Establishing a Meaningful Dialogue: A Student’s Reflection on Queer CUNY

At the annual Queer CUNY
conference, held at Queens College
in March, about 100 students, staff,
and faculty from most of the CUNY
campuses, made useful contacts and aired
some important questions in plenary
sessions such as “Out on Campus: Reports
from the Boroughs,” and “Generating
Scholarship” and in smaller sessions such
as a student meeting on organizing and
networking. But amid the high spirits and
energetic debate, one thing became more
and more evident as the day went on:
There is no widespread agreement on the
terms we use to describe Queer Studies or
even our queer lives.
The Queer CUNY Conference
provided a vivid example of how we can’t
even decide what the word “queer” really
means. In the “Report from the
Boroughs,” representatives from each
school got up and used different names
for their student groups. Approximately
half of them included only the words “gay
and lesbian” in their names or acronyms,
and a few more included “bisexual.” Only
a handful included the full spectrum of
“gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender,”
including an admirable transwoman who
had become the president of her queer
student group at Brooklyn College.
Throughout the day, lines around Queer
Studies blurred, as many faculty members
used the term “Queer Studies” synonymously
with “Gay and Lesbian Studies.”
Countless times, bisexual and
transgendered people were pushed to the
sidelines. Blanche Wiesen Cook, the
keynote speaker, addressed the
connections between queer activists and
other causes, such as civil rights, labor,
and women’s issues. But the connections
among gay, bisexual and transgendered
people were never fully addressed. In an
early session, the faculty advisor of one
undergraduate group proudly explained
how he had prevented students on his
campus from holding a drag ball, lest they
feed into stereotypes.
To be queer is to be different. Queer
is about breaking down the hierarchies
that exist between people everywhere. We
cannot truly be queer unless we break
down the hierarchies within our own
community. These include not only race,
class, gender, and gender expression, but
age and education. The conference was
meant to be a day for students, staff, and
faculty to mix and discuss queer issues at
CUNY. It became apparent, however, that
at any point when the groups were
mixed, the faculty dominated the
discussion. This is not to put blame on
any group, but to point out a serious
problem. The students are the future of
this field: Queer Studies will have no
future unless the program of study is
strong and relevant to many of the issues
in the queer community.
In order for any community to
survive, it needs to have a sense of itself,
both historically and in the present day. A
community must have goals and dreams
that stem from both the needs of its
people and its heritage. It is essential to
define who we are, instead of allowing
others to do it for us. This seems to me to
be one quintessential purpose of Queer
Studies: Recording personal narratives,
organizing data, and establishing some
kind of cultural foundation within which
we can continue to live, love, and struggle
as a people. Though a range of LGBTQ
scholarship of the last decade or two has
certainly contributed to this project,
students entering LGTBQ Studies and lives
always need to participate in this process,
even if some older students and scholars
have moved away from this imperative to
focus on the breaking down of identity
categories or on other aspects of the field.
At next year’s Queer CUNY
Conference, it would be extremely useful
if everyone sat down and had an
intergenerational discussion on how the
queer community is defined. This
discussion may bring out the striking
differences of opinion in the queer
community and border on the edge of
civility, but that can only be beneficial in
the long run. A whole host of various selfdefinitions,
after all, are better than any
neat, packaged definition thrust upon us
by a society that wishes to see us
assimilate. It would be a great triumph to
see the same people who discouraged
their student groups from holding drag
balls speaking out on the right for all
people to freely express their gender
identity. Let’s make plans to empower
ourselves now.

Kerri McCormack is an undergraduate at
Queens College, majoring in Political Science.