In Human Village, poet Maya Angelou wrote, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.’’ Governors State University (GSU) Associate Professor of Communication Dr. Jason Zingsheim agrees—in spirit—but encourages us to dig deeper.
“Our differences and diversity are strengths—something that should be celebrated,’’ said Zingsheim, an intercultural communication scholar who is passionate about all things related to gender and sexuality. “We shouldn’t all be the same. That would be really boring. Our differences should make a difference in better ways rather than being used to oppress and discriminate,’’ said the prolific writer, researcher, and innovator who started blazing a trail at GSU in 2008.
In 2010, Zingsheim chaired the steering committee that formed the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program (GNSX) and served as its inaugural program coordinator before becoming the unit coordinator for Communication, Media, and Performing Arts programs. The programs are housed in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The GNSX studies program grew out of an annual GSU-based international Gender Matters Conference coordinated by Zingsheim. The two-day forum brings together students, activists, and researchers to discuss the ongoing role of gender in structuring society.
An Arizona native, Zingsheim has traveled the world (visiting Kenya once and Vietnam twice) to assess and train members of the LGBT community in media advocacy. At GSU, he teaches a full load of undergraduate and graduate communication classes, including an online offering he designed, Communication and Identity.
Year after year, the equality advocate’s drive and research have brought him recognition. In 2017, he won the peer-nominated Faculty Excellence Award—his second in five years. 2016 brought the Excellence in Innovation Award, and in 2015, his was named Top Faculty Paper.
To Zingsheim, the awards are shiny reminders that he must remain steadfast to the age-old principles of dignity and respect for all, especially during October, LGBT History Month.
“What I’m doing—focusing on communication to foster diversity and inclusiveness—can make a difference for students and anyone who engages these topics in their everyday lives. The only way we see social change at the broad level is for people to embrace social change at the individual level. I’m honored by the recognition from my peers and still driven by the desire to see the world more equitable and at the same time more diverse than it has been.”
GSU Newsroom: The GNSX program is in its second year. What about it makes you most proud?
Zingsheim: There is an energy around the program that we saw during a recent screening of the documentary Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. There was a great turnout, and I saw students coming into the room and recognizing each other even if they hadn’t met before. It makes me proud to have helped create a space where students who often don't feel safe or comfortable sharing parts of themselves are able to do so.
GSU Newsroom: Why is the GNSX major important at GSU?
Zingsheim: What could be more important than studying that which affects us all? Gender and sexuality are fundamental to the ways we each experience the world from our individual interactions. GSU is no different. Our students reflect the larger world and are subject to social institutions that function to structure our world in ways that are often unequal. Giving our students the opportunity to examine this interplayto study how genders and sexualities have been shaped over time and across space—provides the tools to begin reshaping those relationships. We all have a gender identity and a sexual orientation. For example, not all straight men are straight or masculine in the same ways, and gender doesn’t only apply to women or transgender people, and LGBTQ folks aren’t the only ones with sexual orientations. Understanding these subject positions better—and how they relate to others and society—benefits all of us. This can be particularly liberating for those of us whose sexual orientations and/or gender identities are less common and less represented.
GSU Newsroom: In the two years leading up to the 2017 Excellence Award, you published one book, two book chapters, and two academic studies. Which of these writings has been most impactful and why?
Zingsheim: Discursive Negotiations of Kenyan LGBTI Identities: Cautions in Cultural Humility examines sexual and gender minority identities in Nairobi, Kenya. We used participant observation and creative focus groups with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community members and journalists in Nairobi to demonstrate the necessity of cultural humility, the willingness to suspend assumptions about a person or group based on generalizations about their culture. This was an important study because so much of what we know in the field of communication about sexual orientation and gender identity minorities is limited to Western experiences. This piece contributes to our understanding of what it means to be LGBTI in Kenya, which has a very complicated relationship with the West. We are able to name the problematic cultural myths about LGBTI folks that circulate in Kenyan media and share strategies we use in the United States for how activists and journalists can work together to challenge and upend those myths by representing the full humanity of LGBTI Kenyans. We are watching to see how quickly perspectives there change. If we can bring greater equity to Kenya, we can change the world.