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When Kathryn Bond Stockton came to Utah in 1987, the lesbian feminist scholar was something of an anomaly.

"I decided to be out right from the beginning. You can imagine many students had never known a gay person, never had a gay professor," she said.

Then again, Stockton only knew one Mormon.

"I thought this would be an interesting place to do work on gender and sexuality," she said, "but it turned out to be an astonishing place."

This year, the distinguished professor of English won the U.'s most prestigious award, the $40,000 Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence.

"Kathryn Stockton is counted among the top humanities scholars in North America and her brilliance in the classroom is widely recognized," said U. President David Pershing in a statement.

Stockton's cutting edge-work focuses on gender, cultural theory and LGBT studies. Now at work on a book about poverty and sexuality, she's also written about childhood, race and religion. Stockton considered joining the ministry while earning a master's degree from Yale University Divinity School.

But "in that period of time it was impossible to live a life as an openly gay person," she said. "I just couldn't imagine…living that part of my life in hiding."

Instead, she found literature, where her interests in psychology and theology came together. She's now taught more than 20 different courses at the U., served as director of the gender studies program and become a listening ear for students and their parents dealing with personal issues of sexuality and identity.

Stockton also watched the evolution of the gay rights movement and its interaction with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a major supporter of California's Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage. Having experienced "supreme generosity" from the church and its members, Stockton found the stance somewhat surprising.

"One of the things I associate with Mormons is niceness and politeness…and on some very deep, unspoken level an understanding of what it has meant to be a persecuted people," she said. Some of her devout friends and students felt also "wounded," she said.

"That's an untold part of the story people don't seem to know outside Utah," Stockton said. "They paint the church with one brush, they don't see this diversity inside."

For Stockton, promoting diversity is essential, from the rise of transgender identity to the growing number of straight men taking her queer theory class. She's planning to donate her prize money to U. diversity scholarships.

"On the East Coast you may see more obvious diversity," she said, "but I feel like I have experienced more diversity up close and personal here."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst