Student Spotlight: Emily Donald

By: Staff,  Cornell University Graduate School
August 20, 2020

Emily Donald is a doctoral student in history from Brisbane, Australia studying modern southeast Asian history; feminist, gender, and sexuality studies; and queer history. After attending the University of Queensland as an undergraduate, she chose to pursue further study at Cornell due to its scholars, library collections, and commitment to graduate student learning.

What is your area of research and why is it important?

I study what love and desire between women and gender-nonconforming people has meant historically in Thailand. Rather than fixed plot-points in a person’s life, gender and sexual affiliations can reveal moments of mediation, uncertainty, and contradiction that draw attention to the situational and relational influences that make up subjectivities. In contexts where matters of female sexuality are embedded in cultures of silence, stigma, and taboo, history can work towards an understanding of how such conditions are created and maintained, and how individuals negotiate their sexuality and gender expressions in relation to the social demands of hierarchy, religion, occupation, and family.

What are the larger implications of this research?

Popular imaginations often present modern Thailand as an emblem for the permissibility of sexual and gender variance, but we rarely hear about the complicated social and cultural processes that impact people’s experiences and perceptions of the world. Focusing on female sexuality and gender expression allows us to tell different stories, ones that are attentive to the historical realities that pattern what it means to live sexual and gender non-normative lives. This chips away at Orientalist fantasies and subverts the typical elaborations of sexuality that dominate contemporary views of modern Thailand and further expands our understandings of how sexualities are lived and experienced.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I became interested in Southeast Asian history by traveling the region on study tours and backpacking trips. I was fortunate to receive an undergraduate award that allowed for a year of study at Thammasat University in Bangkok and a year of internship at a local labor rights organization. These were extremely formative experiences, both personally and intellectually. When I returned to finish my undergraduate degree, I pursued a senior project that combined Thai history and gender/sexuality studies, interests that were shaped by supportive professors, but also by in-country experiences and conversations with friends and colleagues at roadside noodle stalls.  
What were your research plans before the pandemic and how did you pivot to accommodate the current circumstances while still making degree progress?

I would have traveled to Thailand this summer to hunt around in archives and form connections with local organizations and institutions, while also catching up with old friends and hopefully making some new ones. But instead, I’ll use the summer to jump into my third-year exams, which means coming up with dauntingly long reading lists and pestering committee members with endless questions. I’m obviously disappointed and concerned by the prospect of not pursuing in-country research, but it’s nice to finally see Ithaca in all its summer glory.
How important is it to be flexible in this situation?

It’s definitely important. I don’t know how else to approach a moment like this, with all its uncertainties. I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can be flexible and shift things around to make it work. Flexibility, and just general kindness, seem to be the only humane and workable philosophies for dealing with the current situation.

What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?

Travel is normally what I find myself doing as soon as the academic semester wraps up. When not thinking up elaborate excuses to hop a plane or a bus, I mess around on the guitar, go for long rambling walks, consume any and all popular culture related to LGBTQ+ history, and attempt to cultivate meaningful bonds with other people’s dogs.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

Cornell is one of the best places in the world to conduct research on Southeast Asia. The library collection is outstanding, and the Southeast Asia Program and the field of history are both highly committed to graduate student learning, professional development, and research. In the end, though, I came to Cornell to learn from scholars whose work I admire and find consistently inspiring and this still has me feeling a bit starstruck.

Read the story on the Cornell University Graduate School website.


  Emily Donald