Sapphic Salon: We're Here, We're Queer, But Our Successors Think We're Incapable of Change

Natalie Stein
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I think I'd have a love/hate relationship with Karla Jay, were she my professor. As a Distinguished Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Pace University, and the author of books like The Gay Report: Lesbians and Gay Men Speak Out about Sexual Experiences and Lifestyles and The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien, I have no doubts that she is my superior. She was writing about living as an out lesbian before I was born, so my respect for her is a given.


However, Karla Jay assumes that my generation is ungrateful. This isn't the first I've heard of this, but she does put her complaint quite eloquently in the current issue of In These Times. In an open letter to her students (and, presumably, young people everywhere), she writes:

If I blame anyone, though, it is my colleagues and those of us on the Left who fail to lead and involve you.

Fail to lead and involve us in what? Well there are several things we aren't doing, as young people, as queer people, as feminists. As Karla writes, we "aren't out at the barricades in the fight against the interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, widespread genocidal acts against women, the lack of equality for the queer community and evildoing by the banking industry."

"I want you," she writes, "to become the next generation of activists."


In Karla's mind, and in several other elders' minds, we are not doing enough. She argues that we don't feel connected to the issues; that nothing is "real" to us unless we see it on reality television. And while I am aware that this can be true for many, many people (of all ages, respectively) I am a little perturbed at the assumption that because some of us are lazy and uninterested in politics and think "racism is over because there's a black president," we are not all like that, particularly the queer community.

And I write this after seeing my community come out full force against Prop. 8, and continuing to do so in states and cities where gay marriage hasn't yet hit the ballot. Yes, we use the Internet, as you point out, but I think you're wrong, Karla, when you say you "don't think that blogging or texting will get hundreds of thousands of people out in the the street." I would argue that yes it will, and it has.


When I was in college, my Gay and Lesbian Studies teacher had the mantra, "I'm here, I'm queer, I'm tired." As in, it's our turn now, 20s and 30s and 40-somethings. The work for our elders is done, and now they are able to sit and point us in the right direction, steer us from wrong ones, and quite generally give us judgment instead of support. Like I said, it's a love/hate relationship because it can feel like no matter what we do, it will never be enough.

Karla writes:

You think feminism is passé ... There's a Stonewall Coalition at the university, but you don't need that because New York City has so many queer bars and you have the fake I.D. to get in. You're oh-so-out, though most of you can't apply the LGBTQ words to yourself in my queer courses.

I don't attend Pace University, but I do know firsthand that the elders in my LGBTQ community view any young queers similarly. And yet it's strange, as I see my peers working for equal rights and throwing fundraisers in support of one others' transitions or personal health bills or rallying to keep a television show with a a teen lesbian relationship stay on air, I feel empowered and inspired by them more than I do my successors. Perhaps it's because they see me as someone who'd rather Tweet than stand in the street. I wish they'd accept that I am able to do both.

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Go Karla!

I have to admit that I agree very much with Karla Jay's open letter to students. I know it hurts to hear and I enjoy blogging and quick online messaging as much as the next person, but many of the self-proclaimed 'activists' in our generation feel this is sufficient and replace actually physical activism with an online version that does not hold the voice or power needed to change things.

Yes, queers were out in force during the whole Prop 8 fiasco but mainly because it became a 'pop' issue within the national heteronormative / majority media. What about the constant struggle of our trans gendered community? On the National Trans gender Day of Remembrance vigil in my city we had only twenty people show up- compared to the dozens and dozens who were present just weeks earlier in protest (of course) a gay bar raid (which was extremely disturbing, but not more important than hate crimes committed due to gender identity/presentation!!!). Where were the activists when we protested military recruitment in front of military offices targeting marginalized people? About four dozen people changed their facebook status to reflect the upcoming protest and supported it via Tweeting, but when it came to the actual physical event we had maybe 6 people. Supporting progressive and liberal ideology online and in your micro-college/university is nice and all, but our generation has become very lazy in that we think that is enough and it certainly is not. We have to remember the importance of being out there with one another in the larger community- in people's actual faces so the majority knows equality is more important then a blog or a online post and is not only applicable to college students while they are in college.

unhelpful criticism

Facile arguments that blogging and tweeting can't create change aside, I think it is worth noting that the experience of coming out is now less radicalizing for many simply because more young people are coming out in the US than ever before. It goes with the territory that, in a more accepting (though clearly not as accepting as it should be) environment, more people are going to be queer, out -- and not involved in lefty activism.

I think older activists would benefit from seeing this as an experience gap, and not assuming that their causes make sense for young queer people just because they are queer. I have mad respect for what out LGBT people lived through in more dangerous times -- I often wonder if I would be brave enough to be out at all in a different era -- so I can see why it would be disappointing to meet queer kids with no fire in their bellies. But it's a natural outcome, and talking down to young people and dissing the new media tools they are using in amazing and innovative ways is not going to recruit them. Powerful arguments and constructive criticism really are the high ground.

Also, regardless of how you see the fight for same sex marriage (pop issue or civil right?), I have seen fantastic examples of "older" leaders in this movement. Cleve Jones and Robin McGehee both are living examples of passionate, driven queer activists that lead by example. I was inspired by both their public presence and their organizing acumen this year (their efforts on the interwebs got us to cover the front lawn of the US Capitol this Fall), and I look to figures like this as great role models for activism.

but i agree with her ending

However, after reading the whole text of Jay's letter, I do agree with her critique of older leaders of campus organizations. It's confusing that she switches from calling students out for their disengagement and materialism, and then says it's the older generation's fault because they haven't put young people in charge. I wonder if she knows this means allowing queer kids to run things with new media tools? Which will it be -- letting the students find their way, or enforcing and old model?

Do not confine your children to your own learning . . .

. . . . for they are born into another time." -- very old proverb

And yes actually the revolution WAS televised - and now it's tweeted, or a flash-mob and it's on facebook . . . tomorrow it will be someting else.

Thanks for all your responses

A friend of mine came across this debate about my piece from IN THESE TIMES and shared the link with me. I hoped to get people to think about the issues I raised, and I thank all who shared their thoughts.

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We're too busy finding work to organize

I think it's important to remember that this is a piece from In These Times. It's a call to left-wing activism. I see it as more reflective of our lack of political participation in all issues, not just LGBT ones.

Why don't we participate? The incidents in previous generations, like the Vietnam War, really mobilized people our age. We haven't responded similarly in recent years. The post 9-11 experiences and recession have left us scrambling for jobs, especially if we have kids. Those of us who are veterans are dealing with PTSD. We are too busy trying to make money and survive in an increasingly class-divided society to be out picketing.

Activism has a cost. If we are out organizing politically, that affects our ability to work, support families, and get our increasingly expensive college tuition paid. The author of the article mentions the increasing cost of college, but doesn't connect the dots. Today, we are trying to make ends meet.

Thanks to the Internet, employers can easily discriminate against people who have been photographed or interviewed as political activists. This has had a "chilling" effect on my willingness to write letters to the editor or do visible activism.

I forgot to mention an

I forgot to mention an exception to this - the Obama campaign.

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