Saturday, March 05, 2011

Reflections on a national LGBTQ Higher Ed conference

Timo Elliott picture of MOMA and skyline reflection
I have to say that after three days of fantastic panels, speakers, and workshops, I am well and truly exhausted. I came back to the room to work a little, and I can't even focus. My mind is reeling from the presentations and ideas, and I find myself just wanting to chill out and reflect.

This conference is one of few that brings together faculty, administrators, queer studies scholars and researchers, LGBTQ resource center professionals, national higher education group leaders, LGBTQ activists, and student affairs staff members in one venue. It becomes clearer that this is the coalition we need to affect change on university and college campuses. In small and large groups, we have networked, problem-solved, shared best practices, and communicated about our hopes and our challenges in trying to effect change in the academy.

The plenary speakers* have been outstanding. (*I missed one, so I cannot report on that speaker, but I will discuss all of the others.) On Thursday night, Anthropologist Gil Herdt discussed the history of LGBTs in the United States, discussed the transgressive potential of current policy initiatives (DADT repeal, ENDA, DOMA repeal, etc.), and laid out a plan for advocacy and organizing for comprehensive sexual health.

Herdt's message was challenged/complemented by one of Friday's plenary speakers, Kenyon Farrow, former director of Queers for Economic Justice, who criticized the traditional single-issue organizing approach most popular among our big national queer groups on behalf of a multi-issue, diverse people. Farrow reminded the conference attendees about the needs of homeless queer youth, queers of color, working-class and unemployed queer people, and other groups we privileged academic queers can tend to forget. He shared stories of queer, homeless, youth of color in New York City whose very existence has been criminalized; of HIV educators who have been arrested for loitering or been mistaken for sex workers; of transgender people who have been arrested as sex workers simply because they were transgender and carrying condoms on their person. Among the many issues he highlighted as most pressing were: AIDS and HIV (still a challenging issue, with very high rates of infection among men who have sex with men); health care reform; homeless queer youth; economic issues more broadly; and the larger criminal justice system, including prisons.

Farrow also discussed the challenges to organizers of remembering to engage in self-care, in staying connected to and nurturing personal sources of support, and in staving off burnout. He challenged academics to reach outside the academy to other LGBTQ communities that do not have access to higher education, which might also help us stay current with the issues that matter to the many LGBTQ communities.While Farrow didn't have all the answers, he did ask a lot of the right questions for those of us interested in maintaining and growing an active, energized, multi-issue social justice movement.

Perhaps the most moving plenary speaker was Sivagami "Shiva" Subbaraman, Director of the LGBTQ Center at Georgetown University. A product of Catholic education in India, an out lesbian who had once been heterosexually married, and a practicing Hindu, Subbaraman described ways to incorporate Ignatian philosphy, upon which Jesuit practice is rooted, into both the pursuit of a queer, social justice and support for LGBTQQ students in our institutions. She discussed how an approach to facilitating discernment and flourishing in our students can lead to their develop as a whole person. This struck a chord for me, as someone who has seen LGBTQ students really struggle with their spiritual and intrinsic selves, within and apart from their LGBTQ (and other) identities. She encouraged all of us to build on our own imaginations, as an engagement with "what is" is necessary to imagine "what may be" in the communities we desire to build. She challenged listeners to reach out in our relations to others and the larger world--especially those with whom we profoundly disagree, to move from a space of tension and contradiction to an acceptance of paradox and mystery.

The final plenary offered today by Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin, presenting on their amazing study of transgender populations. They have a book coming out in fall, The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia University Press), which is based on the results of "the first large-scale, national study of transgender people in the United States." More than 3,700 transgender people responded to the online survey, with almost 300 telephone qualitative interviews. Beemyn and Rankin were able to identify different subgroups within the transgender population, often associated with age cohorts, race and ethnicity, and labeling of oneself, that corresponded with specific experiences of identity formation, milestones, and conceptions of one's self and one's gender. Just based on the information they shared in the presentation, their findings could impact programming, policies, and practices on campuses and in communities around the country. I am eager to read the book when it is published this fall.

Tomorrow's sessions include a plenary about being a straight ally and a session on building a research infrastructure on LGBTQ issues in education by George Wimberly, the director of social justice and professional development in the American Educational Research Association.

Final takeaways from the conference (which isn't quite over) for me?
  1. We need to get sexual orientation and gender identity and expression on the common application for college, along with the NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement), so we can find out about LGBTQ students on our campuses and have some idea of the overall population from which we sample for our smaller studies. (Rankin noted that individual schools can add questions to the NSSE, so see if you can get these demographic questions added on your campus survey!)
  2. For those who want to create good teaching rubrics, check out It is free and fantastic! (No, there isn't anything especially queer about it, but gotta pass on a good idea when I find it!)
  3. We need to keep working across lines--disciplines, contingent and TT/Tenured faculty, student and academic affairs, faculty/staff, etc. to really effect changes on campuses, and that can only work if we try to take that approach in everything we do on campus. 
  4. We are never to old to grow and learn something new. And we should make sure to laugh... a lot.
Yes, I am leaving the conference excited, happy, refreshed, and energized by all of the fantastic ideas and work going on out in academe. I couldn't have asked for more.

If all this sounded good, save the date for next year's conference: March 8-11, 2012 in San Francisco. Perhaps we really can have a meet up! Drinks are on me.


Justine Valinotti said...

One of the reasons I gave up on campus LGBT groups is that I found most of them to be focused either on very academic issues or ones about "queer spaces." Issues like homelessness were never discussed (Then again, I find to be the case in many LGBT organizations generally.) and trans people were given their "moment," if anything at all.

I am glad to hear that your experience wasn't like that.

Anonymous said...

I think getting sexuality on the application would not help identify the school's LGBT population very much. It is notoriously underreported. . .

Lesboprof said...

Just because it is underreported is not a reason to nix adding sexual orientation to the application. Getting some insight into the size of the population (at least at the time of application) would give us a way to understand the recruitment and retention numbers of the students who do identify. It also would give us info on their grades when they get in.