Samantha Allen 15G is a PhD Student in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. She writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. She is a contributor for The Daily Beast, and her opinion pieces appear regularly at The Daily Dot. Her work has also appeared on Rolling Stone, The Advocate, Salon, Huffington Post, Mic, Kinsey Confidential, Jacobin, and in Adult Magazine.
Lilly Correa 73C, Co-Chair of GALA, recently interviewed Samantha for this newsletter.
LC: You were raised in a Mormon household. What was your experience growing up?
SA: Mormonism is inimical to any form of gender or sexual variation, and my personal experience with it was suffocating. There are LGBT Mormons who stay in the church hoping to change it from within, but that life wasn’t for me. Growing up, I was told first that homosexuality was an immoral choice, second that it was a tolerable condition like alcoholism. I lived my entire life feeling like I was a sinner until I realized in my early twenties that the problem was with the church and not with me.
LC: What brought you to Emory from Rutgers?
SA: It’s sort of an accident. I went to Rutgers for Linguistics, but the courses in that department were so overloaded that I ended up double majoring in Women’s & Gender Studies to fill my time. By my junior year, I was much more interested in studying gender and sexuality than I was in diagramming sentences, so I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Women’s Studies instead of Linguistics. Emory has one of the highest-ranking PhD programs in that field. I somehow got accepted, and I’ve been here for five years now.
LC: What is your dissertation topic?
SA: My dissertation is about sexual fetishism, and it looks at everything from sneezing fetishism to erotic vomiting. [Side note: The answer to the question “Is there a fetish for X?” is always “Yes.”] Most theories of sexual fetishism would think of these seemingly bizarre practices as evidence that the “sex drive” has been diverted into bizarre territory, but my dissertation asks what it would mean to think of fetishes as having completely legible affective (or emotional, in non-academic speak) motivations instead.
LC: Tell us about your fellowship with the Kinsey Institute?
SA: In 2013, I was selected to be the John Money Fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University in Bloomington. I spent three weeks in their incredible archives reading everything from 1920s pulp magazines to 1940s fetish scrapbooks to 1980s fetish newsletters. I’ve used a lot of this material for my dissertation, but, more importantly, I met my partner at the Kinsey Institute, and we’ve been together ever since. She was sitting across from me in the reading room doing some research of her own; we got in the elevator at the same time one day, and the rest is history.
LC: In addition to your own blog, you also write for the Daily Beast. What has been the best received column and the most controversial column?
SA: The best received column was also one of my most recent: a piece about Kate Brown, the first bisexual governor in the United States, and what her new visibility means for bisexual Americans, so many of whom are still in the closet compared to gay men and lesbians. It was particularly gratifying for that piece to get a positive response because I don’t identify as bisexual myself, and it feels good to get something right when you don’t have a personal experience with the subject matter.
As for controversy, I’ve gotten so much social media and email pushback over my columns, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve heard from anti-abortion evangelicals, homophobic Mormons, diehard Confederates, anti-feminists, Silicon Valley tech investors, and more. When you write about women’s and LGBT issues for a large outlet, almost everything you write will be construed as controversial.
LC: What do you see as the intersectionalities, or lack thereof, of your background, including your race, color, religion, ethnic or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression? How has your time at Emory helped promote the intersectionality of these different backgrounds for you or other students?
SA: I’m a white, queer, femme woman from an upper-class Mormon background. Emory has helped me become who I am, but there are also so many ways in which you can become complacent here as a white person who comes from money. For me, Emory is an easy place to be LGBT because it feels designed around and for my experience. I’ve tried over the last year especially to stay in tune with the needs of LGBT students of color and our gender non-conforming students especially.
LC: Tell us about your activism. When did it start? Was there a defining event?
SA: My activism started in college when I left the Mormon Church and transferred to Rutgers. Leaving the church was that galvanizing moment of realization for me. I started to see the world through new eyes and pay attention to forms of oppression that I had been told were nonexistent or exaggerated. In college, I did more protesting and marching than I can do now. In graduate school, I started to channel more of my energy into my writing and my work with the Office of LGBT Life. I facilitated one of our discussion groups for a year and a half, and I’ve been working for the office for a bit longer than that.
LC: What needs are you responding to, and what kinds of community-building, programming, and advocacy work are you engaged in on campus?
SA: This year, Danielle Steele and I have been focused on creating networking opportunities for LGBT students interested in careers in healthcare, law, and business. GALA has played a crucial role in making these events happen.
Over the last two years, I’ve also helped to develop the Office of LGBT Life’s programming around Transgender Day of Remembrance in coordination with the Trans-forming Gender Discussion Group. This past November, we held our second memorial service, this time with participation from Glenn United Methodist Church and the Reconciling Ministries Network.
I have also been working on an outreach program called LGBTQ-tips that divides our Safe Space curriculum into more bite-sized portions. Some departments and student groups want training, but they don’t have a three plus hour block in which all of their members are free, so LGBTQ-tips can hopefully bring the knowledge to them. We’ll be developing that further this semester, and hopefully launching it next academic year.
LC: Tell us about your current position in the Office of LGBT Life.
SA: I’ve been the graduate assistant in the Office of LGBT Life for almost two years now. What that means is that you probably got a lot of emails from me. Behind the scenes, I’m coordinating events, running the office’s social media channels, creating a lot of our advertising, and keeping the office open when Michael Shutt and Danielle Steele are off doing the more important work across the university.
LC: What kinds of issues are important to you and any facilitator groups you may belong to?
SA: I’m especially passionate about the intersections of feminist and LGBT activism. It’s why I made time to be a part of the Vagina Monologues while also working for the office last year. And even though I haven’t had time to participate in it this year, I was part of initial conversations with alumna Lauren Guilmette and Center for Women Program Coordinator Tiffany Del Valle that led to the reemergence of the Queer Women’s Group this year.
LC: Are there other spaces where you think LGBT students are finding voice on campus?
SA: I’ve been so pleased by the growth of both the Queer Students of Color discussion group and BlackOUT, a new student-led, black LGBTQ group, over the last year. As the national discussion around police violence and systemic racism has reached critical mass, it also seems like discussions around the intersections of race and LGBT identity have been gaining traction at Emory. I’m excited to see how those discussions continue to take shape in conjunction with the newly-formed Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
LC: What are your priorities or goals for the next academic year?
SA: I’m graduating this semester and leaving the academic world to continue my career as a writer and journalist. But given that LGBT issues are central to my writing, I’m going to carry the knowledge I’ve gained from working in the Office of LGBT Life with me and hopefully put it to good use in the public sphere.
LC: What kind of support or involvement, if any, would you like to see from GALA and other alums of Emory?
SA: I’d love to see GALA members at the Pride Awards as well as at all our “Out in…” events this semester! I’d also encourage everyone to sign up for the Out @ Emory website and get their free T-shirt in any color of the rainbow from Michael Shutt’s office.
LC: If you could ask for anything from the administration, what—if anything—would it be?
SA: As a student, former graduate instructor, and employee of Emory, I’ve seen the university from a lot of different angles. After five years, I can say that the people I’ve seen struggle the most with belonging and thriving here are Black and Latino/a students. I’d like to see more support for those students and more attention paid to the barriers that stand in their way at Emory.