About Gust Yep, Ph.D: Gust Yep is Professor of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU), where he is also Graduate Faculty of Sexuality Studies, and Faculty in the Educational Leadership Ed.D. Program. Dr. Yep’s pioneering research on gender, sexuality, and intersectional identities has produced over 100 journal articles and book chapters in publications like the Southern Journal of Communication, QED: Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Journal of Homosexuality, Communication Education, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Qualitative Inquiry, and many more. Dr. Yep’s books include the early work, Privacy and Disclosure of HIV in Interpersonal Relationships, and Queer Theory and Communication: From Disciplining Queers to Queering the Discipline(s).
Dr. Yep is committed to critical pedagogy and engaged research. His teaching has been recognized with the Outstanding Mentor in Master’s Education Award from the National Communication Association (NCA), and his research has won awards including the Randy Majors Memorial Award from the NCA and the Leroy F. Aarons Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, both of which honor scholars working to advance LGBT scholarship. In 2021, he received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the International and Intercultural Communication Division of the NCA and the Monograph of the Year Award from the GLBTQ Studies Division of the NCA. Dr. Yep is also an accomplished editor. For example, he is lead editor of a 2022 special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality on queer relationalities.
In addition to his departmental appointments at SFSU, Dr. Yep is Faculty at the Metro Academies Program for first-generation college students and part of the Queer Dharma leadership team at the San Francisco Zen Center. Dr. Yep received his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become engaged in health communication research on HIV/AIDS, and then begin to bring critical perspectives from queer theory and gender and sexuality studies into conversation with research on intercultural communication and communication research on cultural identity and difference more broadly?
[Dr. Gust Yep] My original background was in psychology. I was planning to become a clinical psychologist and applying to graduate schools when communication folks at the University of Southern California, where I was doing my undergraduate degree, started recruiting me. They offered me an opportunity to do an interdisciplinary degree and gave me a full scholarship and stipend, which made it really attractive for me to stay.
As a result, I was trained as a social scientist. What I knew about psychology and communication was heavily positivist or post-positivist in orientation [i.e., empirical research, typically quantitative, that treats knowledge as objective]. I didn’t have many paradigm choices, so that’s how I approached what I studied. Today, you see that there are more paradigms in communication and psychology, but both disciplines remain heavily influenced by post-positivism.
I came to study HIV and AIDS through my personal experiences. I was living in Southern California for school, but I was visiting San Francisco a lot because I have friends up here. I went to a large holiday party, and someone pulled me aside and said, “Do you see that person over there?” I didn’t know that many people, so they just pointed, but they were very secretive about it. I don’t remember the exact number, but they said something like, “That’s the 39th Asian man with HIV.”
This was in the late 1980s when there was public conversation happening about HIV/AIDS. At the party I was disturbed by the degree of stigma and shame attached to the way people were talking about this person. I made a point of speaking to him, and he didn’t say anything about his HIV status. According to the people who had pointed him out to me, he actually had AIDS. He was a very gentle soul from what I could see. I spoke with him for a few minutes, and that was the only time I met him. I later found out that he passed away. There were few treatments at the time, and they were very toxic.
When it came time to write my dissertation, I wanted to do something that was significant in a way that could save lives. I started my work with HIV/AIDS, which focused on health communication in the context of social support, but also on prevention strategies and education strategies. I started volunteering for the Asian AIDS Intervention Team in Los Angeles. I wanted to see what people were doing that was making a difference. At that time people were not paying attention to Asian American communities because the incidence of AIDS was relatively low. That was a catch-22, of course, because in public health you don’t want numbers to go up, but if the numbers are low you cannot justify funding and resources for it.
I did a presentation about my research on sexual behavior related to HIV/AIDS in the Asian American community in Los Angeles. As I was giving my presentation, I saw this man listening very attentively and nodding. He seemed very present with me. At the same time, I was looking at his face and he seemed to have a lot of questions. He stayed after the Q&A and when everyone was gone, he approached me and said, “Tell me a little bit more about your background.” I told him I was an “Asianlatinoamerican” and could speak very little Chinese but fluent Spanish and English. He asked, “I wonder, would you describe yourself the way that you describe the Asian Americans in your research?” As a presenter, I went back to my data: to what researchers say, to [Geert] Hofstede’s work on how Asian cultures are more collectivistic, and so on. He looked at me, smiled, said thank you, and left.
I never got his name, but that question haunted me. I kept thinking, “Would I really describe myself that way?” At first, I thought, “Well, that depends on the context,” but it eventually occurred to me that those are stereotypes. What we were doing in our research was creating stereotypes. Stereotypes have a potential connection to certain realities, but also lead to overgeneralizations that are very harmful, in treating the entire group as defined by the same characteristics.
That haunted me for a long time, and drove me to seek out research that really captures the nuances of culture and the different realities that people have. Our lives are very complex, and research captures only specific fragments. Communication research actually didn’t offer me much of an answer at that time. I started looking outside the discipline. People in other areas told me, “You must read This Bridge Called My Back, [edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa].” I did, and it struck me as being much more about lived experience.
I started looking at that body of work, and it was very interdisciplinary. I began reading critical theory. I also engaged with cultural studies, which at the time was still in a nascent state. It was certainly interdisciplinary, and I noticed that cultural studies in Europe had a very different orientation than in the United States. But, at that point, I was an untenured assistant professor, so, in order to survive, I continued doing my work in the positivist paradigm that I was taught. That went on for several years, as I got tenure and a promotion at my previous institution. I then gave that up to be here at San Francisco State and became a tenured full professor four years after my arrival.
Years into it, I’m still learning about critical theory, but of course as scholars we are always learning. If I were to describe my current research, I would say I am a critical scholar with a focus on critical intercultural communication, queer and trans studies, and critical pedagogy. If I think of my overall orientation, I consider myself a queer theorist, and more recently, a proponent of trans theory.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2003, you published “The Violence of Heteronormativity in Communication Studies: Notes on Injury, Healing, and Queer World-Making,” in which you critique the trenchant heteronormativity within the communication discipline and propose “queer world-making” as a means of fostering alternative structures of conducting and relating to academic research. Now that almost twenty years have passed since the publication of this piece, could you reflect on its enduring importance to communication studies? What do you see as the status of “institutional heteronormativity” today, and how do you assess the inroads of scholarly efforts at “queer world-making” that have followed from this publication?
[Dr. Gust Yep] When I was retraining myself, I became very much interested in queer theory. I had been reading queer theory since the 1990s, but none of that was in communication, except for one piece that came out in 1995. I started reflecting on heteronormativity at that time and how the discipline of communication was reproducing all kinds of heteronormativity, which it still is.
When I decided to do that piece, I saw that form of violence, and I wanted us to ask communication scholars to think about violence beyond the physical. As a discipline, we work with symbols and the power of symbols, which allows you to look at violence much more broadly. I wanted to broaden this notion of violence and particularly the notion of normalized violence — the violence that we commit every day without thinking about it, and which the people subjected to it often don’t think about either. Queer theory is a perfect tool for unpacking a lot of this.
I did a piece in 2002 about how we can introduce this notion to the classroom. If you look at, for example, interpersonal communication textbooks, you know how different identities are talked about. If you have an interpersonal textbook that talks about non-normative sexualities, it might be a little box on a page: “These two women are in a relationship, and this is a committed relationship.” This projects a normativity onto this relationship by implying that, for two women to be in a committed relationship, for it to be acceptable, it has to be committed. Why can’t two women, or men, or two nonbinary folks have sex for the fun of it? Nonbinary folks wouldn’t even be in the picture at this time, though.
In that piece, I wanted to critique the discipline, but also introduce queer theory to the discipline in a systematic way. It cites a large number of sources, because, if you’re just being exposed to this, you need to see the bodies of literature. I also didn’t want the piece to just be a critique. I wanted to end the piece on the more hopeful note of queer worldmaking, which is still something that I’m working with. As a critical scholar, I don’t want to just critique structures or critique systems. I also want to imagine different, livable possibilities, and queer worldmaking does that.
That was a tough piece to write because I was criticizing the entire discipline. I decided that I was going to put it out in a landmark interdisciplinary journal rather than in communication. I had heard stories from colleagues that were publishing on sexuality at the time, and unless you were looking at sexuality from a normative perspective or from the perspective of disease prevention — if you were researching sexuality with respect to pleasure, or non-normative bodies’ interaction — there was not one communication journal that was interested, except for maybe Text and Performance Quarterly. After the article came out, they subsequently published it as an edited volume. Then, in 2017, QED: Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, had a forum discussing the influence of that 2003 essay.
If I go look back and reflect, I do think there are some ways we’ve made progress. In some ways we’re more aware of heteronormativity, but heteronormativity is still everywhere. We end up enforcing all kinds of other normativities in the process, too: body normativities, gender normativities. Thinking about this is crucial to a lot of the work I’m currently doing on transing.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As you’ve discussed, you also have made important contributions to the dialogue between critical perspectives in gender and sexuality and queer theory and communication studies in advocating for “queering” the discipline. Could you unpack this critical project, perhaps discussing its relationship to “queer world-making,” and how your work has evolved to adopt alternative formulations such as “transing” and “queering/quaring/kauering/crippin’/transing”?
[Dr. Gust Yep] There was a confluence of two different things going on at that time. One thing that was troubling for me was that queer theory is really looking at non-normativity and the perpetuation of normative systems. The question that emerges from that is how to create alternative spaces. Queer theory is actually a bad name, because it makes it seem like it’s only of interest for folks with non-normative sexualities, which isn’t true. As someone who performs gender non-normatively in a lot of ways but is a cisgender man, I was noticing that sexuality is tied to gender but they’re not synonymous or equivalent to each other. I kept chasing this notion of normalized violence, and I kept going back to its relationship to gender. A lot of the work on gender tends to focus on women.
This led me to think about masculinity. Masculinity is the master category for gender, but it’s the unseen and unmarked category. We talk about women, but woman is a relational construct that is actually connected to men and masculinity. I spent a sabbatical reading about masculinity, and then proposed a course on masculinity. Interestingly, I had some men in that course who would approach me and say, “I’m really masculine, I should do well in this course.” I had some of these men in the class challenge me halfway through the course, saying “This is a masculinity course, why are we reading all this queer, feminist stuff?”
My TA was new and started getting defensive, so I turned to him and I said, “Let me respond.” I told the class, “Let’s do an exercise. Let’s look at all the readings we’re doing in a course and count how many readings are exclusively feminist and how many are about queer sexuality.” I made it into a homework assignment to count and report back. We found that reading on exclusively queer or exclusively feminist issues made up less than 15% of the course. Of course, the other readings also have a feminist and queer orientation to their analysis, but the subject matter was about men in sports and, you know, that kind of phenomenon.
What I noticed was that masculinity is so used to taking 100% of this space that, if you call it into question and ask it to take up maybe 85% of the space instead, people feel like you’re threatening or canceling masculinity. People actually said that this course was anti-men, or that they felt attacked. I said, “Okay, so let’s unpack that. What does that mean?” Through my work, I’ve concluded that hegemonic masculinity is really based on two fears–the fear of the feminine and the fear of the homosexual: fear of the feminine is misogyny and sexism, and fear the homosexual is homophobia.
I kept going back to masculinity as the source of violence. I started critically exploring gender more and really looking at how gender becomes so foundational in a lot of these violences that we create. The importance of gender varies for different intersectional identities, but we have to consider gender. I was also dissatisfied with the way the communication discipline was not addressing certain things. Intercultural communication, for example, has gone through some paradigm shifts, and I was involved in the critical turn in intercultural communication, but sexuality was not part of the picture in these changes. It was like people assumed the cultural other was straight, so didn’t see the need to address it, and reified normative sexualities and gender in the process.
The “Queering/Quaring…” piece was challenging because I wanted to introduce sexuality to scholarship on culture and communication, but had very little room to do so, especially because I wanted to consider each of these elements. I use “queering” as both a noun and a verb. As a verb, to queer means to take things that are normative or taken for granted and make them into something that is unusual in order to critically analyze them. I was also engaging with E. Patrick Johnson’s work on “quaring” to bring race and class into the picture, because that also gets ignored. Additionally, I brought in kauering to introduce perspectives beyond the US. Kauering entails adopting a transnational feminist perspective. What does it mean when we say that something is happening to a woman in a country in Africa or in Asia somewhere? How does their unique positionality affect their lived experiences?
Quaring and kauering then both expand our understanding of queering. Crippin’ is a term that comes from outside the discipline, which has become increasingly important to work in communication. It looks at the normativity of bodies and able-bodiedness. There is a piece on crippin’ about how heterosexuality and able-bodiedness are linked. Transing, finally, allows for the analysis of gender. It allows us to study, not only how gender is a category we impose on people, but also how people make sense of their gender.
After writing this piece, I became more interested in pursuing the idea of transing. In 2015, I published an essay on transing in the first collection on trans communication studies, which was reprinted with an update in the Routledge Handbook of Gender and Communication. Now, I’m moving into another area, which is exploring queer relationalities. I’ve published a few pieces on this already, and there’s a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality coming out in late 2022 on queer relationalities.
Whereas the “Queering/Quaring…” piece was saying, “Let’s pay attention to the body, sexuality, and gender in notions of cultural difference,” with queer relationality I want people to start paying attention to those communication practices of minoritarian subjects that are not generally intelligible for a normative audience.
An example of queer relationality would be a code word that two people who are non-normative use that allows them to recognize each other. It could be a way of interacting that falls out of line with our social or political norms. Queer relationality, therefore, is not just about queer bodies, but people who are non-normative in some way. The communication discipline looks only at normative types of interactions for the most part, and other types of interactions become totally erased or ignored.
In one co-authored piece that was recently published called “Mapping Queer Relationalities: An Exploration of Communication at the Edges of Cultural Unintelligibility,” I talk about the notion of intelligibility and epistemic violence. When people engage in practices of queer relationality, but nobody accounts for them in their research, we represent them as invalid, and in that process, we are also oppressing and marginalizing people.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One influential contribution of your work is the critical perspective on cultural identity you call “thick intersectionality,” which you introduce in the paper, “Toward the De-Subjugation of Racially Marked Knowledges in Communication,” and have developed in subsequent publications. For our readers who may be less familiar with intersectionality as a critical perspective, could you introduce this term, the concept of “thick intersectionality,” and their significance to your research?
[Dr. Gust Yep] Intersectionality is complicated. People say, “It’s not additive, it’s multiplicative, it’s simultaneous.” What does that mean? In my classes, I use the very simple example of a cake. If you’re looking at the individual parts of, let’s say, a German chocolate cake, you’re talking about flour, sugar, eggs, chocolate chips, and coconut towards the end, right? If you look at identity as simple ingredients, you say, well, your identity is made up of discrete ingredients: this part of your identity is the flour, this part is the egg. Intersectionality says, “No, your identity is actually the cake. The cake cannot be broken into individual parts. Each part matters to the way it tastes, but the cake at the end is fundamentally different from the ingredients that went into making it. That’s intersectionality.”
I’ve written about the way we live in a culture that likes to dissect people. Our culture says, “What’s your gender? What’s your race? What’s your age?,” and so on. The reality is that we are trying to fragment people right into reductionist bits. If you add all of those parts up, they don’t capture the whole person. Intersectionality says the whole person is a lot more than those individual pieces.
In a recent short piece that I had published in the fifth edition of Rebecca Lind’s anthology Race/Gender/Class/Media, I talk about intersectionality in relationship to “Cute Studies”: the study of cute objects and animals in culture. I follow a dog, Marutaro, on Instagram, and use him as a source of analysis. I say something similar about intersectionality there. I discuss how, if you have a small, female chihuahua, as opposed to a large, male pit bull, you interpret their growls differently — a chihuahua growling is cute, a pit-bull growling is threatening. That’s applying intersectionality, if you think about it.
Intersectionality is concerned with identity. Identity is a very significant part of how we think about ourselves, but academic literature on identity is a relatively new invention. If you go back a number of decades, identity didn’t really exist as a construct. It is a psychological invention, a scientific invention, and a human invention. We divide people into identity categories.
I introduced the notion of “thick intersectionality,” borrowing from Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick description.” Thick description is context-specific, rich, and a nuanced approach, and I wanted people to view intersectionality in a similar way. Rather than simply saying, “Okay, I’m listing race, class, and gender,” then, more recently, adding sexuality, nation, and the possibility of other categories, I believe we should also genuinely consider how the identity that emerges from these categories is not reducible to the sum of these parts: to see and be interested in the overall human being comprised of these attributes. If we just list those categories, then it becomes what I call a “roster-like” approach. You have a list of identities, but what do they mean? How do people make sense of those identities? How do people feel about those identities? How is that read in the body?
I had conversations with Wenshu Lee and John Elia about this and introduced this idea of thick intersectionality by looking at those nuances, and making connections between the personal and the structural. You can identify however you want, but if a larger cultural system is seeing you differently, you are going to be in an ongoing negotiation with that system. Some intersectionalities are generally invisible in mainstream normative culture–for instance, trans identities. Some trans identities don’t exist from the perspective of power, as I discuss in my work on transing. I also wanted to bring back politics into intersectionality, because some people were just saying, “Identities are mixtures of different vectors,” which minimizes the way power structures operate through these vectors. What about structural relationships, changing structures, and making lives better?
One piece where I develop the idea of thick intersectionality is “A Thick Intersectional Approach to Microaggressions.” This study focused on the Metro College Success Program at San Francisco State University. Metro was the vision of a faculty member on campus about 15 years ago. She got a grant and decided to bring together people from City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State to do this project for first-generation college students. She was very clever in terms of getting faculty involved. She contacted me and said, “So, this is your work, and this is your teaching. Would you be interested in this kind of project?” and, of course, I was.
As I started to work with them, we were supposedly having Friday afternoon meetings, but we were essentially being trained. We were given readings on pedagogy, particularly critical pedagogy. After I went through that, I became a trainer for Metro teachers, who would teach subjects like writing, math, and communication. As we were training the teachers, one of the topics we focused on was microaggressions, and intersectionality is something that is foundational to Metro Academies. That’s how that project came about, and I was able to explore my experience in the Metro program in that piece.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As you just mentioned, at San Francisco State University you are Faculty at the Metro Academies Program, which aims to support first-generation college students. Could you tell us a little bit more about your work with Metro Academies and how it reflects your scholarly, political, and/or personal commitments?
[Dr. Gust Yep] Those of us who go into the academy to become teachers and researchers become members of the communities in which we teach. We need to be aware of the power that we have: not power over people, but the power to create awareness or change. Some people create political change in more obvious ways, for example, by organizing people, but as university instructors we also have tremendous power in terms of bringing insight and awareness to people. I’ve written about the necessity of creating awareness and developing insight before we can create change, and we have the opportunity to facilitate that.
When I was teaching introductory courses at Metro Academies, one of the things I found was that many students who came felt as if they weren’t capable of succeeding. I still remember how one really good student told me, “I have to work two jobs to help my family. I don’t get home until one o’clock in the morning, and I have to get up at six because I have to take care of my siblings.” These students were very familiar with the structures constraining their success, but they didn’t have the analytical tools or vocabulary to critically describe their experiences.
I felt like my class and other Metro classes were offering them some of those tools. Now the students have a different way of thinking about things. They don’t think, “Why am I always tired? Why am I not performing?” We have conversations that help them see how their struggles relate to the larger whole and how they can create some kind of change. Everyone’s experience is different. I had a Latina student tell me that, when she goes out to eat and walks through a restaurant, people ask her to get them things because they think that she’s the help. This was irritating to her, of course. She wanted to pursue a career in the medical field but she was aware of how these racist perceptions constrained her.
As teachers, we can all incorporate a version of Metro Academies into our pedagogy. We can inspire social change and bring awareness to our classrooms and make it real for people. Then people will take those tools with them to their own communities.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice for students who are interested in the connections between queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and communication studies, or more broadly in critical communication perspectives on cultural difference, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?
[Dr. Gust Yep] The first thing is to get in touch with your passion. We all have passions. Think about what passions of yours are motivating you to enter a graduate program in communication. Then, depending on your passion, you can think about what you want to do to make a difference.
Reflecting on our conversation today, you can see that I realized what things were important to me and how I decided to pursue them. Somebody else may have very different life experiences, and come from a very different perspective, which allows them to contribute in their own way. Passion is also what sustains you. Working on one topic or area for years can be exhausting. Ultimately, it’s passion that will keep you going.
Community also will sustain you. The community you build doesn’t have to be fellow Ph.D. students, although that’s a good start. This is a group of people that you will potentially be connected with for a long time, in good ways and sometimes in less positive ways. You can support each other, you can help each other, you can collaborate with each other, you can become better teachers with each other.
At times, though, you’ll be competing against each other. If you and a fellow graduate student are applying for the same job, or you’re both submitting to a special issue of a journal where there’s limited space and the rejection rate is very high, you’re competing against each other. It’s important to be aware of both sides of these relationships.
Find a community that will understand and help you understand your project — not your academic projects or your dissertation, but your larger goal. That community is going to help you get through challenging times — you will experience challenging times if you’re going to become a critical scholar. If you do work for the status quo, everything is flowing with you. You will face challenges, of course, but they will be different.
If you’re a critical scholar, if you don’t have community, it’s going to be a very lonely experience. You’re going up against normativity, so you’re really kind of going against the wind, against the current. At points, it’s going to be exciting and feel like you’re creating something, but it gets draining. That’s why you see so many activists who are just burned out. Without community, you feel like you’re flying solo.
I look back on my Ph.D. training days as times of luxury. It didn’t feel that way when I was reading 400 pages a week for a single seminar and becoming addicted to coffee, but I had the luxury to just explore ideas. When you become faculty, your time is much more divided. I always tell people that academics really have three jobs in one: you’re teaching, you’re doing research, and you’re also doing service. Hopefully you can integrate all of those in a seamless way, but everybody is asking for your time.
In a Ph.D. program, you’re teaching, and you’re doing your academic work, but you have a lot more time and flexibility. Graduate students give me strange looks when I tell them this, but I would encourage students to embrace that luxury as much as they can.
Thank you, Dr. Gust Yep, for your insight into intersectionality, queer identities, and how communication scholarship connects to advocacy and social change!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.