“Ask a Queer” Activism Reflection
For my project I put on a program entitled “Ask a Queer,” through which a group of UCSB students go to local high school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) meetings and answer any questions the high school students may have about college, sexuality, and queerness. We also utilize the “Ask a Queer” program to do outreach for events like Queer Prom and Beyond the Basics, UCSB’s own annual queer conference. While this project took an entire year of planning, discussion, and a lot of emailing, I feel we were able to accomplish our goals to demystify the college experience for queer students, combat problematic narratives such as the “It Gets Better Campaign”, and serve as complex yet viable queer role models.
I became interested in organizing a program such as “Ask a Queer” in the spring of 2012 as I went to Dos Pueblo High School with a few other UCSB students to outreach for a conference we were putting on for queer high school students. While we eventually had to cancel the Queer Youth Leadership Conference, and in turn created the Beyond the Basics conference, the outreach went so well that fellow participating UCSB students and I agreed on the value and necessity of this type of outreach. Many of us reflected on our own time in high school just a few years earlier, remembering the lack of older queer role models which had seemed to us at the time like a lack of a future or at least a future where we could be open about our sexuality. This is how the idea for “Ask a Queer” emerged and after sharing this idea with some other queer UCSB students (who would later become fellow participants) I decided to pursue the project, utilizing UCSB’s A.S. Queer Commission which I was co-chair of to help me plan and coordinate with other UCSB students. The first step to actualizing “Ask a Queer” included contacting local high school’s GSA advisers in order to get permission for the project. Because I knew from the prior year that GSA advisers are not easy to get in contact with for a variety of reasons ranging from security protocols to homophobic secretaries, I emailed every counselor at both of the high schools I wanted to contact. This strategy worked as one or two people at each school (Dos Pueblo & San Marcos) responded with the GSA advisers email address. Getting into contact with the advisers made it possible to set up dates for the program. This was followed by a process of finding a group of students interested in outreaching to local high schools and finding a date we could all go to the GSA. We decided our first “Ask a Queer” would be at Dos Pueblos High School on May 7th.
At this point the project was going really smoothly so I began to get worried. Luckily this led me to show up early to Dos Pueblos High School on Tuesday May 7th to make sure we could receive visitor passes and do the program. This turned out to be necessary as I ended up waiting over an hour before they agreed to give us our visitor passes. I then had just enough time go back and pick up the participating UCSB students and return to Dos Pueblos. Other than this minor hiccup the program went really well. We assured them that despite societal notions they were all authentically queer, as many of them introduced themselves as fluid, questioning, and unsure of their sexuality but spoke like this made them less queer, a fear I too have grappled with. We invited them to our events, and gave them some descriptions and definitions of the activist work we do, pointing out that it is not only organized around queer identity but also around anti-racism, anti-classism, anti-sexism, and more. After doing “Ask a Queer” for the first time I learned some strategies to break the ice, such as introductions, personal narratives, and explication of our clubs and organizations. I also learned the vital importance of organizing visitor passes as the principal of DPHS reiterated many times that giving us visitor passes on such short notice was a rare exception.
I took these lessons as an opportunity to make the second “Ask a Queer” even better. To do so I emailed the advisor at San Marcos High weeks in advance about visitor passes (as opposed to days) and we got them set up. We were forced to delay the San Marcos “Ask a Queer” by a week but that was upon the request of the GSA adviser, as he wanted to publicize more in hopes of having greater attendance. While the turnout was not huge, being able to impact even just a few high school students was well worth it for me and the 5 queer UCSB students who came to San Marcos with me. We talked about ourselves and our involvements a bit and invited them to Beyond the Basics before they began asking questions. The questions asked at SMHS initially focused on organizing but soon became personal. While we had to be honest with some harsh realities, we knew that this was better than simply lying to them and saying that somehow over time it would all get better. Instead we shared strategies of safety and survival with them. We discussed how it’s alright and at times desirable not to come out despite mainstream gay organizing’s emphasis on visibility and coming out. We told them how sometimes people will not be accepting and this can range from friends and family members to strangers, yet we assured them that sometimes losing friends allows us to grow and find friends who are more accepting and enjoyable to be around. While the students in San Marcos High’s GSA asked some tougher questions, we felt qualified in giving them some advice as we had all dealt with the issues they asked about. This made the experience especially rewarding as I felt that we may have had a helpful impact on these young queer students’ lives.
While the process was personally fulfilling because it was a project I initiated and put a lot of work into it was also a huge learning experience. I began this process feeling pretty experienced as I had done high school outreach before. However the motivation, goals, and theoretical background for this project made me rethink activism. The prior outreach I did involved mostly talking about programs, dates, times, and logistics (like permission slip waivers). This project changed that because our message and goals changed. Suddenly I realized the weight of the project I had undertaken and realized the very real impact we could have on high school students. I remembered the “It Gets Better Campaign” as well as some queer critics about it and decided that was a good place to start building our content. I also began Feminist Studies 190, which broadened my views on activism, while giving me other activist projects to examine. I quickly learned that activism can and generally does benefit from being as complex as real life. I also learned the importance of self-critiquing, a vital development which really helped me in reflecting on the two “Ask a Queer” programs that we put on. I also realized that because I had conceived of this project with a solid theoretical background drawing from Patricia Hill Collins idea of controlling images, that doing the actual project was not mere practice or activism but rather praxis or putting theory into practice.
In building and evaluating “Ask a Queer” I drew from the work of Kim Q. Hall, specifically their 2005 article “Queerness, Disability, and The Vagina Monologues.” This article explores the complexity of The Vagina Monologues by analyzing the ways in which the play is empowering to some women via marginalizing others. Hall also highlights the value and necessity of constant critique within existing activism. This encouraged me to invite a diverse range of participants, with the goal of ultimately strengthening “Ask a Queer.” This also gave us a wide range of topics to discuss, and furthered the message that queer activism can and should be broader then single issue topics such as gay marriage and should work to be anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-ablest, anti-sexist and trans-inclusive. I further utilized Hall’s message that norms and universals can be even more exclusive than institutions while also acting as a reference point that can justify and validate institutional exclusion. Hall argues this in reference to intersexed people’s exclusion not only from The Vagina Monologues but more importantly from the category of natural and normal woman, as the monologues present womanhood being derived from having a vagina. It was not that intersexed people were not allowed to participate in the monologues but that the monologues excluded narratives of intersexed people and this exclusion (and refusal to address this exclusion) effectively created norms of womanhood and femininity that were not available to all intersexed people. I utilized this idea with “Ask a Queer” to send the message that queer can be a broad and open term that can unite people through shared transgression of harmful norms and to not believe that following stereotypes makes anyone “more queer” or more authentically queer, as the media’s controlling images may suggest.
I also utilized Laura Briggs article “Activism and Epistemologies” to reconceptualize how I had been thinking about activism especially in relation to “Ask a Queer.” Briggs cautions us not to over or underestimate activists, as both happen quite often. Briggs argues that activists do not always have a full understanding of the entire scope of issues they are working on. At the same time Briggs argues that activists are often given too little credit for their intellectual abilities and the fact that many of them are producing new forms of knowledge through the activist work they do. Applying these ideas to “Ask a Queer” led me to find that I can and should always try to challenge my own ideas, to understand and grow from opposing viewpoints to broaden my knowledge of a topic. While understanding that I can never definitively and objectively speak on a subject because I can never fully understand all of the complexities and nuances but that is alright because I am never done learning and growing. I also realized that it can help to situate your knowledge when presenting research and findings. In responding to the other side of Briggs argument that activists knowledge is not always valued I reconceptualized “Ask a Queer” in two ways. First I decided to value the collective knowledge that emerged out of the conversation and to document “Ask a Queer” in personal reflections and writings that I shared with Queer Commission (for institutional memory), and the entire internet by posting them on our class blog. The other way I utilized Laura Briggs arguments about activism was by trying to value the experiences these queer high school students had by treating them as experts of their own experience. It was this notion that led us to ask the high school students to introduce themselves and contextualize their questions and experience by sharing what they were comfortable with. This served as a successful ice breaker and seemed to help make the students more confident and comfortable. It also fit with our message of empowerment because it did not frame the queer college students as higher, more knowledgeable, or superior than the high school students. This is important because a major goal of “Ask a Queer” is creating dialogue and community with high school students while empowering them through the tenets of queer theory, including, for example, the possibilities associated with the fluidity and openness of queerness, to the necessity of resisting and subverting hierarchies, and the position that, for some, survival is resistance. It was these critical engagements along with some fine planning, quick thinking, and lots of community support that made “Ask a Queer” a successful project.
Briggs, Laura. 2008. “Activism and Epistemologies.” Social Text 97, 26(4): 79-95.
Hall, Kim Q. 2005. “Queerness, Disability, The Vagina Monologues.” Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 20(1): 99-119.