Intersectional generosity


Welcome (truly, welcome) to you, our cherished students (it’s hard to let go of you!), and you remarkable people who support them (all you family members and friends), including honored guests: Kim Brunisholz and also Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal.

Welcome, also, Bomba Marilé, and your music with its gorgeous history of resistance.

So, yes.

Another round of applause.

“My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught.” So writes Jean Genet.

And “my heart is caught.” I am pierced. I am compelled. I am lured inside your company.

Now there’s something we say, whenever we gather, so as to set the frame for our welcome. (Our new university President began his own inauguration with the words I will share.) I warn you, in truth, our very welcome at this university implies seas of sorrow, heartbreaking violence, and a history of Native people still healing themselves with great creativity.

One more warning: I am on my way in my brief remarks to convince us all that Critical Race Theory and Theories of Children’s Gender and Sexuality are forms of GENEROSITY, almost sacred generosity, to us all, whoever we may be. But hold that thought—I’m coming your way!

First, please listen as I share the University of Utah’s land acknowledgment, meant to provoke not guilt but action. We as the university state:

“Given that the Salt Lake Valley has always been a gathering place for Indigenous Peoples, we acknowledge that this land, which is named for the Ute Tribe, is the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Tribes and is a crossroad for Indigenous Peoples.”


I give a shortened version so we really will receive it: this has always been the place of Indigenous gathering—and it is a crossroad, a place of intersections, at this very moment.

So again, welcome.

We’re thrilled you’re here.

Now, who are we that are thrilled? What is this School for Cultural and Social Transformation? Parents sometimes are still asking that question, so it’s become my tradition to explain it this way:

If you take the coolest dance troupe, wed it to a protest, link it to a book club that reads the hippest books, and make it sing with fiery joy—a joy that breaks barriers, confronts institutions, soothes wounds, cracks jokes, dresses rad, and calls things what they are—you have TRANSFORM: the School for Cultural and Social Transformation.

And we are a School for “intersectional inquiry.” Now, that’s a mouthful. So what does it mean?

This could sound boring but it’s massively important. And it involves you. Intersectionality (that ungainly word) means that we study, means that we live, the interlocking dynamics of shifting sexualities, changing genders, vital immigrations, and emergent struggles against all ableist and racist actions. We honor the Black and Indigenous women who crafted this concept so that they could grasp the complications of their lives.

I’m proud in this moment to tell you graduates and everyone here that the School for Cultural and Social Transformation — and thus the U — just this semester, has received a prestigious national grant for over half a million dollars, to be one of only five universities in this country to be asked to build a national network for Intersectional Studies.

Dare I say that your degree from the U just became more profound.

And that’s not all: we are the only university in this country, again, through the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, to receive this month, one million dollars from the same foundation to build a Center for Pasifika and Indigenous Knowledges. Again, to act on ways that Pacific Islander forms of knowing cross-connect with Native American wisdoms and ways of being.

Which takes me now to Critical Race Theory (CRT) and theories of children’s gender and sexuality as forms of generosity. Intersectional generosity.

And I just want to say in this section, because you’re going to hear me embracing histories of suffering, I think hopefully we all know nobody is ever reducible to the history of their suffering, right? Histories of suffering also gather joy, gather wisdom, gather playfulness in their ways.

And our other speakers are going to get to that very point.

Now, if there’s something I know from religion—from my three years of divinity school—it’s that religions intensely honor histories of suffering as sacred to behold. The religions I’ve studied (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam most of all) ask us to acknowledge/understand/truly face how histories of violence have shaped who we are and what we have to change. (Christianity’s symbol is literally a man nailed to a cross.)

Strikingly, in these religious contexts, quite unlike those opposing CRT, no one worries that guilt is in the mix, since guilt is not the point of facing these histories. Action is.

Critical Race Theory treats us as generously as religion treats us: it presumes we will not fear to confront human suffering caused by human failings and bad human systems; it presumes our tenderness toward one another; it says “fear not,” we know we can change.

Let me now show how CRT and our gendering of children intersect each other.

Question for you: Do you know the history of the concept “gender,” which has so dramatically formed you? (As you sit here now—your posture in these chairs, the clothing that you wear, the swooping of your hair, the names that you bear—have all been shaped by gender.) Can you, in this moment, feel its enormous shaping effects on your individual history, even if you now refuse your given gender?

Which I do.

Here’s my big claim that I want you to consider—and it just may explain why people are unjustly fighting CRT and knowledges of gender.

Here’s my point.

US racial histories are the most stunning proof against there being “opposite sexes” and, thus, two genders (“man” and “woman”) in this country. You can also feel free to disagree with me. I’m a professor; I expect it.

Just think about it: Since the thirteen colonies, we have made legal and often biological distinctions, however bogus, between at least six categories to begin with: white man, white woman, Black man, Black woman, Native man, Native woman … joined by other sexes in other territories.

There can be no opposites with six or more sexes.

Due to the US system of race, no one exists as a “man” or “woman.” The “opposite sex” is a phantom concept. Nobody lives it. Yet it’s had consequences (to put it mildly) for this country’s dealings with race.

Take just one example, an example that really hits home here. You know, the infamous phrase that justified Indian boarding schools in the late 19th century into the 20th century. It’s a very violent phrase, and I bet you have heard it many times: “Kill the Indian, Save the man.”

That was produced in an educational context.

According to this thinking, the Native man is not a man. The only hope for his sexual future and Native women’s future was their being killed, in spirit and in culture. They would be killed into being “men” and “women.” And school would do the killing. Yet the game was rigged. Failed assimilation was nearly guaranteed. Due to skin color, blood quantum rules, and graduation rates—truth be told, most didn’t graduate (corporal punishment and sexual assault were common in the schools)—they could not “achieve” the sexual stylings of white “men” and “women” and thus became failed opposites in the eyes of whites.

Now we, of course, know that everything in Native history defies this history. We know what was happening inside communities themselves. Its tremendous powers of self-healing.

But to this day, gender norms are white norms.

All of which brings me to the concept of “gender.” Now just for one second, ask yourself in your head—you will not have to take a quiz; I will not take any hands—What year do you think the concept of gender was born? All right? Don’t have to call it out. Just think in your head, you’ll see if you’re right. When was the concept of gender born? As it happens, in 1950. So if you guessed the year,1950, you are right.

Oh, my friends, if there were time today, which there isn’t—you may be happy for—I would tell you the history of this concept. It’s a wild story—one that stunningly shows how your gender, everyone’s gender in this room, owes its history to intersex and transgender kids.

These are kids—largely white kids, and actually for a whole series of racist reasons, but largely white kids—who caused a crisis in the medical belief that there are two sexes. As a result, the concept of “gender” was created to save the crumbling notion of binary sex, and 1950’s norms for men and women (white men and women) were rolled over scientific data so as to defend against what the data showed… Read about it, learn about it. Grab me later. I’ll tell you where you can learn about it. It’s about your gender, everyone in this room.

Which means my point is this: traces of these racial histories live inside the gendering of us all. [When we lovingly fight gender norms, we fight racism.] And if we’re going to stamp a newborn baby with a sex and gender it hasn’t yet chosen, don’t we owe it to our children, who are already being sexed and gendered by us, to learn the histories that attach to the words that we’ve lowered like gigantic cones upon their bodies?

You can’t imagine what that would have meant to this particular child—I who, already at 6 years old, was a “girl” turning “gay” feeling “trans” under “white” facing “God” soaked in “shame” having a “blast,” amidst all my pain.

Guilt, let me say again, is not the goal of all these explorations. Loving, sacred change, loving, playful change is the aim of what we teach, and I believe that you—our students—teach us this generosity. Our hearts are caught on you. We adore you, Class of 2022, Class of 2021, Class of 2020. We are here to celebrate each and every move. Can we all now applaud this happy day.

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