Category Archives: IRWAG to IRWGS

"We were totally self-starting."


Professor of English, Hunter College

We were totally self-starting. That’s why we went to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. I don’t remember who was the director of the institute at that point.

Q: Martha Howell.

Yes. She was great. She was great! We went to her and we said, “All we want is a space once a month, and a little bit of money for refreshments and photocopying. That’s it. We’ll do everything else ourselves.” She said, “okay.”

We’d pick topics at the beginning of the year, and then we’d have a calendar for the semester, and we’d read. Then we’d also have speakers come in. We had Douglas Crimp. It’s so amazing to me now, and I know him a little bit now, not well, but I know him a little bit. I don’t know if he’s still at Sarah Lawrence, but he was at Sarah Lawrence then. So we wrote to him and said, “Dear Professor Crimp, We’re this brand new group, Lesbian and Gay Studies Group at Columbia. We’d really love you to come and give a talk.” We had no money. I don’t even remember where we got the money from. I guess we got some money from the institute, we got some money from English, we got some money from Art History, we kind of cobbled it together. We were like, [gasps]! Eve Sedgwick came, and she came for free. I think Judith Butler even came for free. She was in New York, and she was like, “Fine.” Also they realized this was brand new, and we were a totally student-run group. We said, “Look, when you’re in New York, let us know and come.”

So we got these people who were huge figures in the field. Jim Saslow, the same. He was really the one. So Douglas Crimp and Jim Saslow were the two openly gay art historians basically in the United States, and Douglas did contemporary and Jim does early modern. That was it. They were both in New York, so they both came. We had a session on separatist feminism, separatist lesbian feminism. It was amazing. We had a session on intergenerational sex. Because we could do anything. The field was so embryonic at that point that kind of everything was up for grabs. It wasn’t fully calcified. Well, calcified is a negative word, but it wasn’t fully jelled. So whatever you wanted to talk about, if you could find the readings and get them together, you would do it.

“…we have these needs as students that this institution is not meeting…”


Professor of English, Lehman College

When we started the [Lesbian and Gay Studies] Group, I think we did feel like it was a kind of dissident or resistant kind of thing. Here we are, we have these needs as students that this institution is not meeting for whatever reasons, and we have to do this ourselves. I think we might have felt that way, especially at first. Some of the topics we dealt with were very controversial. That and other things were really less academic issues and more issues of concern within the lesbian and gay community in some form.

Now I remember too, another day, I believe we did a day on bisexuality and the debate about do bisexuals exist or are they just gay people who aren’t coming out? Why do bisexuals have such a hard time fitting into the lesbian and gay community? They’re the outsiders to the lesbian and gay community. Again, that’s something that I don’t think had—not a lot of academic work had been done on bisexual identity or sexuality, but there was a lot of lesbian and gay community discussion and more informal kinds of memoirs and things like that about that. So we definitely did some work in that group that was less academic, and so in that way would be more outside of the traditional parameters of formal, scholarly analysis. And we had people come to the group who were non-academics, too. I distinctly remember.

Yes, because we had networks. We’d advertise. So a lot of us had different contacts around the city and we would advertise our events around the city, and then these people would show up that we had no idea who they were. So we did kind of serve an extra-university function in that way, as a kind of like community place to discuss these issues. Once we kind of became more established as a group and we had institutional support from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and then we got money from the provost’s office, at that point you start getting more established and institutionalized, and getting the support from the administration. I think maybe at some point we felt like we were really an acknowledged group and that the institution was financially supporting us. That’s a very typical kind of progression, where you start something that’s very scrappy and then it kind of ends up being absorbed by the institution. Which is okay, because that also does a certain amount of work. We saw ourselves as a group that––we could be there to help newer people to feel comfortable being gay because when we came into the program, that didn’t exist.

“…a time of an opening up of queer issues”


Institutional Review Board Administrator

I think the origin of the prize was actually with students themselves. They advocated for it. They knew of me because of my participation in GABLES [Gay, Bisexual, and Lesbian Employees and Supporters] activities, and therefore came to me to ask if a prize could get put in place for queer studies. Well, a very specific student came to me. He was a religion major and he was involved in the Jewish gay group. He was one of the few people, at that time, who knew I was actually a lesbian, when he first came to the department, so we just came together that way. He was still a college student, and they wanted somebody with more clout as an adult. He was an adult at the time too, but by that, I mean older people who have been around a long time but also know the university well. That’s why he came to me. It was a double reason that he knew I was lesbian. He also knew I was connected to GABLES and that I knew the university well, so could reach out to certain groups, including IRWAG, to get support for BGLAD [Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Awareness Days] and other activities. So I reached out to IRWAG. And Maggie Sale was here at that time. She was just like, “Yes. Let’s do it.” Yes. She and I worked to put it together.

So in 1994, we had the first Queer Studies Award. It was not really all that hard to put together. I did a lot of the footwork in terms of actually getting the award funded. I think IRWAG tossed in some money. The chaplain’s office may have given money for the award, but I’m maybe just confusing that with BGLAD. I know they sponsored a lot of events for BGLAD over the years, which was great. I actually donated some funding myself for the award. The award was only, like, a couple hundred dollars. It was never anything that would pay the rent. But it was a nice way to acknowledge that queer studies was going on at Columbia.

Even though I’m not active in those groups anymore, I really, really, really am proud of the fact that we worked so hard for so many years over so many issues, and that these groups, some of which still exist, worked so hard to make lesbian, gay, and transgender issues a part of the life at Columbia, as opposed to this satellite issue that nobody really cared about when I first came to Columbia. To see that transition and be part of the transition was really gratifying. Columbia has the oldest queer group in the world, I think [originally Student Homophile League, established in 1967]. Maybe just in the United States, but the oldest queer group. That group was always students. Obviously, it was only male students because Columbia was all male at the time. To see it move from this small, all-male group to women, to people of color, to Asians, to transgender people, to—even though I left the employee group—to employees, and to have faculty be more involved and everything. It was a time of an opening up of queer issues that I’m really glad I experienced. It’s really made my life now much more gratifying and worth—well, my life is worth it anyway, but—

Q: Worth staying at Columbia?

Yes. Worth staying at Columbia. Yes. Exactly.

“There hadn’t been a queer series yet…”


Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2000-01

One thing that I liked about it—I learned a huge amount. I was very eager to be around a lot and oversee activities, especially for undergraduates. But I felt, as a person identified as straight, that it would be really interesting to push queer stuff. It’s kind of unbelievable but it’s true, that even in those days—and I can’t remember exactly when, it might have been 2002—that the word queer was surely used, and there were lots of people on campus who were quite committed to queer issues, but there hadn’t been a queer series yet. I just thought, let’s do it. We did it and it was a great success and I think there’s been something like that series ever since.I felt that there—and I still do actually feel—that sometimes there’s not quite enough attention given just to students, and what life in the trenches, so to speak, is like. Patricia [Dailey] and I have actually really tried to think a good deal now about how to make what we do more available to students.

One thing that’s true, and this is what I learned as a director, is that a lot of students don’t want to major in women’s studies because they’re majoring in a couple of other things often, but they’re happy to concentrate or do gender and feminism. I think, as a director, what was really good is getting a sense of that: the need to attend to undergraduates in a little bit more robust way than we traditionally had. That has been put on hold a little bit sometimes because I wasn’t involved so much, but now I think—especially working with Patricia—we’re really paying attention to that.

“…students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Core Faculty
Director of IRWGS, 2007-08, 2015

Well, the field is changing. Students are changing and I think the curriculum is changing as well. I mean, the biggest shift, curricularly, is that we’ve added “Sexuality” to our name. I think we’ve always been doing sexuality and we are the place at Columbia, certainly in Arts & Sciences, that’s doing sexuality. We’ve been trying to appoint a faculty member in that field, but short of that, we have a number of people who teach it and who have come forward and been willing to teach it. I think that move towards sexuality has been a very big one. The global focus is getting more urgent. I think it already was when I first arrived here and at Columbia. IRWGS appointed Lila Abu-Lughod and Beth Povinelli, so they’ve brought that in and Roz Morris was the director when I first was hired. I think we’ve had that very much at the forefront of our mission, but it takes constant care to maintain it and to enlarge it. We’ve tried to appoint somebody in Latin American Studies, for example. That didn’t succeed but we’re hoping to do, again, this constant vigilance to try to have course offerings that are broad in that way. That’s been some of the shift.

I think what I’ve seen also is a shift in student culture. I feel like recently, really, in the last two or three years, students are just more activist. Changing things in the world seems more urgent to them. I think the kinds of sophistication about analyses of issues of social difference has just been so much more at the forefront of students’ thinking, both undergraduate and graduate. That’s been a shift from the first decade of this century when I think fighting the war was a big issue, and then the economic depression, I think, made all of us more discouraged and probably students more quiescent.

We’re doing this interview on the heels of the protests in Baltimore, so I think we’re seeing something erupt that has been building and it has to do with just tremendous economic inequalities. I’d like to think that students are beginning to realize what it costs their parents for them to be getting this education and to take a look at what that privilege means and who is excluded from it. I think that’s part of it. In terms of gender and sexuality, I think just this larger conversation that’s been taking place in the US that comes out of the gay marriage debate––I think the country’s become so polarized around every question that students are being drawn into some of these questions, whether they want to or not.

I don’t think it’s because the curriculum has changed. I think that students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum, which has not necessarily changed. At the same time, there are a lot of initiatives that are beginning at Columbia, for example, the Justice Initiative and teaching in prisons. I mean, that’s kind of new here and the opportunities to do more of that, more work with the community, public humanities––I think those spaces are opening up and I think students are seeing those opportunities.

“…to expand the category of gender…”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

It was very productive for me to see that feminist studies begat queer studies, which enabled me to see African American studies differently. So I began to work in this field that’s now variously populated with really exciting young scholars. At that moment, I have to say, my work was met with some resistance. “Why, Marcellus, are you taking on yet another battle?” I got that. I got that. It just seemed to me that it was so productive to think about gender, to expand the category of gender, to expand the objects that the category of gender allows us to see anew. It was the logical consequence of the kind of work that I wanted to do, even though at times—I began lecturing widely on this moment in African American literature that was defined by the loss of writers at precisely the time in African American studies you began to see these communities of queer writers. The focus of our work is defined by trauma and loss. I did a lot of—that’s actually the moment which maybe began to be a bridge between my activism and my scholarship, thinking about people like Essex Hemphill and Melvin Dixon and Joe Beam, reading the works that began to be produced, like the anthology Brother to Brother by Essex, or Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, and how gay men moved necessarily to the forefront of political struggles for African American men. Theoretically it made sense to think, how does gender shape how we think about men.

I’d been focusing on liberating women from the small spaces that men place them in and it became important to me to think about liberating men from those small spaces in which they place themselves. So, a more expansive notion of masculinity, a more supple notion of masculinity was important not just for women or for gay men, but for heterosexual men as well, a different kind of politics of liberation.

“…was it happening curricularly on the graduate level? Not really.”


Professor of English, Hunter College

Intellectually there wasn’t push back. No one said no, you can’t do this, or this isn’t an appropriate field. The students were very aware of lesbian and gay studies, queer theory, as a thing. Well, for example, when we brought Eve Sedgwick or Judith Butler, it was standing room only. There was just no room in the room. But was it happening curricularly on the graduate level? Not really. Anne McClintock was there, and she was starting to do works on the sex industry. I took a class with her on narratives of the sex industry. So there was that, and she was super queer friendly. There were definitely faculty there who were very open to queer work, and did gender and sexuality in their work. So a lot of the Early Modernists, the work that was being done on cross dressing and that kind of stuff. But there was not a sense of a political commitment to lesbian and gay studies in the same way. Do you know what I mean? And there were no courses, to my memory, that were focused on that. No, we felt like we were doing this thing, but there was no negative response. People were like, “Oh, okay, great. Go ahead, go for it. We have a little bit of money we can give you, but that’s about it.”

IRWAG was very supportive, very supportive from the very beginning. I don’t know if we could have done what we did really without them, because they had a space we could use, and they gave us like forty dollars a month for refreshments and stuff like that, and that’s not nothing. Also as someone who’d come out of women’s studies and been really involved in the Yale Women’s Center, to me the place you go is where the feminist work is being done. That’s where you go, and it’s true here at Hunter as well. The really important gender and sexuality work I think is happening in women’s and gender studies. That’s where it’s happening, and that’s where it’s happening on the ground with the students. That’s where the nurturing of students doing sexuality studies is happening, in a concentrated way.

"It was the first time that we had a graduate student conference dealing with lesbian and gay studies issues."


Professor of English, Lehman College


All I remember was someone had the bright idea of, you know, we’ve been doing these local events now for several years and we’ve been bringing in these great speakers, and why don’t we do a conference? At the time there was the annual lesbian and gay studies conference, and I think right around then that conference started at Yale, and I think maybe around that year it was at Rutgers, so there was kind of an annual, big, national lesbian and gay studies conference that was being held in the Northeast around that time, but we thought, let’s just do a conference for graduate students.

I remember that we just came up with a bunch of questions that we wanted to address in this conference and we sent out a call for papers––we got a mailing list. We made this really cool poster and we sent to English and gender studies departments and stuff all around the Northeast, and we thought it has to be local-ish because we just can’t afford. So we sent them to colleges and stuff all over the Northeast. I don’t remember the questions we asked but they were probably just things like, how as graduate students do we negotiate the challenges of doing work in an emerging field? What are the personal and professional possibilities, but also risks that we take? I went on the market in 1994, and I remember having discussions with all of these people––my friends––about to what degree do you come out as a job candidate. What do you write on your CV? Do you occlude things? Do you euphemize things? We were really talking about it, which is kind of shocking to think. In the end, I don’t think any of us did [occlude anything]. We were like, well, this is silly––I wrote a dissertation on homoeroticism, I’ve got to say that! What am I going to say? But I think other things like involvement in activist groups and other things that were less academic but were gay, I think we had serious discussions about to what degree do you occlude those kinds of things, because people––if you’re applying to a job in the Midwest or the South, people might be freaked out if you say you’re a member of ACT UP or you did community organizing for ACT UP. Whatever it is. Those were also the kinds of questions that we wanted to ask. How you negotiate your personal identity? So it was that kind of––very pragmatic. Just how do we survive and thrive as graduate students, as teachers and researchers who are working in a new scholarly area that also comes with certain risks? Being that it’s a possibly controversial subject.

We had this great one-day conference, and I think it was really, really meaningful for a lot of us, again, because we wanted to hear our graduate student peers at other institutions. It was the first time, I think, that we had really just this graduate student conference dealing with lesbian and gay studies issues. I don’t think that really had happened before.

“…the support came in response to student requests”


Professor of Anthropology
IRWGS Director, 1999-2000, 2001-04

All the student groups: it really depends on the cohort and how active the individuals are, how politically pressing the issues appear at a moment. Different issues grab the imagination at different times. Ethnic studies takes over it sometimes. Opposition to the war became a bigger issue than identitarian politics at one moment. In my opinion, IRWAG’s executive committee was always supportive, but the support came in response to student requests. It was very student-driven. There were certainly undergraduate students who were active in many ways. Maybe more active in the classrooms than in organizational ways, but there was a graduate student group that in some periods gathered, I think, almost weekly. They had theory reading groups, they had dissertation reading groups, and so forth. I think the support was largely providing a venue, largely providing a sense of legitimacy, perhaps promotion of activities. Across the board, the student-generated groups had support, but also were encouraged to assume a lot of autonomy, particularly in the early days when there really wasn’t any kind of stable faculty.

There were a couple of moments where things acquired a slightly different character, such as when we established the queer studies prize. That involved faculty much more directly, actually, in reading the work, and actually talking among themselves about what it is that we think ought to be the function of queer theoretical writing. Sometimes those committees would have quite intense disagreements, so sometimes it’s the desire to support the students that generates interesting theoretical reflections.

There were also some very difficult moments—for a long time we had a strong support and indeed some financial support from an administrator at Columbia by the name of Annie Barry. She joined those committees for a number of years. I can’t really ventriloquize for her of course, because she would have to express her own sense of what happened, but there was a period when it felt like we were getting so few, and such bad material, and so little interest by other faculty members that the prize almost collapsed. Basically, Annie withdrew herself from the process at that time. I think rightly so, but it had also to do with her status as an administrator in the adjudication process. If I remember correctly, I think that year we decided not to give the prize. We were so unhappy with what felt like anti-feminist work being produced within the queer theory that we were nonetheless teaching. You’d have to ask Julie Crawford about that, because she was very deeply involved and carried the prize forward into a renewed and much better form.

That was one bad year. Only one. Other years have been fantastic, and as I said, I think one has to assess that in terms of the vicissitudes of politics more generally. As I said, around the early years of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, war and opposition to war took up a lot of energy. During unionization periods, that absorbed a lot of student energy. I haven’t been so involved of late, but my sense is that, for example, around the politics of gay marriage, with big deep splits within the community of IRWAG, the issue of civil rights has also been important. Those splits also ramified at the level of courses being offered. I think in one year, following a period of real activism around civil rights, in that same year there appeared to be a lot of courses on marriage, and maternity, and so forth, and some people felt, oh, what’s happening to IRWAG? But these things—one has to assess them in terms of a long arc, not just in the moment.

“Studying intersectionally with other aspects of social difference…”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Core Faculty
Director of IRWGS, 2007-08, 2015

When we thought about what is the next stage for the study of gender and the study of gender and sexuality, it was really what we were already doing, which is to study it intersectionally with other aspects of social difference, whether they be race or class or sexuality or economics. Also collaborations with other programs, so we approached some of our cognate centers and institutes, IRAAS [Institute for Research in African American Studies], the African American studies, CSER [Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race], [Institute for] Comparative Literature and Society and then the Barnard Center for Research on Women. We said, “What if we formed this research center, would you want to participate with us?” They all said yes.

They’re not all of them as active as some of the others, and IRWGS is still the most active. We thought: well, we’re doing all the curricular stuff but what about studying new things and collaborating more around scholarship? So we approached the president of Columbia and he gave us some seed money to form this center.

The fact that we really wanted to have a more collaborative space I think was also attractive. I’ve devoted a lot of my energy to building that. It was always going to be for faculty, but also for graduate students. It was not going to be another programming unit that would just put on events because there’s so much of that here. They’re all great, but we can’t possibly split ourselves into little molecules to go to them all. It’s really going to be a more in depth, long range collaboration and working together in working groups.

I’ve been involved in two of them. One is Engendering Archives and the other one is on Women Mobilizing Memory, which is the more global one. Engendering Archives, which is one of the three first, is actually still going. It was initially a large mailing list of about forty people, with funding for three years, but it’s actually still meeting two or three times a semester and people have been reading each other’s books or presenting papers with a respondent—very, very in depth, fabulous discussions of people’s work. I think when you’re in a big university where a lot is going on, the trick is to find a space in which you can build a community and try to accomplish something that you really believe in. CSSD has been that kind of space for me, as well as the cultural memory seminar and then IRWGS in a larger way.