Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Parades into Second Decade

By Gary Schmidgall

  Jill Dolan, left, Joey Arias, and founder Martin Duberman
Second CLAGS director Jill Dolan, left, Joey Arias, and founder Martin Duberman.

The gleam in Martin Duberman’s eye first appeared in about 1986: why not establish a center for the study of homosexuality? The Distinguished Professor of history, who arrived at Lehman College in 1972, reasoned that, given the explosion of serious research and publication on the subject in the post-Stonewall years, the time was ripe to call for “the perks and encouragement and support and legitimacy that a university setting would provide” for the burgeoning field.

Duberman’s brainstorm was also born of frustration. Feeling his own “illuminations” as the tide of Stonewall rolled in, the noted scholar of 19th-century American history and Bancroft Prize-winning biographer of such mainstream figures as James Russell Lowell and Charles Francis Adams felt an urge to indulge in a “shift in expertise.”

Part of that shift was a desire to explore gay history, so in the early 1970s he offered to teach a Graduate School course on sexuality in history, his course abstract carefully worded not to frighten the horses. “There was instant consternation,” Duberman recalls. “Impossible! It’s not a recognized topic for scholarly investigation! It’s not a recognized discipline!”

Disgusted, Duberman cut his ties with the Graduate Center entirely and settled in to see how long it would take for the Ivory Tower to catch up with the real world. He also got actively involved in the old Gay Academic Union, which mounted a well-attended “watershed” conference at John Jay College in 1973.

As it turned out, Duberman and several like-minded academics had to wait about 15 years for the prospects for a Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies—or CLAGS, as it is now universally known—to seriously jell. The sine qua non, of course, was a change in attitude within the suites of college provosts and presidents. And that happened, after a false start in which Duberman approached Yale University with a proposal to house the nation’s first such center there.

Esther Newton, an early CLAGS Board director, says, “I vividly recall the meeting of our Committee for Lesbian and Gay Studies with former Graduate Center President Harold Proshansky. Having been subjected for many years at my college to sometimes outright homophobic administrators, I was prepared for the worst. Instead, Proshansky treated us with respect from the outset. Without minimizing the financial and political difficulties, his attitude was: How can we do it? Thanks, Hal!” Duberman, also present, agrees: “It was stunning. Proshansky said, ‘I really want to thank you for coming to me with this idea. It’s long overdue.’”

Proshansky, however, did set a bar of $50,000 in funds to be raised in order to give the center fiscal credibility, and Duberman says gathering that sum “was no easy matter.”

But slowly, over several years, the seed money was gathered—sometimes from unusual sources. Joseph Wittreich, Distinguished Professor of English at the GC and a long-time and generous supporter of CLAGS, likes to recall the anecdote of two CUNY graduate students dining with an elderly neighbor in San Diego and talking excitedly about the plans for CLAGS. “That man—his name was David Clarke—soon died, and a bequest from him provided some of CLAGS’s seed money. Clarke’s only stipulation, Wittreich adds, “was that, when the two graduate students were able, they should make a comparable gift.”
At long last, in April 1991, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies was formally established, and immediately began to thrive with Duberman as founding executive director. Wittreich attributes this in part to “the unflagging commitment of those first board members, notably Sam Phillips, who was then university director of personnel, and the steady support of Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds.” (The good offices of Phillips and Reynolds, Wittreich points out, led to the establishment of domestic partnership benefits at CUNY at about this time.) Duberman also acknowledges Frances Horowitz for being “wonderfully friendly and helpful” to CLAGS throughout her Graduate Center presidency.

Two impressive declarations of confidence in CLAGS came very early on. First was a donation of more than $100,000 from Dr. David Kessler, a San Franciscan, that gave the Center its first endowment fund. It supports the annual Kessler Lecture, which honors “an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the expression and understanding of lesbian and gay life.” Since 1992, the Kessler roll call has brought to the University such movers and shakers as Joan Nestle, Edmund White, Barbara Smith, Monique Wittig, Esther Newton, Samuel Delany, Eve Kosofsky Sedwick, John D’Emilio, Cherríe Moraga, and Jonathan Ned Katz.

Another substantial CLAGS supporter from afar over the decade has been Honolulu resident Ivor Kraft, whose donations have even extended to shipments of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts (see “The Pleasures of CLAGS” sidebar).

Also in 1992 came what Duberman calls “the tremendous boost” of a $250,000 grant from the Humanities Fellowship Program of the Rockefeller Foundation. The three-year grant—which was almost unprecedentedly renewed for three more years—allowed twelve scholars-in-residence to come to the Graduate Center between 1993 and 2000. Among these (and their topics) were Jeffrey Edwards (City Politics and the Trajectory of Lesbian–Gay Political Development: S.F. and N.Y. 1969–Present), Janice Irvine (A Place in the Raimbow: Cultures,Identities, and the Controversies over Teaching about Gay and Lesbian Issues in Public Education), and Jasbir Paur ({Same} Sex Tourism: Consumption, Nationalism, and Queer Human Rights).

CLAGS now has the funds to offer fellowships and prizes of its own. Duberman has endowed a fellowship in his own name which gives $7,500 annually to applicants without respect to nationality or academic affiliation. A $5,000 CLAGS Fellowship goes yearly to scholars early in their careers. The Monette-Horowitz Dissertation Prize honors the distinguished gay author Paul Monette and his lover (both AIDS victims), and the recently established Sylvia Rivera Award, honoring the transgender activist, will go to the best book or article in transgender studies.

From the early years, CLAGS has raised the profile of gay studies and facilitated national and international exchange of ideas through a monthly colloquium series, panels, and conferences. Sparks flew at one early conference on “The Gay Brain,” during which Simon LeVay presented his theory of a connection between brain structure and the diversity of human sexual feelings and was sharply critiqued by such skeptics as Carole Vance and William Byrne.

Former Board member Oscar Montero says the “highlight of my tenure was working with Elena Martinez and many others” on two Latino/a conferences. “Being around so many committed, articulate, energetic folks was tough but tremendously rewarding,” Montero says, adding, “it was great fun!”

In March 1995, more than 500 participated in a three-day event on “Black Nations/Queer Nations,” and its many intense and passionate moments were filmed with support of the Ford Foundation. Just a month later, 400 people with thespian tendencies were attracted to CLAGS’s conference on Queer Theater. Among the participants were Holly Hughes, Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner, and Everett Quinton.

Jill Dolan, one of the Queer Theater keynoters and a leading scholar of feminist and queer performance, became the second CLAGS director, on Duberman’s retirement in 1996.

The proof of scholarship is finally in the publishing, and the influence of CLAGS members who are authors, and of CLAGS itself in facilitating research in the field, has been enormous. Duberman is practically a one-man Bronx cheer at that ridiculous notion of 30 years ago that gay studies “is not a discipline.” Predating CLAGS was his important Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, which was followed by a memoir titled Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey; a study of the ruckus on Christopher Street, Stonewall; another memoir, Midlife Queer; and, most recently, a collection of vigorous political essays, Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion.

But, as far as CLAGS is concerned, the jewels in Duberman’s publishing crown are two titles he edited: A Queer Life: The CLAGS Reader, and the massive Queer Representations: Reading Lives, Reading Cultures (both appeared in 1997). The latter, which gathers together the work of countless scholars from a wide range of disciplines that were touched in some way by CLAGS, is perhaps the definitive demonstration that the discipline of gay and lesbian studies is not only thriving, but here to stay.

CLAGS also created a productive community of gay and lesbian writers within CUNY. Allen Ginsberg, the 20th century’s Walt Whitman and for many years CUNY Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College, was an early supporter and was on hands for the first CLAGS fundraiser in November 1991, along with Alice Walker.

Among many other present and past CLAGS Board members who have published in the field are Mark Blasius (Political Science at LaGuardia and the GC), who co-edited We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook for Gay and Lesbian Politics, and Steven Kruger (English, Queens and the GC), author of AIDS Narratives: Gender and Sexuality, Fiction and Science. Elena Martinez, Chair of Modern Languages at Baruch College, is the author of Lesbian Voices from Latin America; Representacion en Julian Del Casal. And Esther Newton has to her credit Mother Camp, a study of Female Impersonators in America, and a history of 60 years in the gay community on Fire Island.

James Saslow, of Queens College and the Graduate Center, was on CLAGS’s founding committee and has almost single-handedly joined the disciplines of gay studies and art history, notably with Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society and Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. Saslow is currently helping CLAGS to plan an art history conference in 2004.

Robert Reid-Pharr, newly arrived in the Graduate Center’s English program and now a CLAGS Board member, is the author of Black Gay Man. Robert Kaplan, a CLAGS Board member from 1999 to 2001, is currently working on a dissertation with a tantalizing same-sex angle: “The Federalist Papers and the Bonds of White Men in the Vision of a New Nation.”

He is particularly happy that, of late, CLAGS has been focusing more attention on quality-of-life-and-learning within CUNY. His fondest memory is of the “sunny Saturday morning in May 2000 when 60 queer students, faculty, and staff from around the University met for the first annual Queer CUNY conference to discuss the joys and travails of being out—or not out, or semi-out—on campus.” It was good to feel “exhilaration that CLAGS was beginning to get more involved in the life of its home institution,” Kaplan says.

Among CLAGS projects aimed at fertilizing LGTBQ—Lesbian/Gay/ Transgender/ Bisexual/Queer—pedagogy nationally was the establishment in 1995 of a systematic collection of college syllabi (it went online a few years later). Calls from around the country about these syllabi are now coming into the CLAGS office, which is staffed by several part-time graduate students.

 
President Frances Horowitz with Kessler Lecturer Samuel Delany, famed author of science fiction.

In 1999 two new media for the dissemination of work in the field arrived: an email discussion listserv (gendersexstudies-l) and a book series collaboration with N.Y.U. Press, Sexual Cultures: New Directions from CLAGS. Spring 1999 also brought the announcement that Jill Dolan was leaving CUNY for the University of Texas. Alisa Solomon, a Baruch College professor of English and Journalism and three-term CLAGS Board member, was her successor. She is also the author of Re–Dressing the canon: Essays on Theatre and Gender.

In the spirit of the founder’s articulate political activism, CLAGS has often focused its energies on political and cultural issues of the moment. In response to debate over the Defense of Marriage Act and the Employment Non–Discrimination Act, CLAGS offered a program called “Relatively Speaking” that addressed issues of domestic partnership, child custody, and adoption and family law.

In 1998 CLAGS initiated an Advocacy Committee charged with strengthening the bridge between academe and activists. Panels were presented on the volatile politics of race and culture, and a roundtable on arts censorship was held apropos of the famous “NEA Four” case that was heading to the Supreme Court. CLAGS members became involved in the defense against attacks around the nation on LGTBQ study programs.

Fall of 1999 brought a move to new quarters in the old B. Altman building of the Graduate Center and an emphasis on more global perspectives, which reached a climax last December with a CLAGS-hosted organizational meeting—funded with $100,000 from the Ford Founda-tion—to create an International Resource Network among LGTBQ researchers. It was attended by 100 people from 35 countries.

Alisa Solomon recently announced her retirement after four years as CLAGS director. Her successor will be Paisley Currah, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and long-time CLAGS Board member, whose scholarship is on narratives of transgender identity, particularly as deployed in U.S. courts. His Not the United States of Gender is forthcoming.

Solomon sums up, “Over the last 12 years, CLAGS has produced more than 100 public events, at which more than 1,000 people have presented their work. We have awarded some 70 fellowships and prizes, collaborated with dozens of academic, community, and activist organizations—local, national, and international. We have conversed with countless LGTBQ researchers who have dropped by our office or sent us e-mails. And we have worked closely with dedicated and brilliant board members and staff on nitty–gritty tasks and lofty ideas.”

“LGTBQ Studies has grown tremendously since Martin Duberman hatched the idea for CLAGS,” she adds. “The Center is proud to have been a part of shaping and expanding the field. In today’s conservative and economically difficult times, we face tough challenges—which makes our work more important than ever.”

—The Pleasures of CLAGS—
        ALisa Solomon’s Top Ten List

1. Listening to Joan Nestle’s inaugural Kessler Lecture—nothing short of thrilling.

2. Being part of the energetic debate at the town-hall meeting that closed the truly groundbreaking “Black Nations/Queer Nations” conference.

3. Watching Carmelita Tropicana capture the high emotion of the Queer Theater Conference as she emcee-ed a performance evening.

4. Creating up-coming programs joining LGTBQ Studies and Disability Studies.

5. Learning from master teachers at our regular Pedagogy Workshops.

6. Winning approval of an Interdisciplinary LGTBQ Concentration at the GC.

7. Hashing out ideas for an international network of LGTBQ researchers with some 100 scholars and activists from 35 countries last November.

8. Working daily—and eating Hawaiian chocolates—with a staff made in heaven.

9. Feeling the love (yes, really) at our first Board meeting after 9/11—and agreeing to run a special CLAGS News to help us think through the horror.

10. Dancing cheek-to-cheek with my partner, Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, in total bliss at the CLAGS 10th-anniversary bash after Judith Butler’s inspiring Kessler Lecture.

 

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