About Jeffrey A. Bennett, Ph.D.: Jeffrey Bennett is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Bennett’s research focuses on the rhetoric of health and medicine as it intersects with LGBTQ+ studies, as in his first book, Banning Queer Blood: Rhetorics of Citizenship, Contagion, and Resistance, which interrogates the federal policy mandating that men who have sex with men defer donating blood.

Dr. Bennett’s most recent book is Managing Diabetes: The Cultural Politics of Disease, and he has published articles in leading journals including Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, Quarterly Journal of Speech, and QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking. He is also an accomplished academic editor, having edited or coedited special issues of QED, Review of Communication, and Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. His scholarly contributions have received accolades like the Randy Majors Award honoring contributions to LGBTQ+ scholarship from the National Communication Association’s (NCA) Caucus on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns and a New Investigator Award from the Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division of the NCA.

In 2019, Dr. Bennett was named a Public Voices Fellow at Vanderbilt University. Prior to his time there, he was Associate Professor at The University of Iowa and Assistant Professor at Georgia State University and the University of North Texas. He earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Communication and Culture, his M.A. in Communication Studies from Northern Illinois University, and his B.A. from Wayne State University in Speech Communication.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in the rhetoric of health and medicine, LGBTQ+ studies, and how these fields intersect, for example, in the rhetorics surrounding HIV/AIDs?

[Dr. Jeffrey A. Bennett] I, like a lot of people in the field, originally entered through speech and debate. I did forensics as an undergraduate student, and then I coached as an M.A. student. During my M.A. program, I was lucky enough to have mentors who encouraged me to go on and get a Ph.D. I applied to some schools and was fortunate to get into Indiana University (IU), which changed the course of my life for a lot of different reasons. Indiana is the place where I found my voice in the field. It is the place I met my partner and many of my closest friends whom I still have to this day.

I became interested in the topics you mentioned while I was at IU after I discovered the blood ban [bans on donating blood] that had been lodged against men who have sex with other men. That was quite by accident. One of my close friends had mentioned there was a blood drive on campus, and she was joking that I should go give blood. At the time I had an outrageous fear of needles, and I said, “Oh right, because I’m afraid of needles.” She said, “No. You’re gay. You can’t donate blood.”

After learning I was not able to donate blood, I decided to research why. Of course, that topic took me down a long path of research about HIV / AIDs, discrimination, and the culture wars. All of these things became really important because, when I started at IU, I thought I was going to study something like political or presidential rhetoric. But my first year at IU was also when I happened to be completely “out” to everyone in my life. I started writing papers about reparative therapy [otherwise known as conversion therapy] and Matthew Shepard, and I found that the research, the writing, and the time commitment became easier somehow. I enjoyed what I was doing. I took a hard turn away from presidential rhetoric and started engaging more with work in cultural studies, queer theory, and things like that.

Part of my continued focus on issues of health is also practical. My partner and I are both scholars of queer rhetoric. We started wondering how we could differentiate ourselves enough to be marketable as possible partner hires. Especially in the early to mid-2000s, there was a sense that everyone who studied queer rhetoric did essentially the same thing. We needed to find a way to make a hard division between our research, so I took a turn toward health and he took a turn toward law. After Banning Queer Blood [discussed below] came out, I decided I had read enough about health and medicine that I could keep developing my research in that area. That has worked out for me; it has been productive, fruitful, and something I have enjoyed.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You are also author of the 2009 book Banning Queer Blood: Rhetorics of Citizenship, Contagion, and Resistance, which critiques representations of gay men as contagious that supported the FDA’s ban on blood donation in response to the AIDS epidemic. Reflecting on this book now, are there insights you find prescient to understanding the complexities and contradictions of how we treat queer blood donation and represent queer bodies as contagious today, for example in the context of COVID-19 and monkeypox?

[Dr. Jeffrey Bennett] When I first started writing about the blood ban back in the early 2000s it was an abhorrent policy. It said that, if you were a man and you had sex with another man even one time since 1977, you were indefinitely banned from donating blood. Of course, they never defined what sex was. You had a very specific date coupled with an indefinite deferral, which gave the policy a strange temporality. As time has gone on, they have slowly relaxed the policy. One of the big reasons they did so was because a lot of people, especially younger people, did not want to be associated with a policy that feels discriminatory in nature. It is also partly because we are always having blood shortages.

Today, the policy is on something of a house of cards. The policy has changed such that gay, bisexual, and queer men who report being monogamous are no longer banned from donating. The new rules are supposed to put emphasis on behavior, not identity, even if gay/bi/queer men are still disproportionately affected by these rules. Potential donors who report having anal sex with new partners in the last three months are barred from giving until a later date. Those taking PrEP, which is a medication regimen that prevents HIV transmission, are barred until three months after their last dose.

The COVID issue is interesting, and I think it is right to point out, as Karma Chávez did in your interview with her [which you can read here], that some of the parallels between COVID and AIDS make sense, for example, because of the botched federal response. In other ways, it does not make sense as an analogy because one is airborne and one is not. I do think that it is worth emphasizing that many of the anti-queer discourses we see today began gaining more traction during the COVID-19 pandemic. They seemed intended as a strategic distraction from the federal government’s failure to quickly and competently address its spread.

The recent monkeypox epidemic is perhaps more revealing in terms of signaling the persistence of the stigma that links queer people to disease. It revealed the panic that can surface very quickly over anything related to queer bodies. I think this has a lot to do with media narratives that drive this panic. I think it also has to do with the fact that monkey pox was more visual in nature. When people passed from COVID, they were often hidden away in hospitals. With monkeypox you started seeing pictures, especially of white, cisgender gay men, with marks on their faces from the illness.

At the same time, it illustrates how great the queer community can be. Monkeypox was contained relatively quickly because queer communities went into their bars and community centers, and they vaccinated and tested people. They found a way to address the situation when they found the scientific arms of the U.S. government were moving too slowly.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In recent publications, you have turned to contend with COVID-19 — you are the editor of, and wrote the introduction to, the special forum in QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, “Queer Life and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” and you are the author of “Everyday Life and the Management of Risky Bodies in the COVID-19 Era” and “Mourning and Memorializing in the COVID-19 Era.” Are there certain insights you would highlight from across this research that help capture the cultural politics of COVID-19 and its particular consequentiality for the queer community?

[Dr. Jeffrey Bennett] I want to recognize that I was invited to do this work. It is an honor, in many ways, to be asked to speak on issues that are still emerging. Because, really, who knows? Chuck Morris [Charles Morris III] and Tom Nakayama asked me to edit the forum in QED. I was stuck in my house, and the project I was working on was stalled because I could not get to archives. I decided to edit this forum because I thought it was important, especially in light of the fact that the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on queer communities.

I ended up writing four articles and chapters about COVID, overall, and you can really feel the arc of me living through COVID in them. When the QED forum came out, I was just so angry at the response to the pandemic and how it was harming so many people. Then, Ted Striphas reached out and asked me to contribute to a forum he was editing. In that article, I explored why people were being so defiant of basic health measures that would keep them well, thinking about stranger relationality and what the pandemic revealed about the United States as a polity.

After that, Marina Levina, who had participated in the QED forum, reached out and asked if I would be interested in the forum on COVID she was organizing for Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies [you can read our interview with Dr. Levina where she discusses this forum here]. At the time, we had reached a new phase of the pandemic and vaccines had become available. This moved me to think about the ways in which we were going to remember what we were all living through.

You can see in these articles, then, the development of my own thought as we moved through the pandemic. Obviously, writing about something as it is happening has its own drawbacks. You do not have the advantage of historical distance. At the same time, I think it is important to record these things because we want to have an archive of what it was like to live through this.

Specifically, when it comes to LGBTQ+ people, trans people of color were already unemployed at six times the national average and five times more likely to have an income under 24,000 dollars. When that is your starting place, the pandemic is of course going to have a terrible effect. We know it also had a terrible impact on older queers and especially older queers of color. These are people who often depend on kinship networks, which were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

There was also the discourse that targeted LGBTQ+ people as the cause of the pandemic. In the United States, we had our fair share of people saying the pandemic was god’s punishment for same sex marriage. In France, we saw queer people targeted as the source of the contagion. In South Korea, some of the people who got the most media attention were a group of queer people who went to nightclubs and a bathhouse while they were sick. Steven Thrasher points out in his new book The Viral Underclass that one of these people [who never confirmed their sexuality, but had attended these clubs and bathhouses] was arrested for not being completely honest with contact tracers.

Queer people are also everywhere. We are disproportionately in prisons, we are in detention camps, we are in nursing homes. We exist at the intersection of these groups that were themselves disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book is Managing Diabetes: The Cultural Politics of Disease, which examines the myths and contradictions in cultural discourses on diabetes and what it means to “manage” the disease. Could you introduce us to this book project and its motivations? How does the book explore the problematic of managing diabetes as a “crisis of signification” produced by the tensions between the major tropes of “effortlessness, fatalism, individual transcendence, and institutional regard?”

[Dr. Jeffrey Bennett] I started writing Managing Diabetes about a year after I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I received my diagnosis just a couple of weeks after I defended my doctoral dissertation. My dissertation was Banning Queer Blood, and there was a cruel irony in being diagnosed with diabetes just after defending my work on the symbolic dimensions of blood.

We often think of type 1 diabetes as being associated with children, even though it can affect anyone at any time of their life. After my diagnosis, I was immediately struck by the very unusual things people would say to me. They would say things like, “You just need to take care of yourself,” or tell me very cryptic stories of people they knew with diabetes who had died. All of these things were, I think, well intentioned. They were messages from people who cared about me and wanted me to have a long and healthy life. But, as you might imagine, those kinds of messages can take a heavy toll on your thinking.

I started contemplating what exactly these phrases meant. What did it mean to just take care of myself? What did it mean that I just had to “manage” diabetes? I think we assume that we know what those things mean, but one of the things I found in my research is that, depending on the context, they carry very different meanings for different people.

The book understands this as a crisis of signification, following the work of the great Paula Treichler and her book, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic. About 37 million people in the United States live with some form of diabetes; that is only 2 million fewer people than the population of California. This provided an amazing heuristic for thinking through diabetes rhetoric because there are so many ways people talk about the disease, partly because most people know someone who has been diagnosed with some form of diabetes. I wanted to explore why we were so bad at talking about this disease and what kind of effect that was having on public-facing rhetoric and policy creation.

In looking at this crisis of signification, I tried to provide my audience with a hard organizational structure that helps them understand different ways people talk about disease, which is how I arrived at the four major tropes you named [effortlessness, fatalism, individual transcendence, and institutional regard]. The first three of these four framings are more problem oriented, while the last looks to solutions. For example, I look at the discourse surrounding Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her representation as a person who does an amazing, “effortless” job managing her diabetes. These kinds of individualizing discourses of management can be very harmful for people with diabetes. Similarly, I look at the rhetoric of the JDRF [formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation], whose rhetoric heavily emphasizes fatalism in a way that can be so dispiriting to those of us who live with the disease.

If we think about a crisis of signification as a breakdown of meaning, I wanted to try to respond to this crisis by ascribing some kind of meaning to the disease. At the same time, I did not want to leave it at a place where everything is terrible. I think of myself as a fairly optimistic human being, but I sometimes feel like my writing is not. It was important to me in the book to make sure that one of the chapters gave a sense of hope on the horizon, which I locate in institutional regard. I believe very strongly that institutions, governments, and communities can do good things. I think diabetes is an area where, if we had enough attention, thoughtfulness, resources, and support, things could really be different. I think we are a long way from that, but there is a community of people with type 1 diabetes organizing to implement these changes.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You also co-edited a special issue of Rhetoric of Health and Medicine entitled “The Rhetoric of Chronicity,” which explores rhetorics surrounding chronic diseases and conditions. Could you provide us with some background on what inspired this issue and what it hopes to draw attention to regarding the material and symbolic dimensions of how we manage “chronic” illness?

[Dr. Jeffrey Bennett] This was the brainchild of Lora (Arduser) Anderson at the University of Cincinnati, who invited me to coedit the issue. She does work on diabetes and chronic health conditions. I thought it was a great opportunity to see what was going on in the field. There is so much good work being done right now in the rhetoric of health and medicine on chronic conditions.

For example, Molly Kessler at the University of Minnesota is producing some wonderful scholarship. Many younger faculty and graduate students are also doing excellent work on these topics, including on HIV/AIDS and efforts to distribute PrEP. Of course, this scholarship also reflects the fact that there are countless people in the world who live with chronic conditions.

Our contributors wrote about a number of different conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, post-chemo life, and other interesting areas. The pandemic threw us a little bit of a curve ball because we had some contributors who just had to drop out. You can imagine how its effects would be significant for people living and writing with chronic conditions. We did not end up with as many essays as we wanted, but we are so happy with the quality of what we received.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In your current work, you have explored activist rhetorics surrounding disease and ability, for example, in your publication, “Resisting the Rhetoric of Indexing: Disability, Access, and the 2005 Tennessee State Capitol Sit-In.” Can you discuss what you identify here as the rhetoric of indexing and how activists at the Tennessee State Capitol Sit-In resisted these logics?

[Dr. Jeffrey Bennett] This essay comes out of a larger project I am still figuring out. I am very interested in the phrase “pre-existing conditions”: where it came from, how it has evolved, the damage that it has done, and the way it has been reclaimed by people who are fighting for access to healthcare.

When I was doing research on this project, I tried to locate organizations who were fighting back against how pre-existing conditions were being used to exclude people from access to healthcare. I discovered that at the Tennessee State Capitol, which is less than two miles from my house, a group of activists fighting for access to health care had taken over the capitol for almost 75 days, off-and-on. In lore, this is the longest indoor sit-in in U.S. history.

Indexing is the process of sorting bodies into risk categories to determine who gets access to care and at what cost. Insurance companies “index you,” for instance, when they look at your records and determine whether to cover your care based on your health history. But it does not stop there. Historically, these practices have taken into account gender, race, ability, and arguably sexual orientation. I make the case in the article you mention that these activists, some of whom were members of the national organization ADAPT, were trying to fight against this logic of indexing.

In 2005, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen decided he needed to rein in Medicaid costs from the state program called TennCare. He kicked 350,000 people off the TennCare rolls, including our most vulnerable: people on ventilators, cancer survivors, and people with traumatic brain injuries. In response, people were rightfully angry and upset, so they protested. Unfortunately, it was also seen as a marvelous thing by the voters, and not only was Bredesen reelected, but he won every county in the state.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in the rhetoric of health and medicine, LGBTQ+ studies, or the overlap between these areas of study who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Jeffrey Bennett] This is actually one of the hardest questions you have asked me, because I think advice is so contingent on the person, their situation, and the flows of the academic job market. I will say, if you are someone who studies the rhetoric of health and medicine, it is a great time to be in the field. It is an emerging part of the discipline with a great base of scholars doing really amazing work: Robin Jensen, Jenell Johnson, Kelly Happe, John Lynch. I love Karma Chávez’s new book The Borders of AIDS. There is so much remarkable work being done.

Over the last ten years, health humanities has exploded, and I think that this field is really strongly positioned to be a part of these conversations. At Vanderbilt, the second biggest major is Medicine, Health, and Society. I am in conversation with that department, though I am not a part of it, and I have found that dialogue very useful. I am also on the research board at Vanderbilt’s diabetes center. Of course, I am not as qualified to participate in some of the heavy scientific conversations they are having, but I can provide other kinds of insight. We have things to contribute to the public facing world of health and medicine, and I think it is important that we do so.

I also think it is a great time to be a queer scholar. Many of the barriers that have existed for a long time have started to crumble, at least a little bit. When I was at IU, there was nobody doing queer studies on the faculty. Now, there are lots of queer scholars at IU. Of course, things still are not great. There is still discrimination, and queer scholars face unique barriers. I do think it is a bit easier to be queer in the academy right now, as opposed to say 20 years ago, but I will admit that I say that from a standpoint of immense privilege as a tenured professor.

There is always an element of luck involved in the academic job market. Do you happen to do a thing an institution happens to be looking for at that particular moment? Do you happen to have people to write you letters who will be recognized by people at those particular institutions? There are often channels of power you have to navigate, and there is an element of chance to how well positioned you are to navigate them. My partner and I are both first-generation college students, and it took us a long time to end up at the same institution doing something we love. I do not know if any advice at the time could have prepared me for this journey.

Thank you, Dr. Bennett, for sharing your insight on the rhetoric of health and medicine, rhetorical discourses surrounding HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and COVID-19, and more!

Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

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.