Conference Reflections: MOVING FORWARD

By J. Richard Price, PhD Student, Politics
This year’s combination of the Gender Studies conference, “No Longer in Exile,” and the Union of Political Science (UPSS) student conference, “Politically Queer,” opened up two forums on campus that discussed the role of gender and sexuality studies within academia generally and within the New School specifically. The two conferences were conceived independently of one another but motivated by the same goal: to ask, “Why the hell aren’t we studying this?”  Members of both conference committees intuited that the success of each other’s conferences would be important in forging a coalition across schools and divisions to promote gender and sexuality studies. Prof. Ann Snitow has worked tirelessly to implement the Gender Studies minor at Lang College over recent years despite opposition that is difficult to fathom in 2010, forty some years after Women’s Studies percolated into academia. It is vitally important for those passionate about the inclusion of gender and sexuality within our curriculum to continue to build this coalition across campus.

No Longer in Exile brought together viewpoints from countless schools of thought within Gender Studies, Womyn’s Studies and Queer Studies. The disparate perspectives within this discussion prompted those of us, who helped organized both committees, to question each other and to ask “where do we go from here?” For those of us on the UPSS committee, the Gender Studies conference helped us think beyond our departmental goal. Being in dialogue with Professor Snitow and the Gender Studies Group allowed us to meditate on where queer theory fits within the history of feminism, both philosophically and institutionally. This paper is a brief reflection, after the realization of both conferences, on the relationship between feminism and queer studies and why studying both is important for the New School, regardless of one’s gender identity or sexual preference.

To speak about the relationships between feminism and queer theory, I am immediately struck by the questions: “Whose feminism?” and “Which queer theory?” Both of these labels represent schools of thought, identities, non-identities, pedagogies, methodologies, and philosophies. A coherent and elegant definition for these terms simply does not exist without a deeper context, mainly because both work to destabilize male/female and hetero/homo dichotomies. These terms are fluid, and reflect not only on the history of action organized around gender and sexuality, but have also evolved as areas of academic discourses since their entrances into the university. As a scholar, I revel in the inconstancies and multiple interpretations each word inspires; however, such variation makes generalization around the subjects difficult. Broadly speaking, the core connection is a struggle against patriarchy for recognition, legitimacy, and rights, and above all, advocacy for modes of life free from oppressive heteronormativity.

In many ways the successes of feminism throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s cleared a path for queer studies’ emergence in the 1980’s and 1990’s. So then, is queer theory an evolution of feminist thought? Or is queer theory independent from feminism? Lisa Duggan, professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, spoke at Politically Queer, on our keynote panel. She outlined what she saw as the three main uses of the term queer: 1) an identity signifier for radical gay, lesbian, and trans people; 2) an umbrella term encompassing all non-heteronormative sexual and gender identities (a more comprehendible version of the alphabet soup of LGBTQAIA); and 3) a political attitude, not an identity. In discussing the third definition Prof. Duggan described a queer politics akin to how the label feminist was used during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Being a feminist then didn’t presuppose that you had to be a woman.  To call yourself a feminist was an indication of the type of political work you were engaged in. It is crucially important for the success of a diverse queer discourse to think critically about the modern Gay Movement for marriage rights, inclusion in the military, and the neo-liberal shift in LGBT politics. After all, if we learned from voices in the women’s movement that marriage is anti-feminist, then we need to grapple with what gay marriage means for queers and for feminists alike.

A political ideology against patriarchy as it intersects with gender and sexuality is one way to envision the connection between feminism and queer theory. The second strong connection that resonated across both conferences was that gender and sexuality studies examine the world through an interdisciplinary lens. Gender and sexuality are hard to fit into any single discipline, precisely because they are relevant in some capacity to all social, scientific, and artistic inquiries. Judith Jack Halberstam spoke at No Longer in Exile of working to become “…promiscuous with discipline”; José Esteban Muñoz defined Queer as a “method” for looking at the world; Jasbir Puar described the struggle for finding academic spaces for interdisciplinary work, and how new generations of interdisciplinary scholars are opening up the boundaries of old disciplines. Valerie Smith, who spoke at the gender studies conference, described the importance of art, while Ann Cvetkovich spoke to the importance of music. Both No Longer in Exile and Politically Queer brought scholars across disciplines and included art and performance. While there may be arguments within gender studies and within queer studies (and with each other) there was a chorus of agreement that the path forward lies in interdisciplinarity. We must push all areas of the New School to include issues of gender and sexuality in our syllabi, our course offerings, and our student groups.

It is important to note, however, that though interconnected, gender and sexuality do not necessarily refer to the same phenomenological experience. This discrepancy is tied to the language we use to describe our sexuality and our gender, as Judith Butler notes:

Sexuality does not follow from gender in the sense that what gender you ‘are’ determines what kind of sexuality you will ‘have.’ We try to speak in ordinary ways about these matters, stating our gender, disclosing our sexuality, but we are, quite inadvertently, caught up in ontological thickets and epistemological quandaries. Am I a gender after all? And do I ‘have’ a sexuality?

We must be prescient not to conflate gender and sexuality into a unified set of experiences. They are related indeed, but does gender studies inherently include issues of queer people? Does queer studies inherently include the work of feminism? I’m not sure of the answers to those questions. It is vital that we listen to each other because as Butler notes, simply attempting to speak about sexuality and gender is a troublesome task, the “ontological thickets and epistemological quandaries” exist within critical thought as well as our everyday lives.

Similarly, the history of the gay and lesbian movements, and the history of the feminist movement are intricately linked, yet each also has unique characteristics. One shared aspect of these movements is that both are difficult to pin down in history. Did the feminist movement begin with the fight for suffrage? With “Rosy the Riveter?” With Simone de Beauvoir? Did the queer movement begin with the invention of the word homosexuality in Germany in 1869? With the founding of the Mattachine Society, or the Daughters of Bilitis? Did it begin at the Stonewall Inn during the riots of 1969? These are questions that both schools of thought ask and explore, and the answers are relevant to a feminist and queer future.

The full title of the gender studies conference openly provoked such an exploration of the past in order to think about the future: No Longer in Exile: The Legacy and Future of Gender Studies at The New School. We asked each other if queer studies represented the future of feminism. In many of our discussions with the Gender Studies Group, a reservation arose that queer studies was more popular than feminist studies, based on classes available at The New School and interest in those classes.  I would argue one reason for this is the direct result of the success of feminism. Compared to feminists, queers have never been quite as visible within our society, due to a variety of factors including media, television, the Internet, academia, and politics. I believe we are living in a very queer moment, examples of which we see every day, in moments where the state oppresses queer modes of life, from the 37 states that have enacted homophobic legislation against same-sex marriage, to the tying of the Matthew Shepard Act as rider in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010, and even to the recent nomination of Elena Kagen for Supreme Court justice. Here the major controversy over her nomination has nothing to do with her judicial experience but to as whether she is a lesbian or a “spinster,” both of which are deemed unacceptable by pundits and the media. The implicit argument, from both sides, is that there is something abnormal about her personal life making her unfit to sit on the Supreme Court. This continual insistence, that heterosexual marriage and heterosexual sex are the only paths to happiness, demonstrates that there is a great deal of work for both feminists and queers yet to be done.

This queer moment is also reflected in activism and counter-activism that mirror the work of feminism from the 1970’s and 1980’s.  However, I want to push strongly against the idea that feminism is dead, or that gender studies has passed its moment for political work, or that feminism isn’t tied to the queer moment we live in. They are bound together. Those arguments are tone deaf to the work that is being done within New York City and on our campus. Gender and sexuality studies are too interwoven to then compete against each other for the small amount of resources at our disposal. To argue for or against queer theory over feminism is to miss the point entirely.  We need “both and” arguments rather than “either or” arguments, even though philosophically we may be at loggerheads on various issues. We see other universities holistically incorporating gender and sexuality into their institutions. The Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies at NYU and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY are merely two local examples where academic space is afforded to these topics. We should learn from both of these centers as we move forward.

By understanding our past connections we can advocate for a queer future. In José Esteban Muñoz’s book, Cruising Utopia (2009), he argues that, “I think of Queerness as a temporal arrangement in which the past is a field of possibility in which the subjects can act in the present in the service of a new futurity”. This “new futurity” should be one goal of gender and sexuality studies at the New School. Both conferences were full of moments of looking toward the future. This was perhaps most evident by the work of the New School students, the emerging scholars, who conducted some of the most innovative inquiries tackling issues of patriarchy and homophobia alive and well here at the New School. Suzanne Esposito talked about the struggles of organizing the feminist group Moxie and the V-Day Campaign. Howell Williams and Randi Irwin dissected the maternity policies of the New School. Katie Detwiler and Chelsea Estep-Armstrong’s ethnographic study of the role gender studies plays at the New School demonstrated that there is no clear singular viewpoint of how to move forward—but many. They spoke eloquently about the problems and opportunities that lie ahead:

Can a program oriented around clear questions take the dispersion of political anxiety and uncertainty and channel it multi-directionally, not necessarily aiming toward a pure collective consensus, but that allow for affinities to form around mutual interests and contestations –affinities as light constellations that are flexible, yet compelling, that diffuse and grow dense, but that always cross cut disciplinary boundaries.  Can we craft questions which demand an exigency– a willingness to name injustice and be responsive to it– but that are also patient–depend on us listening to, and not just hearing, the polyvocal echoes and ripples that return as response.

In order to create a queerer and more feminist future on the New School campus we must listen to these “polyvocal echoes.”  We must work to create more spaces in more disciplines that allow for such affinities and contested boundaries. It is our hope that the two conferences this year, and this edition of Canon, has set in motion a process that will continue in the future. I hope the papers presented in this issue of Canon inspire more people to join with us in fighting for a more tolerant, open, and progressive institution. Moving forward, after reflecting on the events of this year, we cannot be content with asking “why the hell aren’t we studying this?” The work of the gender studies and queer studies groups on campus have wedged open a closed door at the New School. Next year we knock it down.

I want to thank the editors of Canon, Rachel Signer and Justin Humphreys, for devoting this issue of Canon to the two conferences. I’d also like to thank Professor Ann Snitow for inspiring all of us to join in and strengthen the university together.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender New York: Routledge, 2004:16

Detwiler, Katie and Estep-Armstrong, Chelsea presentation on “Conference

Themes” at No Longer in Exile: The Legacy and Future of Gender Studies at the New School, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, March 26, 2010.

Duggan, Lisa. Keynote Panel Presentation: Politically Queer: Social Inquiry and

the University. The New School for Social Research, May 1, 2010.

Halberstam, Judith Jack, Pheminism, presented at No Longer in Exile: The

Legacy and Future of Gender Studies at the New School, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, March 27, 2010.

“H.R.2647: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 – U.S.

Congress – OpenCongress.” OpenCongress – Track Bills, Votes, Senators, and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. 28 Oct. 2009. <http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h2647/show>.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity.

New York: New York UP, 2009.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Asexual, Intersexed, and Allied.

Lisa Duggan, Keynote Panel Presentation: Politically Queer. The New School for Social Research, May 1, 2010.

Judith Jack Halberstam, Pheminism, presented at No Longer in Exile, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, March 27, 2010.

Judith Butler. Undoing Gender New York: Routledge, 2004:16

“H.R.2647: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 – U.S. Congress – OpenCongress.” OpenCongress – U.S. Congress. 28 Oct. 2009.  <http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h2647/show>.

José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009.

Katie Detwiler & Chelsea Estep-Armstrong presention at No Longer in Exile, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, March 26, 2010.