Dr. Tom Knutson, a Sacramento State communications professor and international scholar who fought to get U.S. immigration officials to recognize his marriage to his Thai husband, died Sept. 30 of cancer, his family said. He was 71.
Dr. Knutson, who spent 33 years teaching full time at California State University, Sacramento, was well known as a respected academic in intercultural communication and a demanding but fun professor who liked to make students laugh. Besides graduate and undergraduate courses, he led extension and continuing education classes in conflict management, skills for salespeople, and police interview and interrogation techniques.
In addition to teaching at CSUS, he was a professor of global communication at Bangkok University in Thailand. He was a Fulbright scholar in South Korea and Russia and a past president of Phi Beta Delta, an honor society for international scholars. He traveled to more than 40 countries, published dozens of professional articles and created a program for Sacramento State students to spend a year as English tutors in Thailand.
“He was incredibly bright,” CSUS communications studies chairman Steve Buss said. “But beyond that, he was a very funny and quick man. We would sit in the back of faculty meetings and crack each other up to the point where we’d be in tears.”
In 1993, Dr. Knutson met and fell in love with Phan Datthuyawat, a professional flower designer in Thailand. Datthuyawat moved to Sacramento, where they registered as domestic partners in 1999 and married in 2008. The couple shared a home and life while Datthuyawat earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications studies at CSUS.
Meanwhile, the pair became pioneers in the legal battle for same-sex marriage in the United States. In order to obtain a green card allowing Phan to stay, they struggled for more than a decade for relief from the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which barred immigration officials from recognizing international same-sex marriages.
Fear that his husband could be deported – and the couple separated – increased when Dr. Knutson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012. Angry at Republican politicians who support a constitutional amendment amendment banning same-sex marriage, he publicly renounced his longtime GOP registration.
“I will maintain my fiscal conservative views, but I will no longer participate in the politics of hate and fear,” he wrote two years ago in an op-ed piece in The Sacramento Bee.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of DOMA barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Last October, Dr. Knutson and Datthuyawat became one of the first bi-national couples in the United States to have their same-sex marriage approved by federal immigration officials.
“It’s a relief that we can go back to Bangkok together to see Phan’s family again,” Dr. Knutson told The Bee in 2013. “We’re all circling the drain, but I can do it with a little more confidence now.”
Thomas J. Knutson was born in 1942 in La Crosse, Wis. The elder of two children born to an accountant and a secretary, he excelled in school and was an excellent debater, his sister Cyndy Nichols said.
He graduated from Wisconsin State University in 1965 and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in speech communication and educational psychology from Indiana University in 1970. He previously was an assistant professor at San Jose State University and West Virginia University.
A Sacramento resident, Dr. Knutson was “a romantic” who enjoyed simple pleasures, his husband said: attending Music Circus performances, driving in the country, eating ice cream.
“I’m going to fulfill his dream,” said Datthuyawat, a doctoral student in communications studies at Sacramento State. “He passed away peacefully holding my hand.”
Dr. Knutson is survived by his husband and sister. Services are pending.