Tuesday, April 28, 2009

All The Oligarch Alumni News That Fits, We Print

You've seen this link everywhere, I am sure: Larry Kramer's speech to the GLBTQ reunion at Yale, called Yale's Conspiracy Of Silence, which is about how Larry's cherished dream of a "Gay Studies" program at Yale has been corrupted by women's studies, gender studies and (gasp!) queer studies. You can read a good critical follow-up by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed here.

It makes me glad I didn't go to the reunion. I have a number of old friends from Oligarch, which is what we call Yale here at Tenured Radical, who did attend. I respect them for it and would have liked to have seen them, but I had a history conference to attend and skipped out of town. It's just as well, since while some people I am sure found being closeted at college oppressive (I did too in many ways, hence my move to New York upon graduation) I am sure I would not be the first person to say that the Oligarch closet was a very, very sexy place. I spent my college years walking around in a haze of desire that was only partly fulfilled, leading to a perpetual and pleasant buzzing noise in my head, and hours spent under the dorm windows of a Certain Someone or two, debating whether the casual or the direct approach would do the trick. But, once again, I digress. To quote from an email I wrote in response to a query from a journalist about Kramer's lunacy:

One response I would have is that what Kramer is invoking is a genuine disagreement about the proper object of study, one that is generational inside the academy and out. A good analogy would be to compare the work of Lillian Faderman and Judith Halberstam. Faderman sees lesbians everywhere, and views the category more or less transhistorically. In addition to bad (or non) history), this is more or less primarily a political strategy in which history = visibility = civil equality. On the other hand, Halberstam, in a famous historical and literary work, looks at "female masculinity," arguing that "lesbian" is a gendered category, as well as a socio-medico-legal category, that means something different in different contexts.

Kramer's view of "gay history" is also quite Euro-Americo-centric, and really reads male as well, if you think about it, which makes it a minority position that is considered reactionary, not progressive, everywhere. To privilege a select category called "gay history" argues that the struggles of lesbian and transgendered people are fundamentally different (and less important), whereas actual history would argue that all three categories are separate but intertwined struggles. Kramer, in other words, reaffirms sexist, racist and transphobic hierarchies when he insists on "gay studies." And if he doesn't "get" queer studies, it means he isn't reading -- and, by the way, a man who wrote a novel called Faggots cannot possibly believe that "queer" is only, and always, a hateful word.

To emphasize that Kramer's beef is generational is not to say that everyone his age has failed to keep up with knowledge and politics as they have developed over the last twenty years, but it would be hard to find a younger scholar who would not be laughed out of the house for making these claims. The academic cutting edge is not "gay" -- nor, might I add, is the activist cutting edge "gay," and Kramer has always been very controversial in the activist community, brilliant as he is, because of his grandiosity and insistence that his views are the only ones that are correct.

But it's no accident that the only person Kramer invokes that is younger than he is is George Chauncey, and I don't think that either George or the Oligarch History Department would agree that Larry got George hired (George is far too polite to come out and say this, but I'm not.) I also think the fact that Larry basically hides every other gay person -- and lesbian! -- that Yale has hired in recent years (Joanne Meyerowitz, Michael Warner, Ronald Gregg, Jafari Allen, David Joselit) on their own and, quite likely, as a result of the Larry Kramer Initiative.

Finally, I would say that institutions do not permit donors to determine academic appointments, and they should not -- don't forget, they gave back the Bass $$ because of the same shenanigans, it was a far bigger sum, and it was earmarked for White People Studies -- er, Western Civilization. While insisting on autonomy from donors means that institutions can remain hidebound I suppose, it really means that you don't have centers for this and that popping up when there is no student demand or academic legitimacy just because it is the donor's fondest dream.


historiann said...

Darn--you beat me to it. I'm running my post tomorrow on this topic.

I'll be sure to provide a link here, though!

Anonymous said...

while I agree w/ most of your analysis here, I did want to point out that Halberstam's book is equally eurocentric in focus. Despite her obligatory "race, class, gender" statement in the intro and a fleeting reference to African Americans, she omits whole groups of people and time periods that have longstanding traditions of female masculinity in favor of the Victorians to the present Euro-American model.

that said, I'm grateful that people are responding so swiftly to his attack on women's, gender, and queer studies.

Tenured Radical said...


Thanks for your comments -- I would have to take a look at Halberstam again, a book I haven't read in a while, but we may differ in thinking that all scholarly work has to embrace an intersectional analysis to be worthwhile, particularly when such work is making a startling new claim about the field. But I think that when a field of study is defined in a way that is de facto organized around universalizing a particular experience (which is one of my arguments re. "gay studies") then it is repeating (and making invisible) patterns of exclusion that have characterized the academy. If Halberstam's book is flawed in the ways you say, that she makes the gesture makes that critique immediately available.

Miles Parks said...

To agree with Anonymous -- Halberstam does argue in her introduction that the attribution of masculinity only to a bourgeois, white, male ideal ignores the claims others have made on masculinity. I don't have the book handy now, but I remember this moment. I have a couple of problems with this tendency. First, it is not clear to me in Female Masculinity or the later Queer Time and Place exactly how the masculinities offered by these marginalized populations differ from the hegemonic one. If they do differ, should they still go under the sign masculinity? And if they do not differ, then should they not also be challenged as part of patriarchy, even when exercised by a petit(e) patriarch rather than the Grand White Daddy?

As for Halberstam's coverage, the examples of competing masculinities -- except for what I remember as a fleeting reference to Queen Latifah in Set it Off -- come solely from white women. This makes it difficult to place these challenges in the context of the challenges she says other insurgent masculinities pose. I would compare this to Lisa Duggan's Sapphic Slashers which compares the challenge of a mannish white woman at the turn of the twentieth century to that of the black male rapist. Intersectional scholarship perhaps does not need to invite the whole world to be characters in the story, but an awareness of context helps sharpen one's particular claims.

It seems that achieving the next level of precision in analysis would entail acknowledging Gail Bederman's point that "masculinity" (unlike manliness) is primarily a working-class term and, thus, is already on a terrain that male laborers (regardless of color) can often claim. Women of this class, by not usually being exempted/banned from work often participate in this rough and tumble world, parrying with male counterparts because they lack the pedastal of bourgeois feminine domestic enclosure.

From the vantage point of Bederman'w work, I am not sure the problem as Halberstam has diagnosed it (i.e., that masculinities emerging from men of color or white women are not granted the name) is the problem. And just so it's clear I'm not picking on the white person, I have the same question about Marlon Ross's blanket attribution of masculine strategies to figures such as Ida B. Wells in his Manning the Race. It seems to me we are in danger of reifying as "masculine" the very qualities that mose of us also deem patriarchal.

Anonymous said...

"that she makes the gesture makes that critique immediately available."

I'm not sure what you mean by this, ie is "the gesture" her rcg statement in the intro? (this is a clarity question, nothing more)

"I think that when a field of study is defined in a way that is de facto organized around universalizing a particular experience (which is one of my arguments re. "gay studies") then it is repeating (and making invisible) patterns of exclusion that have characterized the academy."

I absolutely agree, which is why I appreciated that both you and others are responding to this incident so quickly and so keenly toward an eye of typical erasures.

My objection was simply that faulting one person for Eureocentricism through the work of someone else who is Eurocentric leaves open cause for concern and/or the punching of minute, but visible, holes in your argument that could obfuscate the needed point you are making.

I teach Halberstam regularly b/c of its discussion of female masculinity and its impact on the field. And one of the things I bring in regularly are examples from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that predate her timeline and/or coincide with it. I also teach a piece that connects colonial racial and transgressive gender narratives as a bridging act. If we simply praise Halberstam without noting the absence of non-western cultural references (and to a large extent non-white ones as well) aren't we recreating the same dominant erasure you are rallying against here except w/race and location rather than gender and location?

Anonymous said...

PS. I just wanted to note that my comment has shifted the discussion toward picking apart a female academics short comings when the focus of your post is taking to task misogyny from a white male academic and that was never my goal. I just wanted to make a *small* footnote. sorry if I derailed the thread and opened the door to the same old easy "distraction"

Tenured Radical said...


That's ok -- it was a very intelligent comment. Come back soon.

Emily said...

I attended the reunion, but left before the speeches (infants don't take well to staying out that late), but Larry's been making that speech--that same, exact speech--since the beginning of LKI, which I think came in my junior year at Oligarch (2002-2003). He also made a very similar comment during the q&a to a panel earlier in the day. I turned to my best friend, with whom I had done queer organizing at Oligarch and later a little with the LGBT alum association, and said, "Well, it wouldn't be a queer event on campus if Larry Kramer didn't come in and offend 90% of the people here." I really, really hope that he stops mattering for queer life at Oligarch, because, holy hell, we've all heard it before, and aren't getting any more convinced.

Paris said...

I find Kramer's definition of gay history to be very queer, but in the old-fashioned sense of the term.

My main research interest is too long ago to attract Kramer's interest (because slaping a gay label on it is too difficult), but I did earn a PhD courtesy of a donor who established a fellowship to enable people to do what he (the donor) did. A generous full-ride doctoral fellowship to a top university. Unfortunately, while the funding is sufficient to award it every year, due to the criteria attached by the donor, the fellowship has been awarded less than 30% of the time.

While the difficulty in awarding this fellowship made it a slam-dunk for me, I think it is an object lesson in the dangers of letting donors dictate the terms of donations too specifically. If Kramer wants to fund the study of history (gay or otherwise), I think he needs to let historians exercise some discretion in the manner in which that money is spent.

Miles Parks said...

I really appreciated both Claire's and anonymous's discussion of Halberstam. However, I was troubled by anonymous's final post. I cannot understand what form of women's solidarity can rightly deserve the name if it requires a circling of the wagons to focus on the "real issue" of male misogyny rather than the distraction of some white women's complicity in white supremacy -- a force that, after all, victimizes women. I don't think anyone was piling onto Halberstam, the discussion seemed quite scholarly and constructive to me. So why exactly the invocation of "the same old distraction"?

Anonymous said...

great to hear you work it out, Claire. I enjoy your blog alot.

Jane Gerhard

JackDanielsBlack said...

The PoMo Devil's Dictionary:

reactionary, adj., said of someone whose hermeneutic differs from one's own.

sexist, racist, transphobic:, adjs., see definition above for "reactionary".