Ever wondered what firearms, homosexuals, and pop singers have in common? Such was the topic of a lecture, “Gays, Guns, & Gaga,” given by George Mason University Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies Craig Willse on Thursday, Sept. 26 at the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life.
Sponsored by the Sociology Department and Assistant Professor of Sociology Greg Goldberg, who also hosted Willse to speak in his sociology class Thursday morning, Willse’s lecture addressed important social issues while using contemporary examples to connect with students.
“I thought he would be a good speaker to invite because his work is contemporary, and he’s interested in contemporary political concerns,” Goldberg said. “I think a lot of students on campus share his concerns, and even if they aren’t the same concerns, they are interested in the issues.”
Willse’s lecture challenged much of the current discourse around the acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Though many activists argue that inclusion in societal institutions will lead to increased equality, Willse argued that assimilation for assimilation’s sake, without adherence to ideals, would do more damage than good to such communities.
Izzy Rode ’14, who helped publicize the lecture, felt that having that sort of conversation is a way to push for reform in LGBTQ movements.
“I would say the potential to change discourse involving the issues Willse discussed is in starting to have conversations about these subjects,” Rode said. “While there is certainly some discourse involving queerness and push against assimilation, it’s not found everywhere.”
Taking on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, Willse tied the current means of achieving equal rights to the normalization of war and militarization in the United States. A main focus of the lecture was how the United States can move beyond legal and formal equality, which, according to Willse, can sometimes be detrimental.
“I’m interested in the ways in which a certain version of mainstream gay politics today is addressing or dealing with militarism and war,” Willse said. “I’m interested in thinking about how social, economic, and racial justice sometimes isn’t served by that equality model and is sometimes harmed by it.”
In order to answer this question, Willse examined Lady Gaga’s activism and the media coverage she generates. With her well-known song “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga is one of the leading figures that supports LGBTQ rights because being queer is natural and not a choice, an argument that Willse sees as problematic.
“What if someone isn’t born that way?” Willse asked. “Does that mean they don’t deserve freedom or liberty?”
He hypothesized that the common argument surrounding the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act is that the military has changed in order to reflect changes in society; coupled with the inclusion of women in combat positions, it has made the military seem like a progressive institution.
“The inclusion of groups like women in combat positions and now gay and lesbian service people has made the US military seem progressive, culturally on the cutting edge,” Willse said. “It sort of brands the military in a way that serves as a normalizing function.”
For people who fight against discrimination, these changes may seem positive. However, as an anti-war activist, Willse argued that these changes have served as “pinkwashing” for the military. Hiding under the cover of progressive viewpoints, the military has created an even wider base to draw troops from, while continuing its overall goals and tactics.
Posing another overall question, Willse challenged the audience to provide an example of LGBTQ politics that doesn’t simply ask for inclusion but also keeps other important values, like anti-war politics, in the foreground.
“We don’t critique war, we applaud gay people being able to move into it,” Willse said.
Many of the assembled students noted that they were impressed by Willse’s wide-ranging argument, which incorporated diverse material and synthesized it into a brief, clear lecture.
“Willse’s research brilliantly brought together ideas of war, lack of American anti-war campaigns, queerness, imperialism, [the problem of a] biological basis of queer identity, pinkwashing, and Lady Gaga into a half-hour long lecture that was accessible and easy to follow,” Rode said.
The lecture addressed many well-known political and social issues that many students were able to connect with. Equally important, though, was the way Willse asked students to think about the issues. The lecture challenged many commonly held assumptions and beliefs, encouraging students to think differently about the issues.
“I think the talk uniquely explor[ed] the intersections of [a wide variety of issues] in a way that I don’t think anybody is currently doing here,” Goldberg said.