Changing of the Guard

“Unzipping the Monster Dick.” I thought nothing of this title when planning the fall 2003 CLAGS and a speaker, Santiago Solis, suggested it. It seemed to me, a denizen of the world of queer studies, unremarkable, even normal as I jotted it down. Solis, who was finishing his PhD in Learning Dis/abilities at Teachers College, Columbia University at the time, had the requisite explanatory subtitle: “Deconstructing Ableist Penile Representations in two Ethnic Homoerotic Magazines.”

The CLAGS fall calendar came out a short time later, and I got a call from a senior administrator at the Graduate Center. Even more senior administrators were concerned, he told me, that “Monster Dick” might attract the attention of the tabloids and the enmity of the organized right wing in the state. The previous year, Governor Pataki had appointed a conservative priest, described as an “outspoken foe” of gay rights, to the CUNY Board of Trustees. The administration, he continued, would like CLAGS to change the title, tone it down, make it less raunchy. (The administrators involved are no longer at the Graduate Center.)

We didn’t change the title.

The talk, which was part of CLAGS’s ground-breaking year-long series, “Claiming Disability: New Work at the Intersection of LGTBQ and Disability Studies,” did not go off without controversy. In fact, that colloquium was one of the most harrowing of my moderating experiences at CLAGS. While the title did not draw unwanted attention from the tabloids, it did attract two men attending their very first CLAGS event. While they seemed receptive to the slides of the massive members, they took issue with the speaker’s disability studies critique of gay porn. The low point came during the Q & A, when one of them yelled, “You’re telling me I’m supposed to jack off to pictures of men with Down’s Syndrome?” Other audience members jumped in to defend the speaker-it was his very first academic talk-and the battle was joined.

I can’t even begin to sum up all that’s happened during my four years as CLAGS ED, but I tell this story to give some sense of the challenges, the provocations, and the messiness that define the organization for me. I’m sure most longtime CLAGS members, and perhaps even newer ones, can recount other moments of intense dialogue (shouting matches). That’s what happens when new research troubles established truths (even gay ones), when intellectual and community norms collide, when canons collapse and new theories, practices, peoples take shape. The inquiry we support does not give easy answers, or carefully rehash safe academic orthodoxies. Happenings at CLAGS usually raise questions, eyebrows, and voices.

A final letter from an outgoing executive director should be crammed with lists of achievements, thanks, and suggestions for future directions. Now that I’ve used up much of my word count on the monster dick story, let me give you a very abbreviated version of the traditional form.

There really is no need to recount our achievements here-just peruse our online archives and past issues of CLAGSnews to see all that CLAGS has done. Raising money, though, is hard, behind-the-scenes work. During my time at CLAGS, I had the great fortune of working with the talented Sara Ganter, CLAGS’s Director of Development, who helped CLAGS raise over $1.3 million in grants and donations, including a new grant of $361,000 from the Ford Foundation to support the next stages of the International Resource Network. Sara, who left CLAGS last spring after the birth of a second child, will be sorely missed.

As for thanks, it was truly a pleasure to work with the graduate students who comprise the CLAGS staff. They are all devoted, smart, and fun. The Board of Directors does much of the work that staff at other organizations do, from programming events to reading fellowship applications, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with an exceptionally hard-working and engaged board during my four years. I am also grateful for the mentoring offered to me by all the former executive directors of CLAGS: Martin Duberman, Jill Dolan, and Alisa Solomon.

There is no need to chart out, or even hint at, CLAGS’s future here. I’m leaving CLAGS in exceptionally strong hands. Sarah Chinn, an Associate Professor of English at Hunter College whose work explores questions of race, sexuality, and gender in U.S. literature, is going to be a superb executive director. She has incredible enthusiasm and energy, extensive knowledge of the field, and a real desire to strengthen queer studies within CUNY and beyond.

When politicians leave office, they often say they look forward to “spending more time with their family.” For academics stepping down from administrative posts, one can’t wait to “get back to teaching and writing.” I’m not only leaving CLAGS with a handful of unfinished research projects simmering on my desk, I’m also absconding with a board member, and now find myself in the midst of a family. So, to close my “treasurer’s report” with a double-dose platitude-I will miss CLAGS, but I truly am looking forward to having more time for family life, and to getting back to my writing.

Paisley Currah

Outgoing Executive Director