6 min

Campus queer

Is academia the safe space we imagine?

RISK AND TENURE. Conference coordinator Jude Tate (right) and steering committee member Heather Dryden, with York's Centre For Race And Ethnic Relations, see the academic contradictions. Credit: Jan Becker

Universities are institutions of irreconcilable contradictions. That’s the conclusion I came up with after 10 years of university life.

On one hand they are seats of learning and research, of progressive thinking and academic freedom; on the other, they are places where traditions, many of which are reactionary, not only thrive but are often considered part of the very fabric of academic life. A university campus is at once a place removed from the day-to-day realities of its immediate community and a mirror reflection of that community’s social and political problems and triumphs.

Nowhere is this contradictory state of affairs more applicable than in the history and evolution of a sizable queer – and I reluctantly use the term queer as an umbrella term for the more detailed but cumbersome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered – presence in the past three decades.

A queer-positive campus is the ultimate symbol of an institution’s progressive agenda and a (perceived) threat to its traditional values. The emergence and proliferation of queer studies and queer-positive services on various campuses in North America hardly masks the fact that homophobia and heterosexism can still be the defining experience of many queer students, faculty and staff.

At the University Of Toronto, for example, a student who has just finished a stimulating two-hour tutorial on queer writers may step out of class into a building where posters for the latest Homohop dance have been ripped off or desecrated. That’s university life.

This polarized political context provides a backdrop for someone like Jude Tate, coordinator of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Resources And Programs at the University Of Toronto.

“There’s active homophobia on campus,” says Tate. Since taking up her position in 1999, Tate has overseen diverse services that range from organizing résumé writing workshops for students with a queer community experience and maintaining the “Positive Space” sticker campaign throughout campus, to more involved strategies to confront heterosexism and homophobia in the classroom, faculty proceedings and student services.

The impact of such queer initiatives will be discussed in a two-day conference on Fri, Nov 3 and Sat, Nov 4, organized by a steering committee from Toronto’s three major universities (the U of T, Ryerson Polytechnic and York) and coordinated by Tate.

Speakers from all three schools as well as several Canadian and American universities will gather to share experiences and the latest research into queer issues inside and outside the academy.

A preliminary program outline includes panels on everything from queer life at a rural college, queering up student services, transgender images, producing queer culture electronically to “celebrating the women’s locker room as a space of perversion and pollution.” (You can always count on a queer academic to come up with a sexy title for her talk.) Toronto gay activist Tim McCaskell and international activist and scholar Julia Sudbury will deliver the keynote speeches.

While many of the panels will deal with campus-specific issues, one of the key priorities will be examining the different ways in which activism on campus influences (and is in turn influenced by) day-to-day lives of the queer community at large.

At a time when rightwing factions in North American politics are strengthening their grip on the social and educational arenas, it has become more pressing than ever to construct alliances between different members of the queer community.

Precedents have shown alliance-building strategies to be extremely productive. When the “Positive Space” sticker campaign, which originated at the University Of Toronto, was adopted on the Ryerson campus, for example, the effect on faculty members and academic content was immediate, says George Bielmeier, professor and field consultant at the School Of Social Work at Ryerson.

“Faculty at least were beginning to recognize the examples they were using in class were all heterosexually designed,” he explains. “There was nothing to demonstrate sexual diversity. So a Sociology Of The Family course only talked about straight-identified families. There are other forms of families out there and there are not included in the course. So immediately it got people thinking, ‘I need to bring in other examples.'”

According to Bielmeier, students’ experiences of homophobia and heterosexism not only depend on which university they attend but on which department within the same university. Bielmeier will present the outcomes of what he bills as “the most comprehensive study ever done within a university” on the experiences of homophobia and heterosexism for faculty, staff and students on the Ryerson campus (on Sat, Nov 4 at 9am).

“There are pockets where there’s greater safety for people to come out and there are others where it’s not safe at all,” Bielmeier explains. “So I can say that in the faculty of applied arts at Ryerson there will be a higher degree of safety and acceptance than, for example, in the faculty of business or engineering.”

There are still instances, says Bielmeier, where students are “terrified to challenge a professor in class for fear of what the consequences on [their] grades might be.”

The conference will demonstrate that activism is a continuum that doesn’t recognize differences between the academy and the community. As an example, Tate uses the recent outrage following police raid of the September Pussy Palace, the lesbian bathhouse night.

“I know there were a number of students at the Pussy Palace, which I’m also happy to hear,” says Tate. “There were a number of students at the meeting who marched down to [police] headquarters and stood up and said, ‘We want to do something.’ There are opportunities for activism in the community that they bring back to their [academic] work here, in their critical thinking. And vice versa, how they take whatever it is they learn here at the university to the community as well.”

“There’s this reciprocal relationship between what goes on within the community and what makes its way to the university,” concurs Bielmeier, “and what’s going on at the university makes its way to the community.”

The history of student activism at the University Of Toronto, for example, mirrors the political evolution of the community: from the early homophile societies of the pre-Stonewall era, to the gay and lesbian activism of the 1970s and ’80s to the more inclusive queer politics of the ’90s.

And just as it’s impossible to separate the political victories of feminism in the last 30 years from academic research and theoretical developments across a wide range of faculties and disciplines, the explosion of queer activism (think ACT UP or Queer Nation) in the early ’90s is inseparable from the academic proliferation and critical acceptance of queer theory and studies as legitimate fields of academic knowledge in the same decade.

According to Janice Ristock and Catherine Taylor’s pioneering book Inside The Academy And Out, only a few courses that included lesbian, gay or queer studies were offered in Canadian universities in 1993. By 1998, Centre/fold, the now-defunct newsletter of the Toronto Centre For Lesbian And Gay Studies, was publishing exhaustive annual lists of courses on offer at a range of academic institutions in Canada.

But the presence of out, queer-identified academics or sexual diversity programs on campuses does not automatically translate into progressive social change. From my experience, queer academics are as paranoid about their social position and privileges as their straight counterparts. Some of queer theory, in particular the factions obsessed with the deconstruction of social texts, is as puritanical in its premises as it’s intellectually thin and deliberately remote from political life. The fact that it’s a “hot” academic area means it attracts a number of students who are more into academic fashions than principles.

The contention that every gay, lesbian, queer studies academic is by definition an activist is one that both Tate and Bielmeier approach with a mixture of caution and cynicism.

“It goes back to the individual, where they’re at personally and in their careers,” Tate says. “I’ve spoken to many faculty members who are moving towards tenure or are trying to earn that. It’s a strict regiment what they have to perform to attain that so being lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer is going a little like ‘This doesn’t fit,’ so they are going to remain closeted or they’re going to be careful. Unless they are in an area where it’s really understood,” Tate says.

But change can be effected in subtle ways. Tate organizes regular lunch meetings for U of T’s lesbian staff members. It’s an informal social gathering designed specifically to provide support for a large number of women who may feel isolated, dotted as they are across different buildings, departments or campuses. On a scale of activist intervention this may not rank as high as, say, marching to police headquarters or taking part in a kiss-in outside an establishment known for its homophobic practices, but it’s a socially significant service nonetheless.

On the other side, what might be expected of an academic seeking tenure becomes frustratingly disappointing from those more established, tenured professors who still refuse to take part in what Tate, optimistically and defiantly, describes as a “community of change on campus.” Tenure, a concept designed to protect an academic’s freedom of speech and research rights, is one that crumbles at the mention of queer politics. It seems that it’s possible to reach the highest rung on the academic ladder and the darkest corners of the closet with no apparent liability.

Hypocritical? Sure, but that’s just another contradiction-filled day in academia.



Fri, Nov 3 and Sat, Nov 4.

Ryerson Campus.

Sliding scale registration $10-$25.
(416) 946-2624.