Kathryn Stockton doesn’t cut a very priestly figure. With her leopard-print miniskirt, her film-stock tie, her bleached-blond hair with the black diamond in back, you’d never peg the University of Utah English professor for a former divinity student.
An out lesbian, Stockton is one of many scholars working in the area of “queer theory,” a potpourri of literary studies that draws as much from obscure French theory as from the rhetoric of gay liberation. Conservative doomsayers will condemn the entire enterprise—if they’re ever able to decode her witty and often punning aphorisms. But visit one of Stockton’s classes, and you’ll begin to understand why her students have bestowed on her the ecclesiastical title “Kathryn of the Cloth.”
There are maybe 30 students, none of whom look particularly gay (most of them aren’t). Tonight they’re discussing Querelle, a lesser-known novel by the infamous Jean Genet. Someone opens by remarking on the author’s peculiar mixture of tough-guy attitude and purple prose. The comment is a ball thrown up into the air. Someone on the other side of the room picks it up, elaborates. The ball is passed. Another student makes an observation, only slightly related to the others. He’s having trouble articulating where he’s going, something about Oscar Wilde. Someone else comes to his rescue, finishes the thought for him. Stockton nods. She still hasn’t said anything.
The terms fly thick and fast: Sailor. Murder. Fetish. Autoerotic prophylaxis. The cloth wound. To the uninitiated, it’s purely surreal. But the excitement and energy are unmistakable; faces are flushed, voices raised. One woman in her late 30s has her hand thrown up for five minutes, looking like she’s ready to swing from the light fixture. Stockton catches her eye, solicits her opinion. The student says her piece, and settles back into her seat with a look of almost X-rated satisfaction. When Stockton finally begins her lecture, she manages to incorporate almost every student comment that’s been made so far, balls kept in the air like an expert juggler. They hang on her every word as if from the Delphic oracle herself.
Stockton has clearly earned her reputation as one of the university’s most compelling teachers. “It’s a rigorous class,” remembers Brandon Harvey, a veteran of three Stockton courses and now a doctoral student at Cornell University. “But what was keeping you in your seat was her charisma. She could make everyone in the room feel like she was looking right at them.”
Being loved by your students doesn’t always translate into respectability—quite the opposite. “That type of popularity is the kiss of death in any serious circle,” she claims. “I’ve always tried for a kind of academic rigor that would be unquestioned.” For Stockton, literary study is a pleasurable difficulty. “You’re trying to push people as much as possible, without losing them entirely,” she elaborates. “If you can get it right, you have them just at the edge of what they can stand, without losing the pleasure and the commitment and the wish to dive into things.”
If it all sounds a bit kinky, a scholarly version of S&M, that’s no accident. Leaving her class, even the non-smokers look like they’re ready for a cigarette. But, Stockton argues, it’s not the often explicit content of the reading material that sets their juices flowing.
“There’s a built-in seduction to anything that one finds intellectually difficult—difficult, but graspable. I think most people will experience pleasure on that cusp, where they feel absolutely pushed, but able to understand something that they consider meaningful. And that could be a set of complicated theorems in calculus, and that could be an essay on the relationship of teaching to masochism.”
GOD BETWEEN HER LIPS
The life of Stockton’s mind begins and ends with clothes. She experienced her first crisis of wardrobe at age 7 over the cowboy outfit she’d wished to get for Christmas. “You can picture it,” she remembers. “The box comes, you pull out the vest, totally excited, then you pull out the bottom part, and it’s a cowgirl’s skirt.” The world continued to keep her in skirts. As a high school basketball player, she had to wear “a sort of dress-thing. [Women] didn’t even have regular uniforms.”
Stockton responded to such attempts to straighten her out, strangely enough, by getting religion. Evangelicalism was a way of “being intellectually serious in junior high and high school,” but also of figuring out “how to negotiate teenage life as a lesbian, as a queer child.” She studied theology on her own and with her evangelical group: “a pack of older, fascinating, intellectual, very talented women that really carried me all through high school. It didn’t hurt that they were also exceedingly attractive,” she jokes. “It always struck me as odd that conservative religion allowed me a way to practice lesbian sexual desire, under the guise of an accepted cloak.”
Her “Bapto-Catholic” faith led her to classical and biblical Greek, to a major in psychology and philosophy at the University of Connecticut, and finally, in 1979, to Yale Divinity School. There, she found a great surprise: “A very high percentage of people in divinity school seem to be quite experimental, trying to come to grips with themselves sexually. And that was me too. I was trying to figure out whether I could give myself permission to be a lesbian.”
It was at Yale that Stockton came into her literary, as well as her sexual self. She’d considered becoming an Episcopal priest, but being a bona fide woman of the cloth didn’t sound intellectually appealing. “When you have to reach a congregation, things can only get so thick,” she states. Unsure of whether to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology or philosophical theology, she started studying the medieval mystical poet Dante, and found that she loved literature. In contrast to her theological studies, the context of literature seemed alive and malleable, she recollects. “It helped me to break the frame of systematic thought.”
And so in 1982, she found herself at the graduate English program at Brown University. “[Theology] turned out to be a fabulous background for literary study,” especially for the Victorian novelists like Charlotte Brontë who have occupied the heart of her scholarly work. She became intrigued by the “biblical substratum” of Brontë’s Villette, an almost hypertextual interlacing of scriptural quotes. The religious frame of the book, she argues, is phrased in the language of sexual desire—a theory she expounds in her first book, God Between Their Lips (Stanford, 1994), a study of Brontë, George Eliot and French feminist Luce Irigaray.
It’s certainly common for contemporary critics to go rooting through the classics looking for sex. But Stockton seems less interested in whatever the famously restrained Victorians might have been up to in their closets, and more in the mystical underpinnings of desire. “I wasn’t attempting to chase out of the bushes the sexy, hidden parts,” she maintains. “People had already noticed that the Brontës were rather passionate creatures. What was new was that the sex was in the spirituality. It was such an exceedingly sexual novel because it was such a spiritual novel.”
In the fall of 1987, Stockton joined the faculty at the University of Utah, much to the horror of her grad school advisors. It was, after all, Utah—perhaps not the most hospitable place for a lesbian feminist with a theological bent. “‘You’ll never last,’ people were telling me. ‘They will run you out on a rail.’” Instead, she was amazed by the students’ intellectual openness, their hunger to hear something different. At that time, she says, “there weren’t that many explicitly queer voices among the faculty.”
Not that Stockton paraded into class wrapped in a rainbow flag. “It wasn’t something that I announced to my undergraduates the first day. I wanted students to respond to me intellectually, without feeling like everything was being routed through the lesbian signifier.” Instead, she decided to try an experiment—perhaps the defining moment of her career. “I was determined to come to class wearing wildly different outfits,” she recalls. “One day I would wear my job interview outfit—a skirt and conservative blazer—the next day a leather miniskirt.”
The Victorian sage Thomas Carlyle formulated an entire philosophy based on the metaphor of clothing—how words are garments that both hide and reveal the naked truths of the world. In the Utah classroom, Stockton began to conceive her own queer clothes-theory—and wear it, as it were, on her sleeve.
“At that time, fashion was a new scene in feminist theory,” she remembers. “Many of us were very puzzled: What in the world does fashion have to do with feminism? There was a certain phase of thought that pointed to the way in which women are being restricted by their clothes. Dressing in a sort of plain style became a way to say that you’re not partaking in fashion—the famous joke about the lesbian in Birkenstocks.
“But that plain style is, of course, really another surface,” she points out. “If you decide not to abide by the dictates of fashion, then by default you will appear masculine.”
Many scholars were wondering why feminism, which was supposed to liberate, seemed in practice to forbid women any access to those surface gender traits associated with the feminine—for example, dressing to kill.
“We’re so used to thinking of gender as essential to who we are, even as the essence of who we are,” she argues. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, right? Queer theorists, instead, have begun to talk about gender “as habit, as habitual performance,” a game of dress-up we play until we forget that it’s a game. But is gender a good habit or a bad one?
“The vanity of women, according to Freud, is a compensation for what he thinks is sexual inferiority. Vanity, in other words, is fancy-pants shame, women concealing genital deficiency by distracting from it. And yet there’s really no concealment,” Stockton argues. “Vanity calls out, ‘Look at my cover!’ Clothing, rather, is bold revelation, the cover turned inside out. Clothes reveal the category of a person’s genitals they purport to cover. On every woman’s garment, a vaginal scene.” Sound silly? Think of the plunging V-shaped necklines of women’s blouses, of labial frills and lace—or, less subtly, Britney Spears’ flesh-tone body-stocking with the sequined crotch.
Stockton’s costume changes, in short, “played around with the feminine surface” as a kind of flamboyant teaching tool. Still, she readily admits, even the most experimental performances can become habitual. “It began as an attempt to get my students thinking the difference that surface makes,” she says. “Sooner or later, it just became the way I dressed.”
PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED
Thirteen years later, Stockton’s clothes philosophy has made her a legend both on and off campus. In addition to several teaching awards, she’s been honored with the YWCA Outstanding Achievement Award for Arts and Communication, and the Utah National Organization for Women’s Courageous Action Award. “I’m not even sure what my courageous action was,” she says demurely.
This year, she’s facing perhaps her greatest challenge—taking on the mantle of directing the University of Utah’s women’s studies program. It isn’t her first fling with the program, by any means. She’s offered many of her English courses cross-listed with women’s studies, and in 1988-’89 was instrumental in a curriculum transformation project that expanded core courses and bolstered them with a stiff shot of critical theory.
Stockton’s appointment, however, is a timely one. Some herald her as a welcome infusion of scholarly edginess in a field infamous for its touchy-feely version of female empowerment. Others, however, wonder what the appointment of a self-styled queer theorist, with a nose for fashion, might say about the direction of a field that’s prided itself on being practical and relevant—a boot camp for its own generals in the battle of the sexes.
An article in the Oct. 30 Newsweek identified a “midlife crisis” in the field’s history. Founded as “the academic arm of the feminist movement” in the early 1970s, women’s studies has largely won its three-decade struggle for campus respectability. Most universities now offer a major or concentration in the field. And women’s studies has radically changed the way we think about the classroom—calling attention to its veiled expressions of sexism, or to the repressive structure of a single instructor ruling over a roomful of silent and silenced voices. It’s hard to imagine a classroom atmosphere like Stockton’s, with its free-form discussion and dynamically improvised lectures, without the ground broken by women’s studies.
But now the field is facing a new set of questions from within. Its newest critics are likely to be committed feminists, concerned about the quality of the education they’re offering, about classes presented as a form of group therapy—or even group think. “Even supporters worry that some women’s studies programs are more about solidarity than scholarship,” Newsweek pointed out. Then there’s the problem of divisiveness—sadly, the field has often been hostile to male participation. Some scholars wonder if it might not be time to open the windows and let in some fresh air. One suggestion Stockton has advanced is to rename the program “gender studies.”
“We think it better describes what we do and teach, which is the construction of gender in a far broader sense—incorporating masculinity studies, queer theory and the psychology of gender,” Stockton argues. It’s a shift of focus that “some mainline feminists may see as a sellout, a watering-down, a pulling away from a feminist focus.”
Debra Burrington, women’s studies program associate director, agrees. “Some of the founders of women’s studies have a fairly traditional outlook with respect to how clear programs should be about their connections to the women’s movement. Regardless of its official name, the program will never abandon feminism or feminist activism. But these programs are about much more than loyalty to important political commitments. They’re also about rigorous, cutting-edge scholarly concerns, and Kathryn brings to the job a strong commitment to such scholarship.”
Stockton is no stranger to political controversy. You’d expect opposition to gender studies from conservatives—as in 1996, when the controversy over East High’s Gay-Straight Alliance kicked up dust into Stockton’s own classroom. Someone attended her Queer Theory course, and dashed off a letter to the upper administration painting a picture of the class as a gay recruitment station.
“The claim was that students were hugging, kissing, holding hands, et cetera, during the break,” she recalls. That struck her as doubtful (especially “et cetera”). What really offended her, however, were things that were blatantly untrue. “That I was going around the room and making every student say whether they were gay or lesbian, which is nothing I would ever do in a class,” she maintains.
But the letter-writer can’t be dismissed so easily. “I obviously believe that education is a totally seductive enterprise, and that people sharing ideas with each other constantly persuade each other of things that they might not even know they believed,” she states. “The problem with the discourse of ‘recruiting’ is that it’s just as fanciful and simplistic as the opposite—which is that we don’t recruit, that nobody can make somebody gay.”
To say or even imply that being queer might sometimes be a choice, or something you could be talked into, puts Stockton at odds with the official party line and the same gay activists that queer theory would be expected to give voice to. It’s a line she finds politically narrow, predictable and simplistic. “That everybody needs gay role models, everybody needs to be affirmed as a gay person, we want to say positive things about gay people, we want to stand against the stereotypes of gay people as killers and pedophiles—I understand all of those issues, but that doesn’t do my course any good.”
Compared to the transparent ravings of the religious right, though, they’re much harder to argue against. “Those are the things my students come in wanting to attach themselves to,” she says. “I have to work against their own sweet wishes to be affirmative.”
The problem is that the most artistically rich queer literature can also be the most politically troubling. Can you imagine Genet’s gleefully murderous queer criminals as role models for the budding gay teen? And what does one do with Oscar Wilde, the fairy prince of Gay Lit 101, with his not exactly cheery portrait of the homosexual as self-destructive narcissist?
Stockton isn’t one to pass lightly over such difficulties. She begins her Queer Theory class with Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Gothic cautionary tale of a young beauty whose soul is stolen by his own portrait. “I want to hit them dead-on with a book where they tend to think: ‘This is the homosexual bible! Here’s the emergence of the homosexual identity!’ What blows a lot of the students away is the book’s ethical punch line, the narcissistic gay creature who seems to get punished in the end. Sometimes, students who want something clear to commit themselves to, read the book as extremely homophobic, in a way that shocks them.”
To a student of queer theory, Wilde’s novel offers a warning about taking one’s self-image too seriously. “Dorian Gray is seduced by the art of himself, by the image of himself on canvas,” Harvey, Stockton’s former student, suggests. “The painting plays the role of himself better than he does. The role is a kind of clothing that he wears, and it wears him out. The clothes unmake the man.”
“He ends up believing that art is about him,” Stockton concludes. And if Wilde teaches us anything, it’s that “art is not about you.”
And there’s nothing particularly queer about that insight. As students drift away from the humanities in favor of the more tangible engagements of science, or law, or business, they’re being moved to question what broader vision the university can and should offer society at large. What queer theory can afford us, surprisingly enough, is an ethical framework for thinking about literature and life, about the way we put on, perform and get attached to social and sexual identities. It rewards us with a perspective on gender that can’t be explained away by the political propriety of non-discrimination, or the discovery of a “gay gene.”
Even more importantly, what Stockton’s classes offer is a vision of university education as a shared enterprise, where learning is inseparable from the larger project of living in the world. “Kathryn knows exactly how to forge and maintain a real community of minds,” Harvey says. “You get to know the other people in the class, you want to know them, you take responsibility for the progress of the class. It expands into your life, and it expands your life.”
In a way, her classes are a secular version of her divinity school experience. “At Yale, many of us lived on campus and ate our meals in the same cafeteria. We constantly talked about our courses, and spent time with each other after hours studying or going to the library together,” she recalls. “What I loved was that people’s intellectual passions and contradictions always emerged in the midst of communal functions—whether that was in the classroom or the chapel.”
It’s a vision that stands in stark contrast to the grim professionalism of much contemporary study—“every person for herself, everyone off in their own cubicle, studying their own thing, writing their own paper, to give their own presentation,” as she puts it. But Stockton’s own variety of religious fervor, her oracular voice, calls us to the pleasurable difficulties of reading and understanding as a labor of love.