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  • Transitions, Tensions, Trade-Offs:CLAGS from 1996–1999
  • Jill Dolan (bio)

I was honored to serve as the executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) from 1996–1999, the first after Marty Duberman, the founder. Those were heady, complex times. Scholars were just beginning to articulate the methods of queer theory in contradistinction to “lesbian and gay studies,” the critical methods that are now known as “queer of color critique” were just starting to be framed, and the relationship between the academy and the community—especially keen given CLAGS’s location in New York City—was continually being sorted and adjusted.

Although it aimed to be national, because the Internet was just taking off and even email was a much slower technology, CLAGS was still very much a local organization. Our public programming was community based and was attended by academics and activists from CUNY, NYU, Columbia, and across the city. More advanced technology now makes board involvement more regional and even national. But in the midnineties, although we aspired to reach broadly, the community to which we were held most accountable tended to be local.

Some of the most heated public discussions during my tenure at CLAGS were about language. I recall Larry Kramer sitting in the audience in the Proshansky Auditorium—back when the graduate school was on Forty-Second Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues—excoriating a panel of scholars for their theory-derived language and arguments. We established the Seminars in the City series specifically to gesture across those borders and to demonstrate the utility of ideas across locales. Held then at A Different Light bookstore in Chelsea, the seminars were meant to share academically generated knowledge between scholars and activists. [End Page 291]

But the debates about how we approached LGBTQ culture and scholarship continued across our conferences and public programs. Alisa Solomon, who would succeed me in 1999, and Framji Minwalla, who chaired the board while I was executive director, organized the very first conference on queer theater in 1996. The conference committee planned the event in conjunction with the Judson Church, New York Theatre Workshop, and the Public Theater, all downtown venues that had—in their own ways—contributed to the then growing vitality of out LGBTQ artists. But those panels and papers, too (since published in 2002 as The Queerest Art), snagged on debates about language. Scholarship on queer performance was nascent then, and many artists and trade press critics sniffed with self-righteous anti-intellectualism at the very premise of the academic meeting. Nonetheless, the conference began to track a history of the work and the field of LGBTQ theater and performance studies that continues to flourish today.

Those “firsts” happened regularly at CLAGS. Before my tenure as executive director, CLAGS sponsored the first black/queer conference, which led to tensions among some board members. As our work became more intersectional (though we didn’t use that word then), as differences of identity began to profitably (but sometimes uncomfortably) highlight our diverging relationships to institutional and social power, the board was vexed by questions of ownership. Our discussions about race required outside facilitators, but even then, tensions remained.

But these were the necessary growth pains of a scholarly activist organization that wanted to be capacious enough to serve all aspects of the field and the community. We were bound to fail, and often we did. But CLAGS never shied from controversy; it was the nature of the inquiry twenty years ago. We tried to stay open to all comers, regardless of method or affiliation, and wound up sponsoring vibrant and moving scholarship: international, comparative work on Latin America and Latino/a studies, especially, along with continued investigations into other areas of race, ethnicity, literature, the social sciences, and performance.

Alongside producing new knowledge, as the first university-affiliated center for LGBTQ studies in the country, CLAGS had to sort out what it meant to be an academic organization rather than a community-based activist group, even though our principles and impulses derived from the social movement. The CUNY Graduate Center, our institutional sponsor, provided around 25 percent of our budget. We raised the rest from foundations, [End...


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