(Queer) Activism at Stanford University

by Lina Schmidt, ’15

screenshot of survey
What is queer? and what does queer want? were two questions asked over the course of the class “Introduction to Queer Studies” (FEMST 120). Questions about what queer “means” are important to me because, as both a queer-identified individual and as a member of the campus group Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, parts of my identity are implicated in use of the word. The  meanings of queer can be a scholarly pursuit. However, the placement of queer in the title of a student group committed to “social change” makes its meanings relevant to the entire Stanford community, regardless of academic focus.

Described as a “discursive horizon” (Queer Theory 1), queer is fluid; a site of connotation rather than denotation. As a result, writings about queer — “Queer Theory” — are sometimes contradictory. The goal in reading, however, is not to produce a consistent worldview but to challenge entrenched ideas. For example, Annamarie Jagose suggests that 0ne use of queer is as an umbrella term for non-normative identities, serving as a contraction of “LGBTQIA.” Another writer, Cathy J. Cohen, suggests that queer has a more “radical potential” through its inclusivity not just of non-normative sexuality, but of differences in race, class, physical ability, and more (Punks 11-16).

The “radical social change” that is the underpinning of both Cohen’s argument and SSQL’s mission statement can only be achieved through substantive efforts to educate and mobilize both group members and members of the community at large. The book LGBT Campus Organizing recommends breaking an organization’s vision — say, “challenging social norms” — into manageable goals (101-102).  For example, members of SSQL plan and organize the annual Trans* Awareness Week, which features film screenings and guest speakers on trans* issues ranging from the prison system to art and music. Trans* Awareness Week — and other “queer” events on the Stanford campus that seek to educate as well as mobilize — seems to fall in an area between “service” and “activism,” two concepts that are often debated at Stanford.

In his op-ed for the Stanford Daily, “My Problem With Activism,” undergraduate Chris Herries makes a sharp distinction between “service” and “activism.” Service, he writes, involves meaningful action that is guided by long-term principles, whereas activism is reactionary. It is “angrily shouting about how the world is unfair, pretending you know how the world works.” This sentiment is not uncommon among Stanford students. In an informal, anonymous survey that I created recently, two individuals expressed disagreement with activism at Stanford. “True dialogue is true activism,” wrote one student, criticizing Stanford activists for “shooting down other people.” Another student wrote that they would feel expected to agree with all activists on campus if they become involved in one activist group.

While I cannot speak for other activists at Stanford, nor the mission statements of the groups in which they participate, it has been my experience that the work of campus organizations, or VSOs, is not uniformly politically charged. Rather, activism seems to fall somewhere along a spectrum between service work — for example, a clothing drive — and advocacy for a cause, such as circulating a petition. The distinction between the two is not always clear (not necessarily a bad thing). Another Stanford Daily article, published last year, situates the discomfort students may feel in the “rhetoric of revolution” that the Editorial Board felt was present in activist groups (“Not Just Apathy”). Despite this perception, the mission statements of Stanford Students for Queer Liberation and Stanford’s own Haas Center for Public Service are not too unalike.

Under “Staff Values” the Haas Center lists, among other things, these statements:

  • We value and respect each person, both as an individual and as an integral part of this and other communities.

  • We believe in the importance and complexity of honoring and learning from diversity.

  • We hope to nurture individual and organizational growth that is rooted in experience, intentional reflection and multiple ways of knowing. (Mission, Values, and Principles)

SSQL’s mission statement affirms this message of diversity: “we affirm that the right to be different is a fundamental human right…” It also includes a statement similar to the Haas Center’s concept of “multiple ways of knowing”: “[we] organize around the fact that our liberation is not contingent on adapting to the status quo…we envision a world where all people can manifest their identities with integrity and security” (“About SSQL”). The Haas Center’s statement even includes a toned-down variation of SSQL’s call for “radical social change”: not only is the Center committed to the realization of a “just and sustainable world,” they believe that in order to accomplish this staff must display a “willingness to take risks.”

By this comparison, I am not suggesting that the Haas Center is an advocate of the radical politics of SSQL. I am not suggesting that campus activist groups have much in common with the institutions of Stanford, or even that such an association would benefit anyone. In fact, the institutions of the university are often obstacles to justice and free expression. Access to White Memorial Plaza, which is a specifically designated “free speech area” on campus, is contingent upon prior approval from the Office of Student Activities and Leadership (Student Affairs). Students are strongly discouraged from causing disturbances in the area. The university is also infringing upon formerly student-run areas of campus such as Chi Theta Chi and Suites dining.

My intention in the previous comparison is to note that the “rhetoric of revolution” may not be what is alienating students from activism. It is also worth asking, however, which revolution? There are many activist groups at Stanford, each with a different focus. Thirty-five percent of respondents to the anonymous survey were members of an activist group, a number undoubtedly affected by the title of the survey (“Survey About Activism at Stanford”) and the audience that it reached. Despite this limitation, respondents were remarkably diverse in their engagement with activism. Groups included SSQL, Las Hermanas de Stanford, the Asian-American Activist Committee, The Society of Chicano/Latino Engineers and Scientists, the Spoken Word Collective, Students for Reproductive Justice, First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, and more.

Despite all being categorized as “activist groups” by survey respondents, these groups offer a wide variety of programming at Stanford: circulation of petitions, politically-engaged poetry, leadership training, and community solidarity.What does this say about activism? Does the wide variety of programming categorized by students as activism reduce it to a “platitudinous buzzword” or a “vague category of d0-goodership,” as one journalist wrote (“Banished Words”)? In a class discussion for FEMST 120, several ideas were proposed for what activism might “be.” Ultimately, the only conclusion that was reached was that any wide, sweeping approach to activism would require a sweeping generalization about what activism is. Because there are so many disparate groups at Stanford, perhaps discussions about activism are approaching this concept with the wrong mindset.

As a commonly-used word — at least on college campuses — that encompasses a great deal, queer has something in common with activism on the level of language. As a term of personal identification, queer has the ability to sustain and connect multiple identities. As an umbrella term, it can be said to incorporate “culturally marginalized sexual self-identifications” (Jagose 1). However, queer is not aligned with a single form of identification, giving it the potential to be used in a variety of contexts (examples from Stanford might include last year’s event “Queering the Undocumented Narrative.”). Similarly, the term “activism” is not limited to a single activity or idea.

One of the goals of queer’s intentional fluidity is to be “anticipatory,” writes Annamarie Jagose (1). This means that the questioning of commonly-held notions is done with the hope of creating a world in which none of the lived experiences from which these notions rise are marginalized. This sounds similar to visions of political advocacy. Again, on the level of language the meaning of queer has something in common with activism. Both words have the potential to be claimed,  to have ideas incorporated within their fluidity. They also interact on a substantive level: in my survey, thirty-seven percent of respondents self-identified as queer. Sixty-five percent identified as a member of an activist group or interested in activist work. While these results are not necessarily representative of campus at large, they do show an overlap between queerness and activism.

When asked to describe what activism meant to them, respondents listed passion and a desire for political change as some qualities of an activist. This passion was expected to be translated into tangible acts: generally defined as changing society or the “status quo” through political advocacy and cooperation. Respondents seemed to consider activism to be a result of a larger mindset. For many, that mindset involved “intentional” living: a realization of the consequences of one’s actions. For some, however, this mindset also meant being less willing to acknowledge the viewpoints of others. Interestingly, one respondent described activism as involving a “queer” mindset.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents indicated that they were familiar with the term “queer,” and over half indicated that they considered the identity to be political in some way. Text responses indicated that while “queer” had the connotation “not straight,” it was not necessarily a replacement for “LGBT” – instead, respondents used words like “resistance,” “challenging,” and “questioning” to further describe the term. Some individuals specifically stated that queer involves more than just sexual orientation. Like Jagose, they said that the fluidity of the term incorporates other marginalized identities, the liberation of which is crucial to the politics of queer. Several individuals responded to the question “please identify any other identities you feel are important,” listing such things as first-generation, low-income, able-queer, neurodivergent, and trans*.

Individuals at Stanford have multiple, intersecting identities – such as “first-generation/middle-class/queer” – and may be part of multiple marginalized groups. This further suggests that a sweeping approach to activism would not be inclusive. As a result, programming by activist groups at Stanford is organized through coalition-building: events such as Trans* Awareness Week and the recent Class Confessions workshop are build on the acknowledgement of intersecting identities- an inclusivity whose necessity seems strongly supported by the results of this survey. However, these instances of coalition-building among activist groups seemed to be viewed by the wider community as closing ranks: a retreat into an “echo chamber” in which participants must all agree with one another (O’Byrne).

As the members of FEMST 120 discussed, a uniform approach to activism would be both limited and marginalizing — as would a generalization of what activism means. Activist programming at Stanford seldom attracts an identical audience each time due to the multitude of campus organizations, and the fact their activities do blur the perceived binary between “service” and “activism” delineated in Chris Herries’ article. After reading the results of my survey, I suggest that much of the debate on activism at Stanford occurs at the level of language. The false universal that the word activist — and, moreover, the word queer — is seen to represent only motivates critique of it. Just as queer is an intentionally fluid term meant to be inclusive of many perspectives, so activism can — and must —  be inclusive of contradiction and complexity.

This is not to say that activism is above criticism. It is important to make activist spaces inclusive to those who are interested in becoming involved. Inclusivity means ensuring physical access as well as creating spaces that are inclusive to all identities. Cathy J. Cohen notes that differentials in power exist within all identity categories, even marginalized groups (“Punks”). Daily Editor Brendan O’Byrne’s commentary that activists could “focus our energy closer to home” is also worth considering: for example, the Stanford Hospitals and Clinics have laid off hospital staff and are planning to outsource further labor to a subcontractor (“Stop Layoffs and Managerial Abuse”).

However, coalition-building between diverse activist groups at Stanford should not be taken as a sign of uniformity of opinion, any more than “queer” should be considered a synonym for “LGBT.” To do so represents a generalization of activist work. Speaking as a queer woman involved with activist groups, my queer identity – as well as my other identities – has shaped my politics, at the same time that my exposure to activism has undoubtedly shaped my identity. Ultimately, attending a university should be challenging, even if that means encountering ideas that challenge a previously-held worldview. We could all, as a survey respondent suggested, afford to be a little more “queer-minded.”

Lina Schmidt is a sophomore from Bainbridge Island, Washington. Currently undeclared, she enjoys writing and is a member of SSQL. She is an Outreach Coordinator for STATIC. She can be reached at lina93 at stanford dot edu.

A Note on this Article:
In writing this paper, I utilized several articles from the Stanford Daily. Readers may feel that the opinions in these articles do not match with their own. I have attempted to acknowledge this while still trying to find ways to address the nebulous — but important! — issue of attitudes about activism. Additionally, contributions to student publications do “matter,” though I’ve had conversations in which people say otherwise: if what is being said does not match your point of view, consider submitting something to a student publication such as Stanford STATIC.
“About SSQL.” Stanford Students for Queer Liberation. Stanford, n.d. Web. <https://stanford.edu/group/qsa/cgi-bin/queerliberation/about/&gt;.
Editorial Board. “Not Just Apathy – Activists Undermine Participation.” Stanford Daily. Stanford, 18 May 2012. Web. <http://www.stanforddaily.com/2012/05/18/not-just-apathy-activists-undermine-participation/&gt;.
Herries, Chris. “My Problem With Activism.” Stanford Daily. N.p., 4 Dec. 2012. Web.
Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York UP, 1996. Print.
“Mission, Values, and Principles.” Haas Center for Public Service. Stanford University, n.d. Web. <http://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/haas/about/mission&gt;.
O’Byrne, Brendan. “A Final Note on Student Freedom.” Stanford Daily. Stanford, 1 Feb. 2013. Web.
Shepard, Curtis Frederic, Felice Yeskel, and Charles Outcalt. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Campus Organizing: A Comprehensive Manual. [Washington, D.C.]: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 1995. Print.
Stanford Labor Action Coalition. “Petition: Stop Layoffs and Managerial Abuse at Stanford Hospital and Clinics.” Change.org. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-layoffs-and-managerial-abuse-at-stanford-hospital-and-clinics&gt;.
Unterreiner, Miles. “The First Annual Stanford List of Banished Words.” Stanford Daily [Stanford] 4 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Print.
“White Memorial Plaza.” Stanford University Student Activities and Leadership. Stanford University, n.d. Web. <http://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/sal/planning/white-plaza&gt;.
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