This past weekend, the Dively Committee on Human Sexuality and Diversity honored its 20th anniversary. While the queer and allied communities prepared for a fabulous celebration of progress and increased visibility, a small, but loud, outburst of sex-negativity and queer-phobia engulfed the campus. E-mails concerning pornography inundated our inboxes – and these messages were not notifications of a subscription’s impending expiration. As important conversations among students, faculty and alumni metamorphosed into vacuous debates, we remained silent in an attempt to stand above the expected, yet largely inane, controversy surrounding Jiz Lee’s genderqueer porn screening. Today, following the critical success of the entire weekend, we – as members of this community involved in coordinating this project – would like to offer a retrospective on the controversy and our own coda.
Critics primarily lodged four arguments against the complementary film screening and lecture, the first two of which can be easily refuted. According to detractors, the event would unnecessarily and irrevocably damage the College’s sterling reputation. Yet, other, equally reputable academic institutions – including Berkeley, Smith and Stanford – have had the gall to invite Lee as a guest lecturer. According to the much-hallowed Forbes, their standings within the academe remain high.
Others questioned the event’s funding sources. As both Fox News and the Daily Mail corroborate, the majority of the funding came from a 20-year-old endowment specifically purposed “to develop an understanding of human sexuality and sexual orientation and their impact on culture.” In other words, the very creation of the Dively Committee was predicated on the breaking of boundaries and the production of lively and informed debates. The heated discussion concerning funding, however, is curious in and of itself: This was an event like any other, yet the scrutiny regarding financials was extraordinarily strict. The funding for this event should have been examined using similar criteria as a film screening followed by a director talkback or a poetry reading followed by a Q&A period with the poet. Critics, however, did not apply the same standards.
The final two claims are two sides of the same coin. Allegedly, the event pandered to a narrow audience and had limited intellectual value. But, on a campus such as ours, surely an event of limited value that targeted a narrow audience would not receive broad interest on a Friday night. Yet, Paresky auditorium was full on Friday evening and an additional group of approximately 200 interested community members had to be turned away due to a lack of space.
Moreover, an examination of the bases of these claims seems warranted. To suggest that queer porn is of limited intellectual value compared to other events on this campus – many of which engage few, if any, people – is to undermine the importance of queer sexuality as a topic of discussion. Unfortunately, such claims lead us to a dire conclusion: There is a latent fear of the queer on this campus.
This queer-phobia has manifested itself in a multitude of venues. Critics incorrectly applied their unresearched perceptions of mainstream porn, which largely reinforces hetero-patriarchal power dynamics and the regular pattern of objectification, to queer porn. Unfortunately, the passionate discussions among community members blatantly disregarded the voices of the clamoring queers and allies. This incredible ignorance, however, went beyond a stubborn unwillingness to comprehend. Instead, detractors chose to deride the field of queer studies and to marginalize the lives and experiences of queer community members. We were told we belong to “cloistered academic milieux.” Such language evokes the confines of the closet and cannot be tolerated on what we claim to be a progressive campus.
As those lucky enough to find a seat in Paresky auditorium last Friday night know, the central question of Lee’s discussion was: Why is pornography a powerful medium, and how can it be used to empower? With poise, Jiz answered: Queer porn has the radical potential to expand our conception of queerness and sex through diversified portrayals of queer bodies and queer sex in an ethical, safe and consensual environment.
Let us, for a moment, look beyond this event. On April 23, our friend discovered the slur “fag” etched into his door. While our community debated the academic and social merits of a lecture centered around pornography, the queer community reeled as news of yet another queer-phobic act of hate set in. The heavy pressure from community members required us to address the immediate controversy surrounding Jiz Lee and distracted us from giving the support our friends and allies needed. How does this campus justify its inclinations towards the sensational and away from the festering institutional discrimination that plagues this College?
In all fairness Fox News covered both stories, but the wrong one captured the attention of both an entire campus and an entire nation. For many queer and allied students, the reaction to the homophobic slur was largely one of numbed pain. But, this poisonous discourse has revealed a new low. At Williams, there is a place for queer students as long as it does not inconvenience anyone – as long as we keep it in the closet. We are two students saying, unapologetically, that we do not accept those terms. We are happy to engage in debates and discuss disagreements, but we will not be bullied – we will not be silenced.
Harry Gilbert ’14 is from Knoxville, Tenn. He lives in Gladden. Rhi Alyxander ’13 is a psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies major from Windsor, Calif. She lives in Garfield.