Q&A with Heather Love

The field of Queer studies has its roots in defiance and rebellion. The activists and academics who founded the discipline were revolting against a heteronormative nation and complete and total assimilation, breaking the rules of how to be scholars, and reshaping popular notions about sexuality.

“Queer studies was meant to be an insurgent discipline or anti-discipline, to go against the norms of academic business as usual,” says Heather K. Love, the R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor in the Department of English in the School of Arts & Sciences and a core faculty member in the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program.

The name itself—Queer studies—reclaims a hurtful slur and uses it as a point of pride.

Originally from Louisville, Ky., Love is a queer scholar and queer theorist who researches the history of gay culture. She has been at Penn since 2003, and teaches across academic fields, with a specialty in 20th century literature and literary theory, and gender and sexuality studies.

Love received her bachelor’s degree in literature from Harvard and her master’s degree and Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia. Growing up, she says she was a big reader, and always had her nose in a book.

Before enrolling in college, Love says she didn’t realize being a professor was a possible career because she did not encounter academics in her daily life.

“When I got to college and I was so into the material, and my professors were kind of my heroes, I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that,’” she says.

After working on a farm, as a construction worker, driving a truck, and in a furniture store, and overcoming self-doubt, Love enrolled in graduate school. Since receiving her doctorate, she has been as busy as a bee, teaching and lecturing across the country and around the globe.

“I’m very interested in teaching,” she says. “I think a lot about what happens and what can happen in the classroom. I’ve always loved being in class since I was a kid. It is a really special time and place where you’re allowed to try out ideas, and deal with disagreements in ways that aren’t polemical or violent. It’s a utopian space for me.”

The Current sat down with Love in Fisher-Bennett Hall to discuss Queer studies, the definition of queer, disability studies, growing up in the South, gay marriage, and Penn’s “Year of Sex.”

Q: Your research spotlights Queer history, Queer studies, and Queer theory. How do you define queer? Is it different from LGBT?
A: Queer is a moving target. I teach it historically because it has had a very interesting development. I would start with the end of the 19th century, when the word starts to pop up a lot in texts that represent same-sex desire. Often you see it there, but it doesn’t mean ‘gay,’ it actually means ‘weird’ or ‘odd.’ That’s a moment when same-sex sexuality hadn’t really consolidated into a social identity. People know there is something up, but they don’t know what it is, and queer comes up symptomatically in novels from the period. By the middle of the 20th century, queer morphed from meaning weird or odd to meaning the equivalent of f----t in the current moment. It’s a playground slur from the 1950s, and a pretty harsh one. But one of the things about gay communities—and this is true of other communities as well—is that the re-appropriation of terms of abuse by insiders is an important practice, and something people take a lot of pleasure in. Even in the ‘60s, people had started calling themselves queer, but in a more harsh, risky, or edgy way. Because my field, Queer theory, actually took this term as its name, there is a politics around it—a kind of public, collective appropriation—and a history that’s very interesting.

Q: What are the politics and history around Queer theory?
A: In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, there was an activist organization called Queer Nation, which was a radical activist organization. It addressed the lack of funding for AIDS research, the social abandonment of people with AIDS, and it sought to intervene into the heteronormative space of the nation. That was perhaps the first appropriation of queer on a large scale—then academics, many of whom were also activists, picked it up. There already was LGBT studies, the history of sexuality, and some other work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as well as before. [Queer theory has] always had an interesting, somewhat tense relationship with the field of lesbian and gay studies, which is focused on the study of lesbian and gay people. Queer tends to be less invested in identity and more about sexualities and genders, and the construction of sexuality. One intervention of Queer theory was to challenge the idea that people fall into camps of heterosexual or homosexual. Scholars argued against the born-that-way, gay-gene idea. Instead of seeing gays and lesbians as a minority group in need of protection and rights, it tried to form a movement to reshape what we think sexuality is. That’s one piece of queer. But also, scholars in the field tried to take this term of abuse and reclaim it as a move against assimilation. They said, ‘We’re not going to just be your friendly lesbian and gay neighbors; we don’t fit into your norms of family and marriage. We still are weird, we still are strange.’ A resistant politics went along with emphasizing the negative valence of that term queer. That was how Queer studies formed around 1990.

Q: How is the term used and viewed in 2016?
A: I think if you ask undergrads on Penn’s campus, ‘How do you identify? What do you call yourself?’ many of them would say, ‘Queer,’ rather than ‘Lesbian’ or ‘Gay.’ It’s a catchall term for a lot of young people these days. Some of those historical layers or the intention behind it—because it was very intentional—don’t signify anymore because it circulates as a general term. There are still people who don’t like it, and don’t use it, and think it sounds too bad. Or people identify more with a less general term—they identify more strongly with a particular identity, like bisexual or lesbian or whatever. Of course, transgender is different because it’s not really a sexual identity in a traditional sense; it’s about gender. Some people also use the term ‘genderqueer’ now to signal, ‘I can’t be pinned down as a man or a woman, just as queers can’t be pinned down as straight or gay—it’s not that simple.’ 

Q: What was it like growing up in Kentucky?
A: I grew up in Louisville. It’s a progressive city. There were things I liked about it. I was involved in a punk rock music scene, and that was a zone of freedom for me and gave me a sense of other life possibilities, of the arts and different ways of living. I went to excellent schools with very supportive teachers. That gave me a sense that school was something I could really dig into and that it would give me different pathways for my life. When and where I grew up, people always mistook me for a boy and it was not exactly a comfortable or supportive environment to say the least. I experienced issues around my gender in high school. I used to change clothes when I got to school because I wanted to wear boys’ clothes but it wasn’t a great idea to leave the house like that. I know that there were people around who were gay because we came out to each other later, but at the time it wasn’t something we talked about—or that I even thought about. Nonetheless, I had a pretty typical queer kid experience: I thought I would never be in a relationship, I thought I would never have sex, but I didn’t have a frame to make sense of my experience.

Q: What was it like coming out to your parents?
A: It was OK. I was in college. They were dismayed, but they dealt with it. And they’re fine now; they’ve come around. People used to fear it more, whether they just thought that [being gay] was not a good way to be, or whether they were worried that you could not have a nice life, that you would be subject to discrimination or violence. There are a lot of different reasons why people might not take that news as good news. I think there are still parents who are like, ‘I accept my kid, but if things could be otherwise, I would want that for them.’ That is still a very widespread response. I think people think of that as empathetic, but it’s a tough thing to hear. What you can hear in people’s concern is that being gay is a lesser way to be, that it is not as valuable.

Q: You took some time off between undergraduate and graduate school. Did you just need to give yourself a break?
A: I think I felt pretty intimidated by academia. Being a professor was apparently a fancy job, and I did not feel very fancy at the time. It was not something that I was familiar with when I was growing up. It was a big deal for me to go to Harvard, and I think my parents thought I would go into business or law. Being a professor seemed weird to them, and it seemed a bit weird to me, too. I wasn’t sure that I could cut it. I was good at the academic side of things, but the social world was unfamiliar to me and I did not feel comfortable with it. I thought I was not the kind of person who could be a professor. I ended up working at a furniture store in Boston after I graduated, which I had done growing up. That was what I felt most comfortable with. I continued to read a lot and go to lectures, but I figured that would be my hobby, not my career.

Q: What changed? Were there people or experiences that helped you become more confident?
A: I had some friends who were in graduate school that urged me to apply, and who actually helped me to apply. One friend helped me study for the [Graduate Record Examination], and another friend helped me with my application essay. But it took me five years to build up the courage. I needed some time to feel more confident and to feel that I was the kind of person who could be a professor—or that there was no ‘right kind of person,’ which is what I think now. 

Q: So you just needed time to overcome your self-doubt?
A: Yes. I was blown away by college—impressed and excited, but also feeling out of my depth. It was a new world and I wasn’t ready to process it at the time. I needed a bit of time and some more experience in order to feel acclimated. It can be hard for me to remember what that felt like because I am now comfortable in this environment, but I think it’s important in teaching to remember that people come to college from a lot of different backgrounds and it is not always easy.

Q: Your research interests include gender and sexuality studies, 20th century literature and culture, film and visual culture, critical theory, sociology and literature, and disability studies. What is disability studies?
A: Disability studies is an emerging field that has been gaining more prominence recently. There are many academic fields that are based on forms of difference—Queer studies, African-American studies, ethnic studies—and disability studies began along similar lines. As we know about those other fields, they don’t just focus on the experience of one social group, although that is important. Rather, they try to show how race, sexuality, gender, and class structure the world, and they help us to think about that process critically, in relation to questions of inequality more broadly. Disability studies is an identity-based field with similar commitments to social justice and broad intellectual aims. It has brought a critical perspective to dominant conceptions of disability, and it particularly addresses the idea that disability is a fixed trait. Rather, scholars in the field see disability as socially constructed or part of social dynamics. Say you’re a wheelchair user, well, you’re really only disabled to the extent that the world is not accessible to you. Disability studies gets away from the idea of illness or pathology. If our bodily norms and norms of cognition were different, then the division of the world into disabled and non-disabled would be radically different.

Q: What courses do you teach in disability studies?
A: I teach a course on representations of disability in literature called ‘Disability Narratives.’ The course begins with representations of people with disabilities in the history of literature. It’s not like you have to go hunting around. As in the case of Tiny Tim or Captain Hook, disability is all over the place, but often as a way to signal that there is something wrong with that person’s character: ‘That pirate is evil because he’s missing his hand,’ or ‘That boy is so pathetic because he’s on crutches.’ We start with the question, what is the work that disabled characters do in literature? Then we move to more recent literature, written after the emergence of a disability rights movement. In texts from the 1970s and after, people focus more on the social experience of people with disabilities. We read memoirs in which disability is not a metaphor, and in which the  authors discuss what it is like to live with the disability—for instance, dealing with stigma, discrimination, or barriers to access. That’s the arc of that class, trying to draw attention to the social and political aspects of disability, and to resist framings of disability in a medical context or as a ‘personal tragedy.’ The disability rights perspective has tried to challenge such accounts.

Q: You have also taught a course called ‘Friendship’ that studies the history and philosophy of friendship, and considers friendship in relation to eros and same-sex desire.
A: That’s a fun course. We do readings in the history of friendship starting from Plato’s ‘Symposium.’ Historically, friendship is a very celebrated form of sociality. Aristotle thought friendship—let’s specify that it was male friendship he was thinking about—was essential to a just society. The class begins by exploring early philosophies of friendship and we move into the present by way of a look at 19th century romantic friendship. The class focuses on intimate relations that are not the nuclear family or the couple. Those are the most valued and socially recognized relationships, or the ones that people think are permanent and stable. But we study how to account for the attachments that people have that don’t fit into those models. That’s a good question for Queer studies since queer people have had to be creative about how to live in common since they were often kicked out by their families or were not allowed to marry. We take a famous example by looking at how gay men with AIDS in the 1980s built networks of care out of friends and lovers—how a community could take over the role that family might traditionally play, and we consider this as an alternative form of kinship. Scholars have also discussed drag ball culture as a space of alternative kinship. We also think about the classroom as a space of intimacy, a different kind of intimacy that’s not really personal, i.e., you’re not actually friends or you don’t know everything about your classmates, but it’s nonetheless an intimate setting. Students take over the class and design how we interact in each session. The idea is to experiment with the ways people relate to each other in a safe and somewhat structured environment.

Q: And you have taught film classes in the Cinema Studies Program as well?
A: I taught a freshman seminar called ‘Scenes of Teaching,’ which focused on movies about teaching, but ones where a lot of scenes take place in classrooms. It focuses on the  dynamics of the classroom as a social space.

Q: Do you think the classroom social space, in such a divided and polarized country, is still a safe place for open expression?
A: I think so. This is what is behind the strong opposition to the open carry law at the University of Texas. I think you have to think of the classroom as a space where you could have very difficult conversations without the threat of violence. Not having guns in the classroom is crucial to guaranteeing that freedom of thought and expression. I would also argue that we need to oppose the expansion of online education. There is an important role for non-standard classrooms, but I think the seminar is a unique and important space, and it is worth fighting to preserve it.

Q: Your 2007 book, ‘Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History,’ weighed the costs of the contemporary move to the mainstream in lesbian and gay culture. Its synopsis states, ‘While the widening tolerance for same-sex marriage and for gay-themed media brings clear benefits, gay assimilation entails other losses—losses that have been hard to identify or mourn, since many aspects of historical gay culture are so closely associated with the pain and shame of the closet.’
A: I do feel slightly different about gay marriage now that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of it. It was a fight that people were having for a long time—queer people, LGBT people—not so much against gay marriage, but to try to keep open other options. For instance, queers argued that we might prioritize something like the fight for universal health care so as not to tie benefits to employment or to being in a couple or a traditional family. That was a very live debate around queer issues in the ‘90s and in the 2000s. At this point the ground has shifted very rapidly, and I think it is important to recognize the significance of this decision while still continuing to fight about issues of discrimination, access to health care, violence, housing rights, policing, and prison reform—and to think about the intersections of LGBT activism with other movements for social, economic, and racial justice. We can’t let gay marriage or new media representation distract us from the vulnerability of so many LGBT people, particularly those who are transgender, poor, undocumented, and not white. I still stand by ‘Feeling Backward,’ which sought to emphasize the difficulty of queer history and relate it to the present, in order to argue against a narrative of triumph or overcoming.

Q: At the time you wrote ‘Feeling Backward,’ did you think gay marriage was a long way away? And were you surprised when it passed?
A: I think I’m not as shocked as some people from earlier generations, but the way I grew up and what I saw around me, it never occurred to me that gay marriage would be legal in my lifetime. A lot of people were really caught off guard by it. I’ve been with my partner for a long time; we’re not married. As a feminist and a queer person, I’m not really into marriage, but I can’t say that I haven’t been moved by that change. But it is still an incomplete revolution. I am very much against the idea that we are ‘post gay.’ That is just not true. But things have changed. It’s an interesting challenge for teaching because when I came to college, I wasn’t even fully aware that you could be gay, could live a gay life. It was so transformative for me to be in college and have that kind of freedom, whereas—though it’s not true for everybody—a lot of the students who are in my classes were out in high school. They were running a gay-straight alliance in high school and were possibly out to their parents as well. These are things that I couldn’t have even dreamed of as a high school or early college student.

Q: Some of the Republican presidential candidates, particularly Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have promoted, as part of their platform, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage or have committed to appointing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court that would overturn marriage equality. Are you concerned that some of the recent gains in LGBT rights may be in jeopardy?
A: It’s hard to tell. Everything is so up for grabs in national politics right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do feel that even if there were a reversal, things are moving in a direction where it wouldn’t be permanent. If you look at the statistics around support for gay marriage, there is a real generational shift. As millennials gain political power, I do think there will be a movement toward greater sexual freedom.

Q: You are the topic director of the 2015-2016 Penn Humanities Forum, which focuses on sex and challenges taken-for-granted assumptions about what sex is and what it means. How has the Forum been so far?
A: I like to joke that it’s the Year of Sex at Penn, ‘I hope everyone is enjoying it.’ Scholars are coming together to think about sexuality from many different disciplines and in many different contexts. The public programs and lectures have been great. We also have a weekly seminar with visiting post-docs and fellows from Penn and the area. It’s been super lively and the discussions have helped me with my own thinking, and it has created a great community in gender and sexuality studies on campus.

Q: What do you hope attendees take away from the Forum?
A: I think people tend to think about sex or sexuality as a private phenomenon. Through bringing so many perspectives to bear, I hope to show that it is closely related to broader social, material, and intellectual questions. There is a great deal of fascinating research on sex these days. We hope by bringing this research to Penn, we can show people what an exciting topic sex is—and not just in the usual way that people think it is exciting.

Heather Love