Tara Gonsalves, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, is the eighth recipient of the Philip Brett LGBT Fellowship, which will support her research on movements around gender variance in varying global contexts.
A first-generation immigrant with South Indian roots, Tara grew up in Ohio and spent formative years in India. As an undergraduate at Brown University, she was drawn to development studies and how global inequalities, access, and power work. Hearing of the reputation of UC Berkeley’s sociology faculty for strengths in theory along with mixed-methods research, Tara chose Berkeley for her doctoral studies.
Tara cites her dissertation chair Raka Ray as an exemplar of an “ethical academic” who supports students to “do good work and be happy.” She also credits “many wonderful mentors, both in my department and outside, who have given me a solid grounding in political/transnational sociology and queer/feminist theory.”
Tara’s dissertation explores the rise of international transgender advocacy. As reflected in its usage in United Nations documents and speeches, in the largest international non-governmental organizations advocating for sexual and gender minorities, and increasing usage among biomedical experts, gender identity has gained political salience in recent years. She explains: “In the field of sociology, there is little work on gender variance, and even less on how gender identity operates transnationally. This obscures real differences in thinking about gender, power, and access globally.”
She has already completed interviews of 22 trans activists — many of them very influential as “firsts in their fields” — on nearly every continent. Next steps include travel for more interviews at the United Nations and archival research at the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan.
Asked about the significance of the Brett Fellowship, Tara replied, “What feels different about this in contrast to other small stipends is that it raises the profile of this kind of work. For many social science students, LGBTQ research is still outside the accepted mainstream. The Brett award recognizes that these studies are important, and signals this to other academics.”
In supporting Tara’s application for the award, associate professor Leslie Salzinger predicted that Tara’s inquiries will “produce an important new understanding of the transgender movements across both time and transnational space. Tracing the way this advocacy is emerging now, in real time, across transnational governmental, social and medical fields, is an inspired and important project.”
Tara offered this encouragement to her peers: “For those interested in gender and sexuality studies and who (unlike me) may not feel supported by their department, awards like this show that the work we do matters to understanding how structural inequality works. Keep doing it!”
Established in 2009 as a grassroots initiative by campus faculty, staff, students, and friends, the Philip Brett LGBT Studies Fellowship is Berkeley’s only endowed fund to support graduate students in LGBT-related research in any field. It honors the memory of Philip Brett, an eminent music scholar, now considered a pioneer of queer musicology, who taught at Berkeley from 1966 to 1991. Each year, a multi-disciplinary faculty committee selects the Brett Fellow from student applicants from a diverse range of academic programs. Application deadlines are in March.