Professor Profile: Finn Enke

by | May 1, 2024 | 1 comment

Enke first arrived in Wisconsin as a faculty member at UW in 2001 and continues today as a professor in both the History and Gender and Women’s studies departments. When asked whether he’d rather talk more about his queer professional life or queer personal life, Enke admitted the two have blurred over time.

“In some ways it’s a little bit hard to separate them. I would be queer and trans were I not an academic, but academics has also always provided me a kind of a vehicle for exploration,” explained Enke who is also the Director of UW’s LGBTQ+ Studies certificate program. “I was exposed to a lot growing up. One of those things was if you’re interested in something, you can learn about it. So, in that way it’s a little bit hard for me to separate what I do in my job from what I live, to an extent.”

Over their 23 years at UW, Enke has garnered quite an impressive resume with a variety of publications, earning a tenured spot on the faculty, and receiving the 2023 Emily Mead Baldwin Award in the Creative Arts; this UW award will provide him $20,000 over two years toward both his upcoming comic project and graphic memoir.

An outsider might imagine that being such a superstar in the field of queer history would make coming to terms with his gender identity a cakewalk. Yet having been born almost 60 years ago, Enke still had to fight off feeling trapped in the cultural norms of the times he grew up in.

Family of Origin 

Enke grew up in Michigan in a family of intense readers who were very involved in the Vietnam anti-war movement. His immediate family’s church of choice was particularly progressive, as the pastor’s wife was a radical feminist studying to be a minister, and at least one of their children was a lesbian. Enke’s mother followed suit, and he even describes her as, “sort of a champion of gay people,” and having queer friends. However, Enke still grew up with the impression that although their mother might not have been ignorant about queer identities, they still should not choose that lifestyle.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s a way that people can be, by the way don’t think that you have to get into a heterosexual marriage.’ No, my mom was very like, ‘You’ll meet some nice man,’” recalled Enke who also empathized with his mother’s concern over personal safety for queer individuals. “She was aware of trans existence—very aware of it—and had no judgment in a moral sense but…it was the way she would always put it as, ‘That’s a really hard way to be.’”

In Finn’s upcoming memoir, he recalls her having this sentiment when he shouted, “Look!” having been a child fascinated by trans women in long, sequined dresses on a family vacation to New York City. Unfortunately, Enke only recalls having awareness of “transsexual women” as a kid, and that would eventually grow into a sort of childhood sci-fi, imaginative fear.

“That really scared me, because I felt like if they can turn into women, then somebody’s going to be able to turn me into a woman. I was afraid they would force me into the same sort of medical, technological regime…So, when I encountered discussions of transsexuality, I felt a certain kind of recognition in people, but a terror that I would be forced in that direction,” shared Enke who identifies as trans male.

Queer Beginnings 

Enke eventually went on to Swarthmore College and would graduate from the Pennsylvania-based school in 1987. It was there that they would first really dive into queer culture, attending events on campus for GLUBQC, a student organization which stood for Gay and Lesbian Union and Bisexual and Questioning Circles. He fondly recalls most of his college friends coming from these student gatherings and attending dances at Bryn Mawr College, a nearby women’s liberal arts college.

However, Enke still refused to acknowledge their queerness and was in a long-term relationship with a cisgender man that lasted even after college. Enke’s mom passed away right as he was on the cusp of coming out as queer in the early 90s. This ended up serving as a tipping point to acknowledge his sexuality.

Enke reflected, “‘My life is mine. Like her life was hers, but my life is mine, and I don’t owe it to anybody else.’ I needed desperately to just be true to what I was experiencing, and my dad didn’t have any problem with it at all. I don’t think he found it particularly interesting…he doesn’t treat anybody differently depending on their identity or labels.”

Enke would go on to complete a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota in 1992 and then in 1999 a Ph.D. in feminist history, gender history, and the history of sexuality.

Trajectory Toward Tenure 

By the time Enke arrived at UW in 2001, they were openly identifying as a lesbian in both their professional and personal life. However, Enke describes their gender identity as something that was almost like an irritating horsefly.

“Trans has always been hovering; it’s always been hovering. It’s just been so present in my life, but really the models of trans that I grew up with when I was young in the 70s, 80s, and 90s even, were not models that I could really recognize myself in,” explained Enke. “The medical models were…so binary, and then there were these sets of procedures that had to follow along this trajectory—that just didn’t feel right.”

As a result, they threw themselves into their work focusing relentlessly on pursuing tenure at the university. “There was no way at that time that I was going to say, ‘Oh, let’s also do this other major thing that I can barely even comprehend how that’s going to work out!’ But after I got tenure, all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, these doors are starting to blow open.’”

Once the pressure of earning such a sought-after academic achievement was over in 2007, Enke started noticing how some students were really pushing them to be a more conscious professor and not make assumptions about people’s gender identities. It was actually the university setting which allowed Enke to witness a lot of different ways of existence and create a dialogue of how they were interacting with the world and their own identity.

“I didn’t come out as trans prior to tenure because I wasn’t ready to—not because my job wasn’t secure or people wouldn’t have been supportive—but because I wasn’t ready to do that in all aspects of my life. My job had to be all-consuming at that stage. It would have been hard to transition then. But mainly, I wasn’t ready to contemplate whether and how I might ever step farther into trans,” explained Enke.

Coming Out—Again 

Finally in 2011 Enke publicly came out as trans, and at the time he didn’t know of a single other out trans professor at the whole university. He heard rumors of another one in STEM, but it would be years until he had a trans colleague, “and it really sucked in countless ways to be the only one,” they said. “When I first came out as trans and started using ‘they,’ oh my god, did it take people a long time! Like a decade… it seemed like ‘they’ was just never going to happen.”

Eventually another openly trans professor was hired, but the employment was only short-lived. However, gradually a build started, and now there are many openly trans and non-binary professors and staff spread throughout most of the schools at the university.

“I think it’s still very possible to feel isolated and definitely marginalized in numerous ways. But I’m not only not the only one carrying the ball, I’m now so ancient that I’m not even a mentor anymore—I’m almost more like a relic. Everyone else is doing most of the carrying—at least it feels that way in comparison to just a decade ago—and it’s a beautiful, exciting thing,” explained Finn.

Enke’s queer visibility has been an important marker of validation for the student body according to Peter Zook (he/him/his) a member of the UW undergraduate class of 2010. Zook fondly remembers Enke being a queer elder as empowering.

“I just don’t think we have an enough of that… like there was no vision of what the future looked like, and we were kind of getting a sense of what the future could look like…. We hadn’t seen a whole lot of that, or at least I hadn’t, and it was rad to get to see,” said Zook.

Comic Project & Graphic Memoir 

For the Fall 2024 and Spring 2025 semesters, Enke will be taking a sabbatical to finish his comic project and graphic memoir. Although they have always dabbled a little in visual art, it was not until they started to transition that Enke regularly found themselves creating; “Almost like it was not something I made a conscious decision about,” they explained. At first, they kept it very separate from their academic work as it felt so personal and autobiographical. However, eventually, “I basically came out about the fact that I was working on a graphic memoir,” Enke joked about sharing it with the university.

Pedagogies of the Impossible: From the Trans on Campus Corpus 

This graphic essay collection is a series of comics that started seven years ago and describes the trans experience in educational environments. It details how people come to learn about gender diversity and the experiences of people whose gender identities are more marginalized, and it helps to educate allies.

With Finn and Wing: Archive of an Amphibious Childhood in a Nuclear Age 

This graphic memoir is told from a child’s perspective and involves both an archival element as well as childhood art, married together through collage. Family documents and environmental reports are accompanied by handmade art using childhood nostalgic tools like crayons and magic markers. The book will share what it was like growing up as a transgender kid before there was known language for it in popular United States culture. Including a variety of stories like the frightening two years of nuclear power plant construction that took place close to his childhood home.

Interestingly, Enke says his growing passion for creating art has also influenced his teaching, as he has increasingly added graphic memoir to his class syllabuses.

Grades Are In: What the Students are Saying 

“I really like to take classes with them; they’re probably my favorite professor here at UW…The classroom environment was really engaging and affirming…He is very thoughtful, like he doesn’t necessarily assert that what he knows is the end all be all…[Enke] make[s] sure the students all know that what we’re thinking has value, and I know as a student, I’ve come to really appreciate that.” – Jess Harlan (they/them) took four classes with Enke and completed their undergraduate studies in May 2024.

“It was always just such a warm, chill atmosphere. I definitely recall feeling like for the first time this is a very queer space for learning, and I learned about so many historical figures I just didn’t know; that was eye opening. It really helped cement that, ‘I’m gay and this is what gay history looks like.’ We felt really welcomed and seen. I really loved the questioning of so much, of all the norms that are how you’re supposed to be. It was really cool to get to be like, ‘Oh wait, it doesn’t have to be like that.’ Finn introduced so many things. That’s where I watched Paris Is Burning for the first time in class. So much free thinking that I always hungered for but never got to do. He’s a really warm, kind, sweet, good person—like salt of the earth.” – Zook, who completed a certificate in what was known as LGBT Studies at the time of his graduation.

“Even though I changed my [graduate thesis subject] multiple times, Finn was always really cool with it, which was great. Finn was always down for whatever I was passionate about, which was just really cool. Because it was hard for me to figure out what I wanted to do; I have a lot of interests…. Even the things that they didn’t know about, they were really interested in learning about, which was very cool.” – Ollie DiPietro (they/them), who graduated with a Master of Arts degree in Gender and Women’s Studies in May 2023. 

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1 Comment

  1. Inspiring!

    I also really appreciate the fluid use of pronouns throughout. I rarely get to read journalism that features pronouns used in the same way that I use pronouns. Thanks for the wonderful representation.

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