The Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (FGSS) program’s fall symposium, titled “Activism in Queer Times,” took place on Oct. 31 and featured Activist Fellows at Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women Reina Gossett and Amber Hollibaugh. The symposium was moderated by Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology Margot Weiss.
“It’s my sense that activists always live in queer times, or at least in queer time, queer temporality,” said FGSS Program Chair Victoria Pitts-Taylor, who was one of the event’s primary organizers. “Activism presupposes the possibility of transformation. What this requires is imagining the future as different from the present while also engaging fully and unremittingly and bravely with the present.”
Gossett began the event by discussing the public treatment of and benefits for trans* women of color. As an Activist Fellow, Gossett previously worked for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates freedom of gender expression and identity. At the symposium, she spoke about the contrast between public visibility of trans* women of color and their treatment in larger society.
“It was the highest year for trans* women of color to ever be killed,” Gossett said. “The homicide rate was at its highest in 2013, ever documented. And at the same time, there were a lot of really large visibility projects. Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time, Orange is the New Black came out…people were talking about trans* women of color in a particular kind of way that hasn’t happened before. But that visibility project is going hand in hand and is deeply connected to the project of controlling and killing trans* women of color and people of color in general.”
She also discussed the importance of attitude in activism to ensure that marginalized groups are not deprived of agency.
“There’s a difference between talking about a group of people and talking with and building with low-income LGBT people,” Gossett said. “I was deeply invested in shifting from talking about how these issues are affecting us to talking about how we are powerful and capable in the face of these violences to transform the world….We have agency; we’re subjects. We’re not objects; we’re not just hurt by the system. If you think about it as a sentence, we’re not just the objects of someone else’s verb. We are verbing.”
Following Gossett’s presentation, Hollibaugh spoke about the binary nature of activism. Hollibaugh, who previously co-founded Queers for Economic Justice, an organization dedicated to promoting the voices of poor and homeless queer people, explained that there are two types of activism: inclusion and social justice.
“The question of two kinds of activism are changed by the way that you position yourself and what you name as the oppression that you are trying to change,” Hollibaugh said. “If what you’re trying to change is something so that you’re included in a way that you’ve been left out, that’s a certain kind of activism. If you’re a social justice activist, if you’re a radical activist, your issues look very different. You’re queering poverty, you’re queering incarceration, you’re queering the way racism sits in your life. You’re queering capital and sexuality.”
Hollibaugh also discussed a perceived divide between the activist and academic communities.
“One of the things that’s always been painful to me is the kind of false division between activism and academia where the assumption is that activists are the body and academics are the head,” Hollibaugh said. “That’s where the thinking happens, and then there’s all of the rest of us who are grassroots and we go make trouble, if we’re lucky. That has always seemed to me to be a precarious and very problematic idea.”
Hollibaugh stressed that social justice activism requires active conversation and constant critique of its own goals.
“We don’t have to believe the same thing, but we have to talk about it,” Hollibaugh said. “And if we don’t talk about it, we don’t have the conversation about what justice is and about what it means to do change….We have to also hold out for the uncomfortable truth that makes our ideas more problematic, and which we have to struggle with in order to realize something that’s bigger and more profound than where we started.”
Both speakers emphasized that activism must have its root in creating a new societal structure.
“It’s important that our work re-figures the world that we want to be in,” Gossett said. “We’re doing this work in a way that creates relationships, creates ways of being in the world, ways of being ourselves that set up the kind of world that we want to live in.”
Hollibaugh agreed, stating that it is the mission of creating this world to which she has dedicated her life.
“It is a question of vision, and it is a question of what world you’re looking at, and what world you want,” Hollibaugh said. “Do you want to get your seat at the table, or do you want to change the table? If you want to change the table completely, then you have to actually understand that that’s your agenda. That’s the work I do. That’s what I’ve done for all my life. It’s what I’ll do until I’m not around anymore….The possibility of changing the world is the most remarkable thing you’ll ever do.”
According to Weiss, the fall symposium typically focuses on the intersection of activism and academia. She spoke to the importance of that discussion at the University.
“Many Wesleyan students, particularly the ones that I have the privilege of teaching, are politically minded, are interested in activism, like to challenge themselves politically, and are looking for ways to think about their own role in all of the many things that are terrible about the world as it is right now,” Weiss said. “Why wouldn’t you, if you’re in college, make the most of your access to all of this material to try to generate your own ideas? You don’t have to start from zero. People have been working on political questions, questions of power and knowledge for a very long time….Don’t turn away from it like its dusty old knowledge that doesn’t have anything to do with the real world.”