A Queer Studies Conference
In this anxiety-provoking climate of scrutiny about sexual topics in the classroom, the University of Iowa hosted a North American queer studies conference and I was one of twenty people on the steering committee. The first U.S.-based queer studies conference had been held at Yale in 1987, followed by other conferences in 1990 at Harvard and in 1991 at a conference co-hosted by Rutgers and Princeton. We were the first non-Ivy League school to host.
The conference was held in the fall of 1994, closely following the UI classroom controversies, so the explicit materials policy was in effect. At first the university was wary of hosting the conference and provided absolutely no financial or other support. Conference co-chair Genny Beemyn stated in the aftermath of the conference, “Not until it became clear that the conference was a fait accompli and more than a thousand queers were coming here regardless, did the university administration get on board, and then, in my opinion, largely for damage control. Never did they offer much financial assistance, despite knowing that such a large conference might not be able to pay for itself; their overriding concern was not wanting an ‘incident’ to arise that could irk the Regents.”21
That concern, for example, led to the administration’s insistence that no one be allowed into workshops, panels, the coffee house, or other informal conference events unless they had a conference badge. They did not want unknowing students or community members wandering into the Iowa Memorial Union and being exposed unexpectedly to queer content on campus.
The only discord among the steering committee members was about the inclusion of transgender in the title. The last conference had been titled a “gay and lesbian” conference. We managed to get bisexual into the title, largely thanks to the advocacy work of steering committee co-chair Genny Beemyn, a bisexual rights activist (the other co-chair was Meredith Alexander from the Theater Department, who shared teaching duties with me for the Sexuality Studies Program’s core courses). Several prominent members of the committee were adamant that we should not add transgender. They argued that gender and sexuality were two very different constructs and that to try to address both would “water down” the content. I was disappointed in this, but we had many presentations about transgender issues (and no watering down happened that I could discern!).There was some behind the scenes queer drama long before the conference started. One of our sexuality studies students was a huge fan of Judith Butler, whose 1990 book, Gender Trouble, was one of the hottest things on the queer studies landscape at the time. This student (Andrea Lawlor-Mariano, using the pen name Miss Spentyouth) created a zine called “Judy” in homage to Butler’s work--it was clever and irreverent, just like the best queer theory of the day. The only problem was that Judith Butler hated being called Judy and demanded that we make this student stop, apologize, and destroy all copies of the zine. I totally understand that people have a right to self-define and expect others to call them by the names and pronouns that they use for themselves, but this seemed like a monumental over-reaction. I doubt that more than a handful of people ever saw the zine and I don’t know how it even got to Butler. This was before the time when practically everything got posted to the internet. We were not about to censor a student who demonstrated creativity and insightful comments about gender theory in her work. She hadn’t done this as a class assignment so we had no business telling her what to write. Butler threatened to boycott the conference and said she would tell all of her friends in queer studies to boycott as well. I don’t know if the zine deterred anyone from attending. It is on-line if you want to judge for yourself.22
The conference had the tongue-in-cheek title “InQueery, InTheory, InDeed.” I had suggested that since we were under such heavy scrutiny from the Board of Regents and university, we should play on the National Enquirer slogan, “inquiring minds want to know,” which was the basis of the InQueery part of the title. We were constantly worried about money, and during the summer before the conference we were concerned that we might have to cancel. In this context, the Chicago-based Playboy Foundation suggested that it might make a donation, and I remember several heated discussions about whether to accept this money. Ultimately we decided against it and luckily conference registrations picked up enough to go ahead with plans for the November conference.
As planning proceeded, members of the Board of Regents made it abundantly clear that they were watching us and would not put up with any scandalous behavior at our conference. We heard that they were sending “moles” to the conference to observe. I wasn’t too concerned, because little of what was considered queer theory those days would be in the least titillating or explicit to the outside observer. There was a lot of academic jargon that would not be comprehensible to a non-academic. Any spy sent by the Board of Regents would have encountered sessions such as “MTV as a hyperkinetic postmodern culture vulture specifically privileges its trope of eclectic crossover” or “hegemonic discourse in an oppositional community.” This was high theory with a very low likelihood of being scandalous.
In the weeks and months leading up to the conference, I was actively involved in doing training about LGBT issues for university administrators and for all of the staff who worked in the Student Union where the conference was taking place. We were determined to avoid homophobic events for conference attendees from around the country and beyond, so we did what was then called “sensitivity” training. Apparently, this was successful, because we heard of no negative incidents. Our training presentations later became the foundation for the first “Safe Zone” trainings on campus.
Somehow, we pulled it off, and at the time, it was the largest queer studies conference in U.S. history with over 1200 participants and 400 presenters. Along with featuring academic presentations and keynotes, we hosted a slew of non-academic workshops and cultural events that allowed for community members to participate alongside academics. These included poetry readings, grassroots activism workshops, anti-racism workshops, community dialogues, and much more. A cadre of community volunteers provided free housing for somewhere between eighty and ninety participants. On the second day of the conference, queer studies scholars Larry Gross (from the University of Pennsylvania) and Esther Newton (from the State University of New York at Purchase) organized a demonstration against the sexually explicit materials policy outside the student union. The only “scandal” that bubbled up one day but blew over without media attention was that someone posted a flyer about an after-hours party hosted by bisexual activists, hinting at an orgy. It might have been satire, it might have been literal, but it was not a sanctioned part of the conference so all was well. We got through the conference with only a little drama.
One of the conference participants and presenters, Ki Namaste (now known as Viviane) wrote a review of the conference that suggested that although we missed the mark in regards to trans inclusion in the name of the conference (though not in the content), we were successful in infusing bisexuality through keynotes and on panels, She also noted that we successfully blended activism and academia and crossed academic disciplines more successfully than previous conferences had.23
After the conference, conference co-chair Genny Beemyn and I invited sixteen presenters to expand their work as chapters for an edited book that we called Queer Studies: An LGBT Anthology. It was published in 1996 by New York University Press. Genny and I wrote an introduction that summarized the state of queer studies at the time, and based on our experiences with the conference urged the field to consider incorporating more diverse queer voices with respect to ethnicity, gender identity, and bisexual status. I still get royalties today, suggesting that people continue to buy this book some twenty-seven years later. Genny also used contacts they made through the conference to invite authors to submit to an edited book on LGBT community histories the year after the conference.24
In spite of the administration’s concerns, the conference elevated the reputation of the University of Iowa outside of the state as well as saying to university and local community members that LGBT issues were valued and important. Some state legislators, however, did not see it that way.