Home » Chatterbox » I’m a “Keynote Speaker for What God Calls Abominable,” & I’d Never Want Anything Different.

I’m a “Keynote Speaker for What God Calls Abominable,” & I’d Never Want Anything Different.

I had the unfortunate experience this week that many Queer people often experience: my grandparents decided they don’t want a relationship with me because I’m gay.

Everyone hopes that their research will help people, or at least that they will have some kind of impact on the world. Hell, it’s nearly an expectation that you’ll say you want to “change the world” on university applications. I never found myself able to say that. Every time I tried, it felt hollow. What does that even mean, “change the world”?

I grew up primarily in Kentucky. Most people don’t really know what that means other than “oh I’m so sorry”, which… yeah. I’m not even from somewhere particularly rural–I’m from Louisville, but being from Kentucky as a Queer person should definitely elicit some oh nos. My family was on the radical left: my mom held CPUSA meetings in our apartment, and my dad rathered he write “Make America a Monarchy Again” on his ballot than vote for Clinton or Trump. (Of course, I have opinions about both of these things.) But in this same family, I was told to not ruffle the feathers of people with money or power, or family. Now, I’d say this is in part a side effect of being poor and Southern. My family wanted three things for me: money, a career, and alive. I was, almost as a result, a loud and opinionated child. But I was raised to not bother the opinions of people who could give me money for school, or recommendation letters, or who would make sure I didn’t make it home that night. For a long time, I obeyed those rules as much as I thought they benefited me. And that was, for the most part, how I went through undergrad–at least, until the lockdown happened.

I’m lucky to live in an age where much of fashion is androgynous, and short hair is allowed for women, but regardless of those things when I finally started visibly transitioning in 2020 after being out for over half a decade, I understood it clearly: I could no longer hide my opinions behind my mouth. I am a walking opinion. I am somebody’s political piece, someone’s OP-ED, a news headline, a Senate hearing, a bathroom bill.

When I started doing research during undergrad under Dr. Patrick Juola–whose praises I have sung loudly and often–I realized that I don’t need recommendation letters or money or jobs or anything from people who think that I shouldn’t exist. Patrick has taught me lots of things: “don’t say ‘no’ for other people”, “pass it on” in that one day I will have graduate students as he does and I will pay for their meals and help them shake hands and write them recommendation letters as he has for me, and many other invaluable lessons. But one lesson Patrick made clear without saying: I have a place in academia, and I do not have to associate with people who disagree with the fundamental fact that I exist. It would not be without the EVL Lab and Patrick that I would’ve stopped pretending to be something I’m not (even when I was pretending very badly); at least, it would’ve taken me much longer to stop pretending than it did because of that influence.

Patrick dispelled all my fears about academics being pretentious conservative white men. Two of those things he is, yes, but two of those are out of his control. In the time I’ve known Patrick I’ve changed pronouns several times (and genders twice or three times depending on who’s counting), and every time his reaction was something along the lines of “aye aye captain,” rather than the billion questions I had come to expect from others. Patrick makes sure to tell me the climate around Queer people and Jews wherever I’m traveling, and lets me know about specific people I may want to avoid; he does a good job of protecting minorities, or in the least showing us that he cares. And when Patrick and I tromped across Europe together and he came to know about my relationships with women and those adjacent across the continent, there were no questions, no weird statements for or against my “behavior”- Patrick simply let it be, let me be unless I decided to share (which he did not push for), and what do Queer people want more than just to be left the hell alone?

Back in time, when I was creating the survey for Project MapLemon and insisted on including trans people in my survey, Patrick was wholeheartedly supportive. Patrick made it clear to me that my success did not, and does not, hinge on the successes of anyone with regressive views. My success hinges on me, and the company I keep, and why the hell would I want to keep company who I have to lie to? Furthermore, Patrick made me realize that there are people in academia who are supportive of me and the work that I do. He introduced me to entire groups of researchers who liked my work and did not treat me differently because of the way I present. He sent my way conferences on Language, Gender, and Sex (yes, Helsinki, but many others of her kind as well). He showed me the work of other transgender researchers who are out there changing the landscape of linguistics as I have. I finally understand that what I do and what I am has a place in science, because what is science if not innovation? What is science if not uncovering the lost or undiscovered? What is science if not a way forward into the light from the darkness? In these groups of people, I am not questioned about my name, pronouns, or gender; I am taken as I am–as a researcher, and then as a human (because what do academics care if you’re from Mars if your research is good?).

I had the honor of presenting a keynote for University of Colorado Boulder’s Love Data Week on Valentine’s Day this year. I hadn’t posted about it yet since there should be a video recording out soon and wanted to wait to share that. But during this keynote I talked about Representing Diverse Identities in Data, data collected from that inclusive demographic survey previously mentioned, which was the primary topic I was discussing during this talk. I excitedly told my grandparents that I would be giving this talk, and when they asked the topic all I had to say was “diverse identities” for them to decide that the only diverse identity is transgender, completely excluding all the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and Indigenous people that this talk involved. I understood in that moment that they had already made their minds up about me.

When my grandmother decided yesterday morning that she wanted nothing to do with me, she called me “a keynote speaker for what God calls abominable.” I felt a lot of things in that moment. Upset that I’m losing family to a “religious group” that demands its members cut off family who are gay, those who do not follow the gospel (not my judgement, but words from my grandmother). I felt angry that when I asked to not be constantly berated for being gay, I was met with the sentiment that my family would rather not have me around at all than have me be gay. And proud. Yes, proud. Proud to be here. Proud to set boundaries in the face of trans and homophobia. Proud that my unapologetic existence is enough to make people angry because I’m made of something more divine than they will ever understand. And proud of my work.

It was when my grandmother sent that damning message that I understood what it means to change the world. I am aware of how important the results of Project MapLemon are, but I have now seen firsthand the reactions that people have when faced with data that challenges their belief system. In their anger, I can see that I have done the right thing. If my work makes people angry, in this instance, it is because it holds truth that they cannot understand.

I can now confidently say: I am here for the people that the oppressors have methodically worked to remove from the narrative of life and the world wholesale. I am here for those of us that leaders around the world have chosen to make their target. I am here for those of us who do not have families to go home to, for those of us who cannot go home, and for those of us who have had to redefine home entirely. I am here for 12 year old me crying in the school counselor’s office because of homophobia, and I am here for 24 year old me breaking beer bottles in the name of transphobia. I will be here for as long as this mortal vessel can go on, and I will spend that time proudly gay. And to anyone gay or trans, anyone sitting on society’s margins who wants to be in academia: You have a place here. And as much as it fucking sucks, your existence is a radical act. We need you here. Please stay.