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‘Never a final project’: Jay Schutte breaks down gender norms

Colorado State University postdoctoral fellow Jay Schutte plays township jazz, which originates from Johannesburg, South Africa, on his “avocado” Fender Telecaster electric guitar on a bench near The Lagoon Oct. 29. (Anna von Pechmann | The Collegian)

Jay Schutte is nonbinary, meaning they do not identify with either side of the male-female gender spectrum. For Schutte, their gender is fluid and ever-changing, not trapped in a societally-set group of rules.

“Gender is never a final project,” Schutte said. “It’s never a complete project in the life of anyone.”

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Schutte, a postdoctoral fellow in the departments of communication studies and anthropology at Colorado State University, exemplifies the importance of intersectionality in the university system, both in their studies as well as in their life. Teaching classes surrounding their intersectional studies, Schutte has inspired many students during their postdoctoral fellowships, including Brooke Higgerson, a junior studying cultural anthropology and legal studies.

“Jay (Schutte) brought solidarity to the classroom by underpinning and demonstrating that life is an endless process of transformation and inquisition that requires critical thought and a sense of humor,” Higgerson said.

Schutte’s experience is informed by their coming of age in the turbulent political climate of the 1990’s in South Africa. They grew up during apartheid, an era of extreme systemic oppression and segregation. According to Schutte, apartheid in South Africa not only pertained to race, but every vector of intersectionality, including sexuality, gender, class and language.

“White men in the apartheid state had this extreme power,” Schutte said. “That sort of heteronormative white patriarchy that filtered all the way down through every single social category and the society as a whole, making mobility in between any kind of identity rigid and tough and difficult.”

Between 1990 and 1994, the country’s government underwent an intense change from the United States-backed apartheid government to very liberal leadership under Nelson Mandela. 

“It was a very confusing time … if any group of people of this era might have any reflexivity … or awareness of how potentially flexible personal and political categories are, it would be that generation of young South Africans that grew up at that time,” Schutte said.

Though the apartheid system had been dismantled, according to Schutte, the cultural systems that upheld white supremacy and toxic masculinity did not disappear. 

“In post-apartheid South Africa, class became a major position through which the racialized lines of whiteness were enacted; even among communities of color, a fractal apartheid re-emerged,” Schutte said. “The vectors of inequality did not dissipate or go away. Masculinity as a sort of toxic problem did not go away. It just moved its address, in a sense.”

“I did not come out, as there was no possibility of coming out in that sort of context. I don’t recall the moment that I came out as such, as a nonbinary subject. But these sort of allowed myself to be held into groups throughout my life.”-Jay Schutte, postdoctoral fellow

This address, as Schutte experienced it, was the private boy’s school where they spent their formative years. 

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“(The school) was considered to be the sort of site for producing future Afrikaner nationalist presidents and things like that,” Schutte said. “It was … a brutal space where these boys would (act) in extreme forms of masculine violence on one another. It was not a kind environment for a subject who was still trying to find their identity to emerge with it.”

Jay Schutte does work at a table outside Everyday Joe’s Coffee House next to a pile of books they teach in their communication studies class, Nov. 4. (Anna von Pechmann | The Collegian)

According to Schutte, they tried their best to blend into the background and focus on their studies, but that did not protect them from the violent, hypermasculine culture of the school and their home life. 

“There was a moment in high school where, actually, I was on a rugby tour, and I was actually physically abused by a group of boys who basically … did horrible things to me,” Schutte said. 

Though the country of South Africa was going through a time of self-discovery, Schutte was forced to stay quiet about their identity or face the repercussions for going against the societal norms forced onto them.

“I had a father who was an extremely hypermasculine subject,” Schutte said. “I recall, as a very young kid, dressing up as a girl for fun once and my father freaking out and threatening to shave my hair because this was hugely problematic and yelling at my biological mom for ‘turning me into a queer.’” 

Schutte said that moments such as these made them internally ambiguous and able to empathize with both sides of the gender spectrum. That being said, within the hypermasculine context they grew up in, they could not fully express their gender in order to survive. 

“I did not come out, as there was no possibility of coming out in that sort of context. I don’t recall the moment that I came out as such, as a nonbinary subject. But these sort of allowed myself to be held into groups throughout my life.” 

From their experience growing up during the transition between apartheid and post-apartheid in South Africa and with the added perception of experiencing it as a bilingual person, Schutte recognized the nuances of human communication and perception due to language. After getting their undergraduate degree in ethnomusicology and composition, they refocused their studies on linguistic anthropology. 

“Jay (Schutte) challenged students by creating a space of curiosity, a process that should embrace engagement without judgement or overt power relations with defined agendas.”-Brooke Higgerson, junior in cultural anthropology and legal studies

Schutte earned their master’s degree and Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago, where they studied the interplay between politics, language and race within groups of African and Chinese groups in Beijing. They also travelled extensively, notably to South Korea, before finally joining CSU. 

“Students in this University, whether it’s planned that way or not, have a real opportunity of encountering each other in classrooms and so on,” Schutte said. 

According to Schutte’s statement on the College of Liberal Arts website, they find CSU to be a good fit for them because of the University’s new focus on academic decolonization through interdisciplinary studies. According to Higgerson, Schutte embraced these concepts through presenting them as shared experiences. 

“I met Jay (Schutte) in my second semester at CSU,” Higgerson said. “They were teaching theory in cultural anthropology. … I do not think I fully understood Jay (Schutte’s) perspective of teaching until we read ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Paulo Freire. It was then that I realized Jay did not treat their students as a blank canvas to be painted with knowledge, but rather they treated us as if we had our own rich and diverse worldviews.” 

According to Greg Dickinson, the department chair of communication studies, Schutte was brought on as a postdoctoral fellow due to their ability to speak to the anthropological, cultural and communicative ways of understanding diversity and Indigenous studies. 

“They’ve been really engaged with a number of our graduate students as a really great mentor for teaching, scholarship and reading practices,” Dickinson said. “I’ve really appreciated Jay (Schutte’s ability) to reach out to (them) and provide a bit of an extra touch.”

Colorado State University departments of communication studies and anthropology postdoctoral fellow Jay Schutte works on a book they’re writing about international relations between South Africa and China, Nov. 4. (Anna von Pechmann | The Collegian) (Anna von Pechmann | The Collegian)

Schutte’s intersectional studies in the fields of communication and anthropology reflect their views on how conversations should function on campus: through recognizing differences and confronting difficult conversations. 

“We must be aware that, sometimes, the performance of one identity doesn’t accrete or conceal the possibility of meaningful dialogue and exchange,” Schutte said. “I agree that subjects … need safe spaces, this is absolutely necessary. But we also need spaces within which it is safe for us to speak to one another.”

According to Schutte, the University system can be a catalyst for these spaces to form, and they especially see potential for improved intersectionality at CSU.

“I feel that the class subjectivity of impeccable politics at (the University of) Chicago was far more stifling to an actual dialogue than students actually have in this context,” Schutte said. “Students across the class divide and across the racial divide and across the gender divide have a far better chance of speaking to one another as long as student institutions are able to create spaces for dialogue.”

Schutte said that, as the United States has a very conflict-avoidant society, sometimes conflict can encourage meaningful conversation and change.

“Conflict is not necessarily violence-conflict,” Schutte said. “There are times I’ve seen students have a tension with one another, but that tension can actually be immediate. Tension can be really productive in a classroom situation, where a student was confronted with (a concept) like white privilege in the context of a classroom by another student who called them out on it.”

According to Higgerson, she valued Schutte’s form of teaching through confrontational conversations. 

“As a student, I felt recognized by Jay (Schutte), as opposed to just another face hidden within the classroom where they could facilitate the transfer of information,” Higgerson said. “Jay challenged students by creating a space of curiosity, a process that should embrace engagement without judgement or overt power relations with defined agendas.”

According to Higgerson, Schutte’s perspective as a nonbinary individual also enhanced her learning experience and provided a different perspective for her to consider. 

“Having non-heteronormative professors is important because it increases the diversity of the classroom and unsettles the present binaries,” Higgerson said. “Binaries are destructive because they seek to exclude groups for arbitrary reasons that have no grounds in speaking to who we are as individuals or students.”

Lauryn Bolz can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurynbolz.

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