Challenging Assumptions: A Social Worker’s View of Futures of the Field

It was a pleasure to gather with other LGBT
scholars from across the country, including
some of the biggest names in the field, at the
conference, “Futures of the Field: Building LGBT
Studies into the 21st Century.” That said, I came
away with some serious reservations about the
state of our field, where we will be going, and
who is leading us there. I spoke a few times at
the conference, but I wanted to offer my
thoughts in a more coherent and comprehensive
I found myself alternately saddened,
angered, and challenged by the insular and
elitist nature of some of the presenters and the
audience members. As a social work scholar at
North Carolina State University, I violated many
attendees’ assumptions in three different ways,
as: (1) an academic in a professional discipline,
(2) someone working outside the sacred
Northeast and West coasts, and (3) an employee
of a public institution serving working-class
students. I also gladly claim an identity as a
feminist, a label that I see as linked to the
challenging of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism
and homophobia, and other forms of
discrimination and oppression. I worried
throughout the conference about the trashing of
feminism by some as a passé term that assumes
the primacy of gender over other categories—
that is not my experience or understanding of
the word. I believe that feminism and Women’s
Studies have changed and grown, not withered
and died, and become even more relevant.
Scholars in the professional fields, such as
nursing, psychology, education, public health,
social work, law, and the like, are doing some
wonderful research with LGBT populations. We
use the theory being developed by other fields
and apply it in our more empirical research with
these populations. Our research has immediate
and practical impact on these populations, as we
usually suggest implications of our findings for
practice with these populations. Most of us have
the interdisciplinary background being
advocated by the speakers, and yet our
perspectives were often missing or ignored.
Certainly, there was no one representing our
perspectives on any of the panels, with the
exception of Dr. Robert Schoenberg, who was
there not as a social work scholar but as the
director of a LGBT Center. How can LGBT
Studies be interdisciplinary if it ignores the
professional disciplines and leaves all the
“bridging work” to those of us on this side of
the divide?
I was taken aback somewhat by the
suggestion from one member of the audience
that panelists and other queer theorists go out
to the “hinterlands,” as she called it, and share
the gospel of queer theory. “We could go in
groups,” she proposed, articulating a fear that
somehow queer folks would be reviled or
attacked in “backwater” places. While it could
be argued that this was just the opinion of one
person, my experience at the conference
suggests that several people in attendance
shared this perspective. Yet, it assumes two facts
not in evidence that I would argue are actually
complete misconceptions: First, that there are no
scholars in America’s heartland or the South who
can understand or articulate these theories.
Second, that there is more violence against gays
and lesbians in these areas than in other areas of
the country.
As I am sure you are aware, the South has
produced some of this country’s most active and
vocal LGBT activists, writers, and scholars. In
North Carolina alone, Mandy Carter, Mab
Segrest, and Alan Gurganus spring to mind as
models of combining activism, writing, and
scholarship. They recognize the utility of “gay
and lesbian identities” in political and social
advocacy. Perhaps this is the root of some of my
problems with the conference—the spoken and
unspoken agreement by some of the panelists in
the plenary presentations that those who
challenge queer theory and a commitment to
post-identity projects are uneducated, lazy, antiintellectual,
or, like the much-maligned “1970s
feminists,” hopelessly out of date.
As a person who identifies as a social work
scholar, a partnered lesbian, a Jew, a teacher of
working-class students, and a resident of the
South, that kind of thinking strikes me as out of
touch with the lived realities of people outside of
the academy. For many, “gay” and “lesbian”
identities (among others) are both socially
constructed abstractions and real, concrete, and
important parts of how we experience our lives.
Only deconstructing how “lesbian identity” is
defined within different communities risks
missing the ways in which the active and passive
identification of certain persons as lesbians limits
opportunities, shapes interactions with social and
political systems, and offers opportunities for
community, struggle and change in the material
world. I hope that this perspective is adequately
represented at future conferences.
As for the assumption that violence against
LGBT persons is worse outside NYC and
California, I will not argue rates of harassment,
assault, or murder. These statistics are always
low, due to fear of reporting and improper classification
of hate crimes. I will, however, note that
in all the data I have seen about attacks and
harassment in the South, none has been of a
visiting scholar brought to campus to talk about
queer theory or LGBT studies. Let us never forget
that we are, as we would say in North Carolina,
a very privileged bunch of folks.
I believe that we scholars doing LGBT studies
bear some responsibility to LGBT students and
other marginalized students in our schools and
universities. I hope that this is part of our
mission. LGBT students drop out of school at an
alarmingly high rate, and we know that
attempted and successful suicide rates are
astronomical for this population. While
encouraging students to live a “life of the mind”
is a noble goal, it is necessary to remember we
need also to encourage students to live. As
Miranda Joseph stated in her presentation,
sometimes we have to help students build a gay
identity before we explore with them its
shortcomings. When we are out and active in
our universities, in ways that Linda Garber
identified in her panel presentation, we can offer
support, guidance, and role models for LGBT
students. That is part of my feminist project.
I appreciate the conference committee and
CLAGS staff for creating a conference that
illuminated, among other issues, the divisions in
the field re: theory versus practice, the best
location of LGBT studies in the university, the
splits among scholars (currently and/or formerly)
associated with Women’s Studies, public versus
private universities, differing tactics for
challenging the structures of the university (i.e.,
destructing disciplines versus bridging
disciplines), the usefulness of queer canons, etc.
These discussions will help me to think through
my own approaches to these dilemmas.

Lori Messinger is Assistant Professor in the Social
Work Program of North Carolina State University.