by Doug Keeler
The beautiful thing about an organization like Queer Union is its flexibility, its breadth, and the hope it invests in “queer” to violate fixity, boundaries, and containment. “Queer,” for us, has suggested a trouble-making imperative that refuses to accept any singular, uncritical definition of “activism,” or even “queer.” In the past, this openness and queer ethic have kept us challenging ourselves, in favor of broadening our approaches to activism and anti-oppression work. However, our refusal to define Queer Union and “queer activism” opened the door for all LGBTQ students more generally, and produced heated clashes between members with disparate perceptions of Queer Union’s mission. Thus, in order to organize effectively, it has become imperative that we establish (1) Queer Union’s exceptional role as a space for transformative queer student activism, and (2) criteria for this kind of activism that would guide the work of Queer Union. This article, an introduction of sorts, will tackle the first point. Future pieces, whether directly or indirectly, will contribute to the much loftier task of the second point.
Relative to other colleges and universities, NYU is an admittedly good place to be queer. The university offers substantial resources for the emotional, social, and psychological support of LGBTQ students, including an LGBTQ Student Center funded and overseen by NYU Student Affairs. To be clear, Queer Union is funded and administered separately from the Student Center. But given the ten or so different LGBTQ-related organizations at NYU, it’s easy to get confused about who does what. It has been suggested by some (particularly newcomers and visitors to the club) that Queer Union represent all queer people at NYU, provide emotional support for those new to their identities, or function primarily as a discussion group. And to an extent, we do. Fortunately, though, the Student Center already provides precisely these resources. LGBTQ students already have spaces for low-stakes discussions and other de-politicized community building– for Queer Union to fill these roles now would render our organization redundant. We are an activist group first because, well, somebody has to do it.
Why a Queer Union, and not a Gay Union or Lesbian & Gay Union or LGBT Union? For starters, the name of the group was passed on to us, and nobody has taken much issue with it. Second of all, and perhaps the most agreeable answer, is that “queer”– a term reclaimed from its pejorative past– has come to function as an umbrella term for most non-straight sexual identities and non-cisgender gender identities, for genders and sexualities that deviate from the norm. In other words, this Union is Queer because it is a union of queer people. However, and perhaps less agreeably, queer also names a distinct type of politics, politics grounded in the experiences of queer people, but which extend and elaborate upon what it means to “deviate,” or as queer alternatively denotes, to be “strange.” In this sense, this Union is Queer because it focuses our queer desires and queer embodiments into queer and subversive ways of inhabiting the world. Of course, we all relate to our queerness differently, so I can’t speak definitively for what a queer politic is for everybody. Rather, as activists and as queer people, we must begin the work of exploring new political resonances of queer that engage with the wonderful strangeness and subversiveness within ourselves.
Often, as a group grounded in our sexual and gender identities, we rarely think of “student” as an identity. Often, we speak and organize as queer people who just happen to be in school. In doing so, we conveniently forget about the galvanizing role of students in social movements, globally and throughout the twentieth century. More dangerously, we disassociate ourselves from the privileges, pressures, and positionality of studenthood, and thereby fail to fully account for crucial nuances to how we go about activism. Students are positioned at the vanguard of social movements largely because the academy offers (a) space to converge and (b) access to scholarly resources. The university gives us the space to gather, share, and produce knowledge. In classrooms, student unions, quads, and libraries, students have the rare opportunity to share our experiences and expertise– whether handed down from the academy or from our communities. Though this privilege is critically endangered by the student debt crisis, many of us have more time and freedom to organize now than we ever will.
Moreover, as queers and as students, we need a queer student movement. Student movements need queer interventions, queer voices to challenge their cissexist/heterosexist assumptions. Queer interventions might be as simple as asking for inclusion of LGBTQ people at the decision-making table, or as complex as interrogating why universities brand themselves as “gay-friendly.” Queer interventions might demand changes in representation, but they also might demand a total re-envisioning of a socially just university. And on the other hand, LGBTQ activism tends to lack strong student voices and student organizing. At best, we are encouraged to volunteer and intern (without pay) for groups entirely cut off from the university and student organizing. At worst, we are dismissed as ivory tower elitists, or treated merely as victims (of bullying, of hostile homes, of frigid teachers) who cannot speak for ourselves. When queer student activism does take off, it almost always stays within the narrow confines of university reform (e.g. struggles for gender-neutral housing options, LGBTQ resource centers), work that is necessary and worthwhile, but which nonetheless stops short of linking the university to larger systems of power as other student movements have done. There is so much we could be doing. Queer Union must engage with the intersections of not only queer and student identities, but student and queer activism to finally begin the work of a queer student movement.
In Part Two, I’ll talk about the final piece to Queer Union’s identity: “transformative” politics.