Queer Studies @ the MLA

, Allie Winegar Duzett, Leave a comment

While those casually aware of the Modern Language Association (MLA) might assume that a panel on “Queer Studies and the Future of the Profession” would deal primarily with LGBTQ issues, this year, those people would be wrong.

At the 2011 Annual MLA Convention, the panel on the future of queer studies as a profession used the old definition for the word “queer” as their guide.  Speaker William J. Spurlin of University of Sussex spoke of “divorcing the word ‘queer’ from sexuality” and making it “queer in the sense of rebelling against the establishment.”  This was the operative definition for much of the panel.

In his lecture entitled “Queer Administration,” Donald E. Hall of West Virginia University-Morgantown argued that “queer administration” is not about having gay administrators; it’s about hiring people from the outside of an organization to come in and shake up a bureaucracy.  By Hall’s definition of queer administration, sexual orientation doesn’t matter: what matters is a commitment to bring fresh perspectives to administration, regardless of one’s sexuality.

He asked, “Can we continue to queer our pedagogy” even though students need training in the norms of being a professor or administrator? “Is queer administration an oxymoron?” he asked, wondering how one can “queerly” administrate when by definition, “queerness” rebels against the norms while administration enforces them?

“Administration is an inherent conflict with the underlying purpose of queer studies,” he said.  “Queer administration takes a lot of queer patience.”  He spoke of the importance of always putting students first, and never letting student needs take the backseat to queer preferences—a sentiment students across America likely appreciate.

Hall stated that we all depend on bureaucracy, and that that’s not a bad thing. “No one is queer all the time,” he said, noting that people considered “queer” don’t make up new traffic rules every time they get in a car. To Hall, queerness always exists within some parameters.  “Subtle and pragmatic queerness is needed in most institutional bureaucracy,” he argued, to shake things up and keep bureaucrats from getting wrapped up in process rather than purpose.

Hall’s co-speaker, William Spurlin, spoke more explicitly about LGBTQ issues in his speech, arguing that that “queer theorizing” has led to a rethinking of “social and sexual spaces,” and that “queer studies” is “an investment in political struggle.”  Spurlin’s speech, entitled “Queer Theory and Public Deliberation: Queer Research and Social Exchange In and Beyond the Academy,” made the case that queer studies have influenced many spheres, particularly medical fields. As an example, Spurlin indicated how medical professionals have sanitized the issue of STDs such as AIDS being most prevalent in gay communities (see also here and here).  To his credit, Spurlin did acknowledge that such sanitization of the issue puts gay lives at risk—do most practitioners of the LGBTQ lifestyle know that they are potentially 50 times more likely to suffer from a variety of life- and lifestyle-threatening STDs?  However, Spurlin still counted it as a victory for queer studies that now most people are not aware of the many medical dangers involved with practicing an LGBTQ lifestyle.

“Queer interventions have input beyond the academy in place and ways we cannot know in advance,” Spurlin argued.  If one counts the success queer studies advocates have had in hiding the medical risks that threaten the lives of LGBTQ lifestyle-practitioners, Spurlin is correct.  Unfortunately, that particular success has likely caused more harm than good: for anyone to die from a preventable STD is a tragedy, regardless of their orientation.  The fact that “queer interventions” have hidden the risks associated with the LGBTQ lifestyle has very likely hurt the very population it meant to help.

Allie Duzett is the Director of Strategic Operations for Accuracy in Media.

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