As I’ve reflected on my Saturday** spent at the 2nd National Symposium of LGBTQ Research in Higher Education, I kept thinking of the song and poem “The Revolution Will Not Televised” as a way to make sense of some of the thoughts and ideas I’ve been working through.
The notion of a “revolution” was definitely seeded by Dr. Kris Renn (@KrisRenn) saying repeatedly in her closing keynote address that “we are in revolution”. I’ve heard others make similar declarations in different contexts, but Dr. Renn’s exhortation felt different.
I know it felt different because I had spent that previous seven hours immersed in an educational and teaching space like I had never before experienced in my young academic career. I’ll get to why later in the blog, but I’d be lying to myself and to you if I didn’t admit that I was hella nervous for this symposium going into it.
I was not nervous, probably to the chagrin of my amazing masters students, because we were presenting on a research project that is still in its early stages of development. And not because I had to wake up early and drive in the pouring rain to the middle of nowhere Illinois (aka Dekalb, IL). I was nervous because I was terrified that I was going to mess up, misgender someone, and cause unintended but material harm to persons in that space and community because of the social identities that I hold that are privileged in society given that my gender identity/expression matches my genitalia, perpetuating a gendered binary and I subscribe to and participate in heterosexual practices, perpetuating sexual orientation norms. Without even knowing who all was going to be in attendance, I made major assumptions that the space was going to be difficult to navigate and that I was going to have to walk on egg-shells.
Yet, I relish any and every opportunity to learn and this was an intellectual space that I have a working familiarity with, but have numerous gaps in my understanding. I wanted to show up to learn and grow but how could I do that without taking up space meant for those within the LGBTQ+ community and at worst, causing direct or indirect harm in the space?
Fortunately, it started to come together right at the start of the symposium with the opening keynote from Dr. D-L Stewart (@DrDLStewart). Dr. Stewart spoke about reclaiming the true and original meaning of “queer” within research in higher education. Ze's quote that stuck with me the most was around the necessity to "separate queer acts from a queer [theoretical and intellectual] paradigm".
Whether intentionally or not, this gave me language to name and begin to disrupt the inner turmoil that served as the fuel for my initial apprehensions coming into the space. I was totally complicit in believing that as someone who does not hold a queer identity in any form or engage in queer acts, that this meant the intellectual paradigm was not accessible or meant for me. I started to get excited because similar to what Dr. Stewart was outlining, I truly hope my work disrupts the status quo in higher education and aligned with Dr. Renn's argument, I want my work to aid a revolution in higher education. But after making it over that hurdle, I still felt uncomfortable with "queer", even in an intellectual paradigm sense, because I then started to feel guilty of being an academic colonizer or appropriator in the same way that I roll my eyes when I see white people doing anti-racism work or men writing about gender dynamics.
So I start here as a matter of being honest about what I was and am working through. While holding these things in tension, I endeavored to sit with the range and complexity of my thinking/feelings for the rest of the day and to try to soak up and learn as much as possible. The following notes make up some of my thoughts and conclusions following the symposium and are intended to help me make sense of some concepts and hopefully seed some venues for further learning and growth for me and others committed to queering higher education:
Really Centering the Most Vulnerable
It has become almost trite in higher education spaces to say that "if we center and focus on the most afflicted and the most vulnerable among us, by attending to their needs and concerns, everyone else will be helped". I’ve been to numerous academic and professional conferences and visited numerous campuses where this concept of centering the vulnerable is happening only as a matter of symbolic performance efforts to make spaces inclusive for LGBTQ folks. So I wondered how the symposium would handle these issues. To my surprise (sarcasm), there was no sticker for preferred pronouns at registration, I didn’t see anyone walking around with a safety pin or a safe space sticker, there were gender-inclusive bathrooms but no big pronouncement was made pointing it out, and there were no hollow emails sent out in advance claiming to be about one thing and then acting differently for financial or political reasons. That’s not to say people didn’t share (and trouble) pronoun usage or that space wasn’t made to process and reflect on contentious issues. The execution of the conference wasn’t a perfunctory nod to inclusion, it was a manifestation of the aggregate human experience and an actualized commitment to making the space accessible for everyone by centering the most vulnerable. It was theory and policy in practice as a normal way of doing things, and it was nice for once, to have it just be. This is also where I need need to shout out Z Nicolazzo (@trans_killjoy), Katy Jaekel and the students, faculty, and staff at Northern Illinois that put together such an amazing event.
Retiring the Concept of "Being an Ally"
On the car ride home, in processing the symposium with the masters students that I attended the conference with, we had a really great discussion about the concept of "being an ally". I’ve disliked the word and concept for a long time but it’s become as pervasive (and meaningless) as “diversity, equity, and inclusion”. The conversation stemmed from a round table and Pecha Kucha from Laura Genter where the presentations focused on trying to get us to separate the notion of allyship from an identity in the form of a noun, to allyship in the form of a verb, or the actions that one takes that help a targeted community.
While I understand and do think this is an advancement in how allyship operates in higher education currently, it is still off putting to me as a whole. My initial apprehension around allyship stemmed from a study my colleagues and I did where we found that some student affairs folks will go so far as to unilaterally name themselves allies for certain communities because they are so convinced that they have the best interest of that groups at heart. What really gets me though is how allyship has been commodified in higher education and even in society at-large to be a desirable product that good liberals need. Being an ally in the commodified sense then creates a marketplace where those with privileged identities are the consumer and those with minoritized identities (i.e., groups that are at times the target of systemic oppression) are the sellers. This means that "the honor" of allyship as an identity or in actions is the product or manifestation of this marketplace dynamic. I have two major gripes with the resulting situation:
Like any marketplace, there comes a need and time for the transactions in the marketplace to be regulated (or in the economic sense, to make sure that "supply" and "demand" are kept stable). Investing in allyship in our field forces minoritized communities to have to regulate ally identities or behaviors (the supply) in ways that create more work for communities that are already overwrought with challenges. Likewise, a regulatory function in this allyship marketplace presupposes a consensus or homogeneity within a minoritized community that rarely exists. In other words, what is an ally action for a gay-white man (say maybe "marriage equality") may do nothing of material consequence for a trans-woman of color. So who in the LGBTQ+ community gets to decide what are ally actions and what are not then also fosters tensions within a community (i.e., horizontal oppression).
Allyship as an identity or action conveys a finality in one’s social justice education that is dangerous. Growing up living with two women (my mom and sister), I thought I knew all I needed to know about "feminism" and what it meant to support woman, because ya know, I had done it all my life. Then (thanks in large part to my now wife) I realized that I had so much to learn about what it means to support and make space for women as a person that identifies as a man. However, for all the years before where I assumed that I knew it all or had little to learn, I cringe to think of the myriad ways I perpetuated sexism. I argue then, that people committed to the real work of social justice are less concerned with being an ally or performing ally acts because they know they are most likely going to fall short and mess up. The pursuit isn’t about a symbolic marker but more so about listening, doing your own work, and leaving space and resources for people to tap into their own agency to live in self-actualize ways.
The Revolution is Here
Perhaps my biggest takeaway is that there is a groundswell revolution happening and coming for higher education led by so many of the scholars that were in attendance on Saturday that it makes me giddy. I heard about deep theoretical work intended to push back against the narrow ways we in higher education make meaning of how we’ve arrived at this intellectual point from @RomeoJackson22. @Kdock09 discussed the emerging work around trying to queer quantitative research and the new insights that may open up, and @DTillapaugh continues doing innovative work around trying to better understand the narratives around sexual minority men and their geographic and political realities while in college (to name just a few). The scope of the work being undertaken is expansive, rigorous, and intersectional (in the Crenshaw, 1989 sense of the term). It’s everything we say research should be but as @itsAlexCL pointed out, there is a major lag and disconnect between queer work and what gets published and codified as knowledge in the major journals and venues in our field. Similar to @Mpnanney work on investigating trans inclusion statements on admission practices at single gender institutions, I wonder and worry about the depths of our intellectual betrayal around how we espouse to be about one thing as a field, yet it manifest as as a type of a non-performative and empty symbolic gesture. Despite these concerns, I left the day feeling a sense of critical hope and that is an emotion that has been in short supply recently. I am critically hopeful in that even though the field and higher education institutions are slow or resistant to change, the collective efforts of concerned and committed folks can make and continue a revolution.
Yet, it wouldn’t be "queer" to close with a neat bow around my experience.
This James Baldwin quote vexes me not only for it’s poignancy related to the very title of this website but because it highlights the unending need to put in effort towards truly knowing and realizing what concepts like freedom, justice, and democracy are and should be.
** Check out the #LGBTQatNIU hashtag for all the amazing insights and takeaways from me and other attendees.