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With Pride month underway, many in the Duke community might be thinking about their identities and personal connections to the LGBTQ+ community, while others may be seeking ways to understand, reflect on, and celebrate queer history and culture.

Four graduate students working towards graduate certificates from Duke’s Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies program detail their current research projects—which are all engaged in various ways with queer studies—and offer some reflections on what “Pride” means: here and elsewhere, past and present, as presence and absence, and through grief and joy.

Editor's note: We aim to represent our students, faculty, and staff with authenticity. Below, in cases where an interviewee has multiple preferred pronouns (such as "he" and "they"), the text may alternate pronouns.

Remembering the Roots of Pride

Headshot of Kamau Pope
Kamau Pope earned their master's in history from the University of South Carolina before coming to Duke. Pope says that Duke's Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture was a significant draw as they were considering schools for further graduate study.

A rising fourth-year Ph.D. student in history, Kamau Pope (he/they) studies the history of queer activism in the South. He uses "queer" to include not only LGBTQ+ folks but also Black women and femmes (or, feminine-presenting people) who have challenged culturally dominant norms.

"I'm particularly researching in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia," says Pope. "I'm looking at various organizers, organizations, and community members in the hopes that unveiling these different narratives through oral histories will help us understand the legacy of queer Southern activism in the late 20th century and the stakes of staying in the South to educate, agitate, and organize."

Having grown up in Aiken, South Carolina, Pope’s research hits close to home.

"One of the earliest memories I have of going on a field trip was going to a plantation. And my mom, who was my principal, was really frustrated and upset. What I did not know yet was that this plantation was where her (and my) ancestors were enslaved," says Pope. "After that field trip, on a random weekend, she drove me all around Kathwood, South Carolina, where she grew up, and told me stories about resistance and resiliency—about access to land and generational trauma, but also the ways we continue to persist. She said, 'You are a product of everything that has been built here, and I want you to recognize that.'"

"My mom ended our field trip by stopping at our church, and she pulled down a piece of Spanish moss from a tree. She said, 'Story has it, if you pull a piece of Spanish moss off of a tree and you put it onto another tree, it's supposed to spread. Can you imagine what it would be like if we all loved and cared for each other and shared our stories like Spanish moss? How much better the world would be?'"

In that spirit of community, and with the help of workshops hosted by the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies program, Pope is using their time at Duke to form meaningful connections—both across disciplines and between academic and non-academic spaces.

Kamau Pope with parents at the Mandy Carter exhibit
Pope is pictured here alongside his mother and father at the Mandy Carter: Scientist of Activism exhibit, which he curated with assistance from Mandy Carter herself.

"When I think of queer theory, I really lean on political scientist and activist Cathy Cohen. Her piece, 'Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens,' not only grounds how I look at queer organizing but really shows me the ways that activism can be embedded into academia; they don’t have to be two siloed things," says Pope.

And when it comes to Pride, Pope emphasizes the importance of understanding its history as well as its present-day legacies.

"Most important is understanding how Stonewall was such a response to the criminalization of lesbian, gay, and trans folks/drag queens," says Pope. "If you want to learn about Pride, just go to the archives—the Mandy Carter papers, the Southerners on New Ground papers, the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (ALFA) papers."

"When I think of Pride, it's really a question of: how do I get back to the roots? How do I hold space for gratitude for the ones who have come before me, and how do I chart a pathway forward? There's so much loss that exists within our community, and there's so much grief to hold. So, how do I hold space for that? How do I cultivate joy for my nieces and nephews and the next generation coming into the world?"

"Regardless of how anyone celebrates pride, I think it comes down to: how are we celebrating our survival? And even getting back to my mom's quote: we are the products of everything that has come before us, and we need to recognize that in our efforts to celebrate."

Pride in a Global Context

Alex Brandli carrying a box of archival material
Alex Brandli carries a box of archival materials in Mexico City, March 2024.

Also a Ph.D. student in Duke’s History Department, Alex Brandli (he/they) has spent the last two years on fellowship, doing on-site research on queer health activism in Mexico—a movement that has pushed for mental health support, decriminalization of queerness, HIV information and medication, and trans surgery and hormones.

"My dissertation also focuses on Mexican impact on kind of a global queer aesthetic and global queer activism," says Brandli. "Places like Mexico are vital to this movement."

While there, Brandli has been volunteering for an LGBTQ+ archive called Archivos y Memorias Diversas (AMD) founded by Alonso Hernandez—an experience that has made the subjects of HIV and health particularly prescient.

"The archive started in the fall of 2019, which is when I started my graduate program, right before the pandemic. And so, the pandemic really changed things. They were doing a lot of work from home because the three founding guys were all older men, and a few of them lived with HIV. Also, they were being very careful not to expose one another to COVID."

"It's a project that is definitely still in its early stages. So, I get to both contribute and then also think about, like, what does it really take to push an archive of crisis out of crisis, and how can volunteers make a sustainable archive?"

Brandli will soon be returning to Durham to work on his dissertation and will be funded by GSF’s Dissertation Fellowship for his sixth year.

Alex Brandli holds a sign at a protest
Alex Brandli attended a demonstration on January 15, 2024, protesting the murders of trans individuals in Mexico City. His sign says "Trans Women Deserve Life" in Spanish.

"I'm also thinking about some projects I could do from the US to keep me involved in the archive," says Brandli. "A lot of people talk about going abroad and doing field work and giving back to the community, but I feel like we don't do a good enough job at talking through what that actually means and what a lasting impact can look like."

Brandli says that Matt Brim’s Poor Queer Studies has been especially crucial in helping them think through these issues, and they look forward to wrapping up their time in Mexico by joining the Pride March with people from the archive for the second time.

"Pride here started about 10 years after it did in the US, and it’s the largest one in Latin America," says Brandli. "But before you had the gay March, it really started with gay groups joining in with student movements, and with pro-communist activists, protesting the government and the dirty wars that were happening here in Mexico and other Latin American countries."

"I think that’s really interesting to think about—how it can still start with protest, but have such a different type of focus."

Finding Joy in Pride

Annie Koppes with her Bass Connections team
Koppes' Bass Connections team. Front, left to right: Joyce Thomas, Daphne Brooks (Yale University), Tift Merritt, and Thea Ballard. Back, left to right: Craig Breaden, Laura Micham, Lou Brown, Annie Koppes, Trisha Santanam, Lindsay Frankfort, and Isabelle Zhang.

Like both Pope and Brandli, Annie Koppes (she/her) has found personal meaning and scholarly direction in working with archives. A rising third-year Ph.D. student in musicology, Koppes has been engaged in Rosetta Reitz’s Musical Archive of Care, a Bass Connections project centered on jazz and blues women that is set to continue next year. (Learn more about the 2024-2025 project here.)

"The team is made up of people doing amazing work, seeing how historical harms that have been done to women and queer people since the beginning of the recording industry have had ripple effects," Koppes adds. "We’re still seeing how artists are being taken advantage of. And, overwhelmingly, it’s still women and Black women in music, and especially queer and transgender people in music."

In the archive and beyond, Koppes draws from a number of queer and feminist theorists.

Black-and-white photo of Annie Koppes with her guitar, cello in the background
In addition to studying musicology, Koppes is a classically trained cellist and a practicing singer-songwriter. She is greatly inspired by Duke professor Anthony Kelley's concept of "empirical artistic empathy," or one's ability to empathize with musicians by being an active musician themself. 

"I'm really influenced by Judith Butler, of course, and Jack Halberstam and Sarah Ahmed. I also incorporate a lot of Black feminist theory into my work and how I approach historical figures from an intersectional perspective," says Koppes. "All of that helps me explore themes of non-normative music making and interrogate gender performance. Drag performance is a really big piece of music history and American popular music especially."

"I identify as a queer woman. So, for me, my research is very cathartic and empowering," she says.

In thinking about Pride, Koppes hopes to infuse similar positive feelings, even amidst generational and present-day harm.

"For me, Pride Month is an opportunity to sort of lean into what's gone right, and that's important. It keeps me going. Otherwise, you can just get in a really nihilistic state about it all," says Koppes. "So, I appreciate Pride Month for the joy that it brings. But at the same time, I also appreciate it for the critical perspective it encourages on the world around us. I think you need a balance."

Pride and the Posthuman

Headshot of Luoshu Zhang
Before coming to Duke, Zhang earned her B.A. in English and sociology from Australian National University. She published an essay in the Australian Humanities Review, reflecting on the value of accessing multiple literary traditions beyond just the Western canon.

While queer theory can offer non-normative ways to understand the human, Luoshu Zhang’s (she/her) research focuses on the posthuman—specifically, the idea of letting go of the human and what that might open up. A rising sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the English department, Zhang embraces a “radical negativity” queer theory angle in her readings of contemporary speculative fiction.

"There’s this idea of radical negativity—like Edelman’s No Future—the idea that queer people have been perceived as really sort of a death drive in culture, sort of representing this desire to turn away from reproductive futurism," says Zhang.

In her dissertation, Zhang analyzes pieces of media like Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series and the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, along with genres like fungal horror and zombie apocalypse. She has also taught English and writing courses on the fairy tale genre and the concept of the freak show, exploring representations of "freakish" or "monstrous" bodies which are often coded as feminine or queer.

Zhang credits the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies program not only with bridging different communities, but also with providing structured training in how to engage theory—particularly through their Foundations in Feminist Theory course, which Pope, Brandli, and Koppes have also enjoyed.

"I think the GSF program is definitely a good addition to what we have in the English department," says Zhang.

Turning a theoretical eye to Pride, Zhang holds some ambivalent feelings towards marching and the expectations that Pride activities can unevenly place on queer people.

"I’m not really comfortable with taking to the street," says Zhang. "And there’s this idea that just feeling good in the crowd is enough—but it can sometimes take you away from other aspects that you need to pay attention to beyond that affect."

"Sometimes I want to be alone to be able to think, to feel, and to, you know, explore other things. And of course, I appreciate the people who are out there, and I appreciate the risk they take and the exposure that they subject themselves to. But I feel like, for me, I'm more comfortable to take a step back and engage in a different way."

However you might choose to mark Pride this year, may you be safe, mindful, and joyous!

Header image: A campus building in the springtime, with a rainbow flag draped out of a window. This image was slightly extended using Photoshop AI.