Visiting CLAGS as a Scholar in Residence

A year ago I was most excited to receive a letter of invitation from CLAGS’ executive director Sarah Chinn to spend the autumn term 2010 as a Scholar in Residence. The idea of returning to CLAGS after 16 years of absence was particularly intriguing for me because I found my last visit there in 1994 most valuable and inspiring for my scholarly work. And I was not to be disappointed this time either.

The most obvious changes between then and now had to do with the office space and amount of personnel CLAGS had gained in the meantime—a quite impressive improvement from the mid 1990s. In addition, CLAGS’s Internet presence with and International Resource Network offers today valuable tools not only for those at CUNY. But most rewarding for a visiting scholar was the insight that CLAGS’s various events and local activities were still going strong, offering intellectual impulses and exchange not only for the scholarly community but for the whole in the city.

In particular I have enjoyed CLAGS’s two major events of this autumn, the first of which has been the wonderful In America They Call Us Dykes: Lesbians Lives in the 70s conference in October. It offered an unparalleled cross section into the lesbian lives, politics and theories of the 1970s, and their ongoing, yet often forgotten influence to queer thinking and activism today. The second was the annual Kessler lecture, this November held by a renowned lesbian activist and organizer Urvashi Vaid on race, sexuality and the future of LGBT politics. Less spectacular, but not less thought provoking were also the other events provided by CLAGS, such as the impressive panel discussion of winners of the Since Stonewall contest, or the wide variety of ongoing series of academic talks offered by visiting scholars.

I was also delighted to learn that CLAGS was collaborating with young queer activists in the city by offering space for the Counterpublic Collective and its inspired queer theory reading group. Likewise, I will be missing the lecture series organized by the Graduate Center’s queer students’ group QUNY on intersections of race, gender and sexuality. As I was to find out, CLAGS is well imbedded in CUNY’s overall environment, which values and fosters queer theory and thinking. In particular, the seminars and events organized by the Humanities caught my attention, including a seminar on Undoing Marriage, Remaking the Social Contract, but I benefitted also from various guest lectures held by queer scholars as part, as it seemed, of virtually any seminar on any topic they had to offer. Such a rich variety of intellectual offerings helps to make CLAGS a very attractive site for visiting scholars interested in cutting edge scholarship on queer studies. To be a Scholar in Residence, without administrative or teaching duties, in such an inspiring environment, has been very beneficial indeed also for my own writing. Since September I have written more than 200 pages for my forthcoming book on openly lesbian and gay politicians in German Federal Republic and Finland. It has been fascinating to do work in New York on a European centered topic, which spans over three decades, at a time when in the U.S. there have been national elections with a Tea Party attendance, repealing DADT has again been brought up in discussions, the “It Gets Better” campaign goes viral (resulting even into a book “Kaikki muuttu paremmaksi” being published in Finland in December 2010) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America has been restaged. That makes one look back and ask oneself, does it really get better? And if so, what is the role openly lesbian and gay politicians have played in that process?

In Germany, the first openly gay rights activist got elected into the Parliament in 1983, followed by an openly radical lesbian feminist in 1987. It is noteworthy that both were members of the Green Party—just as were the two first openly gay men who got into the Finnish Parliament in 2004 and 2007, although, with a lot more moderate politics. By now, along with the Green Party, all the major parties including the Christian democrats, Social democrats and the Liberal democrats, have witnessed in Germany both voluntary coming out of major gay politicians and the (re-) election of their openly gay members into Parliament. However, it is still striking to notice that in Germany the Green party remains the only one with openly lesbian MPs (after the Left Party ceased to have its two out lesbian MPs in 2002).

In Finnish politics one can observe not only a party bias that limits openly gay politicians to the Green Party, but also an even stronger gender bias when it comes to making political careers as an openly homosexual. In Germany of those ten MPs who have outed themselves and currently hold seats in the Parliament, only two have done that as lesbians. Yet when it comes to Finland, there is still no out lesbian elected officials in the Parliament, despite the fact that 42 percent of Finnish parliamentarians are women.

Curiously enough, when one compares the (federal) legislation in these two countries, one nevertheless finds the development rather alike when it comes to decriminalization of homosexual deeds (G: 1969, F: 1971), equal age of consent (G: 1994, F: 1998), Antidiscrimination/Equality Act (G: 2006, F: 1995), registered partnership (G: 2001, F: 2002), or step-child adoption (G: 2005, F: 2009). In Finland alternative insemination for single women and lesbians continues to be legally available since 2006, unlike in Germany, where it is still illegal. One could argue that more than the presence or absence of openly lesbian and gay politicians, the directives presented by European Union since the 1990s are resulting in legislative measures pushed forward in both countries in roughly the same speed. Although openly lesbian and gay politicians have obviously been advocating and advancing antidiscriminatory legislation in a manner dictated by the politics of their respective party of origin, the cultural importance of such politicians’ presence (or absence) might thus be located elsewhere. In Germany openly homosexual politicians were the first publicly known lesbian and gay figures to elevate themselves from the realm of crime and illness—and this continued to be so until mid-1995. Moreover the media coverage of openly lesbian and gay politicians offers an excellent opportunity to follow the shifts that have taken place in the attitudes towards homosexuality among general public, as well as in the understanding of lesbian and gay identity and politics of coming out. Coming out, which used to be understood as a radical political statement, embedded in the lesbian and gay movement of the 1980s, has by the end of 2010s transmuted into a personalized statement of political credibility, more intimately connected with party politics than any sort of queer movement.

In Finnish society the persistent silencing of homosexuality in higher levels of public realm has been cracking only in the late 2010s, likewise after the appearance of the first openly gay politician. Contrary to Germany, openly lesbian parliamentarians still remain nonexistent in the public politics of a country which otherwise appears to be rather equal. Figuring out reasons for that will keep me busy after I go home to Finland at the end of the year. Yet even after finishing my book, I will no doubt be able to draw from my experiences, impulses and friendships gained during my visit in New York.