Politics, Pedagogy, and Shaping Public Policy

We never exactly know when history is going to catch up with us, when we’ll be in the midst of a crucial moment to which posterity will refer as key, as significant, as a lynchpin on which other moments, other decisions, other understandings were founded. The impeachment hearings recently conducted in the House of Representatives dragged us all, unwilling and amazed, into a dark hour of American politics, one in which partisan fury and ideological hatred are translated into strategies of power that disregard and reverse electoral politics. There’s much to say about the disappointing performance of Bill Clinton as President, especially with regard to gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered/queer issues; but the prospect of his ouster by Representatives and Senators with purely political goals is chilling for this country. The radical right that has bent the House to its will has an agenda that g/1/b/tlq people must take seriously as a real and present threat to our material lives. The impeachment vote and the subsequent Senate trial (or Clinton’s resignation, which today seems doubtful) will resonate for months to come, and end as a significant, foundational chapter in 20th century history. Likewise, Matthew Shepard’s cruel death last October provided a galvanizing moment, one in which our communities were compelled to take to the streets to protest, to call out our horror that such hate crimes can continue to happen, now, at the end of the millennium, and so brutally. The candle-lit protest march staged in New York City incurred the wrath of a city administration determined to maintain a notion of civility at all costs. Demonstrators were arrested for moving orderly and peacefully down city streets, their one crime being that they stepped off sidewalks that couldn’t contain the thousands of people who had gathered to embody their horror and their determination not to live in fear of senseless brutality. At the “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change” conference in Pittsburgh last November, a number of sessions were devoted to what the conference organizers called the “campus crisis.” Rooms were packed with people sharing insights into the ways in which their own campuses work to staunch the bleeding hatreds of people spurred to brutality by the radical right. CLAGS offered a panel at the conference, addressing everything from the new conservatism among boards of trustees at public universities, to the consequences of the Wisconsin ruling regarding student activities fees. In that ruling, judges agreed with conservative plaintiffs who argued against spending their monies on “ideologically-oriented” student groups (such as g/1/b/tlq, or racial, or ethnic, or progressive groups, in their reading). At “Creating Change,” we described CLAGS’s advocacy efforts in this regard, which include the establishment of an email discussion list for the purpose of alerting members to conservative attacks especially within public educational institutions (see page 3 for subscription information).

The State University of New York Board of Trustees, for instance, recently voted (without consulting faculty or administrators on any of the SUNY campuses) to reinstall a core curriculum of 10 courses for undergraduate students. The courses include American history and Western civilization; where will g/1/b/tlq lives be addressed in this model? How will women’s studies, race and ethnic studies, and other knowledges that progressive educators have worked so long and hard to include in university and college curricula fit into a restrictive core? And now that they’ve selected the core, what will prevent trustees from dictating how the core is taught, so that it can’t be inflected with more inclusive readings by more progressive faculty?

These are only several examples of the ways in which the political climate is becoming colder on our campuses. Our intellectual work has been attacked recently, as well. Witness the November 9, 1998, issue of the New Republic, in which Lee Siegel excoriates queer theorists Eve Sedgwick, Michael Moon, and Michael Warner, among others. Most notable about this scurrilous attack is Siegel’s mean-spiritedness, the depths to which he sinks to defame these thinkers. At the bottom of his essay is a commitment to New Criticism, to finding the inherent, aesthetic meaning of a text while preserving it from the messiness of politics, ideology, or even the body. But most striking about his screed is the level of anxiety Siegel and his publishers exhibit. If these people are uneasy, or even taking notice, queer theory must be quite influential. CLAGS was proud to honor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as its Kessler lecturer this year. Her talk, “A Dialogue on Love/’ with testimonials by jose Munoz, Cindy Patton, and Michele Wallace, was delivered to a standing-room only crowd in the Proshansky Auditorium at the The Graduate Center, CUNY. The evening was one of the highlights of our Fall programs. We were also delighted that David Kessler, whose generous gift founded this lecture series seven years ago, could join us for the event and its festivities this year. Our Fall schedule also included a major, first-of-its-kind three-day conference, “Queer Middle Ages,” which included a stellar roster of speakers from universities and colleges around the country and the world. We also held a one-day symposium called “Passing Performances,” in which theatre studies scholars described their work addressing the sexuality of earlier generations of performers and producers in American theatre and its implications to theatre history and contemporary practice. And our colloquium series included informal discussions of issues in legal representation and the pedagogy of the legendary Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. CLAGS’s programs continue to serve many purposes. Our mission is to provide a forum for considered debate in an academic environment about some of the key issues of the moment. For example, our Rockefeller-sponsored Spring conference, “Local to Global: Academics and Activists Thinking Towards a Queer Future,” will gather g/1/b/tlq academics and activists, as well as people working in allied political sites and academic disciplines for two days of roundtable plenary sessions. Panelists and participants will discuss issues such as the future of our movement and its coalitions; the ways in which the “race war” continues to inflect gay/lesbian local, national, and global politics; the capitalization of politics, as more and more g/1/b/tlq groups adopt corporate models of organization; and the ways in which we can think more progressively about the question of g/1/b/tlq rights on local, national, and global scales. Board members Lisa Duggan (NYU), Licia Fioi-Matta (Barnard), and Rockefeller Fellow Eric Clarke (Pittsburgh) are the primary organizers of what promises to be a most important event, April 23-24.

Finally, March 11-13, “Crossing Borders II: Autobiography, Testimony, and Self-Figuration in Latina/a and Latin American Literature” will be staged at the Graduate Center. Sponsored by a generous gift from the Michael C.P. Ryan Estate, Ana Mita Betancourt, Executor, and organized by CLAGS Board members Oscar Montero ‘ (CUNY) and Arnalda Cruz-Malave (Fordham), assisted by Ramon Rivera-Servera (CUNY), this three-day conference will host international speakers, scholars, authors, and performers in an intimate investigation of the ways in which experience shapes scholarship and art at the site of identity. I do hope you’ll be able to join us for these events, as well as for our continuing, monthly colloquium series. CLAGS’s events are fashioned from the stuff of our intellectual and activist commitments. join the dialogue and the debate, and share in the ways in which ideas can shape our history and our future.