In 2009, a group of faculty and staff launched UC Berkeley’s first endowed fund to support graduate students in LGBT-related research in any field.
The Philip Brett LGBT Studies Fellowship honors the memory of Philip Brett, an eminent music scholar who taught at Berkeley from 1966 to 1991 and is considered a pioneer of lesbian and gay musicology. One of Brett’s students, Davitt Moroney, now a professor of music and the university organist, initiated the grassroots effort behind the fellowship. Many faculty, staff, alumni and students have since contributed to building the small endowment.
Sharon Page-Medrich, an administrator in the Graduate Division, says the Berkeley fellowship demonstrates the campus’s dedication to supporting LGBT issues. “This fellowship sends the message that this research is legitimate and part of our campus commitment to equity and inclusion,” she says.
What better time than National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month to celebrate the work of the fellowship’s three recipients since the program began?
This year, anthropology Ph.D. student Shakthi Nataraj received the Brett fellowship to investigate how political tensions have led to the proliferation of new notions of sexual identity in the state of Tamil Nadu in India.
Nataraj grew up in Chennai in India, and spent time around nonprofits that focused in HIV and gender issues because of the work her mother did. As Nataraj grew older, she reconnected with the LGBT community in Chennai. Gradually, gender and sexuality rights became her work, and pursuing a Ph.D. in the field offers an alternate way to engage in it.
Attending Berkeley, she says, has allowed her to explore her interests and to meet a cross-section of students who have taught her about issues of gender, sexuality and race in the American context.
“It’s the dual belonging to the worlds of academia and non-academia that is both the biggest challenge and the most rewarding part of this whole experience,” she says.
It is from this background that Nataraj approaches her LGBT research in Tamil Nadu. As part of her research, she is examining how Indian courts struggle to reconcile notions of “Indian culture” with transnational human rights commitments.
For example, in December 2013, India’s Supreme Court re-introduced a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexual intercourse and then, just months later, issued a judgment affirming transgender identity and rights.
Indian members of the LGBT communities, she says, are “paradoxically hailed as both rights-bearing consumers and atavistic criminals.”
Darren Arquero received the fellowship in 2013-14 to support his Ph.D. research in ethnic studies, examining the experiences of queer Filipinos living in diaspora in the United States who adhere to norms of Roman Catholicism.
Arquero’s project explores how submission to the faith — “known to hold wavering views on homosexuality as a sign of a depraved nature” — complicates many queer Filipinos’ understanding of the relationship between race, religion and sexuality.
Graduate seminars at Berkeley, he says, pushed the boundaries of his research and encouraged him to look at “the way religion and sexuality travel across time and space, which are connected to histories of colonialism and imperialism between the United States and the Philippines.”
As a son of immigrants from the Philippines, a country where 80 percent of the population identify as Roman Catholic, Arquero began to notice “how much religious imagery pervaded my daily life, from the Last Supper painting at every Filipino gathering to rosary sessions to attending Sunday mass… to the point that being Filipino was associated with being Catholic.”
LGBT leaders on a national scale, he says, tend to focus on those with privilege and power, and he sees ethnic studies as a “lifeline to shed light on the subjectivities of those who are ignored in mainstream LGBT histories.”
In 2012-13, the inaugural Philip Brett fellowship went to Chris Atwood to support his LGBT research in Italian studies.
He says Berkeley’s interdisciplinary environment “actively nourished my twinned interests in LGBT studies and Italian literature” and allowed him to deepen his understanding of gay and lesbian identities through courses in departments such as English, art history and women and gender studies.
In focusing on Italy, he aimed to challenge the tendency in LGBT studies to discuss gay and lesbian history with reference only to the United States.
After speaking with many of his gay and lesbian friends in Italy, Atwood was struck by their longing for the past, which he found contradicted the notion in the United States that LGBT people are “on the right side of history” and that things will keep getting better.
“This longing for the past’s queer difference shows us that the stories told about sexuality vary dramatically from place to place and time to time,” says Atwood. “The idea of that there’s a universal gay story — ‘our’ history” — is not shared outside of the United States.”
Atwood rejects the idea that there is such a thing as “Western sexuality” — the belief that sexuality is organized in terms of gay versus straight throughout the West — and that no one story, let alone a uniform history of sexuality, is found in the United States.
To make a gift to to the fellowship or to contribute via automatic payroll deduction, go to the Philip Brett LGBT fund page.