Thursday, January 07, 2010

Just like Cheney

But let’s go to Michigan. Michigan? Yes, Michigan. Just days after the official start of the war on Iraq, the shutdown of San Francisco, the mass arrest of over 2000 protesters, and the resulting police crackdown, Brodie and I flew out to the University of Michigan to participate in a conference calling itself “Gay Shame.” Our panel was titled “Gay Shame Activism,” not a very creative name but it wasn’t something we chose. It seemed like it was the only activist-specific panel at the conference. While Brodie and I disagreed on a lot, we did not disagree about this conference. It was obvious to us that we were a fetish object called on for a few realness points, but we figured our job was to confront hypocrisy wherever we saw it, right? Especially when it was about Gay Shame. So we arrived at the conference ready to stimulate a lively debate.

Brodie and I were joined by Stephen Kent, who had been involved with Gay Shame in New York, and who the conference organizers had originally contacted. You know, because everyone thinks everything starts in New York. Although I guess in this case they were right. It was our introduction that got the most attention. This conference, I said, is trickle-down academia, by which academics appropriate anything they can get their hands on -- mostly people’s lives struggles, identities, and activisms -- and then claim to have invented them. And: we’re not dead yet, so the mummification and the museumification of our work should not yet be taking place.

Brodie pointed out that as a group, part of our process was to critique every flyer to make sure our political agenda was represented, and he questioned whether the conference’s publicity poster of pearls hanging from a lovely tatooed ass was purely sensational. Stephen Kent added that there was a typo on the conference materials, and there was an extra “e” on the end of the second word -- “Gay Shame” should read “Gay Sham.” We then spent most of the panel talking about the history of Gay Shame in both New York and San Francisco.

I can’t remember how people reacted immediately, because right after our talk came a panel called “Fuck Activism?” It was as if one activist-specific panel in an entire conference allegedly inspired by an activist group was too threatening without immediately questioning the validity of activism altogether. But what happened after that presentation is what I remember the most: as we were leaving the room, the organizers informed us that there would be a surprise question-and-answer. Famous academics then stood up and started screaming at us -- most of the anger was directed at me. One academic said that I was “just like Cheney,” implying that by critiquing the academy we were furthering the goals of the Christian right. Another person said that this conversation about appropriation had happened 30 years ago, a familiar attempt to “put the kids in their place.”

I’ll admit I was a bit stunned. I expected people to nod their heads in agreement, and then maybe write a few clever papers, and fail to apply our analysis on any level. Instead they wanted to silence us, and if they didn’t silence us then they certainly silenced the rest of the room. A few people came up afterwards to whisper secrets in our ears, but otherwise everyone in the crowd of several hundred people remained quiet: their future careers might be at stake. I guess we were supposed to arrive at the microphone with a few curtsies or bows, repeating thank you, thank you to the Academy!

Before our panel, conference organizers were solicitous and enthusiastic -- a friendly grad student was even assigned to take me grocery shopping and on late-night errands. After the panel, conference organizers tried to avoid looking in our direction. Their unwillingness to acknowledge their part in a long history of appropriation felt eerily similar to the Center’s refusal to take responsibility for allowing queers to get bashed on its doorstep. But at least the Gay Shame conference organizers didn’t arrest us.

No comments: