Queer Studies Conference comes to ‘Lovetown’

By Timbi Shepherd – [email protected] – Asst. A & F Editor | April 8, 2015 |
Queer studies scholars from across the country gathered on UNC Asheville’s campus this weekend for the university’s biennial Queer Studies Conference.
Attendees began arriving Thursday, just one day after April Fools’ Day pranksters transformed the city’s “Welcome to Pepsitown” billboard, rendering its message “Welcome to Lovetown.”
This literal sign of change reflects a set of questions Joe Urgo, interim provost, asked the crowd while introducing the conference’s keynote speaker, LGBT rights activist Urvashi Vaid.
“Will society look the same 50 years from now? Except that then we’ll have queer generals waging unjust wars? Queer embezzlers ripping us off? Queer moguls exploiting low-paid queer workers?” Urgo said. “Or will the LGBT movement lead us to something more equitable, something less violent, something more humane?”
These are just a few of the questions with which Vaid grapples in her work, Urgo said, indicating that this kind of critical inquiry is what the Queer Studies Conference is all about.
“This is the hard intellectual work of this generation of change-agents,” he told the mostly young listeners before asking everyone to welcome Vaid to the stage.
In her address, Vaid reminded the audience that though there has been an overwhelming sense of progress for many LGBT people in the past two years, marriage equality does not by any means mark the end of the movement.
“The liberation conversation is still occurring, but it is occurring mostly among those who are most disenfranchised by the current movement’s priorities, among those who have not been co-opted by the gains of legal equality,” Vaid said. “It occurs among transgender activists, people of color, young activists working against police brutality to insist that black lives matter. It occurs among activists working at the grassroots or local level, or in the Midwest, in the Southwest, in the South; those working within social service organizations.”
LGBT rights, Vaid argued, are an intersectional issue, one she framed within a larger context of systems of inequality based on race, class and gender. Legal equality is only a virtual equality, Vaid asserted. Real equality, she said, requires the transformation of ideologies and institutions that marginalize minorities and non-normative groups.
“We must be clear: the fight for LGBT rights and liberation is far from over, it is fraught with danger, it is intimately tied to a larger power struggle for justice underway in the country and around the world, and its success requires new generations and old to continue strong investment and commitment to its outcome,” Vaid said. “To win this struggle, the LGBT movement must commit to and win the larger struggle for social, racial and economic justice. That’s all.”
Her ironic understatement generated a roar of laughter in the audience.
Vaid’s partner, comedian Kate Clinton, also generated big laughs with her politically charged performance at the conference.
Other creative acts included a workshop on the making of “Qtopia” and literary readings by UNCA community members. These events, along with a queer seder and a queer English tea, provided attendees with opportunities to share their personal, out-of-the-classroom experiences with others, and resonated powerfully with the academic content of the conference.
Mandy Gardner, UNCA alumna and director of content development with JB Media Group, shared an anecdote from her time as a college student. Gardner initially attended Oglethorpe University, but she said she left school because she faced a lack of acceptance.
Gardner said she was in her early 30s when she attended the 2007 iteration of the Queer Studies Conference. The experience was so inspiring and empowering, she said, it prompted her to resume her studies and earn her degree.
Personal histories like Gardner’s reveal the micro-level nuances of a larger, macro-level history, and Urgo said he sees the Queer Studies Conference as an opportunity to be part of a historical turning point, a turn toward progress.
He quoted Vaid, saying, “The history of social movements is not about tipping points; it is about turning points — moments that present new challenges, offer new choices, or open up possibilities that hard work or some fortuitous and unplanned action created. History is made by actions taken, choices seized.”