How can you effectively critique an entire academic discipline without ever having taken a class in the field? If all you know about a given subject comes from snippets of reading and hearsay, how can you have sufficient expertise to tear it down?
Those are the questions I have for Jamie Kirchick, whose recent column (“Michael Jackson is not the right focus for LKI,” 9/28) attacked the Larry Kramer Initiative and the entire Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department.
The Larry Kramer Initiative has transformed Yale into a place of academic vibrancy, interdisciplinary scholarship and challenges to traditional ways of thinking. What LKI lectures have done in the past two years is reach out to the Yale community as a whole — gay, straight, professional, undergraduate, transgendered, what-have-you — and demonstrate the breadth and scope of the rich and wonderful field that is queer studies. Last year’s speaker series alone ran the gamut — from Hollywood producers to Gore Vidal to big-name gender-theory academics such as Judith Butler. This year’s Sept. 28 Tony Kushner lecture, which packed Battell Chapel, is just one night’s worth of evidence of how LKI is making queerness not a marginalized idea or entity, but something of interest to the average student, professor or New Havenite.
The excitement that these lectures generate in the community (both gay and straight) makes me seriously question what exactly Kirchick meant by dismissing queer theory and LKI as “irrelevant” and “outrageously esoteric.” Plenty of students and professors alike are discovering that one doesn’t have to prefer members of the same sex in order to respect, identify with or become intrigued by the famous personalities LKI is bringing to campus.
Kirchick further attempted to denigrate the idea of queer theory by casting it as a purely fluffy discipline and citing authors such as Plato, Hegel and Kant as the “true” thinkers that a Yale student should be reading. First of all, in the year that I’ve spent studying queer theory, I’ve already encountered and grappled with intellectuals such as Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Said, Foucault (in the original French, thank you very much!) and too many more to name. I hardly feel that any of those authors needs be written off as fluffy or “unworthy” of study.
Secondly, the nature of queer theory is not to bemoan oppression or to argue that “gender and sexuality are ‘performed’ behavior,” as Kirchick postulated. Queer theory tries to examine and dissect the ideologies and processes that make up categories such as “gay,” “straight” or “queer.” Queer theory poses the question: Out of all the possible categories into which we could divide human beings, why has sexuality emerged as such a highly contentious and politicized one? Why are we fixated on such an arbitrary aspect of self — whom you go to bed with — when there are so many other equally profound aspects of humanity that could be used to identify the population?
Contemporary politics attempts to separate gay culture and history from academic queer theory. The fact of the matter is, gay history and queer theory are inextricably intertwined, and one cannot function properly without the other.
Take the historic (and very real) example of the Navy’s 1919 investigation of suspected gays in the military in Newport, R.I. In this incident, the U.S. government actually sent men in undercover to bed members of the Navy in order to catch the military men engaging in homosexual behavior.
How do we make sense of this revealing turning point in gay history? We could write it down, put it in a book and merely label it “gay history.” We would lose, however, the possibilities of understanding what’s really at play here. At one point, our government was comfortable enough to hire men to engage in acts we would now term “homosexual.” What does this mean in terms of the name “homosexual”? If same-sex behavior has not always been so denigrated, how did it get to be so ostracized today?
To truly unravel this complicated moment in history, we need queer theory’s analytical toolbox. Gay historical moments provide the foundation and springboard for queer theory to flourish. These theories, in turn, give meaning to these moments and to personages who might be termed “gay” throughout history.
Queer theory relies upon history — and not only history, but also literary theory, art criticism, sociology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, popular culture and more — to develop an understanding of the ways homosexuality (and, for that matter, heterosexuality) operates and exists within our world. Kirchick tries to dismiss the discipline as a “mish-mash” of ideas, when in reality the field works in dialogue with pre-existing and equally respected pursuits.
The interdisciplinary nature of queer theory, which a recent News masthead lauded (“Value of Reflecting on the Man in the Mirror,” 9/27), takes its strength from the multifaceted, 360-degree approach to difficult questions about sexuality and identity. The relative youth of this behemoth academic endeavor, which encompasses nearly every liberal-arts discipline in the Blue Book, places the field at the cutting edge of academia. The LKI lectures have played a major role in ensuring Yale’s place at the nexus of this rapidly growing field.
For those seeking gay support and discussion groups, there are other organizations on campus that can tend to their needs, such as the LGBT Co-op, GaYalies and Queer People of Faith. LKI has a vital academic function on campus, and to reduce it to a self-help discussion series would seriously cripple its power and potential. Kirchick, I feel, is missing out on the complex and enriching academic value that queer theory holds and the unique perspectives the LKI speakers bring to the foreground. Perhaps if he had taken advantage of these challenging lectures or taken a few classes in the WGSS Department, his column would not have been so misinformed.
Jennifer Row is a sophomore in Pierson College. She is a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.