I’ve been so busy running from event to event to event this month that I haven’t had a chance to blog my thoughts from the NELGBTC Conference until now, 10-11 days later. NELGBTC is a queer student activism conference that moves around annually from campus to campus. I was invited by the SUNY Stony Brook TNG group and presented two sessions there. Far as I can tell in my digging and research NELGBTC is the successor to what was called the NELGSAC/NELGSU Conference back in 1985, which I attended as a newly minted queer student activist at Brown University. (NELGSU had reformed as NELGBSA by 1992 and the mantle of national student queer organizing umbrella organization had been taken up by NELGBTC by about 1997, far as I can tell from searching Internet archives.)
When I got to college in 1985 I knew I was bisexual but didn’t know what that “meant” as far as answering the question “who am I?” I was trying to figure a lot of stuff out (as usual at that age) about sexuality, including what it “meant” to be a sexually active woman (even heterosexually) in a society that was pretty condemnatory about that (I was still technically a virgin at that point, btw) and how to deal with stuff like the fact I wasn’t comfortable being/presenting as a typical cisgendered female–especially when the (bullshit) messages I was getting from society were that if I wanted to explore sexuality then adopting cisgender female attire and “looks” was how one was supposed to signal sexual availability. The “problem” of course wasn’t me, it was society, and the fact I hadn’t yet found “my people,” i.e. other folks whose identities and sexualities were outside the heterosexual cis norm.
I found those people at my first LGSA (Lesbian Gay Student Alliance) meeting, even though at the time there was no “B” in the name and I still wasn’t totally sure if as a bisexual I was welcome in that space. Well, first it was me who wasn’t sure I was committed to entering that space. I had seen the posters advertising a meeting and I had tried to “casually” pass by the meeting room to “just get a look” before committing to going in. But at the time of the meeting…the room was empty. How weird, I thought. I went back to the bulletin board to check the time and place. I wandered around trying to pretend I had another reason to be in that building. I buzzed past the room again. Still empty. My anxiety about this whole thing was starting to spike and I thought forget this, I’ll just go back to my room.
I stepped outside the building and there were a bunch of people unloading grocery bags of snacks and soda from the back of a car. They took one look at me and said, “Oh are you here for the LGSA meeting? Can you help carry this?”
Well, apparently “my people” recognized ME and knew I belonged. So my very first act of queer student activism was to help set up the snacks and drinks for a meeting that I had not been totally sure I was going to attend. (I was soon taught about “gay standard time,” LOL.)
I stayed the whole meeting and was active in the LGSA for the next 4 years–and that first year was when Brown happened to host the NELGSU conference.
Here’s an indicator how much of an outsider I still felt, though… At that conference the keynote speaker was Gerry Studds, “the first openly gay congressman” in the U.S. He gave his speech in a packed banquet room in Emery-Woolley on the Brown Campus, a huge room with a high ceiling and large windows that opened onto a courtyard.
I listened to the speech standing alone in the courtyard.
Yeah, I know.
Inside the room 600+ queer student activists in the Northeast Lesbian Gay Student Union were cheering–I still remember the biggest cheerline to this day: “Harvey Milk’s message was ‘come to San Francisco and be gay.’ Well, the message of today is stay where you are and be gay.'”–and I was standing outside listening to it.
It was empowering to hear even if I was still not really sure if this community had a space for me (I was still laboring under the mistaken impression that me and David Bowie were the only bisexuals on Earth) or if what I was going to have to do was fight an uphill battle to make sure there was space for me. After the speech there was a huge pride march through the campus. It wasn’t a parade so much as a protest march, an important step in visibility, and HUGELY empowering, including all thousand-plus (lots of people joined in for this, including me) marching through the quad where all the frats were–the frats we were pretty sure were responsible for vandalizing the Pride Week display of the pink triangle on the college green. (Much as we wanted to, we couldn’t actually muster guards for 24-7 sentry duty over the triangle for that entire week. Back then “pride” was one week–now it’s a month.)
I should also mention that in my dorm a huge controversy broke out over the fact that our head counselor, who was a quiet, unassuming, but gay med student, had given permission for some of the student activists attending the conference to sleep in our lounge. This was a standard thing: he’d given that permission to the Princeton marching band a few weeks before and no one had batted an eye. But some people in our unit felt that to allow gay people to sleep there was wrong (fear of AIDS??) and he should have taken a vote (??) and so on. Of course the result was that all four of the queerfolk on the hall including me had to come out during a contentious all-resident meeting that was called to say “You don’t like gay people sleeping nearby to you? SORRY BUT YOU ALREADY DO.”
Yeah, it was like that. How interesting that out of 40 students in that dorm unit, exactly 4 of us came out that day. The mythical “one in ten” rule of thumb was upheld. Meanwhile it turned out there were four of us but only two admitted homophobes making all the ruckus.
So, my first queer student activism conference was a bit of a trial by fire. I’ve stayed in queer activism in some form or another ever since. I’ve marched on Washington. I’m a regular donor (now that I’m not flat broke) to the Bisexual Resource Center. I’ve been the keynote speaker at the BECAUSE Conference. I’ve dedicated my life to the cause of freedom of sexual expression in both fiction and real life.
You can probably see why speaking at the NELGBTC Conference was a kind of homecoming for me. And the conference was fabulous. Excellent job by Stony Brook of hosting and NELGBTC for putting together a great program. I see progress! I see so much progress. It felt to me like the B, T, and other non-conforming gender and sexuality expressions were assumed to be a part of the coalition in a way that 30 years ago it wasn’t assumed. (The year after I left Brown, the “B” got added: LGSA (Lesbian Gay Student Alliance) became LGBA–largely thanks to the agitation of Rebecca Hensler, I think. Some time after that, the T came onboard as well. Nowadays the main queer umbrella organization at Brown is called the Queer Alliance and apparently there’s a whole LGBTQ Center on campus. It took until the mid-90s to get the B added to the New York City Pride’s name and mission.) In particular it was heartening to me to see so many folks at NELGBTC of non-conforming gender identities because for a while there the momentum (and mainstream coverage) of queer activism was so centered on marriage equality I was starting to really worry that conformity had become far too predominant. Happy to report that at least in student spaces, that doesn’t seem to be the case. All too often conformity = the closet and the closet is not the answer.
This is of course a crucial moment in need for an upsurge in all forms of gender non-conformity, what with “bathroom bills” becoming the latest fear campaign of the political right trying to force us back into the closet at any cost and what feels like all forms of non-het-cis male being under attack in tech and STEM spaces lately.
But this question of conformity and the closet, makes me want to turn my attention now to another letter of the alphabet who seem to be fighting for inclusion and recognition within the community in much the way we B for Bisexuals were: A for Asexual. I saw some tweets and sat in a few conversations during the course of the weekend on this subject: how do we make a queer activist space–which has traditionally been about liberating our oppressed sexual identities–without that liberation itself creating a toxic space for asexual folks?
Let me clearly state that I believe asexual folks belong in the greater coalition of LGBTQA+ activism because we have a common shared goal and suffer common discrimination. The goal is a world where all forms of consensual sexuality outside of the heterosexual cisgendered norm are valid–including BDSM and polyamory–and including not being sexual at all. Asexual people are discriminated against, judged, and made to feel lesser for not participating in society’s sexual norms. We are all fighting for the freedom not to be forced to conform to those norms.
The tweets in particular that started me asking these questions about how to make queer activist space inclusive without making it a new kind of sex-negative closet were the two that read:
Hey #NELGBTC2016, the opening performer is HYPER SEXUALIZED. Maybe keep this in mind next time you pick someone to perform?
Also #NELGBTC2016, something we’re trying to fight is the hypersexualization of the queer community. #ImHellaUncomfortable
— Anna Nichols (@annaspazs) April 1, 2016
— Anna Nichols (@annaspazs) April 1, 2016
The opening plenaries by poets/performance artists Regie Cabico and Kit Yan (one cis, one trans) were fantastic in my personal view: fierce and important in their unflinching, absolutely frank depictions of sex, sexuality, and sexual longing. Those are the kinds of depictions that are, as far as I’m concerned, 100% necessary and empowering for those who have never seen their sexuality represented proudly, or any way but negatively (if at all). We heard everything from Regie Cabico’s humorous and self-deprecating comedic poems about failing to meet Mr. Right to those about himself being objectified and fetishized as an Asian man by non-Asians. We heard powerful pieces from Kit Yan ranging from what happened when his little brother adopted gay tortoises (who have loud, frequent sex) to what it felt like as a transman to have penile-vaginal sex with a cis man (pretty darn good, apparently). I consider these kinds of performances to be not only personally brave, they are crucially important visibility, an incredible tool against oppression, and central to queer sexuality activism overall.
The difficulty is of course mainstream heterosexual society is “uncomfortable” with any sexuality outside the cis het norm to begin with, and the message we are given over and over is that we queers should shut it down because “it makes people uncomfortable”–and of course we FIGHT THAT. Take something as innocuous as public displays of affection as an example. If a straight man holds his wife’s hand on the subway and kisses her on the cheek, no one considers that something they would have to “hide the children’s eyes” from, but if two men or two women do it, it is often labeled worthy of censorship, only fit for adults to see, or “hypersexualized.” As queer activists we’re fighting for the right to not only to publicly display our affection, but to have it considered as normal and non-controversial as the straight couples’ behavior. So hackles are going to go up and people may feel their rights to their sexual identity are being attacked by that watchword “uncomfortable.” I don’t think that was what was happening here: I feel the activist who tweeted #ImHellaUncomfortable was being honest about their feelings and not trying to censor expression or perpetuate sex-negative oppression. Can the needs for visibility and positive, frank representations of sexuality for queer activists be reconciled with the needs of asexual activists who are trying to find a safe space to work on common issues and goals?
I don’t have an answer how, but I do know that this won’t be the last time it’s going to come up, and queer activists of all stripes are going to have to wrestle with this. (Also note that the battle for bisexual and trans inclusion in “gay and lesbian” activist spaces isn’t “won;” we’re still fighting it, and just getting the “B” and “T” added to the names didn’t change biphobic and transphobic attitudes overnight. I still feel we’ve made good progress and that give me hope for continuing evolution and positive change in our movements and communities.)
Talking with some students at the conference who consider themselves asexual, I asked them their take on whether they felt unwelcome and whether the space was hypersexualized to them. One said it would only be a hypersexualized environment if the conference itself were a hook-up meat market–that performances and talking about sex didn’t constitute hypersexuality or being too “in your face” about it (but if there had been something like speed dating it would’ve been). Another pointed out they weren’t uncomfortable themselves but they were glad that the plenary was preceded by trigger warnings that the performances would include sexually graphic references. (I hadn’t even really thought about who those trigger warnings were for.) They felt such warnings were sufficient to warn both asexual attendees and anyone else who might be triggered to opt out (i.e. sexual abuse survivors).
I think trigger warnings are a good step but I still worry that asking people to leave the room if they’ll be uncomfortable has the same effect of making them feel not-included. But perhaps some form of compromise where we offer people the option to self-care is going to be the best we can do? In the same way not every dish at every meal served can be compatible with every dietary restriction, will asexual attendees need to pick and choose only from some offerings and not others?
This is a dialogue that ultimately needs to take place between future conference organizers and the communities they serve–my personal stake in it is admittedly small since I’m only a presenter and writer and not a conference organizer myself (and not asexual). What steps can conferences and organizations be taking to ensure an inclusive atmosphere without recreating a sex-negative or oppressive one? Thirty years ago I stood outside the banquet literally unsure if there was a place for me at the table. I simply don’t want anyone who should be a part of our coalition to have to do that again.
Some historical stuff that may be of interest to NELGBTC folks:
March 1986 newsletter of the Boston Intercollegiate Lesbian & Gay Alliance
“Unity ’86” was the title of the recently held Northeastern Lesbian and Gay Student Activists’ Conference (NELGSAC) at Brown University in Rhode Island. The conference’s designers managed to keep this theme in mind while planning the events. Comedian Kate Clinton had many gay men joining lesbians in an activity that many had never imagined they’d do: laughing at feminine hygiene jokes. By going strong at 70, Flo Kennedy, an older, lively, flamboyant black woman showed us that we must join with each other for strength. U.S. Representative Gerry Studds reminded us that a show of lesbian and
gay unity like this conference has just become possible in these last few years. The most powerful show of unity was the parade on Saturday night. Playing marching music, the Boston Freedom Trail Band trooped into the formal dining hall, and led us to the College Green. All the attendees then marched across Brown’s campus to protest the omission of sexual orientation in the university’s non-discrimination clause.”
Huge archive of queer student organizations/information from the 80s-90s at Northeastern University:
Article on the 1987 conference from the Columbia University Spectator:
A book on student activism (including queer activism) of the 1980s and 1990s: New Voices by Tony Velella
Storify of some photos and tweets from the conference: