June 26, 2013. I walked into the CLAGS office just after 10am, and I hadn’t even booted up my computer when the phone rang. On the line was Tanya Domi, the Graduate Center’s Media Relations Director and CLAGS’s newest BFF. “The Supreme Court struck down DOMA,” she said without a prefatory “hello.” Now, if you know Tanya, you are familiar with her cooler than cool manner, which has been instrumental in getting me down from CLAGS’s seventh-story ledge more times than I care to admit during her first spring at CUNY. In her characteristic style, then, Tanya delivered the news without inflection, without a hint of her own position, and without indication of the momentousness of the dispatch (and this, by the way, explains in part why she is so perfect for her media relations job). My initial reaction to the seemingly unbiased report was despair and anger, “This is an outrage! How could they strike it down?” But then it dawned on me, “Oh, wait. Struck down DOMA: That’s a good thing.”
Surely, my synapse disconnect was a result of the news from the day before, and I had emotionally prepared myself to be disappointed on the two lesbian and gay marriage rulings. Besides, the phrase “struck down” varies wildly in meaning depending the context. On June 25th, after all, the Supremes had struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which helped to prohibit discrimination at the polls. A benchmark achievement of the Civil Rights era, the Voting Rights Act provided federal and legislative safeguards assuring that the voices and votes of people of color would not be stifled. While Chief Justice Roberts claimed that the ruling was based on decades-old formulae and should be sent back to Congress for retooling, anyone with a passing awareness of the current do-nothing House knows that the decision threw civil rights back at least fifty years.
I am often accused of being a glass-half-empty type, so rather than reveling in the glorious news of June 26th, my joy was tempered by the disheartening pronouncement of the 25th, as well as my lingering despondency over the murder of Mark Carson, the black and gay young man who had been struck down the month before in New York’s West Village. So, as married lesbian and gay couples in the thirteen states in which their marriages are legal began filling out joint-tax return forms and revising benefit package information, several states, including Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, were already moving forward with new ballot restrictions. And anti-gay attacks, the New York Police Department reported, were up 70 percent compared with the same period in the previous year.
As we celebrate the accelerated pace of LGBT social acceptance and legal equality—and we most definitely should celebrate—we need to be ever vigilant. If we are to learn anything from the spike in violence against LGBT people and the back-to-back rulings of this past June, it is that we cannot be complacent in assuming that discrimination in its myriad forms will dissipate and die through a federal mandate or a legislative striking-down. In fifty years or so, we could find ourselves (or our LGBT progenies, as the case may be) once again battling the institutionalization of homophobia, and the arguments will no doubt sound similar to the ones we have just heard: The rights of LGBT people no longer need to be protected and that homophobia is passé, so early twenty-first century. As we can see from the systemic violence occurring in Russia, protecting the rights of LGBT people continues to be relevant.
Judging from the turnout at our conferences, invited-speaker programs, and the Seminar in the City series, however, it is clear that CLAGS’s communities are anything but complacent. Many of our events were filled to capacity, and on a few occasions we had to regrettably turn people away. We have, thankfully, entered the digital age head-on, and most of our offerings have been and will continue to be livestreamed. We are thrilled that we now have the capacity to engage with individuals from across the world, and they will not be denied access due to space constrictions.
The roster of speakers and invited guests from our past spring program and co-sponsored events demonstrated once again that CLAGS is committed to taking on a range of issues facing LGBT people locally and globally. Dean Spade, Urvashi Vaid, Holly Hughes, Jill Dolan, Jasbir Puar, Darnell Moore, and Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, to name just a very few (and please see the detailed write-ups within this newsletter for a full sampling of our offerings this past spring), proved that we are not afraid of initiating difficult dialogues and entering into fraught discourses. Some of the topics of the spring included the suppression of race and gender within current lesbian and gay politics, the difficulties facing queer artists, LGBT oppression in a global context, hate crimes in our communities, and support for health care workers assisting LGBT populations.
I wish I could say that all of the problems addressed in these convocations had been summarily solved, but, of course, they are far too complex for easy fixes or stroke-of-the-pen decrees. In the coming year we will resume these conversations and build on the work already begun. Confirmed or in the planning stages are conferences and events that will challenge us to consider the disparities of privilege among our LGBT ranks, our cultural and social histories, and the day-to-day struggles facing LGBT youth and the elderly. We look forward to hosting these gatherings and hope that you will be a part of the discussion either in person or online. Our future depends on the active involvement and organized resistance to discrimination of all of our constituencies.