Taking the Reins

Dear Friends:

I am enormously proud (and intimidated) to be succeeding Sarah Chinn as Executive Director of CLAGS. This is, to say the least, an interesting moment to assume the reins of one of the foremost LGBT organizations in the country. The New York State Senate delivered a huge win to supporters of gay marriage; Illinois and Florida have passed bills prohibiting discrimination in lesbian and gay adoptions; and in a historic vote the United Nations formally endorsed the rights of international LGBT people. Still, the good news is tempered by simultaneous unfortunate realities. As Larry Kramer necessarily reminds us as his play The Normal Heart raked in a number of well-deserved awards last June in its Broadway premiere, AIDS is still very much with us after thirty years and counting; and the Tennessee Senate approved the bizarre (even by right-wing standards) “Don’t-Say-Gay” bill, which prohibits teachers from discussing homosexuality in kindergarten to eighth-grade classrooms. Foregrounding the political and social triumphs and challenges is the continuing dire economic news that directly affects all of us in LGBT communities and academia.

In the last two decades CLAGS has assumed a leading role in providing space, resources, and well-informed voices on the issues affecting local, national, and international LGBT communities, and I look forward to contributing to the essential tasks of the thriving organization. With drastic cuts to state and local budgets and while faced with assaults on the rights of public workers, however, we will have our work cut out for us.

I know from experience that we are up to the challenge. I have a long association with CUNY, a public institution that has historically been very supportive of CLAGS. In the 1990s I was a Ph.D. student in the Theatre program, and in 2000 I was hired as a tenure-track faculty in the English Department at LaGuardia Community College, and most recently I was appointed to the faculty of the Theatre program at the Graduate Center.

My relationship with CLAGS goes back nearly as far. My scholarly work focuses on the histories of lesbian and gay communities, and I am interested in the theatrical and everyday performances of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. My research has been enriched by public colloquia and conferences sponsored by CLAGS over the years. In addition to being a member of the organization for the last fifteen years or so, I worked in the office when I was completing my Ph.D. My responsibilities included overseeing the member database, planning and organizing conferences, and editing the newsletter. I mention this information as a point of professional history rather than as a statement of qualification.

The CLAGS of 2011 is remarkably different from the CLAGS with which I was professionally affiliated in the late 1990s. The organization has grown exponentially, and I do not think any of us then (with Jill Dolan at the helm) could have imagined, for instance, the extensive LGBT global connections and digital historical archives that CLAGS now initiates and manages. Looking forward, we will need to be even more vigilant in demonstrating that the activism around LGBT communities intersects and merges with issues around race, gender, disability, and class. We are going to have to bring to bear what we know in these areas and create new ways of thinking in these different economic times.

Much of the groundwork has already been laid. Sarah, the Board, and the CLAGS staff have organized a program in the coming year that will foster the kinds of dialogue that are crucial to building and strengthening alliances among disciplines. The Kessler Conversations will offer a vital opportunity to bring scholars, activists, and artists to examine, probe, and openly debate academic discourse and public policy. I am sure these events will be a bridge to CLAGS’s next anniversary benchmark.

My dedication to research and academic scholarship is matched only by my commitment to pedagogy, and I am excited about the Masters program already in development. As a community college and graduate school professor, I teach students of vastly different educational experiences, and I have worked with individuals holding widely divergent perspectives on LGBT literature, performance, and history. CLAGS has a rich history in supporting faculty and graduate students who face resistance in making their curricula more inclusive, and the Masters program will profit from the wealth of resources that twenty years of cutting-edge pedagogy and research can provide. Faculty members from across CUNY have offered their creative and intellectual energies in putting the program into place, and we have a rare opportunity for framing the discussion, advancing new knowledge in the field, and bolstering community activism. The Masters in LGBT Studies will further situate CLAGS in the academic vanguard.

Before I officially commence my tenure as the new Executive Director I must acknowledge the incredible work Sarah Chinn has done over the last four years. CLAGS’s vitality is practically palpable as a result of her leadership and vision, and it is organizationally, intellectually, and (miraculously) financially more viable than ever. In truth, Sarah has become my new idol. After every debriefing meeting this spring, I had a bit more awe in her breadth of knowledge around LGBT issues as well as her unflappable management style. She has clearly devoted the better part of her emotional and scholarly energy to the organization for the past several years, and to see her family and friends rally around her at the Passing of the Torch event was truly inspiring. I know I speak for everyone when I wish her a productive and intellectually sustaining sabbatical.

I look forward to working with an exceptional Board of Directors, valiantly led by Daniel Hurewitz. Daniel and the Board have been amazingly supportive during the transition, and I know I will benefit from their hard work and expertise. I also appreciate the diligence and camaraderie of the cracker-jack staff, who make the prospect of spending long hours in the CLAGS office actually rather appealing.

And now, the work begins.

Signed,

James F. Wilson