LGBT Studies: Past, Presences and Futures (Futures of the Field)

When I rolled out of bed at 4 am on
April 20 to make the trip to New York
for “Futures of the Field: Building LGBT
Studies into the 21st Century University,” the
idea of discussing institutionalization was less
than appealing. In a time of staff cutbacks,
increasing courseloads and notoriously poor job
markets, going back to sleep seemed a much
better idea.
Refreshingly, lament was not in the air. Alisa
Solomon set the tone of the conference by
describing it as a forum for going “where the
best of our imaginations may take us.” A certain
radicalness entered the auditorium when Judith
Butler stated unequivocally, that there should be
no canons, or rather “tombstones,” of sacred
texts in queer studies. Instead, we should develop
living critical practices that analyze even our own
processes of knowledge production. Sharon
Holland brought to bear a further challenge to
the institutional and intellectual boundaries
guiding queer scholarship. In order to transform
our institutions, Holland argued, why not turn
around the common insistence on bringing
academic work into our communities and seek
also to bring the community into the classroom?
For example, she noted, we might begin thinking
of new ways of reading dossiers, in order to bring
often-excluded community scholars into the
university. Taking a different tack, Jonathan Katz
proposed that only the security of departmental
status could make a home for the radical analytic
and creative potential that queer studies brings as
an “undisciplined discipline.”
Emerging during the course of the
conference was not consensus, but a set of
debates over what fights needed to be fought
and how. Asking how we create forms of thinking
in which the analysis of sexuality and gender is
not separated from the analysis of race, class,
colonialism and transnationalism became a
cornerstone for the first day’s discussion.
Additionally, how do we create those forms of
thinking without losing sight of the differences
among those categories? Anjali Arondekar argued
that the analytic exportation of American and
European models of “queer” and “race” often
elide the complex history of colonialism that is
also part of the history of racialization and
sexuality. Vivien Ng argued that we have not yet
fully challenged the implicit boundaries of either
disciplinarity or interdisciplnarity; why not push
the university’s understanding of LGBT studies,
women’s studies and ethnic studies by
recognizing them as collaborators in as a field of
“liberation” or “social justice” studies? Robert
Reid-Pharr asked the troubling question, what
kinds of challenges are possible within an institutional
environment where the creation of new
knowledges may well be met with “tolerance,”
even respect, without a change in the allocation
of resources?
One key question bridging the first and
second days of discussion asked what are the
conditions under which we create queer
knowledge? Jeffrey Escoffier noted that
intellectual work often takes place outside of
colleges and universities, particularly around the
publishing of queer magazines and books. As an
example of the importance of knowledge from
outside the academy, he pointed to the refusal of
CDC recommendations on AIDS prevention
(“stop having sex”) by AIDS activists who relied
on their own community knowledge to create
the framework of safe sex. Framji Minwalla
observed that the university, from the nineteenth
century onwards, was imagined as a place of socalled
“superior” European knowledge. Minwalla
noted that the “easy incorporation” of queerness
and sexuality into the university’s corporate
administrative structures should make us question
our role in the commodification and colonization
of sexuality and sexual identities. In turn,
Miranda Joseph argued that within the context of
globalization, the university’s incorporation of the
study of “otherness” and difference may be far
from radical.
The context of the corporate university
should make us particularly suspicious, noted Ann
Pellegrini, of the instrumentalizing language of
usefulness and productivity. When queer theory is
attacked as serving no one’s needs and
producing nothing of practical value, does that
criticism not reinforce a heteronormative
understanding that privileges productive sexuality
over non-reproductive pleasures?
Throughout the second day, what also
became increasingly central was the divide
between public and private universities, and the
unevenness of institutional development on an
international scale. The profile of LGBT studies
seemed often to be represented by a handful of
well-established programs; outside of those centers,
however, graduate students spoke frequently of a
lack of LGBT studies faculty at their institutions, and
a sense that they were often in the position of selfteaching.
Alongside the issue of increasing
resources, what seemed further needed for the
development of the field was an awareness of the
possibilities, demands and limitations of the selftaught
graduate student doing queer work.
Similar concerns were voiced by Pauline Park
about transgender studies. Even while transgender
studies has become increasingly visible, most of the
work is being done by non-tenured faculty, graduate
students and independent scholars. At the same
time, leading figures in transgender studies often do
not identify as transgendered, although their work
may greatly affect trans- identities and communities.
When and how will there be tenured transgendered
faculty to secure the T at the end of “LGBT”?
Complicating matters, different forms of
scrutiny are imposed by university administrations,
the media and state legislatures on public and
private schools. Public institutions are not necessarily
hostile to LGBT studies: Molly Merryman noted that
the relative ease of establishing the Kent State
University program emerged from a combination of
being able to secure funding and find administrative
allies. Amy Kesselman, an organizer of the famous
“Revolting Behavior” conference at SUNY New Paltz,
put the conservative attack on queer sexuality in the
context of a larger conservative assault on public
higher education in New York State.
The conference closed with an acknowledgement
of the complex relationship between the
creation of knowledge and its institutional settings.
John D’Emilio noted that “however we institutionalize…
we need this work everywhere” in the
university. The alternative is to become embattled,
“desperate teachers.” Judith Halberstam argued for
the importance of interdisciplinarity in terms of
“using methods that best match the project,” where
creative methods are brought to bear on creative
projects. Halberstam suggested that we must push
the boundaries of who writes on what subjects.
These analyses, the questions they open and
the wide range of directions and projects they
suggest, all point not to the failure or decline of
queer studies, but to the opposite: these were
discussions that have the possibility of getting us
somewhere new, and of making sure that there will
indeed be a future for LGBT studies.

Richard M. Juang is a doctoral candidate in Englsh at
Cornell University