Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Queering Paradigms III, SUNY Oneonta, 7-9th April 2011

Liz Morrish, Nottingham Trent University, U.K. reports on the Queering Paradigms 3 (QP3) conference, successful hosted by SUNY Oneonta, USA. This was the third in the Queering Paradigms series, and it was an excellent international conference which attracted leading researchers in the field as well as many inspiring emerging scholars.

As the title suggests, this conference was designed to bring together scholars from such disparate fields as: theology, public health, cultural studies, law, linguistics, ethnic studies, anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, neurobiology and performance studies. Indeed, such is the relevance and embrace of queer theory that all these areas offered up paradigms to be queered.

Organisers Professor Kathleen O’Mara and Dr Betty Wambui of SUNY Oneonta took a broad definition of ‘queer’ from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's (1993: 7) in her essay “Queer and Now: … 'queer' can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically”. 'Queer' is therefore conceptualized as querying and challenging heteronormativity (or homonormativity) while recognizing that the term does not resonate globally as it emerged from Western experience.

That definition was well demonstrated by the three plenary events. Dr Carlos Ulises Decena from Rutgers University gave the first plenary – ‘Code Swishing’ which called for a widening of linguistic norms tolerated within Latino gay male culture. Gay men from a Dominican culture can be unforgiving in their regulation of each other’s gay-signifying language use, he argued. Professor William Leap of American University gave a powerful lecture outlining Queer Linguistics as an International Project. As queer theory tell us, it is important not to import western categories into other cultures. Queer, we must recall, has no fixed assumptions, and identities emerge in context. Leap made an impassioned defense of queer linguistics and its appropriate objects of study. He provided perhaps the best line of the conference – in a retort to a British scholar who dismissed the study of language and sexual identity with the query, ‘What next, we study the language of gas-mask fetishists?’- Leap argued that the project of queer linguistics was precisely that, to make the world safe for the study of the language of gas-mask fetishists.

The third plenary was a panel which featured three activists: Ignacio Rivera, Victor/Viola Moncar & Charles Gueboguo, representing in sequence, Queers for Economic Justice (USA), BBUD, Bro2Bro in Unity & Diversity (Ghana) and Queer African Youth Network (Cameroon). It was fascinating and illuminating to hear the different approaches they took and difficulties they faced in their activism and outreach to same-sex desiring people in their respective cultural contexts. Talking with the students who attended, I know this was a rich learning experience for them.

The QP series of conferences are informed and structured by an ethic initiated by their founder, Burkhard Scherer, Reader in Theology, Canterbury Christchurch University, U.K, and a specialist in sexuality within Buddhism. He has sought to create an intellectual space which is not viciously competitive and full of academic stars, but genial and supportive so that emerging scholars feel accepted. The conferences aim to work as an extended workshop in which most panel sessions are available to all attending. The SUNY Oneonta team certainly operated within this spirit. In addition, Dr Kathleen O’Mara and Dr Betty Wambui ensured that every need was met: accommodation, transportation, entertainment and catering, which meant that participants stayed together, and this made talking and exchanging views much more likely. The operation was enhanced by an excellent website and cheerful, competent student volunteers from Students for Global Education, Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Latino Studies classes. Participants were also assisted with great care by Morris Hall staff and campus caterers.

For those of us who are queer (in whatever dimension), to step into a queer oasis offers a kind of mental and physical ease rarely attained in other contexts. But sometimes worlds collide…. there we all were, hanging out in Le CafĂ© downstairs in Morris Hall. Next door in the Otsego Grille was a kid’s baseball camp, with visiting parents. It was truly hilarious to watch the consternation of some of the latter, as they wandered through queer space on their way to the terrace, or found Burkhard in his pink leggings in the women’s bathroom. It reminded me of a piece by Sara Ahmed, on universalizing whiteness: “But of course whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it. For those who don’t, it is hard not to see whiteness; it even seems everywhere.” The same could be said for heterosexuality – it is everywhere, and in turn, the temporary appropriation of queer space merely underscores that difference.

I have to make one disappointing observation. I would have expected such a weighty international conference to feature prominently on the college website. However, it appears that the remarkable impact of QP3 was barely recognized by its host institution. There was no visible publicity on the website, and despite drafting a press release, the organizers and supporters were unable to persuade the college publicity officer to release this to the local media. As a result, there was little participation at the panels from the local community. I felt SUNY Oneonta had missed a valuable opportunity to reach out to the local LGBTQ community. This stands in contrast to the previous host universities (Canterbury Christchurch, UK and QUT, Australia), which were considerably more affirming of the presence of QP1 and QP2 respectively.

As I make a study of queer invisibility in university diversity statements, this is perhaps why the obscuring of QP3 has irked me. Even more ironically, as I read SUNY Oneonta’s Vision and Values, prominently accessible from the college website, those very values are exactly what was embodied in the conference themes.

  • Engaging students in exceptional learning experiences, within and beyond the classroom;
  • Nurturing the development of individuals who contribute to local and global communities;
  • Building an increasingly diverse, welcoming, and inclusive campus community.

When excellence is overlooked, despite resonating with the proclaimed mission of an institution, it suggests an intentional act. Many scholars at the conference would be aware of another SUNY college’s history of difficulties around issues of sexuality in the public sphere, and we would have hoped, in the intervening 15 years, that these had been overcome. However, SUNY Oneonta’s silence must be read as shame – a stance which is neither honorable nor in keeping with its inclusive pose.

To claim a commitment to diversity and inclusion should mean more than merely auditing its presence on an Equal Opportunities monitoring form. To observe and record difference categorically requires very little in the form of institutional transformation. As Bendix-Peterson and Davies (2010) point out, being open to difference, and encouraging students and faculty to realize difference (as in the sense of becoming), is a very different matter. Maybe SUNY Oneonta needs to queer its own paradigms before it can claim to embrace diversity.


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. Description: of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism. Borderlands (e-journal). 3.2.

Bendix-Peterson, E and Davies, B. 2010. In/Difference in the neoliberalised university. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences. 3.2. 92-109.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. 1993. Tendencies. Duke University Press.