorial careers (and pragmatism about the current state of the job market!) have certainly piqued my interest, as well. In the same spirit of remaining open-minded, I’m going to say something that allows me to teach in some capacity, someday (maybe?) pay off my student loans, and support an array of dog-children is the general plan.

Bonus: In your own words, what is American Studies?

A disciplinary home of interdisciplinarity, of that which refuses to be bounded categorically or theoretically, and of that which insists upon investigating the overlooked, the playful, and the quotidian—and, critically, puts these in conversation with (trans)national systems of power. I look forward to continuing to revise this definition in the years to come.

Five Questions with First-Years: Whitney S. May


It’s the start of the Spring semester, which means it’s time for our next installment of “Five Questions with First-Years!” Today, we bring you Whitney S. May. Whitney is an educator and alum from Texas State University with research interests in carnivals, clowns, the circus, and horror literature and culture. She also cites a “serendipitous encounter” with Dr. Janet Davis’s Circus Age as her motive to come to UT AMS. Read on to learn more! 

What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your research?

I received my B.A. in English and my M.A. in Literature from Texas State University. Most of my work while pursuing each degree dipped, sometimes intentionally but always eerily, into horror literature and culture, especially as this interprets doubling and doubled spaces. This line of inquiry has allowed me to explore the negative double in everything from Poe stories to American Horror Story. Because doppelgängers—as well as clowns, vampires, and other monsters—are how I make sense of the world, this bleeds into my teaching in delightfully monstrous ways. For example, there is something delicious about watching a gaggle of first-semester students use zombies to make sense of political rhetoric.

Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?

As so many of the best things do, it all goes back to a serendipitous encounter in a library. I was browsing books on circuses for an evil clown project when I (think I) jostled Janet Davis’s book Circus Age from the shelf. (She’d even taken the time to sign The Alkek Library’s copy, naturally!) At that time, I still told people, and sometimes even believed myself, that I was an aspiring literary scholar. That book showed me that I wasn’t in the traditional sense, or that if I was, it was in relation to something else—see the bonus question. It also modeled the kind of work that I wanted to do, but didn’t yet realize that there was a place for. From there, it was just a matter of, well, looking for that place. Everything else, as they say, is vaudeville.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

Well, shoot, this is why you read ahead. Dr. Davis’s Circus Age has clearly inspired my research, as well as Helen Stoddart’s work on representations in and of the circus. The recent, vibrant work being done in spatiality also invigorates my own. In that vein, Robert T. Tally Jr.’s Topophrenia comes to mind, as do Dylan Trigg’s Topophobia, Eric Prieto’s work on the poetics of place, and Andrew Hock Soon Ng’s work on Gothic spaces. And on that note, anything Fred Botting writes about the Gothic is an immediate fave!

What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

From my lofty vantage point here in year one, the possibilities seem endless. Dr. Beasley recently introduced me to labor history, a subject that has since seized my attention. I’d like to explore this more fully, very likely into my dissertation. While at UT, I’d like to lean more heavily into my research on carnivals and clowns, of course, as well as to develop a more nuanced range of pedagogical skills. If I get to do more research on ghosts and goblins and the spaces they occupy while I’m here, well, so much the better!

What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

While at UT, I’d like to study zombies without becoming one myself. If I can manage that, then once I graduate, I’d like to… keep doing that, preferably with at least a glimmer of job security on the horizon.

In all seriousness, my passion is teaching. All I really want is to be able to do that until I die. At that point, my plan is to become a ghost and settle down to haunt a nice library where I can throw books at unsuspecting people in need of serendipitous encounters in a library.

Bonus: In your own words, what is American Studies?

Honestly? It’s a place where there’s value in the different and beauty in the weird, and where unexpected communities emerge and flourish in peculiar and exhilarating ways. You can see where I’m going with this.

For what it’s worth, I always did want to run away and join the circus.

Five Questions with First-Years Continues: An Interview with Kameron Dunn

KameronIn our second installment of “Five Questions with First-Years,” we bring you Kameron Dunn. Kameron comes to UT after teaching in Oklahoma with plans to research the furry fandom and queer online subcultures. Read on to learn more about Kameron’s interests in digital humanities and creative American Studies research (and for a perfect answer to the question, “What are your goals for graduate school?”).

What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your research?

I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, which proved to be a bit of a learning experience as a queer person. For this reason, a lot of my identity expression was shaped by my online interactions. This act of discovering my queer identity in spaces beyond my immediate location has inspired my research on queer online subcultures, with my particular focus being on the furry fandom. I am very active in the furry community here in Austin and more broadly online, so my involvement also inspires that type of research that I do and what I want it to do. Teaching-wise, my background at a regional university that served the rural population where I come from influences my desire to make higher ed as accessible as possible for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?

I felt like my research interest on the furry fandom combined with my methods (in the digital humanities) was kind of…peculiar, and seemed to fit in with a lot of the creative work being done by graduates in the department. The field of American Studies seems conducive to the type of work I am wanting to do, so being able to do that in a super cool department in the super awesome city of Austin seemed like a really worthwhile opportunity.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

For the furry fandom specifically, there is a large research project entitled “FurScience” that has been going on for a while now. I attended a talk by one of the researchers and found what they were doing to be very compelling. They publish their findings publicly, so I have used data from that project for some of my initial work in the fandom, as well. Moving forward, I’ve reached out to them and am hoping to be part of the project in some way.

What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

In addition to my research on the furry fandom, I am hoping to participate in ongoing Digital Humanities projects happening at UT. Additionally, I want to do some work in David Foster Wallace’s archives, as my last big DH project was on his work, Infinite Jest.

What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

  1. Get a PhD
  2. Do research that contributes to the field and my own community(ies)
  3. Make new pals

My main goal coming into this is professorship, but as long as I continue to be in a position where I can conduct research, I will be quite happy.

Bonus: In your own words, what is American Studies?

Still figuring this one out, haha.

Five Questions with First-Years Returns! An Interview with Coyote Shook

It’s October, which means it’s time to introduce the newest cohort of UT AMS doctoral students! We asked all five incoming students about their academic backgrounds, their intellectual interests, and projects they plan to pursue here at UT. Today we bring you Coyote Shook. Coyote comes to UT with a background in Gender Studies and research interests in comics, the American Spiritualist movement, and death/dying (but Coyote promises that they’re an “otherwise normal person.”) Read on to learn more about Coyote and their plans as a doctoral student UT!2AAAABE0-9EE4-4EED-9216-BEE473E90920

What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

I did most of my undergraduate research in American Studies (particularly looking at death and dying in Civil War culture). I went to Wisconsin for an MA in Gender Studies where I researched prosthetic limb fundraisers after the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. It was during this time that I started to experiment with comics as a medium for presenting research. It stuck. Outside of the academic world, I was a high school English teacher for three years and completed a Fulbright in Poland in 2014-2015.

Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?

The department offered me the one thing I can’t resist: funding. In all seriousness, I appreciated the supportive tone from faculty during the application process. They seemed genuinely curious and engaged with the concept of comics as research in a way that no other department quite matched. I felt this was a space where I could be challenged as a student, but also grow as a scholar who uses nontraditional mediums for research purposes. Plus I was drawn to Austin’s alluring margarita culture.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

I draw very heavily from queer/crip historians and scholars. Alison Kafer, Eli Clare, Ellen Samuels, Jasbir Puar, and Lee Edelman have all been really influential on my work. I also draw a lot from Marxist feminists and labor theorists such as Heidi Hartmaan, Lauren Berlant, and Sylvia Federici.

In terms of projects, I’m really drawn to cartoonists who have used creative nonfiction. Cartoonists who inspire my work include Lynda Barry, Isabel Greenberg, Allison Bechdel, David Small, Edward Gorey, Art Spiegelman, Tove Jansson, and Joe Sacco.

What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

I’m currently focusing on the American Spiritualist movement and its intersections with disability and dark tourism. I’m currently working on research about diet and food in spiritualist culture and seances. I’m also working on a paper about Mary Todd Lincoln’s relationship with spiritualism and her transgressions in Victorian grief culture that contributed to the sexist and ableist caricature we are left with in modern representations. Honestly, my research since I was in undergrad has focused on sickness and death, so I’d be surprised if it deviates from that. However, I’d like to emphasize that I’m an otherwise normal person who just happens to have macabre research tastes.

What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

I plan on marrying a very, very rich man and not worrying about future employment.

Also, if that doesn’t work, probably museum work around public history education and history curriculum design for public schools. But I really, really need option A to pan out.

Bonus Question: In your own words, what is American Studies?

American Studies is an interdisciplinary field that examines history and culture in the United States and/or the impact of American empire on global events…y’know what? I’m gonna just stop myself there. I fail.

5 Questions: Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies

Browne Picture

Today we share with you an interview with Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies department and affiliate faculty member of the American Studies department. Dr. Browne and American Studies senior Rebecca Bielamowicz discussed teaching in the public school system, black feminist thought, the politics of creative expression, and her new book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015). And, you’re in luck: the conversation was so engaging that we expanded it beyond our usual five questions. Read on for a fascinating discussion!


What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

Oh that’s a good question – nice – and I like that you put teaching first because that’s so important to me. So my scholarly background, I grew up in Toronto and I went to school at the University of Toronto for undergrad, master’s degree, and PhD. In between that I got a teaching degree, and so I actually have background teaching kindergarten and the second grade as well, too. And so one of the things that was important in my graduate studies was that in the program that – so I’m a sociologist, but the program that I was in was sociology and equity studies, and so it wasn’t like an add on, it was something that was really important to the department’s political project, and I think that comes in to how I think about how we can see the world sociologically, it’s also about equity as well, so I think that kind of influences my teaching.

After I did the teaching degree, I wanted to go into a master’s in education in the field of education. I was interested in pursuing those issues around social justice and equity in the public school system and so – but when I went there, sometimes you get a little sidetracked with some things, and I was kind of interested in those same things but as well as a cultural studies approach to looking at sociology and so that’s how I ended up in more of the, I guess more of the academic track as opposed to public schooling.

How was teaching the younger kids?

It’s hard. That was the hardest job I’ve ever had. A different type of hard because you’re on every day, there’s so much prep work to do, of course there are always, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot now where it’s been ramped up, but there’s always these metrics and benchmarks and testing and everything that you have to do. There’s oftentimes that you have to create spaces for them to learn through play or other things, and so it was tough, I’ll tell you that. My mother was a teacher, so I have a great – she was actually teaching at the same school as me for one time – but it was a great appreciation for the labor that they do. It’s no joke. They are really putting it in and they’re often not given the respect they deserve and the schools are not given the money they need. It is the toughest job but so important. And they’re great – to see the students, some of them are finished with university now, you know, that was such a long time ago.

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5 Questions with Dr. Lauren Gutterman

IMG_3740The Department of American Studies is very pleased to announce that Dr. Lauren Gutterman will be joining our faculty in the fall of 2015. Dr. Gutterman comes to us from the University of Michigan, where she is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Society of Fellows. She holds a PhD in History from New York University, and has published in Gender & History and The Journal of Social History. Her current book manuscript, developed out of her dissertation, focuses on lived experiences of mid-20th century married women who desired other women. We spoke with Dr. Gutterman earlier this month, in advance of her arrival in Austin this August.

UT AMS: What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

Dr. Gutterman: I received my PhD in History at New York University, and I’m currently a postdoctoral scholar in Women’s Studies and the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. But my academic career really began as an undergraduate at Northwestern University where I double majored in American Studies and Gender Studies. Part of me will always be chasing the feelings I experienced as an undergrad as I learned to look at things—especially with regard to gender and sexuality—in an entirely new way. It just felt like the world was opening up, changing before my eyes, all these things that sound so trite but were completely true. As an undergrad I also discovered my love of history. I wrote a senior thesis about the New England Watch and Ward Society’s anti-burlesque campaign in the 1930s and that was my first experience with archival research. It was so exciting for me to read and touch things written so long ago, to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I discovered the depth of my nerdiness.

As a teacher and a researcher, I’m most passionate about understanding how what we think of as normal and natural in terms of gender and sexuality has changed over time. My classes (like my research) combine a study of politics and popular culture in American history. In the fall I’ll be offering a course called “Sexuality, Reproduction, and American Social Movements,” which I’ve taught twice before at the University of Michigan. One of the things I enjoy most about this course is challenging students’ belief that women’s reproductive rights keep improving steadily with time. So, for example, we read about how abortion was unstigmatized, legal, and often easily accessible for most of the 19th century. There’s an oral history interview I use on History Matters with a working-class immigrant woman who got twelve abortions at the turn of the twentieth century in New York City safely, and without thinking anything of it; this is completely shocking for students.

In addition, one of my major goals as a scholar has been to try to speak to a broad audience, to engage those beyond the academic world in the history of sexuality. I’ve tried to do this in multiple ways, through my work with the history of sexuality websites and Notches, the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. One of my proudest moments was discovering that artist Elvis Bakaitis had cited my work in a zine about 1950s queer history.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

Like many historians of homosexuality, George Chauncey’s Gay New York is probably the one book that has had the greatest impact on my work. I first read it as an undergraduate and I remember being awed both by the extent and details of the queer world he uncovered, and by the simple fact that it was possible to do this kind of history.

My current project, which examines the lives of wives who desired women since the postwar period, is in some ways a response to Chauncey’s book which focuses primarily on men and on the public sphere. I don’t believe that lesbians have ever had the same claims to public space that gay or queer men have had (even today there are far fewer lesbian bars), but this has not prevented women from engaging in sexual relationships with each other. My book project argues, in part, that the nuclear family household has functioned as a lesbian or queer space for married women; the women in my study typically engaged in same-sex affairs with other wives and mothers they met in the course of their daily lives, within their own homes.

What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I’m still working on revising my first book manuscript Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage, which is based on my dissertation, so it is hard to talk about having a “favorite” project, since I don’t have many to choose from!

I can, however, speak to a favorite moment in researching this project, which occurred when I first went to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco to look at the papers of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Martin and Lyon were long-time lesbian activists who helped found the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the nation’s first lesbian rights group in 1955. When I first set out on this project, I imagined that I would focus on the lives of three women, one of whom was Del Martin. When I got to the GLBT Historical Society the materials I’d hoped would be there–about her personal life while she was married–were not, but I did discover dozens and dozens of letters that married women had written to the DOB and to Martin and Lyon stretching from the 1950s to the 1980s. Discovering those letters changed the entire frame of my project, because I realized I could write a social history (rather than a group biography) about these women, which I had not imagined before. I joked at the time it was like a finding a dissertation in a box.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

Well, I’ll start with academia because that’s easier…One of the things I am trying to do as a scholar is to draw attention to the ways that the history of homosexuality is primarily based on men’s experiences. This problem cannot be addressed simply by taking our current model of gay history and “adding” women. I believe that focusing on women’s lives can change our understanding of the history of homosexuality as a whole. For example (as I alluded to above), as long as the history of homosexuality focuses on the public sphere–on bars and public sex, and even government policing–women will inevitably play a lesser role within it. To make women more central to the history of homosexuality requires that we pay much more attention to the domestic sphere, as I do in my book. But this is just one of the ways that I think gay history might change by centering women’s lives.

Beyond the academic world, my work obviously relates to the broader conversation about gay marriage. My work shows that legally defining marriage as “between one man and one woman” cannot, and has not, ensured marriage’s straightness. Even in the postwar period–when American marriages were more widespread and longer-lasting than ever before–wives who desired women found myriad ways to balance marriage with lesbian affairs. Often these women did so by engaging in same-sex affairs in secret, but many women did not hide their affairs from their husbands entirely, and many husbands were willing to turn a blind eye to their wives’ special friendships, and just wait for them to pass. In this way, my work shows that the histories of marriage and of homosexuality have long been intertwined, and that, in a way, marriage has been queer for much longer than we’d like to think.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

Over the last year or so, with the help of two incredible undergraduate research assistants at the University of Michigan, I’ve begun researching and writing about the case of Jeannace June Freeman, the first woman sentenced to death in Oregon in 1961. Freeman was a white, working-class, butch lesbian and she and her lover, Gertrude Nunez Jackson, together murdered Jackson’s two young children in an incredibly brutal way. Based on everything we know about stereotypes about violent, mannish lesbians from the work of Lisa Duggan among other scholars, and about the discrimination homosexuals faced in the middle of the twentieth century, the fact that Freeman was sentenced to death is not at all surprising. What is surprising, however, (and this is what has fascinated me about this very disturbing case), is that Freeman became the major symbol of the movement to abolish capital punishment in Oregon, and many Oregonians came to see her as sympathetic. Ultimately, in large part because of her case, voters repealed the death penalty in Oregon in 1964 by referendum, and the governor commuted Freeman’s sentence to life in prison. So the question that has been guiding this project is, why and how did Oregonians come to see a butch, lesbian, child-killer as deserving of mercy?

At the meta level, though, this project is also about resisting the pressures that historians of homosexuality face to do history that is always somehow “good” for LGBT politics. Obviously, the field of sexuality history is fundamentally linked to the emergence of the gay liberation and women’s liberation movements of the 1970s. And my own commitment to researching and writing the history of homosexuality is shaped by my political concerns, my desire to show that this history matters. But at the same time, I don’t think it is good or honest to neglect those parts of the gay past we’d prefer to keep hidden. Jeannace June Freeman’s case certainly lent credence to the worst stereotypes about lesbians at midcentury, but when we ignore her story—or those of other “bad queers”—we lose opportunities for historical insight and we surrender our ability as scholars to help contextualize some of the ugliest parts of the queer past. I don’t think we can overcome homophobic stereotypes by tiptoeing around them.

Bonus question – in one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

To me, American Studies is the study of what it means and what it has meant to be American. Who gets to choose? Who gets excluded? What cultural and political mechanisms enable those exclusions? And how have they changed over time? In addition, for me American Studies is as much about the research method as the object; it’s about a commitment to interdisciplinary work, however complicated or difficult that may be.