Minding Our Q’s (Changing of the Guard)

Apersonal admission first—it’s a scary
thing to be stepping in as executive
director, following in the very large footsteps
of Alisa Solomon, Jill Dolan, and CLAGS’s
founder and first executive director, Martin
Duberman, who have all worked so hard and
accomplished so much to make CLAGS a
major center for gay and lesbian studies. But,
with the support of Alisa, the tremendous
CLAGS board, its exceptional staff, and the
many others who participate in its work, I am
also looking forward to the challenge of
building on their work.
During CLAGS’s 12-year history, as the
field of gay and lesbian studies has begun to
find an institutional footing—or perhaps
toehold is more apt—it has also expanded to
cover a broader range of identities. The “LG”
acronym was first lengthened to include
“bisexual.” More recently, a transgender
“T” has been added. Now, one often
sees a “Q” tacked on to the end of this
list. Of course, in academic contexts,
the “Q” is normally understood to refer
to “queer”—queer theory, queer studies,
queer bodies, queer practices, queer
In other settings, however, the “Q”
often stands for “Questioning,” and
functions as a sign of welcome and
openness to youth who might be
questioning their sexuality or perhaps
their gender identity. I’d like to
transpose that “Q” back onto CLAGS as a way to stress its importance as a site for the production of new knowledge about sexualities
and genders. One of the most vital missions of CLAGS, I believe, is to foster the kind of
questioning that is critical to the emergence of new thinking.
CLAGS has always provided a venue for research on sexuality deemed too counternormative
to be considered legitimate academic work. And that role remains essential: while
much scholarship in sexuality studies has found its way into the academic mainstream, work
that contests firmly held assumptions about sexuality and gender finds itself under attack. The
condemnation last year of Judith Levine’s book on adolescent sexuality, Harmful to Minors, is
but one example of the still tenuous footing of academic inquiry that unsettles common-sense
ideas about sexual autonomy.
In addition to supporting work that predictably draws the ire of those often hostile to
queer agendas, those of us invested in the project of LGBTQ studies need also to look inward,
and to question emerging axiomatic truths within our own field, before our endeavor settles
down too comfortably within safely bounded parameters. For example, how does the
emergence of genderqueer modalities and the rejection of many of today’s youth of older
forms of LGBT identifications trouble our notions of queer culture? How do some avenues of
academic inquiry tend to reproduce the whiteness of queer studies and what can we do to
displace that? How might we understand the disparate reception in different constituencies of
scientific narratives about the etiology of sexual orientation and the narratives produced within
queer theory? There are, I know, a lot more questions to be asked. And I’m also just as certain
that there are already scholars out there exploring them.
As the field becomes institutionalized, however tenuously, we also need to question the
boundaries put in place to contain it. In queer studies
classes, students might be throwing around terms like
heteronormativity, writing scathing critiques of the
treatment of intersexed infants, interrogating the
assumptions of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
policy. In other classrooms, however, the
assumptions about gender and sexuality unpacked in
queer studies spaces may very well operate as the a
priori truths of much of the standard academic
curriculum. As sexuality studies finds its own
autonomous place within the university, we should
think carefully about the potential partitioning of
interdisciplinary programs from each other and from the academic mainstream, and develop
strategies that complicate the “one-identity, one-program” calculus.
On a personal note, I’ve been a member of CLAGS since I was in graduate school and
actively involved since 1994 when I joined the Political Science department at Brooklyn
College. The kind of questioning made possible by CLAGS has been fundamental to the
development of my thinking about gender and sexuality. (My research looks at narratives of
gender and sexuality invoked in the civil rights of sexual minorities, and more recently has
focused on narratives of transgender identity deployed by courts in the US; these days, my
activism centers on the transgender rights legislation and litigation.) More times than I can
count, I’ve come away from CLAGS’s events, whether they were three-day conferences, twohour
colloquia, or Saturday morning board meetings, with scrap paper, sometimes even my
own hand, crammed with notes for rethinking my own axiomatic truths.
F i n a l l y, on behalf of the CLAGS board, staff, and members, I want to thank Alisa for her
unstinting efforts on behalf of CLAGS. As both a board member of many years and as executive
d i r e c t o r, Alisa’s clear vision, overwhelming dedication, and unflappable
leadership have been instrumental in making CLAGS the thriving institution it is
t o d a y. (Although she may think her formal connection to CLAGS has ended—
see, e.g., her “farewell” column in this issue—we have secret plans to impress
Alisa into service in the years to come. Don’t tell her.)

Paisley Currah