Minding Our Q’s

A personal 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 people.

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 counter-normative 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, two-hour colloquia, or Saturday morning board meetings, with scrap paper, sometimes even my own hand, crammed with notes for rethinking my own axiomatic truths.

Finally, 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 director, Alisa’s clear vision, overwhelming dedication, and unflappable leadership have been instrumental in making CLAGS the thriving institution it is today. (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