Boundaries be Gone

by Megan Neff

photos by Mark Cornelison

Zach Shultz’s work as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky has gone far beyond the typical goal of just making it out in four years. In the time it takes many students to decide upon a tentative career plan, Shultz has called into question and redefined the boundaries of academia twice over.

For one, the sociology and Spanish double major was the first to make use of the Undergraduate Honors Thesis Program. And by extension, the focus of his thesis critically examined existing boundaries in academia as well as notions of identity in a globalized world.

But Shultz did not start his freshman year at UK in 2005 with these ambitious goals. He began as an English major before quickly relocating to sociology one semester later. And it would not be until the fall of 2008 while studying at the Universidad Antonio de Nebrija that the seed for his thesis began to take root.

While in Madrid, Shultz lived close to the Chueca barrio, or gay district in Madrid. While he made friends and enjoyed the rich diversity of the district, he was concerned by the paradox it has come to represent.

“The popular perception of the neighborhood as a beacon of Spanish liberation and modernity seemed to capture only one side of what Chueca is and means to different people,” said Shultz. “I wanted to place the development of the neighborhood in a global context and examine why some people are highly critical of the dominant model of urban development in many gay districts throughout the world.”

One of the aims of his thesis was to tie Chueca’s identity as a gay neighborhood with its increasingly consumer-driven identity. Shultz gave the example of Madrid’s Gay Pride Parade, Dia del Orgullo Gay, which takes place the last weekend of June. While the parade is a lavish ordeal celebrated throughout the entire city, huge advertisements funding the event can be seen in every direction.

Shultz’s thesis also explores the creation of Chueca’s identity as Gay Madrid as a singular example of urban development in a gay neighborhood. This mode, so inextricably linked to mainstream and consumerist culture, is only one representation among many others.

“In Madrid and throughout the world, there are a diversity of countercultural movements that challenge the normalization, commodification, racism, sexism, etc of mainstream gay political movements,” said Shultz. “I wanted to use the thesis as an outlet for these perspectives that often get marginalized.

Apart from exploring often overlooked avenues in academia, Shultz’s work opened up interdisciplinary discourse at UK. Reflecting on the presentation of his thesis in March, Shultz counted this as a valuable by-product of the project.

“I think it got an interesting discussion going,” said Shultz. “It encouraged dialogue between departments that would otherwise have remained isolated.”

Shultz’s double major in Spanish and sociology reflects the positive crossover effects of studying two seemingly unrelated subjects. On one hand, the experience forced him to become familiar with vastly different theoretical and methodological approaches. But it also provided him with tools that allowed him to combine these contrasting perspectives in creative ways.

These hybrid tools are now informing his future studies. This fall, Shultz will enter the Latin American Studies M.A. Program at Tulane University in New Orleans. There, he plans to continue exploring the issues raised by his undergraduate thesis.

“This undergraduate thesis helped me realize that I want to continue studying the urban development of gay neighborhoods across the world,” said Shultz. “However, my plan as a graduate student is to explore this topic in the context of a Latin American city.”

Shultz admitted that tackling a thesis as an undergraduate was no easy task, but pushing the envelope has never been easy. And with enough genuine interest and willpower, he sees it as a manageable and immensely rewarding exercise for undergraduates.

“I feel that we have come to a point where we can no longer claim to objectively study social and cultural phenomena, and that rather than pretending to push our personal views aside we can use them to create more sincere and impassioned scholarship,” said Shultz.

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