0:07 - Introductions
Partial Transcript: Samantha Shires: Good afternoon. Today’s date is Thursday, November 13th, 2014. My name is Samantha Shires and I am sitting here with…
Shelli Fowler: Shelli Fowler
SHIRES: And we’re on the campus of Virginia Tech in the Graduate Life Center, and we’ll just start at the very beginning if you don’t mind just stating your name, your date of birth, and then talk to me a little bit about your upbringing and where you were born.
0:33 - Family background
1:28 - Southern Baptist in Southern California
Partial Transcript: SHIRES: Yeah, Southern Baptist and California, and you said in Southern California right?
SHIRES: That’s interesting.
FOWLER: I think you have to work hard to find a church…she did. And it was very odd because since religion wasn’t a thorough part of the upbringing our household, we already had this mix message. Every Sunday we were dropped off for Sunday school and then mom usually dropped off, dad came for Easter service and some holiday/Christmas service. And so you would go but your parents don’t go – which is another weird message.
5:43 - Teachers as Role Models
Partial Transcript: I think teachers. For me school became this - what household is not slightly dysfunctional? In a kind of dyfsunctional household and the stress of that when you’re little and you don’t understand – teachers- I love to read and luckily I think Mr. Thompson in elementary school and Ms. Leavey in elementary school, quickly somehow that mentoring put me on the path that
6:55 - Forming Identity
Partial Transcript: It was a natural progression for me, and the complete opposite for my family including my sibling. So I think as I began to grow as we do and kind of aware of our sexuality and sexual identity a little bit – I just knew that I had more fun hanging out, playing softball and baseball with the guys. And, that was just non normative.
12:19 - High School and Applying to College
Partial Transcript: Odd since I am first generation college and there was an emphasis on doing well in school, and as I said I had mentors that really helped that because my parents both were more “You do well by complying”’-- So, not really exploring your curiosity intellectually. There would be a bound. “well you shouldn’t- that’s a question you don’t need to worry about or answer.” So it was that kind of at home. Thank goodness for me that was disrupted very gently in school, so I think I became someone who was comfortable in school and kept going.
16:38 - Starting College
Partial Transcript: So I went, but I was 17. My parents paid for the first quarter. I lived in a dorm, which I had insisted on. Yay! But I was quick doing work study, I was like washing the dishes, in [Sprow?] Hall. I was in the cafeteria and you see the underbelly of students with more privileges than yourself. And I liked school, but it was huge.
17:55 - First Lesbian Experience
Partial Transcript: In that session, I decided to do all kinds of crazy things. I had my first lesbian- I wouldn’t say relationship- lesbian affair, with a woman on the basketball team. We’d gone out, and I was so… I think all the homophobia that we internalize, or I internalize, most of us in my position internalized at some point certainly wasn’t worked through, so I was both very engaged with Katie and also like, “I’m not that. Thank you, but I’m not that.”
18:30 - Working at In and Out Burger
20:18 - Falling in Love with a Person
Partial Transcript: I ended up at 17, David came over and I rode on the back of his Norton 850 on Pacific Coast Highway instead of going to class. Really, I tried to fall in love with him. I think, if I look back on it now, I was working really hard to do that. I also though, I’ve been married in my life, I also think there was a part of me, moreso younger than I think now, who I was falling in love with a person.
22:01 - Leaving College and Leaving Home
Partial Transcript: So I left school, disappointed everyone, I ended up being brought home temporarily. On my eighteenth birthday, they forced me to come home. And I was kind of hanging out with David and still had the dorm room, even though I wasn’t going to class. I pulled out of school, went back to the valley, and instead of living with him (cause they would have me arrested), was at home til my 18th birthday (which was at that point about a month and a half away). They went up to see my sister in Northern California, who had recently gotten married and moved up north. I packed two suitcases; clothes in one, and my books in another. And these suitcases, they didn’t have wheels back in the day, and left.
25:44 - First Lesbian Relationship
Partial Transcript: Ended up in what was my senior year, the last part of it, working in the English department office at San Jose State. It was there I met the first partner, the first woman that I fell in love with. And for me at that point, at age, what was I, 24 I think then? That was when I felt like I fell in love for the first time.
27:26 - Coming Out and Role Models
Partial Transcript: my parents I tried to tell, I told my sister and she got very homophobic initially and freaked out, and said she would still love me even though I was a sinner. I was like, “Oh, wow. That little Junior High group really stuck with you, didn’t it? wow okay.” I tried to tell my dad, and he said, “You know I love you, I don’t want to have this conversation.” I knew not to go near my mom.
28:29 - Grad School at the University of Texas at Austin
Partial Transcript: I applied to grad school. We would have ended up at Penn or Texas. We ended up at the University of Texas at Austin. That was a great journey for me because I started and ended up with my PhD there. It had great programs, great discovery of femme lit that was coming into a recognized discipline, and I learned a lot.
31:07 - Breaking Up and Finding Footing
Partial Transcript: Kate ended up breaking my heart. Doing the things that a betrayal that could have been for a straight couple. Which was so odd to me, because I was thinking, “No, wait! We’re queer, we’re lesbians, we can do this differently. We’re not stuck in the patriarchy in the same way!” Well, yeah, we just do the same betrayals.
35:20 - Meeting her Partner
Partial Transcript: Then, I met my partner who is now my partner. Who is twenty years my partner on December 2 this year. This is amazing to me, only because I was in three of four years of serial monogamy, it was a pattern. I was straight, queer, whatever. The notion of that kind of commitment with someone who you can love that deeply is just, you know, you like who they are when they walk in the world. There’s integrity, and just everything about them. I didn’t think it existed, and it’s not because I didn’t have it, I just didn’t think it existed. Finding that with Karen, my partner, was fabulous.
36:33 - Coming to Virginia Tech
38:42 - Homophobic Email
Partial Transcript: Karen received a homophobic email, and that same email went to four members of the BOV-- a very select four who were conservative and religious. The rector and three others. It was one of those awful homophobic emails. It was sent by a re-mailer, so although I think they tried, you could not easily trace it.
39:45 - Board of Visitors does not approve Spousal Hire
Partial Transcript: so the BOV goes into one of their sessions. They do a closed session for four hours, which is unprecedented. And apparently, there was much debate and discussion. There were nine personnel hires to be approved, and the Board of Visitors here just rubberstamps hires. So they approved all of them but mine. Karen, of course, would also be on that list. When I got a call from Karen, I think it was June. I was on a nine-month, so I had gone on a long bike ride and I had come in there was a message from Karen saying “Don’t leave the house I’m on the way home.”
43:54 - Fighting Back
Partial Transcript: The nice thing was that so much of the community came forward, and the very nice thing that happened, if it had just been our case as a non-federally- protected group, discrimination. Because AUP, Association of University Professors, the ones who I think have been working with poor Steve Salaita at this moment with another issue of academic freedom, they contacted us. We went up to DC, and they wanted us to sue.
44:59 - BOV's Changes to Virginia Tech Policies
Partial Transcript: What had happened is, under the leadership, at this point, of Rector John Rocovich, what he had done, and it was a good thing he did it, in this desire, somehow to change the landscape of Virginia Tech, without, in my opinion, the cooperation and understanding of the community for which he thought he spoke.
46:35 - Bringing Together a Bunch of Irritated, Angry, Upset Groups
Partial Transcript: This brought together, as one might imagine, a bunch of irritated, angry, upset groups. So a very fragile coalition, and coalitions are always fragile. By their nature, they come together and are a united front for a short amount of time. Because it's not like… the queer community here was not necessarily not racist.
48:46 - Policy Change
Partial Transcript: Positive: policy change, with inclusivity being something that was redefined, and became policy now. The Principles of Community was more of a gesture that hung on every wall in every room, but it didn’t have accountability attached to it. Those kinds of things are still in process and still changing. But I think we watched the constituents on the Board change. The way my contract was fixed changed, it rectified the situation.
51:35 - Being a Mentor
Partial Transcript: SHIRES: You talked earlier about when you were in your undergrad in Southern California and the mentors you had. Do you see yourself as a mentor now?
FOWLER: Yes, I do both consciously, and hopefully, by being true to myself and making good decisions at some points also in ways I had role models. I hope that I pay forward in that way.
53:20 - Social Life in Blacksburg
Partial Transcript: So I don’t know, except I do know from students with whom I interact, even for a college town, it doesn’t have as many opportunities to be of diversity across the whole spectrum. From just Spoken Word Night, that’s next to the night of the DJ spinning, it’s just a whole spectrum of opportunities as much as some students with whom I’ve interacted come from other places, not as small, this may look like a big town, but if they come from a more urban area, it’s odd to them.
54:47 - Leaving a Legacy
Interview with Shelli Fowler
Date of Interview: November 13, 2014Interviewer: Samantha Shires Place of Interveiw: Graduate Life Center, Virginia Tech Length: 56:30 Transcribers: Sydney J. Vaile and Samantha Shires
Samantha Shires: Good afternoon. Today's date is Thursday, November 13th, 2014.My name is Samantha Shires and I am sitting here with-
Shelli Fowler: Shelli Fowler
SHIRES: And we're on the campus of Virginia Tech in the Graduate Life Center,and we'll just start at the very beginning if you don't mind just stating your name, your date of birth, and then talk to me a little bit about your upbringing and where you were born.
FOWLER: Sure. My Name is Shelli Fowler and I was born on May 18th, 1959 in awhole other century at this point. I was born in Inglewood in Las Angles California and raised in the Southern California area, in the San Fernando Valley, mostly. And grew up with parents that had migrated from the mid part and south - so, some Missouri and Oklahoma. And they came to California in the early 50's and I have one sibling , my sister, and I grew up in California which was 1:00an interesting mix to have. My mother is southern, Southern Baptist and my father was Methodist if you had to name something. So, she had some southern and Midwest values and my dad was not structured in that same way. And California then had an impact so it was kind of an interesting mish-mash or mix.
SHIRES: Yeah, Southern Baptist and California, and you said in SouthernCalifornia right?
SHIRES: That's interesting.
FOWLER: I think you have to work hard to find a church, she did. And it was veryodd because since religion wasn't a thorough part of the upbringing our household, we already had this mix message. Every Sunday we were dropped off for Sunday school and then mom usually dropped off, dad came for Easter service and some holiday/Christmas service. And so you would go but your parents don't 2:00go, which is another weird message. And it had such weird rules, like you couldn't smoke or drink (Baptist), so there's a public sidewalk and they would go right off the curb onto the street to have a cigarette, and you're like, "wow, okay I'm leaning this word hypocritical. Wow. This is interesting." And so part of my early kind of definition of self was kind of against judgment and restrictions. You know being the help meat of a man and just really weird for me, really weird structures that didn't feel [pause] I didn't feel normal but I just was being eccentric being to them. Then as I grew up and started asking questions of myself and the world, it just didn't make sense to me.
SHIRES: So you've talked about asking questions of yourself and definition ofself, and then you've talked about the various backgrounds that your parents came from, so I'm curious as to when you were younger what did you identify with? Did you identify when Southern Baptist? Did you identify as Southern or 3:00Californian? What were those identities that you remember grappling with when you were younger?
FOWLER: That's a really good question, and I'm not sure when I was younger I wasanything but, aware of myself as a "tomboy" and how I'd fit in in some places and not in others, but without a kind of larger cultural critique or schema of what that meant. I think I had to grow into that. I think my older sister was 3 years older and she joined the, I think it was called something like 'The electric Light Company,' which is 'the light of Jesus.' And you meet Tuesday nights and all of this stuff. I think it was expected that I would. And I tried to go with her a couple of times when I was old enough and she was still involved, and it was just- it was like the worse thing of junior high where it was the 'in group' and the 'out group.' Except that it had religious texts and reading Bible verses and blah, blah, blah and playing/singing guitars and blah, blah, blah. And I thought it was so weird because the scripture I had 4:00read, in you know vacation bible school and Sunday services, was all about this open, non-judgmental, this way that was, wow, what a cool thing to aspire to.
But what I was doing then was this really weird social group that pretty muchpushed me away from, as I became as I said more critically engaged, the church as a safe place. I think that I'm spiritual so I wouldn't say that I was against God, but the organized religion thing just didn't work for me early on. And thank goodness I was in California because I often wonder who I would be if I grew up in small town Virginia. Now that I- you know the geopolitics here are so different. The geography - it's beautiful but it's just so different for me. I was lucky, probably to be in California.
SHIRES: Were you and your sister close?
FOWLER: Uh, sort of kind of, initially. But she was 3 years older which isjust old enough to not share too much of the same stuff at the same time. And 5:00then when she was dating my mom would say, "Take your little sister." And, I didn't want to go and of course she didn't want me there. So she would like drop me off somewhere and come back to pick me up, hopefully, in a timely manner [laughs]. So we were ok but we were very different people. We've become full circle closer as my father's passed, but as our mom continues to age, I think within the last 25 years, we've become a lot closer.
SHIRES: So who did you look up to or see as a role model when you were growingup at that time?
FOWLER: Yeah, that's a really good question. I think my father in certain ways,though it was very fraught. So I think I tried to hang on his strengths and probably idealized him a little bit when I was young. And I think teachers. For me school became this - what household is not slightly dysfunctional? In a kind of dysfunctional household and the stress of that when you're little and you don't understand - teachers - I love to read and luckily I think Mr. Thompson in 6:00elementary school and Ms. Leavey in elementary school, quickly somehow that mentoring put me on the path that - I'm first generation college, so my parents finished high school but, and they thought in the 'American Dream' we should go, but they had to idea what that meant and cost and all of those things. So, I'm an 8-year BA, put yourself through school. And school was a savior in a lot of ways.
SHIRES: So your teachers that you had. You talked about your family household,was there a point where you realized that you're starting to identify as more than a tomboy and had to talk to your parents? And what was that like? Or was that just sort of this natural progression that, and a conversation never took place?
FOWLER: That's another good question. It's kind of both ends. It was a naturalprogression for me, and the complete opposite for my family including my 7:00sibling. So I think as I began to grow as we do and kind of aware of our sexuality and sexual identity a little bit - I just knew that I had more fun hanging out, playing softball and baseball with the guys. And, that was just non normative. And there was this certain place that was all okay with my parents. My dad has always been really pretty "you are who you are and you should be who you are." But my mom was always, I think, a little worried about what the neighbors thought. And that then impacted how she would engage with us, regardless of her best intentions.
So there was this certain point, and I don't know, certainly by 10 or 11, that Iwas getting the message that it was not ok any longer to be a tomboy. So, way back before you all were around there were dress codes in even the LA city school system where you couldn't wear pants. And this was just changing; Title 9 was a part of my, not childhood, but youth. So this was just coming to a head, 8:00but you had to wear skirts and Saddle Oxfords and all these weird things. And I remember in junior high it shifted so you could wear pants, it still wasn't acceptable, but women, girls, students didn't have to wear a dress. And my mother was outraged that I didn't want white nylons. And you know, the outfit and lipstick, cause she waited. There was this thing when you turn a certain age in teenybopper land that you're supposed to transition to this. And I just said, "it just wasn't me!" You know, a few times my sister tried and was like, "Oh, you'll like it!" And I felt like I was in drag! Even though I didn't know what that meant. I was just like "it's just not me." So I began to get those messages.
And also there's a point at probably prepubescent boys where suddenly you arenot allowed to beat them in the race, throw the ball faster, shoot too many baskets and so then that was the first time I think - I was playing basketball and I remember Chucky Grandman who was one of my best friends. And he was so mad 9:00cause he was guarding me and I was, I wasn't tall or big or anything, but I was quick and I was just a little more coordinated than he would yet grow into be I'm sure. And so he was so mad and he said, "You're such a fucking dyke!" And I didn't know what that meant, but I knew that the way he said it, you know, the 'F' word was cool, we all used the 'F' word, but what was, "uh-uh I am not!" That's all I knew to say and I knew that was bad. And that's the point where it became, like there's this way you should not be that has to deal with your sexual identity, who you are, all of who you are.
SHIRES: Is that your first remembered experience of that word as well?
FOWLER: Yeah, yeah and I didn't even know what it meant. And we didn't haveWikipedia [laughs] so, I was just like I know that's not good.
SHIRES: Did you ask mom?
FOWLER: I think I asked my sister, I knew not to ask my mom. And the worse partabout that is that was the age at which my sister probably related to my mom, you know, as I said we're kind of dysfunctional, not open enough in the house and whatever, so. I think everyone was then worried I would become one. And was 10:00going to try to fix it, which was a really awkward, uncomfortable place to be in.
SHIRES: You referred to yourself as a tomboy-
SHIRES: Do you still feel like a tomboy? Do you feel like that word isappropriate to identify with or to describe you as?
FOWLER: I guess not anymore. For me it was, it was a very way of a girl childbeing inside your body, being comfortable with your physical body. Which I know through, not only because of terrible things we have with obesity in our American culture, but sedentary behaviors that play 90 minutes and all that stuff. What a fabulous thing it was more normative then we had recess. This was when you didn't have SOLs and teaching to the test. And, you had a kind of spectrum through k through 12 of the full range of music. You had music class, you had art class, and you had PE. So you got a sense on the playground of the 11:00space to discover your physical ability. And that's a great gift because you walk strong in a way. Even when you're- going to college I was small, I was never a big person. But you know you had this, 'don't mess with me' thing you can do because you feel like you know what your body does, you can trust your body, you're connected to your body. And I've had friends for whom that's not the case, they're just not physical. I don't know if they trace it back to not being encouraged to do sports when they were young or whatever.
But for me it's a youth term. I don't know if it still comes with the stigma itdid back in the late 60s that it did for me growing up, or if it's a cool thing. I guess it depends on the context and the family.
SHIRES: We have talked a lot about school and the impact of that, and now you'reat Virginia Tech and you work for a school. So, can you walk me through how you got here, your journey to Virginia Tech? I am sure it is very interesting so I am 12:00excited to hear it.
FOWLER: Well I think everyone's journey is interesting, truly. We probably don'tlisten enough to each other's stories in order to understand, and narrative's very powerful. So, yeah. Odd since I am first generation college and there was an emphasis on doing well in school, and as I said I had mentors that really helped that because my parents both were more "You do well by complying"-- So, not really exploring your curiosity intellectually. There would be a bound. "Well you shouldn't- that's a question you don't need to worry about or answer." So it was that kind of at home. Thank goodness for me that was disrupted very gently in school, so I think I became someone who was comfortable in school and kept going.
As I said, I graduated from high school when I was 17. I started at a young ageand then they did this mashing together of used to be 4A and 4B 5A, they mashed 13:00us all together. So they had all these tests you took and they either held you back or put you forward. And the hardest thing about it for me was that I was this little runt. I was like, I turned sideways and I disappeared. I was this little tiny, skinny, short thing and so then I'm younger than everybody. So when I graduated from high school at 17, it took me a long time to turn 16. [And People would say], "Hey can you drive tonight when we go?" And it's like "but I, No" "Can't you get the car?" "No, can't get the car because I don't even have a- I'm not old enough." So it was just that kind of trauma.
I think I always felt outsider in ways that at the moment, I'm sure wereuncomfortable, I don't remember ever being really traumatized by them. I kept a series of - of course, I was going to be a writer so I had a series of, from age 8 on these notebooks and stories and what not. So maybe that was an outlet. Cause I don't remember having a lot of social trauma, but always feeling like an 14:00outsider and didn't fit in. At some point that became a strength. Like, the norm was kind of boring, and I felt really delighted that I wasn't normal in every way, that I had to fight to get out of that.
SHIRES: It drove you a little bit.
FOWLER: Yeah. So, school became something, even though at 17 I - My sister had insome ways disappointed my parents by being in love with the high school football player, quarterback, who was a year younger than she. So she graduated, and instead of going off to college, which they were adamant we should do, went to a local community college to stay close to Mike. Of course it didn't go anywhere, but she ended up on a different track. So then the both pressure and opportunity came to me.
It was my first real discovery of the impact of class status. My parents, my dadhad a white-collar job they had inched their way into, with a lot of debt, into 15:00the lower part of the middle class. I wasn't conscious of that, really, except that everyone gets Keds, and you get the like, JC Penny knock offs, and you don't know why, but, aside from those kinds of details, I wasn't aware. College was the first time I was aware.
So, in applying to places, I got into Berkeley and UCLA, and Reed, andNorthwestern and I wanted to leave California because I was just that kind of independent person, and as I said, slightly dysfunctional family I just wanted to go away and explore college. So, didn't. They couldn't afford out of state, they didn't probably know that, but when you're a young, immature 16-17 year old, and you've been told "we'll send you where you want to go, you want to go to college" and then they can't, and at that point it wasn't even the kind of loan system we have now. They didn't have the plus loans where you can supplement, you had to have financial aid, and it was very difficult to do. Of 16:00course, state institutions in California were very cheap back then too. Our taxes paid for, if you were in the CSU or UC system.
I wanted to go to Berkeley, which would have been Northern California. And mymother had Peoples Park and sex, drugs and rock and roll happened at Berkeley, and of course it didn't happen at UCLA, so I would have to go there, and it was just over the hill. And I'd been, I grew up, in parts of LA and what we did in high school was go to the Roxy Theater and do things, all the movies. Everything's there, so that's not appealing, like coming from a small place in California, going and living there.
So I went, but I was 17. My parents paid for the first quarter. I lived in adorm, which I had insisted on. Yay! But I was quick doing work study, I was like washing the dishes, in [Sprow?] Hall. I was in the cafeteria and you see the underbelly of students with more privileges than yourself. And I liked school, but it was huge. And, I was only 17, I was madly in love then with a boy thing 17:00back in the valley. And so, at that point, I wasn't focused on school and they had a financial crisis in the family, so they didn't pay for the second quarter. And all those little savings from all your jobs you had when you were mowing lawns and babysitting all the way up was depleted with one quarter, actually two quarters. And so what I did, because I was, I don't know, having my dharmabum rebel phase, was I wasn't engaged in the intellectual, I was exploring being almost an adult--not really an adult, but you think you are at that age-- and quit going to class, and didn't drop any courses and they give you Fs, which is very rude, [laughter], and so my first quarter was fine, and then I ended on probation at the end of the Spring with a 1.2 GPA.
In that session, I decided to do all kinds of crazy things. I had my firstlesbian- I wouldn't say relationship- lesbian affair, with a woman on the 18:00basketball team. We'd gone out, and I was so- I think all the homophobia that we internalize, or I internalize, most of us in my position internalized at some point certainly wasn't worked through, so I was both very engaged with Katie and also like, "I'm not that. Thank you, but I'm not that." And so, immediately, I think as some unconscious compensation, I was one of the first employees at an In and Out Burger that first came to the Valley. I don't know if you have ever had an In and Out burger. Store number 18, way back in the day.
SHIRES: Is there an employee of the month photo on the wall somewhere?
FOWLER: I don't know if there's a photo on the wall, I am the first, fourth man,ever female, of In and Out Burger, which is like, for a long time when I was in California, it was like my claim to fame.
SHIRES: So you are probably on In and Out's Wikipedia somewhere.
FOWLER: I might be. David [Asente?] is someone who knows that history. Most19:00people in Ritchie Snyder's family have died, who owned it. A lot of the general managers I worked for are now retired. That also empowered me in ways, because that was before I went off to college. It's where I met David, and he was a very good friend, and it's also because I went and worked so hard there. You're with guys, in a box, it's about this big. It was a drive through version before they had all the walk-ins, and I learned so much about swearing like a sailor. I had never heard before. And your behavior as a girl, because there were two of us that were working in 1974 there, and you either cried when they did all of this "cheesecake in the front lane" kind of thing and teasing they would do, or, and that wasn't my mode, crying. I would be like "Woah, beefcake in the back lane, Lisa come check this out, oh my god, look at the abs he doesn't have a 20:00shirt on." You know, I didn't care that I wasn't attracted to the person, and you had to fight back. Actually our journeys make us who we are. It was a good thing for me because I don't know how long it would have taken, probably much longer, for my upbringing.
I ended up at 17, David came over and I rode on the back of his Norton 850 onPacific Coast Highway instead of going to class. Really, I tried to fall in love with him. I think, if I look back on it now, I was working really hard to do that. I also though, I've been married in my life, I also think there was a part of me, moreso younger than I think now, who I was falling in love with a person. So, it could be male or female, even though I think I preferred females more. But it really, if the person was unique, it wasn't like I wasn't attracted at all to a physical body. I also think ever since I was a little wingnut growing up in relationships, love relationships with others, I don't really separate the 21:00person, inside is what's appealing instead of the external, and then you try to like them. I just, didn't go that route. Because I never felt like those externals anyone looked at on me, so it was easy to probably not do that.
Anyhoo- wow, I'm getting off track. You wanted tangents; there are some tangentsfor you. I feel like this is like - do I have to write a check? Like, are you guys licensed?' [laughter].
So I ended up leaving school, and my parents found out that I had left school,not because I told them, because I knew on some level I would disappoint my father in ways I wasn't ready to deal with and my mother was so judgmental, oh my, being not married and being in any kind of relationship with anyone, was a sin against God. So you can imagine how well this relationship had gone on [laughter]. It's never worked itself out.
So I left school, disappointed everyone, I ended up being brought home22:00temporarily. On my eighteenth birthday, they forced me to come home. And I was kind of hanging out with David and still had the dorm room, even though I wasn't going to class. I pulled out of school, went back to the valley, and instead of living with him (cause they would have me arrested), was at home til my 18th birthday (which was at that point about a month and a half away). They went up to see my sister in Northern California, who had recently gotten married and moved up north. I packed two suitcases; clothes in one, and my books in another. And these suitcases, they didn't have wheels back in the day, and left.
And so, moved out at 18 never to return to home. Really fraught- about fouryears of really not engaging with parents. More dysfunction, because it's not like they just said "we're not talking to you" and it was always split, it was this horrible drama back and forth of a family that probably doesn't know how to openly deal with someone who is different. So just disrupting the status quo. 23:00
I ended up going to school on my own, thank goodness the CSU system, when I wentback that fall, it was like 75 bucks a semester and books. So, as a California resident, you could go to school, I worked full time and went to school like 12-16 units full time. And would withdraw when the waitress job, the hours changed I had to go over here, change something else. So it took me 8 years. I can't tell you why I stuck with that, except, some part of me was probably drawn to the teaching and learning part, and certainly as a learner. And, when I looked around, aside from a brief stint I did in corporate before going back to grad school, it just didn't engage me. I didn't feel my fit. You know, Ken Robbins is talking about being in you element. What was I supposed to be doing? It wasn't that.
This gets meshed with my sexuality and discovery, because I think I pretty much24:00put on hold. I was in so much distancing from my family just from having- After I was 18, I lived with David, much to their chagrin. Trauma. And so that alone was bad, and because I was in a relationship, I was just in denial about other parts of my sexuality. I ended up, through that break up, and then marrying a musician, briefly, and I think that marriage was about so that I could have this calm time. That didn't last long, of course, because, you know, I wasn't where I was supposed to be. clearly.
And I ended up moving after that divorce. I was 21 or 22; so I did all of thisin a jam-packed little period. Too young to be doing any of it, no doubt. But I moved up to San Jose State to finish up in the north. My sister lived in northern California. So I stayed with her for a couple of weeks, found a job and 25:00an apartment, and got back in school with all of those credits that transferred because of CSU, yay! In that day, it was easy to do, and kept back on the track as an English major.
And, it was then that, solo, I probably had that place you have to explore whoyou are again with a kind of reflection that I had just put off. And was again thriving in school, and not finding the work world anything but taxing. And began to think, I could teach - what a great gig! You get paid to talk about books with people. Wow! And first [I] probably would have done K through 12 certification. Ended up in what was my senior year, the last part of it, working in the English department office at San Jose State.
It was there I met the first partner, the first woman that I fell in love with.And for me at that point, at age, what was I, 24 I think then? That was when I 26:00felt like I fell in love for the first time. So for me, even though I think my continuum is very Jungian about who I can love, that felt like I'd come home in a certain way. And so, she was in her Masters, I'd just finished up my undergraduate bachelor's degree. I'd been typesetting at Runner's World on the night shift, going to day classes, which was such a treat, instead of all night classes. And switched that, quit finally working the night shift and worked in the English Department office full time.
And that's when I discovered graduate school. She was a Masters degree student.And I was like, "I'm First Generation College." Getting the bachelor's was like ahhh. And I was taking that little time off to go to school, what are you going to do? Through her I thought, "Oh. Graduate school, what's that? Maybe I can do that." She was not first generation college; she was finishing a Masters and 27:00applying to PhD programs. Just by luck, and a simple twist of fate, rather than start there - if I hadn't met her I might have ended up in the Masters program, finished an MA, gone to teach at a community college, which at that point, you could do as a career and probably get tenure without a doctorate.
Instead, she's applying nationally, and so, I started applying nationally. Nowall of this is, again- my parents I tried to tell, I told my sister and she got very homophobic initially and freaked out, and said she would still love me even though I was a sinner. I was like, "Oh, wow. That little Junior High group really stuck with you, didn't it? wow okay." I tried to tell my dad, and he said, "You know I love you, I don't want to have this conversation." I knew not to go near my mom.
Coming out was not something except [what] I did to myself. I tried with myfamily. Built, what queers often do, an alternative family. In San Jose, it's is near San Francisco, I had two. I had a professor who was an out lesbian and she 28:00had a partner on campus and one of the reasons why I'm here doing this is because what a fabulous role model [she was] to me. When no one was going to tell me that was okay. My family never said "you should explore who you are." None of that. So you get to see this very smart, very happy, very centered and more normal than my family when I compare it, couple doing what they're supposed to do as academics.
So that probably made it possible and I applied to grad school. We would haveended up at Penn or Texas. We ended up at the University of Texas at Austin. That was a great journey for me because I started and ended up with my PhD there. It had great programs, great discovery of femme lit that was coming into a recognized discipline, and I learned a lot. It helped being queer, because the ways in which you're othered as being queer; even though I have race privilege and all kinds of other things that make me not attentive to difference and 29:00social stratification issues enough, that really helped me, through great mentoring I had there, understand to be a white academic in an Ethnic Lit field, and what kind of responsibility that brought. You weren't just doing John Dunn, or Shakespeare, or Milton. It should be the same because as a white girl in the 20th century, what in the heck would I know about Milton? But culturally, that all gets eroded because of racial difference.
And too many people I watched as colleagues were very upset when students ofcolor at UT Austin when we taught would be upset that they were their Ethnic Lit teacher. Because in a sea of whiteness, that's who I should get for Chicano Lit or Chicana or Latino, and it makes sense. If you understand race politics in academe or US culture, you can't take that personally. You have to understand, you have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. 30:00
I also had the benefit of watching colleagues-- a diverse race and group ofcolleagues--in Ethnic Lit as a grad student and figured that out. Which helped a lot, and as I said, good mentoring, even when [Eva Luviano?] was my Diss Chair, she was fabulous to push me further and all of that. Again, being queer, I was out as a graduate student, but not to my family. Out on Fridays, Yam Queen, softball, the whole American Studies, History and English departments. We 'owned' the softball field Friday nights in Austin. Austin was a great city back then. It was pre-Bush; Richards was the governor. Fabulous. Michael Dell had come in computers and made it big. It was like this fabulous overgrown Berkeley in the middle of Austin. And it took a day to drive to any border, and you didn't want to leave. You should just stay in Austin, cause, I've driven out there, and it was a lot scarier than Austin was then.
So that was a fabulous time, what a nice gift of luck to end up in that31:00community. I also went through in that point-- Kate ended up breaking my heart. Doing the things that a betrayal that could have been for a straight couple. Which was so odd to me, because I was thinking, "No, wait! We're queer, we're lesbians, we can do this differently. We're not stuck in the patriarchy in the same way!" Well, yeah, we just do the same betrayals.
So it was very hurtful, and also great because since I had followed Kate, she'stwo years older, and I followed her to grad school, and she was not first gen, there were so many ways that I relied on her too much, I guess. It was a great, ultimately, time to find my own footing, and who I was as an academic. And I had this crisis point where I thought I'll go drive a UPS truck. They make more than an English professor does, and who wants to write this dissertation anyway? Inside academia you get a little insulated in ways that you are being institutional. I had a colleague in grad school that said "When you are an 32:00academe, you are institutionalized. You don't have a white jackets, but it is the same kind of, yeah." She also used to say it's like a second adolescence. It's like you're thirteen, you know enough where you want to be on your own and do whatever, but you have this structure that says 'Not yet youngster.'
I think it kept me sane to know I could go drive a UPS truck or FedEx truck. Andthat's what helped me as a first gen know I don't have to do this, and you people are kind of messed up too, and I'm not buying into everything here. But I could focus on the work, so that was fabulous. I became convinced in that period of time that what I was supposed to do was be a teacher, an academic, and I didn't think I would put up with the k12 restrictions, even at that point. That's pre-teaching-to-the-test craziness, pre-Margaret Spellings Commission craziness. And I also thought that there wasn't enough chance for scholarship in 33:00the way that my research informs my teaching and vice versa. I'm not sure that I could keep that up on the k12 mode.
So I jumped in, and was lucky to get a job. Again, probably timing and the yearI came out, I don't mean came out sexually, I mean as a PhD candidate, that there was a huge need for my area. I had about 26 interviews in MLA, and ended up with three job offers and navigating what I should do and how exciting. It's such a not-reality now, academic job market, economic market period. But, I was hired at Washington State University as a PWI. It was a small town, smaller than Blacksburg/Christiansburg, little Pullman, and isolated by the Cascades from Seattle, Spokane's up the road. Indigo girls played there once. I mean you don't 34:00get any - It's just crazy.
So I thought, I've grown up in big cities, this is a way- you're not run goingto run from yourself on this one. I'm going solo. I had kind of had a relationship post-Kate, but was not going to be committed so I could have my career. I went solo, and again, really nice opportunity, because young professional, tenure-track, I needed to focus on that anyway. It's a crazy busy time. You can't hide from yourself. It wasn't Austin. There wasn't Sixth Street to be like "Nah, I'm not gonna write that chapter, I'm going to go down to Sixth Street and go to Antone's and listen to Jazz." No, can't do that.
So I really had another growth period, and period, for me, of acceptance.Because see, my family is still not-- my sister has come around and loves me in spite of myself, so I have some relationship there, but my parents don't know. And so, so much of my personal life was not-- I didn't bring Kate home when I was 4 years with her to Christmas. No holiday when I went home, her family was fine. I was their daughter-in-law, but not in mine. So, that was another nice 35:00period to really find my center and who I was and get comfortable with that.
I ended up through one relationship that wasn't meant to be, a female. Then, Imet my partner who is now my partner. Who is twenty years my partner on December 2 this year. This is amazing to me, only because I was in three of four years of serial monogamy, it was a pattern. I was straight, queer, whatever. The notion of that kind of commitment with someone who you can love that deeply is just, you know, you like who they are when they walk in the world. There's integrity, and just everything about them. I didn't think it existed, and it's not because I didn't have it, I just didn't think it existed. Finding that with Karen, my partner, was fabulous.
I got tenure there, I was a joint appointment in Ethnic Studies and English, and36:00I directed American studies for a while and really had rich and robust colleagues and grad students that I worked with. I really liked it there aside that it was a little small with wheat fields in Washington State. And then, Karen, in 2001 I guess, she was wanting to leave the grad school because a president retired and a new president came in, with whom, she did not share any kind of ideological or academic plan for the future. So, she decided to look and ended up here in 2002 with a job offer at Virginia Tech as Vice President for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School. And I said, okay. When she got the offer she asked, Marc McNamee was one year in as the provost. He was from UC Davis, might have something to do with it, I don't know, and he said 37:00"What can we do to get you here?" at that point of negotiation. And she said "I do have a dual career couple policy. I have a partner who is also an academic. He said yes we do, which, actually, they had kind of a de facto process for straight, white, Christian, and married. You couldn't even be - you had to have that thing there to be legally able to. It was a de facto policy exercised willy nilly rather than a real policy.
He said yes, and he said "what does your partner do?" And she said "she is anassociate professor in English and Ethnic Studies." And he said "Great, have her send me her CV." There was not really an Ethnic Studies department; there was I think, it might have been called Africana Black Studies, it wasn't in SOE yet. There was an English Department. I came out to interview. Karen had signed a 38:00contract; I had an offer to be an associate prof. He was funding a line to the college as an accommodation. I insisted that I go meet these colleagues and see if it's a fit for them and for me. They look at my tenure materials and I interview here for a couple of days. On that trip, we were looking for houses. They voted on my tenure and said "Yes, we would like her to join us." We buy a house. The Board of Visitors approves all personnel hires. Their next meeting was June in 2002.
In the interim, Karen received a homophobic email, and that same email went tofour members of the BOV-- a very select four who were conservative and religious. The rector and three others. It was one of those awful homophobic emails. It was sent by a re-mailer, so although I think they tried, you could 39:00not easily trace it. It said-- I forget his last name--Danny-- the guy who was killed in 2000 at the park in Roanoke. I forget his last name, but Danny was, I believe, his first name. It sent a little link to that story and said that this would happen to you if you come here. We didn't take it seriously, and Karen is wiser than I; I think I got more upset about it than she did. She blew it off. She doesn't invest energy in "that's ridiculous, I'm not empowering it by investing energy."
Well, we didn't know at that point that it had been sent to the BOV, so the BOVgoes into one of their sessions. They do a closed session for four hours, which is unprecedented. And apparently, there was much debate and discussion. There were nine personnel hires to be approved, and the Board of Visitors here just 40:00rubberstamps hires. So they approved all of them but mine. Karen, of course, would also be on that list. When I got a call from Karen, I think it was June. I was on a nine-month, so I had gone on a long bike ride and I had come in there was a message from Karen saying "Don't leave the house I'm on the way home." I was like oh my God, what's happened? Lucinda Roy in the English Department Chair at that point called me very upset. So I'm starting to hear from her. She's crying and she's saying "I can't believe they've done this." I was like, "Did what? What's going on?"
Karen gets home and she tells me what has happened, and I have to admit, that myfirst response was "WTF? We like our community; I love my academic colleagues here, why are we going to the South?" She rightly so said "they've just drawn a line in the sand, and we have to now"-- and she'd already had a response from the provost, someone who's no longer here named Megan [Bollerin?] in the Department 41:00of Education was one of the immediate people in Women's Studies who contacted us and said "We've just heard, this is not Virginia Tech." So it wasn't like solo we decided to march in, we had this immediate support. And a really fabulous moment in Virginia Tech's history, because that allowed-- I think it was one of those catalysts, who knew?-- that could help the university community push Virginia Tech forward into the 21st century (though we were already in the 21st century) just, really move forward in ways, certainly its community, all of it is community, aside from a very small, powerful minority, wanted it to.
So she said we have to go, and I said, "you're right. We have to walk our talk."You can't have diversity as one of the things you do in academe, and then be like, "yeah, not doing that." And we also had the privilege to do it. She had her job. I was granted from my college a year leave without pay from my tenure so I 42:00could go back. And when we came, yeah we had this house we just bought, but I'm like "yeah, we are not staying here. We will do what we're going to do, and then we will either go back or move on to something else." Because, really? It was a really interesting moment for me because it was one of those things where Karen and I were about ten years in, and either that breaks you up, because it's such a rupture to your professional, personal life, or it makes you solid as a rock. And I guess with an anniversary coming up, thank goodness it really solidified our respect for each other professionally and personally on all kinds of levels.
We came and it was a fabulous moment, ultimately. It was, I'm sure, hard onKaren because she's having to work as a colleague on the upper admin level not 43:00knowing who had said "yeah we don't want 'those kind' here" and who was supportive. Now, many of her colleagues would say directly that they were outraged, but there was also an administrator, who will remain nameless, who used that as rhetoric and, I think, would have been happy if she left.
There was a Southern spin on it for me that was cultural. California people weremostly live and let live, or tell you to the face. You just have a sense where things are. Here, people will smile at you and say it was a pleasure to meet you, and then turn around and say [whispers] "how come they're in here?" It took me a while to figure that out, because I would kind of go on the hand shake first and then realize, ok, maybe not.
But, the nice thing was that so much of the community came forward, and the verynice thing that happened, if it had just been our case as a non-federally- 44:00protected group, discrimination. Because AUP, Association of University Professors, the ones who I think have been working with poor Steve Salaita at this moment with another issue of academic freedom, they contacted us. We went up to DC, and they wanted us to sue. Not on discrimination, because we're not a federally protected group, but that it was breech of contract. I had a contract signed, I had an office in Shanks, I had a teaching schedule, and I had equipment ordered-- all of that had been done. So we held off on that because the community was working with us, if you do that you have to leave. And then you're this "we will stand up for truth, justice, and the American way." And it should be reputation. You're really going to be an activist first? We were put in that position rather unintentionally. That just felt a little too all about us in ways we weren't comfortable, and because of the community.
What had happened is, under the leadership, at this point, of Rector John45:00Rocovich, what he had done, and it was a good thing he did it, in this desire, somehow to change the landscape of Virginia Tech, without, in my opinion, the cooperation and understanding of the community for which he thought he spoke. They decided that affirmative action was no longer necessary in any admissions policy. It was a level playing field. There would be no way-- there was not a quota system. There hasn't been, except when Reagan instituted, affirmative action, but whatever. There is a complex math that you get points for all of the stuff you do. So he said race could not be a factor in that.
They had a speaker on campus that previous spring who was anti-logging. It wasan environmental activist that had come, and that was irritating to one of the 46:00BOV group who was a logging person, his millions were made that way, I don't know. So, you couldn't have anyone come to campus to speak until the Board approved it. So that became a rule. They took out sexual orientation, which was in a policy under McComas , when it had been approved. It wasn't something that people knew but when you looked in the record, indeed, the Virginia Tech anti-discrimination policy included a sexual orientation-- at that point, the phrase was in there. They removed that.
This brought together, as one might imagine, a bunch of irritated, angry, upsetgroups. So a very fragile coalition, and coalitions are always fragile. By their nature, they come together and are a united front for a short amount of time. Because it's not like the queer community here was not necessarily not racist. The Black Student Alliance wasn't necessarily open to its queer membership. It's 47:00not like it was some wonderful, evolved group, but the forces came together. The local and regional and national NAACP got involved, it became this wonderful event where Virginia Tech, according to people who were here before us, said, "my goodness, I haven't seen this much activism since there was an anti-Vietnam War rally before it was shut down."
It was very wonderful to be a part of and watch members across a whole spectrumof the Virginia Tech community find their voice about what they wanted the institution to be. And that was just amazing, and it is why we are still here. Because, that moment was successful, it didn't seem posturing it really became more inclusive. The initial Principles of Community was done in 2005. It became this dual career couple hires is an official policy. You can come up to HR when 48:00you are applying to find out how to explore opportunities for a partner, no matter if you are same sex, married, or not married, straight, doesn't matter, dual career.
SHIRES: Did you realize in the moment that was going to have such an impact,that what you were fighting for was going to cause this sort of snowball effect?
FOWLER: No. In fact, if you had asked me in 2002, I would have thought this wasa short stay. And I don't know where Virginia Tech will go after us, but we're going to do what we can here with this community, and we won't be here.
SHIRES: What are the major changes that you have seen? Positive and/or negativesince you guys fought that fight.
FOWLER: Positive: policy change, with inclusivity being something that wasredefined, and became policy now. The Principles of Community was more of a gesture that hung on every wall in every room, but it didn't have accountability 49:00attached to it. Those kinds of things are still in process and still changing. But I think we watched the constituents on the Board change. The way my contract was fixed changed, it rectified the situation. It was a lot of work on campus, and strategizing. And, everyone in my discipline started writing. MLA was sending letters to Governor Warner, President Steger, and John Rocovich, as BOV rector. They were inundated. There was something I think that Megan Boller started called Justice for Tech. It was a Gmail. People would send us stuff; she would bring me packets. She would be like, "Look! I'm taking these and we're mailing the paper versions too!"
So there was this moment where at Tech, Chronicle of Higher Education came outand interviewed and it was this big thing is Tech going to move forward or not? I am sure there are faculty members on the faculty Senate, which passed a resolution in '03, that my tenure case-- you cannot have board members that are 50:00not faculty members overturning a faculty decision [whispers] like tenure appointment, you can't do that. I'm sure some of them, if you ask them on the street, or interviewed them, they would be homophobic. But you do not overturn a faculty decision.
All of those factors came together and that made positive. That I think has beenleverage. We had good hires. I am not a kind of data analytics person who would say that there's a cause and effect relationship between that moment and President Tim Sands. But we have dual career couple hire at the head of the home. We have Dr. President Timothy Sands, and Dr. Laura Sands. Oh my goodness! Their platform, their ways in which they engage, President Sands has already made a change on diversity. At so many institutions, diversity and Office of Diversity becomes like a letterhead on stationary, and it's not empowered to do 51:00real change. That's been true here at moments; it is not unique at Tech. I think there was a movement in review before he got here, and he very quickly looked at that as something he values. So he made that change, as a brand new in the door president. That's hope. I think that change is not one step and off we go! There are steps back. At this place in my twelve years has changed tremendously.
SHIRES: You talked earlier about when you were in your undergrad in SouthernCalifornia and the mentors you had. Do you see yourself as a mentor now?
FOWLER: Yes, I do both consciously, and hopefully, by being true to myself andmaking good decisions at some points also in ways I had role models. I hope that I pay forward in that way. Mentoring is something we should do more of in academe. Mentoring is not 'there is a knowledge expert who is a mentor and 52:00mentees are just like empty vessels that you tell what to do.' It's really a kind of bi-directional process where undergraduates mentor me.
I taught undergraduates in the Fall of 2012 in a living learning community andI'm in contact with a handful of them now. I did a DIGS Community Student Group with some last year. It was fabulous, I learned so much from them. The graduate students both formally on dissertation committees, and informally. That process is very rewarding. God, we need more of that.
SHIRES: Can you speak briefly on the social life in Austin? What's the sociallife in Blacksburg like for you? Do you feel like there needs to be improvements? Do you like it?
FOWLER: [Laughs] Wow, that's a very good question and I'm certainly not anexpert on that. I look at a distance as someone who is pretty ensconced in a 53:00relationship, and we both work a lot. And we're both more - you wouldn't know this from this interview-- but private and with each other than we are social beings that need to go out all the time. So I don't know, except I do know from students with whom I interact, even for a college town, it doesn't have as many opportunities to be of diversity across the whole spectrum. From just Spoken Word Night, that's next to the night of the DJ spinning, it's just a whole spectrum of opportunities as much as some students with whom I've interacted come from other places, not as small, this may look like a big town, but if they come from a more urban area, it's odd to them. So you have student groups, there's a lot of places where you can find a niche, and yet I'm not sure if I 54:00came here as an undergraduate that I would accept my luck and bump into the opportunities that helped me explore.
SHIRES: I know it's hard to cover a lifespan in such a short amount of time, butis there anything you would like to add or wish I would have asked? That you just want to end on? Is there a legacy that you want to leave behind at Tech? I mean you already have, whether you realize it or not, but-
FOWLER: That's a great question. I've talked a lot so you are a greatinterviewer. What legacy? I hope that I can individually continue to pay it forward and learn. The thing I always hated most on any decade in my life was where you hit that stagnant stale 'That's not the way we do it here,' or, 'When 55:00I was your age we...'
SHIRES: That uphill in the snow both ways kind of thing
FOWLER: Yeah I am a glass half full. Paula Ferry is someone who impacts the workthat I do. It's about a kind of critically engaged optimism that history, life, society is not determined for you. You're a change agent. So you either find ways to accept that agency, and Margaret Mead, a small handful can make a change and that's what you do at various opportunities. And you stay with that. The worse thing I fear is 'Back in the day when...' and then I'm some other person. We change, but if it was a contradiction, that's what I fear most. So my legacy 56:00hopefully will be to keep being. If I can as an academic, my work is to certainly keep learning, but also to find ways to open the space for others--learners, colleagues, everybody-- to be empowered to be on their journey. Because I don't think we do that well enough in academia, and we should. That's what our rhetoric says we do, but...
SHIRES: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We appreciate it!