On a sticky May 6, 50 CUNY lesbian, gay, bisexual,transgender, two-spirited, questioning (lgbttq) and otherwise allied students, faculty and staff gathered to soak up the air conditioning on the 9th floor of the Graduate Center—and to participate in the first-ever CUNY-wide Queer Conference. The all day “Campus Organizing Across the Boroughs” conference, sponsored by CLAGS, was light on ideology and heavy on intercampus networking, strategizing and cooperative future-activity planning.
It was no Millennium March. Not only was our event slightly better attended by official reports, but the conference was also decidedly easy-going. Alisa Solomon, Executive Director of CLAGS, set the laid-back tone in her opening remarks. We are here, she said, “to share questions,victories, strategies, defeats and maybe a song or two.” Although no one sang, two young men did do some modified ballroom dancing amidst the pesto, goat cheese and wine at the after-conference reception. Since I am new to queer organizing and shy of singing without Kareoke-machine accompaniment, my input at the “Queer Club 101” roundtable took the form of story-telling. At City College, we just formed our Rainbow Alliance this year. City’s campus is not like Queens College. There the Gay & Lesbian Union (GLU) is experiencing a renaissance. GLU boasts 37 active members and a reputation as the most fun club on campus. Women who identify as straight, apparently drawn to the safe, open-minded and, of course, fun, environment, rank as some of GLU’s most avid supporters. Hunter College’s two separate, but cooperative groups, Gay Men’s Alliance and Lesbians Rising have been around for 30 continuous years. They have a giant room, a computer, a TV&VCR and weekly programming.
The climate at City is very different. At my first-ever City class, I was impressed that no one seemed to bat an eye at the African American male-to-female transgender student who took up a fair amount of class time voicing her identity issues. That night I was ready and psyched to spend my time at City in atmosphere of previously unknown diversity and openness. I never saw that student again and spent the next year convinced I was the only queer about campus. My inquiries into the demise of the last lgbttq club, which folded into mysterious oblivion in 1992, were met with shrugged shoulders and one vague reference to “someone, a long time ago, in the art department.” I dealt with pervasive heterosexism in the classroom and homophobia in the halls by resigning myself to being an outsider. Now it is almost another year later and I know that City’s campus is neither a hotbed of diversity nor the last great bastion of heterosexuality. Finding my lgbttq community on campus required me losing my ridiculously narrow preconceptions about what queer people look and act like; it was also a matter of me losing my alien act and hanging fliers calling all queers to email me.
Participants in the organizing roundtables I attended stressed that CUNY campus organizers need to acknowledge and draw on differences within our student, faculty and staff populations for our strength. These ideas were doubly stressed during the plenary, facilitated by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz of Queens College Worker Education Extension Center and Oscar Montero of Lehman College. Issues of multiple identities and the need for equal representation and inclusion for all sisters and brothers shaped the bulk of our discussions. One student spoke of the “racism masquerading as preference” within his gay community. The ethnic and queer identities represented by the 50 conference participants reflected the same exclusivity queer academia suffers from overall. While the bars, clubs and the Village may be full of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, Caribbean, etc. queer individuals, queer academia continues to suffer from white-out. Professor Paisley Currah of Brooklyn College pointed out a similar lack of representation of transgendered members of the CUNY population.
Representatives from different campuses reported varying degrees of homophobia and heterosexism present in the halls and classrooms, but no one felt that that their campus offered equal rights and equal opportunities for lgbttq individuals. Community and the visibility it provides were agreed to be essential to political gains.
A faculty member from the College of Staten Island reminded us that there also needs to be an affirmation of the diversity in styles of living the life. Not everyone wants to be “out and proud” and who can agree what that means anyway? One in 10 and two in 20 loathed the conference terms flaming and queer. A few attendees took pains to ground and reminded us that being out is not only a choice but also a privilege. College can be a time and space of questioning and change, and lgbttq organizers need to provide a safe, confidential and supportive environment.
That the conference happened at all was considered an achievement of intercampus networking and cooperation in itself. Undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff of CUNY and CLAGS met several times over the semester to make the event happen. Planning committee chair Robert Kaplan and the CLAGS staff were thanked in particular for their organizational efforts. Plans made include: meeting like this annually, generating and circulating an intercampus email list, setting foot on each other’s campuses and marching in the Manhattan Pride Parade under a common CUNY banner.
At CCNY The Rainbow Alliance is still in its formative stages. We need new members, ideas and the support of other clubs. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.