Academics, Advocacy, and Activism

One of the ways in which CLAGS distinguishes itself from other academically based research centers is through our firm commitment to bridging the academic and activist spheres within the larger lesbian and gay social and political communities. This Spring, we sponsored a roundtable discussion addressing arts censorship that included twenty-five academics and activists concerned about the ways in which the decrease in public arts funding on national and local levels around the country is meant to further disenfranchise lesbians, gay men, and people of color (whether or not they’re lesbian or gay). Roundtable participants traced out in compelling and persuasive ways the methods used by conservative ideologues to focus their attacks on artists already marginalized by mainstream funding sources and by dominant representations. Douglas Crimp, for example, noted that the dismantling of the NEA is a policy decision meant to exclude sexual and racial minorities from a common notion of democracy. He insisted that this country needs publicly funded art so that artists are free to speak critically, to air their dissent and their differences, and to expand our notion of w hat “community” means. Carole Vance said the art censorship issues are about money, space, and citizenship, and are intimately related to who is entitled to public funds to speak. Miranda Joseph argued that moving the arts toward private funding will mean much less access for many fewer people, and the production of culture that reflects only a rul ing-class perspective. She insisted that the Left has to argue that the state can take a positive role in the regulation and distribution of culture. Gary Schwartz, of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, cautioned that not all artists have progressive politics, and that artists are difficult to organize. Katherine Acey, Executive Director of the Astraea Foundation, suggested that we have to be mindful of the groups that don’t even get public funding, who are disenfranchised at an even more profound level. Graciella Sanchez, who joined the CLAGS roundtable from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in $an Antonio, Texas, reminded us that this debate is as much about race and class as it is about sexuality and gender. Those being disenfranchi sed are those who can least afford to lose their access to public funding. Esperanza, which programs many of its events around gay and lesbian and Latino/a themes, lost a major portion of its funding when the San Antonio City Council voted to cut back its support last Fall. Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director of Women Make Movies, suggested that we need a coalitional framing of these issues, one that allows us to address the attack on women’s sexuality, as well as gay/lesbian sexuality and race. The groups and people under attack (from the NEA Four, to the Esperanza Center, to Out North Theatre in Alaska, to Cheryl Dunye’s film, Watermelon Woman) have no staff or money to respond any way but reactively.

Susan Wright, of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, suggested that the ways in which these issues play out on university campuses tend to replicate how they play in the culture at large. The debacle at SUNY-New Paltz over their Women’s Studies Program’s Revolting Behavior conference is an example of the same sorts of political ideologies at work. Careful attention needs to be paid to counter arguments against radical studies of sexuality at university sites. As CLAGS Board Member Ann Pellegrini argued, academics haven’t had access to large audiences in which to advance persuasive arguments around these issues. We need to develop long-term arguments in order to promote a lasting cultural shift. We need more than one strategy, and must make connections outside of our institutional sites. Academics and artists alike are often accused of not laboring, of wasting taxpayers’ money on ill-begotten, liberal pursuits. We need to join forces to argue for the importance of arts and education in American culture, and for the profound contributions of the scholars and artists who work very hard to produce culture and knowledge. Arts censorship and an analysis of recent defundings are just one of the arenas in which CLAGS will be focusing its efforts next year. Our April 1999 Rockefeller-sponsored conference will address the state of gay and lesbian politics. Called Local Politics and Global Change: Academics and Activists Thinking About a Queer Future, the event will allow us to do the work of bridging academic and activist audiences and issues to which CLAGS is committed. Do contact us if you have ideas, issues, or time to contribute to these projects.

Thanks for your membership in CLAGS. I look forward to seeing all of you at our events next year.