Invited Roundtable Presentation by Maxine Wolfe, "Inside/Outside the Academy: The Politics of Knowledge in Queer Communities." Forms of Desire. The Seventh Annual Queer Graduate Studies Conference. April 3-5, 1997. Held at CUNY Graduate School, Proshansky Auditorium, New York City.


Academia and Political Organizing in Lesbian and Gay Communities

by Maxine Wolfe

One of the paternalistic ideas I have often heard from academics is that cutting edge political thinking takes place in the academy. I have found the opposite to be true -- that it takes place outside of the academy where it is not hampered by institutional requirements, such as the focus on individual scholarship and ownership of ideas rather than collective work, or by the need to develop special vocabularies and grand theory in order to be taken seriously by one's colleagues.

Academic work is largely about private discussions among academics -- in places like this -- not public discussions between academics and others, even when those "others" are the subjects of academic work. For example, at one lesbian/gay studies conference some years ago, someone gave a paper "deconstructing" "we're here, we're queer, get used to it.", without ever having spoken to the still-living people who came up with that slogan. I'm one of them; two of the others are now dead. The presentor didn't even know why it was created or where the "here" in the slogan referred to. Now, it might be interesting to know how a slogan starts and then how it gets used, often in ways not intended by those who create it, or why it is meaningful to people at a particular historical moment. But, at the very least a researcher ought to speak to the people who created it. How can you pretend you are the only one with an analysis, and the correct analysis at that, when you haven't asked for theirs. And, most academic researchers never even run their analysis by the people they are writing about. This is incredibly safe. But it is also why much of what is written academically is not only exploitative but of little use to anyone doing the day-to-day work of organizing.

Grassroots activists speak to people and we write lots of things too -- but they are not written in words you need a Ph.D. to understand or published in books that cost $45 to buy. This is not because what we have to say is simple-minded or has no theory behind it. It's because our goals are to get information and ideas out to as many people as possible and to foment activism and bring about change. And we can often find out in practice whether it makes sense both to the people we are working with and the situation it is addressed to.

For example, in the four year ACT UP campaign that changed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) definition of AIDS, ACT UP women, working with others, wrote lots of critiques of the existing system and continual critiques everytime the CDC made one of its inadequate proposals. We xeroxed thousands of all of these and sent them around the world, for free, building an international coalition of informed grassroots activists and supporters from a range of communities. But the basis for the campaign had come from working with infected women who described the infections they had but were never mentioned by the CDC. Importantly, we didn't just have a critique of the current system; we had a proposal for a new one.

Many academicians write about the work activists do, but after the fact and, more often than not, incorrectly because they use what they want to support a theory they already have -- sometimes in bizarre ways. And, while they critique us and constantly lament our failures, they rarely come up with a different idea AND actually try it out.


1) For seven years the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization in New York, ILGO, has protested their exclusion from the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the denial of their right to protest the exclusion. The latter issue is relevant to all activist groups and residents of this city. Almost 500 people have been arrested during these years. There are many fascinating political aspects to this protest. Yet, a researcher writing a paper about "queer politics" reduced this to describing ILGO's position as "liberal assimilationist" -- her analysis of ILGO members' expression of identity issues. She never participated in planning meetings; never engaged in discussions with ILGO members concerning their political points of view, strategies or tactics. Her analysis has nothing to do with the political world views which inform this protest.

2) A second example. There is a minor academic industry of papers, theses and chapters about ACT UP, each from its own theoretical point of view. Analysis of ACT UP's work could contribute to future activism if it actually described the day to day work or the political discussions and conflicts or even closely followed and documented the strategies and outcomes of an action or campaign. But, with minor exceptions, people don't even get the facts right let alone delve deeply into the work. Most claim Larry Kramer founded it, for example. WRONG. One person had an idea about "inappropriateness" of ACT UP actions and opened his chapter with a description of an action at Shea Baseball Stadium organized by the NY ACT_UP Women's Causus in 1988 as part of "women and AIDS" actions done around the country. He described every aspect of the action except the focus on women and the fact that it was organized by women. He described every banner -- "Don't Balk at Safer Sex", "Strike Out AIDS", "No Glove, No Love" -- except the one that said "AIDS Kills Women." He even described how we got a message on the LED board for buying 60 seats. He did not, however mention the message: "Welcome, National Women and AIDS Day Committee." The entire actual concept and goal of the action were erased so he could make his theoretical point. And, instead of helping to figure out how people in ACT UP managed all of the work relating to women or drug use or to youth or healthcare, like most of the work on ACT UP, anything other than "drugs into bodies" has been erased in order to validate the common critique that it had a totally privileged "white gay male agenda."

[see Shea Stadium Storytellings DIVA TV Netcast ]

There is virtually no way for activists to get space to counter these inaccuracies and incorrect analyses because academia stays self-contained. Everyone can congratulate everyone else on their brilliance since none of the people involved can ask crucial questions or say "the emperor has no clothes" -- if we ever even know that anything is being said about us in the first place.

And, now that "lesbian/gay" and "sexuality" studies are institutionalized, we have gay experts rather than straight experts invited to testify at hearings on our behalf, most often without us knowing. Once, however, as an activist, I was present during such testimony. It was a National Commission of AIDS hearing about what they called "AIDS and Sexually Identified Communities". Lots of things about the testimony made me want to shriek, but I'll give just two examples. Almost 11 years into this epidemic (1991) they were there to substantiate the idea that sex education for HIV prevention has to be explicit and not confined to any "special interest group" -- those were their words. They said: "Sexuality is fluid"; "look at what people do and not what they say"; "just because a women says she's a lesbian doesn't mean she's not having sex with a man." Did they say that "just because a man is gay doesn't mean he isn't having sex with a woman?" No. But, that aside, is this the way to explain HIV infection among lesbians? Is it the basis for HIV prevention material for lesbians? Though we activists weren't supposed to speak, we interrupted to make the point that, despite "sexual fluidity", most self-defined lesbians have contracted HIV through sharing dirty needles during drug use and that postulating a one-night-stand with a man as the primary cause of infection in lesbians is absurd. And infected lesbians are having sex with WOMEN but no one except us is trying to figure out what safer sex might be for us. Their testimony also covers up drug use in our communities and speaks to a prevention campaign which would be useless.

The people speaking were two gay sexuality researchers and one heterosexual one. Did it make a difference? No. The most conservative member of the AIDS commission asked the question: "Don't we have to have values? Isn't commitment something we should teach?" Rather than respond to the homophobia in the question, all they did was repeat that their research showed that behavior and values don't match. Another activist present interrupted again and said: "I have been living with my lover for 15 years; in fact, our parents just made us an anniversary party. But we both have sex many times with other people. What you define as commitment is not necessarily what we do." The activist challenged the status quo. The sexuality researchers did not. But their view gets more credibility. If we won't question their frameworks publicly, who will? But we can't do it if we are not directly in touch with what is happening on a day-to-day basis in our own communities or if we allow academic rhetoric, theory and posturing to substitute for political and ethical analyses and activism.

Frankly, academia has been largely irrelevant to my political work; if anything, my political work has contributed to my general understanding of the world and, therefore, to my academic work, but especially to my ability to survive academia. Everything I have learned politically, from logistics to theory, I have learned from people outside of the academy (I even went to Brooklyn College after all of the Marxists had been fired during the McCarthy Era) and many of them have never stepped foot inside the university or barely made it through. Yet, they are the smartest, most thoughtful well-read and creative thinking people I have ever met. Most don't even know that queer theory exists. It hasn't stopped them from creating change. They have been inspiring and without them as a community I would not have developed politically or intellectually.

People who do grassroots, unpaid political work talk about and discuss political issues and world ideas continually, as we are acting to change a world that would like to see us die or disappear. We have to have an analysis to do what we do. And, we have to know a lot -- from how government operates to how long traffic will be backed up if we block it; from constitutional rights to the politics of the Irish community; from how institutions operate to how to make a chant people will remember; from where to buy an air horn to how to design research trials; from right-wing theory to left-wing theory. We are constantly analyzing our successes and failures and having to come up with something based on the outcome -- something we can act on again. It is intellectually challenging work of the most creative sort.

In 1978, during my first sabbatical and with time out for reflection after having had to fight for my tenure (you can probably guess why), I decided I would quit my job. Before making such a rash decision, however, I decided to talk to an old political friend who also taught at CUNY. During the anti-Vietnam War period he had to fight for his tenure because of his outside political work and because he had given back his government grant money and stopped his research because he thought his findings could be used unethically. Listening to my tales of woe, he said: "Listen, you are the single parent of two children. You're from a working-class background and you have a tenured job at a public university with a union. Make it work for you."

Those words snapped me out of my stupor. Although I had a critique of the institution, I had become trapped in its framework. I really didn't want to change my discipline; I wanted to help change the world. I followed his advice.

On July 1, 1997, 19 years later, I officially retired from the university after 30 years. The two things academia contributed to my political work over these years were: First, the privilege of having a stable, decent-paying job where I could structure my own time and had so much time off, once I was no longer locked into the get-a-grant, publish-a-paper syndrome, that I could continue to do my political work outside the university. Yet, most of the people I know politically work 9-5 jobs and still manage to do their political work, something I totally respect and am in awe of. The second contribution was access to resources I could use for political work and share with others who needed it, from xeroxing machines to providing meeting rooms, or using my status to get seats "at the table" for people without Ph.D.s.

If you are thinking that what I have said is "anti-intellectual" or an urging for you to do what is commonly known as "relevant" academic work, let me close with some final points about academia, lesbian and gay studies, and political organizing outside of the academy:

1) I think of my self as an intellectual -- which I do not see as a negative term. I do try to understand how the world operates and I love to engage with ideas -- ask any of my friends. I NEED to do that as a political person and I also LIKE to do it. But I also believe you have to try to change the world in order to understand it.

2) If you think people in political movements are not intellectual and need your analysis because they do not have any, you are more wrapped up in academia than you think and give yourself more credit than is due.

3) Academic lesbian and gay studies would not exist if political movements did not make it possible. If you are an out lesbian or gay academic, or an academic who can do lesbian and gay focused research, remember you got there on the backs of people who put their bodies and their lives on the line.

4) If you are a lesbian or gay man interested in other topics, don't let anyone guilt-trip you into doing research with lesbian and gay content. Follow your intellectual curiosity. But always remember that you exist and so do I, and so does an incredibly diverse world-wide set of lesbian and gay communities. Think about that whatever your topic is. It could change the way you understand it.

5) If you do academic-based research on lesbian and gay topics, have some humility. You do not speak for political movements and political movements cannot be reduced to your research. You need to be responsible and accountable to the lesbian and gay communities and not to academia. If you are not willing to put your ideas out for criticism to the people you are researching and writing about, check yourself out.

6) Finally, whether or not your research is on lesbian and gay issues, and no matter how you do it, remember it is no a substitute for licking envelopes or being out at a demonstration.



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