Queer Studies and Academic Privilege

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the “Queer Again? Power, Politics, and Ethics” Conference at Humboldt University in Berlin.  I attended lectures by amazing queer theorists, including Susan Stryker and Judith Jack Halberstam.  On an academic level, this conference was incredible and taught me a lot about academic discourse in queer studies  However, all I could think about the entire weekend was what the conference was not addressing.  Sitting in the lectures, I looked around to find myself in a room full of mostly white, middle-class, educated, queer academics from all over the world.  We were here to discuss the issues affecting the queer community that mattered for the academic discipline, but we ended up talking about queering non-material life, Lady Gaga as the “queer fame monster,” and the relationship between homosexuality and fascism.  I am not trying to say that these were not important or worthwhile topics, but I am saying that this was not the right place or time to have these conversations.

Why are we talking about abstract concepts instead of the issues that are directly affecting people in the queer community?  It is absolutely crucial that we shift the discourse within the academic community.  Academia can be, and often is, a great tool for activism.  Academia can bring diverse groups of people together, raise awareness, and give voices to those that have been marginalized… so why does the disconnect  between academia and activism keep coming up within movements for liberalization?

The purpose of the conference was to discuss the relationship between queer studies and power, politics, and ethics.  Although I feel that these connections were made in all of the lectures, I could not help but feel that we were missing the big picture.  What this conference really needed was a reality check!  What is really happening in the queer community?  How and why is this marginalization happening, and what can be done to stop this?

Here are some examples that help illustrate my point.

– In Tennessee, a lesbian couple’s house was burned down and their garage was spray-painted with the word “queers”.  This event follows continuous threats by a homophobic neighbor.

– Two transgender women were found murdered in Puerto Rico.  In recent years, hate crimes because of sexual and gender orientation have become much more frequent in Puerto Rico.

– “Two steps forward, two or three steps back on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal

Then there are the stories that don’t make headlines.  What about the hundreds and thousands of individuals that cannot come out of the closet without risking their lives?  What about those individuals that are verbally, physically, and psychologically abused because of their sexual and/or gender identity?  How about the laws that criminalize homosexuality or the insurance companies that do not cover sex reassignment surgeries because they are not “medically necessary”?

Why weren’t we having these conversations instead?

(Although I would like to leave this as an open-ended question, I feel I have to explain my answer in order for this post to be relevant.  The conversations that took place this weekend, and the conversations that are happening in many academic settings across the world, come from a very privileged position and make academic a very exclusive institution.  Academia, as it stands, has created a hierarchy in which certain individuals from privileged backgrounds are able to speak as representatives of their groups.  Even within disciplines such as queer studies which focus on highlighting the issues faced by marginalized groups, there are still many problems of representation.  Dominant discourse within queer studies focuses on the experiences of white individuals from middle-class backgrounds.  The experiences of people at the intersections become invisible.

Also, theory is written by academics for other academics.  Because of the way in which queer theory is written, produced, and consumed, it is not accessible to the majority of people outside of the academic community.

Academic discourse relating to queer issues is also problematic because it is not easy for people to relate to the situations and issues being discussed in the text.  How are people supposed to envision queer utopia when they are living in a society that marginalizes them for their sexual and/or gender orientation?)

Instead of imagining the future, we need to address the issues of the present.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Autsajder
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 13:44:28

    I think the problem you discuss is common in many branches of academia. There is a tendency to theorize, especially if, as you said, you have the privilege of living a pretty fulfilling queer life and forget about the struggles and practical issues dear to “common” queers.

    I’ve read a lot book on gender theories and what not, but much less practical, especially when I was looking for help and advice some years ago.


  2. k.c. read
    Oct 06, 2010 @ 13:32:36

    The problem is an excessive emphasis on the literary, the discursive and the cultural, the academic grounds from which queer theory itself was birthed. Historical materialism has made leaps and bounds from the hoary economism that queers began reacting against in the early 1980s. I sense that there’s a lot to learn from these developments, and more opportunities for Marxists and queer theorists to integrate their ideas than we might imagine. I concede, however, that I struggle with this myself. In my thesis I am building on new theories that socialist feminists have contributed to our understanding of social reproduction; my Marxist perspective on sexuality lags way behind, and functions completely independently from this.


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