Kaila Adia Story, PhD
What does the word queer mean to you?
To me, Queer means not letting society, institutions, friends or loved ones define who you are, or you hope to be. It means defining yourself, for yourself. It means living freely, unapologetically and boldly. It means feeling so emboldened within your queer self that you free others. That you challenge others. It means that your queer presence frees those around you. It means working from your own center and letting others know and see that you are force of freedom and light who would rather live truthfully than silenced, stifled and afraid.
How do you identify?
I identify as Black Feminist Lesbian Femme. A Black and Queer sexual identity and gender performance rooted in embodying a resistive Black femininity. It is one that transcends and challenges White supremacist, homo-normative, and patriarchal ideas of femininity and queerness as White. My identity also to me, challenges the hetero-patriarchal assertion that power is innate to manhood, maleness and/or masculinity.
Where are you originally from? And Explain how was it moving to/living in Kentucky?
I’m originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a great experience to grow up in Ann Arbor. I left when I was 18 to pursue my bachelors at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. After completing my B.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies, I moved to Philadelphia, PA to attend graduate school at Temple University. After receiving my M.A. in African American Studies and my PhD in African American Studies with a graduate certificate in Women’s & Gender Studies, I was hired by the University of Louisville’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies & Pan African Studies Departments as an Assistant Professor and Audre Lorde Endowed Chair in Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality Studies in 2007.
The Audre Lorde chair was created by Carla Wallace, longtime Louisville activist and one of the founders of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, KY. Carla’s monies were matched with monies from the Buck for Brains initiative in Louisville to create the endowed chair. Dr. Angela Y. Davis, who had taught at the University of Louisville and who was longtime friend of Carla’s named the endowed chair after Black feminist activist, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde. The Audre Lorde chair was designed to have a professor come to the University and through their scholarship, teaching, and activism create an ideological bridge between the departments of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Pan African Studies, and also develop LGBTQ+ curriculum.
I was an integral part of establishing the LGBTQ+ Studies minor in 2009 in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Louisville. The Audre Lorde Chair has allowed me through my publications, presentations, forums, talks, and workshops, to create more visibility to my position, my departments, the University, and, ultimately, the larger Louisville community. I also served as one of the co-coordinators and members of the Fairness Campaign, when I arrived in Louisville and in 2012 me and my best friend Jaison Gardner were offered the opportunity to create a podcast for the local NPR affiliate here in Louisville, WFPL.
Our podcast, “Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Pop Culture and Black Gay Life,” has recorded to date over 290+ episodes and we have been included in the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (NKAA), and were honored by Bluegrass Black Pride in Lexington with a 2017 Trailblazer Award, and a 2015 PRIDEINDEX.COM™ ESTEEM AWARD in Chicago for “Outstanding Podcast.” The show now has international listeners ship of more than 6,000 downloads weekly and 24,000 downloads each month. We have also been able to extend our reach of the podcast through in-person events like movie screenings and talkbacks at the Speed Cinema, the “Dialogues on Gender” Series in conjunction with the Speed Museum, and our recent lecture on diversity and inclusion for more than 400 people for Creative Mornings.
Now as an Associate Professor at U of L, and after having lived in Louisville for 12 years, I can truly say that I love the life I have created here. Im grateful for the people I’ve met, the movements and organizations I’ve joined and the community that surrounds me.
What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?
I think everyone’s journey to self-acceptance is different. Complex. So, I don’t want this to come across as advice. I can only speak to what helped me become more comfortable with who I am. I came out when I was 16 and I found that the more I struggled internally about my identity, the more I projected that discomfort to others, I was always met with questions like: “But you don’t look like a lesbian?” or “how can you really know for sure that you’re a lesbian?”. The questions really began to infuriate me, so I decided that I needed to really do some interior work within my own spirit to begin to project the proud lesbian I felt I could become. To silence the questions and queries. I found the more “out,” I was, the more comfortable I became with who I was as Black Lesbian Femme, the more I was met with affirmation, awe and in some instances praise. Books also helped me become more prideful with who I was and what community I was now a part of. Black Lesbian Feminism and Black Queer Theory solidified this pride. There writings and activism gave me the necessary experiential grounding, affirmation, and confidence in my identity as Black Lesbian Femme. I knew after reading and studying these theories that I am a part of a wondrous and magical community. A community that has always been here and has a fascinating and compelling history. The global community of queer folk.
How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?
As a Black lesbian feminist femme, I have constantly had to navigate radicalized and gendered projections upon my person. Many folks in the past refused to see and/or acknowledge that they were in the presence of a Black lesbian feminist femme. While my blackness in many queer and non-queer spaces made me extremely hyper-visible, it was always the combination of my radicalized difference and my performance of intentional femininity through my chosen Black femme identity that seemed to deem who I truly was, invisible.
This to me, hinted at the longstanding tradition of racial and gendered erasure that functions inside and outside of queer spaces. As such, my incidents with hyper-visibility and invisibility do not exist in isolation apart from other Black femmes and/or other queer Black women. The racist and heteronormative politics at work, within and outside of queer communities of work and leisure, continue to render Black femmes and others as either something they don’t declare themselves to be and/or erases the many signifiers they adopt to be seen as who they truly are. Eventually I had to realize, that my identity as a Black Feminist Lesbian femme had everything to do with the way I saw myself, and not the way others saw me. I wasn’t going to be “boxed” by anyone anymore. I found through readings and talking with other Black femmes that a Black Femme Lesbian Feminist identity was an identity with Black feminist roots and revolutionary potentials.
Audre Lorde’s work on the Black and divine feminine also helped me to recognize that not only had the divine feminine been celebrated and exalted within ancient Black cultures, but it also solidified my own subjective feelings that my Black femme identity was an identity that came out of an ancient space of strength, power, and divinity, and not an identity that was based upon heteronormative complacency and/or socialized expectations of gender. My Black femme identity is based on a Black feminist tradition of recovering and resistance that seeks to undermine the racist and heteronormative assumptions that choose to see femininity as inherently White, and power as inherently male. For me, this is the definition of Black Femme-ness that sits well with my spirit, and it’s a definition that articulated who, in fact, I actually felt I was. As soon as I began embodying and performing my newfound identity in every space I entered, I still got looks of confusion and invasive questions as to who I was, but it certainly less than before.
What issues do you see in the queer community?
Unfortunately, racism, sexism, homo-normativity, and transphobia are still ever present within many queer communities. Ours. Theirs. Every queer community. From the racism, fetishizing, and transphobia folks experience on the dating apps. To the blatant and covert expressions of racism in the nightclubs. To the questions and queries that non-binary folks are bombarded with on a daily basis by other queer folks. These are the issues that are bringing us harm, that are hurting our community.
What do you think would solve those issues?
Education and activism are the keys to resolving these issues to me. Folks who exist in spaces of privilege within queer communities in terms of race, cis identity, gender identity, etc. need to work on being open to receive what Black queer folks, Black trans folks, Black Femmes, and Black Butch Queens have been saying for decades. Queer Liberation can’t happen when our community is still tethered to these repugnant and terroristic ideas about race, trans identities, or non-binary identities.
Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?
I don’t. I don’t consider White, Cis Gay Inc. the mainstream queer community either. I recognize that the Gay Inc. queer community is certainly the most visible, the most amplified, but that Ain’t my queer community. It’s never been. My queer community that I consider mainstream, meaning that it has always been the community that I see myself as a part of is the Black Queer community. Remember, I work from my own center. That center is Blackness and Queerness. Always. All ways.
Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc.)
When I’m at home with my wife and my parents. We have so much fun and they bring out the best version of me. They are literally home for me. I love them madly and I would be absolutely lost without them.