Taking Up the Torch: Queer CUNY III

On April 19, dozens of administrators, professors, students and supporters from all the CUNY
institutions gathered in Baruch College’s conference center for the annual Queer CUNY
conference. The conference marks the third year that CLAGS has sponsored a forum bringing
people together to discuss the various issues that affect CUNY’s gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and
queer communities. A major difference this time, though, was that Queer CUNY III was organized and
run entirely by students. (The Planning Committee was: John-Wesley Caudill, Jeffrey Chin, Eugene Han,
Daniel Koifman, Kiet Luong, J.R. Martin-Alexander, Ciaran McCormack, and Peter Penrose.)
The conference kicked off with brief reports from campuses in every borough, reflecting on the
progress made since last year’s Queer CUNY conference. John-Wesley Caudill moderated the discussion,
coming into the crowd like a game-show host with a handful of cards bearing questions. He asked a
student and a faculty or staff member from each campus to choose a card and answer the question on
it — “What was the last LGTBQ social event on your campus?” “What LGTBQ courses are available on
your campus?” and so on. The answers quickly created a portrait of LGTBQ life and scholarship across
CUNY, showing a wide disparity among the campuses. Queens College has an active and visible LGTBQ
student group, for instance, and several LGTBQ Studies courses on the books, while Queensboro
currently has neither. (Students from Queensboro at Queer CUNY III used the occasion to learn how to
get a student organization going.)
The group broke up into smaller sessions, first randomly, in “CUNY Organizing Forums” where
participants traded images of what an ideal LGTBQ-friendly campus might look like, and strategies for
how to make it happen. Over dinner, participants chose workshops that dealt with one of three issues:
Culture and Queer Communities (moderated by Eugene Han and Kiet Luong); Politics: Intersections of
Queer and CUNY (moderated by Peter Penrose); and Understanding Transgender (moderated by J.R.
Martin-Alexander and Ciaran McCormack). Each of the groups took a proactive attitude in
understanding the subject matter and facilitated discussion about how to improve life on CUNY
campuses. With recent overt expressions of hatred against the LGTBQ community in the media, the
country’s legislative offices, and in the University itself, the discussions took a decidedly political tone.
Among the questions discussed were: How do we provide safe spaces for our students (and professors)
in the face of increased hostility? How do we bridge communication gaps between the campuses? How
can we work together to make progress?
After the small-group meetings, attendees had an opportunity to network with other campuses
and strategize about next steps toward making CUNY a more queer-friendly university. Many called for
a need for more communication between students and professors at all the campuses and people
unanimously agreed that having one Queer CUNY a year wasn’t enough, that to make progress we
needed to band together more consistently.
The conference concluded with a keynote address by transgender rights activist, Tina Donovan.
Donovan, 64, charmed the group, talking candidly about her experiences struggling and surviving.
Donovan recounted her early days out on the piers of Chelsea and her recent trials with federal financial
assistance and medical care, time-lining a history of hardship and progress for the LGTBQ movement.
Donovan’s enthusiasm and obvious self-security was well articulated as she talked feverishly about the
importance of including transgender activism in the queer movement and the overall importance of not
giving up. It was Donovan’s stories about her journey as an activist that ended the conference with a
feeling of hope and possibility for the future. “It’s up to the youth to make the changes we haven’t been
able to make,” she said, urging CUNY’s students to take up the torch. “The ones who put in so much
for what you have today,” she added, “should not be forgotten.”

Jennifer Weiss is currently working on her undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies and Political Science at
Hunter College. She is the Editor-In-Chief of the Hunter Envoy.