The Coolest Month

If you hung around CLAGS during Spring semester, you ran into a lot of fruitfully provocative
contradictions. Take late April, for instance. On the 24th, Marcia Gallo presented her work-inprogress
— a dissertation on the Daughters of Bilitis — in our Colloquium Series and noted how
many of the lesbians who were active in the organization since its founding in 1955 disavowed
any serious political aims. “We just wanted to have fun,” Gallo reported them saying to her in the
extensive interviews she has been doing as part of her research. Two days later, at a panel called
“Sexual Censorship: Why Can’t We Talk Honestly About Young People and Sex?” Judith Levine
recounted how editors at various presses that considered her book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils
of Protecting Children from Sex, urged her to make it “more palatable to parents” by removing the
word “pleasure” from the text. To be sure, adult lesbians in the McCarthyite ’50s differ
enormously from teenagers in the Free-Market ’00s, and frivolity and fear-mongering are hardly
the only options, but if only because of the proximity of the presentations, I found myself
wondering what happened to the expectation –or at least hope — that joy, merriment, even
downright bliss might course through our work and our movement and, indeed, animate them.
The Daughters of Bilitis were by no means sex radicals — as Gallo pointed out, they made a
point of being “militantly respectable” — but they were powered by a pleasure principle that
even the ’50s couldn’t suppress. Today’s young people, Levine and co-panelists concurred, are
taught to fear their sexuality (no matter what orientation it takes); it’s easier to talk to teenagers
about experiences of abuse than about positive sexual encounters, clinician Michele Grethel said.
In the light of Gallo’s colloquium and the “Sexual Censorship” panel, I reflected back on the
Queer CUNY III conference, which had taken place only a week before, organized by CUNY
students from a range of campuses: Had the dozens of undergraduates who had come to trade
strategies for LGTBQ improvements at their schools, learn about LGTBQ Studies, and meet,
maybe cruise, other queer kids been burdened by the “discourse of harm” that Levine spoke so
eloquently about? Had gay-rights advances of the last three decades been outstripped by a
generalized system of sexual shame?
If so, these CUNY kids were organizing their way out of it with — to swipe one of Gallo’s
phrases — a sensibility that appreciates the social in social change. Still, homophobia has not
disappeared from CUNY. Though LGTBQ Studies is alive and well and thoroughly supported here
at the Graduate Center as well as at some of the colleges, students at Queer CUNY III reported
that at some campuses, slurs get scribbled onto flyers for their events and anti-queer hate-speech
goes unchecked in some classes. Some students walk through school buildings afraid of baiting
and even violence.
And none could have been heartened by the news — also in April — that Governor Pataki
was appointing an avowed homophobe to the CUNY Board of Trustees. (See CLAGS’s letter of
protest to the governor on p. 2.)
Brainstorming on the ideal college situation, students dreamed of designated “safe zones”
on every campus, LGTBQ materials suffused into all the curriculum, plenty of funding for
student events, faculty and administrators whose understanding and assistance they could
count on: In sum, a supportive environment — rather like what the Daughters of Bilitis were
trying to create. But with some huge differences, thanks, as Queer CUNY III keynote speaker
Tina Donovan suggested, to “the ones who put in so much for what you have today” — chief
among them, the demand that public institutions provide that support.
April was a heady time at CLAGS — like the rest of the semester. I look forward to the
provocations of the Fall — and to seeing you then. (See the CLAGS calendar on p. 10.)