Una graduación de otro color
El pasado miércoles, 15 de mayo, tuve el gran honor de dirigirme a los graduandos de la Universidad de Wisconsin en Milwaukee que se identifican como lesbiana, gay, bisexual, transgénero, queer e intersexual. Por cuarto año consecutivo, el centro de recursos para los estudiantes lgbt (UWM LGBT Resource Center) organizó su Lavender Graduation, una ceremonia oficial que se lleva a cabo varios días antes de los ejercicios generales de graduación. Esta “graduación lila” sirve tanto para despedir a los estudiantes lgbtqi que se gradúan ese año, como para celebrar los logros académicos y comunitarios de los estudiantes (subgraduados y graduados), del profesorado y del personal no docente que, de una manera u otra, está afiliado a dicho centro. Además de los saludos protocolarios de varios miembros de alto rango de la administración actual (tanto el Canciller como el Preboste de la universidad se dirigieron al público presente), el evento cuenta con un discurso de apertura por parte de un miembro de la facultad que enseña en el programa de Estudios LGBT. Ese privilegio recayó en mí este año. Honestamente, escribir este tipo de ponencia constituyó un reto interesante porque hay que honrar la tradición del tono inspirador que caracteriza a los discursos para las graduaciones sin sermonear o caer en clichés. Quisiera compartir aquí el discurso que preparé para esta celebración en el idioma en que lo escribí. De manera algo fortuita e inesperada, los temas que discuto en el mismo se relacionan directamente con las luchas por la igualdad de derechos que se han estado debatiendo recientemente en el gobierno de Puerto Rico gracias al incansable activismo de las comunidades lgbt boricuas.
I want to thank Jen Murray for giving me the great honor of addressing you today during such a remarkable event as the Lavender Graduation. Although this is not one of my classrooms, I would like to start the same way I do many of my classes. I always tell students, “You don’t have to agree with any of the ideas that you encounter in the readings, the screenings or our class discussion. However, you have to engage with those ideas.” Following the same train of thought, you don’t have to agree with anything that I’ll say in my speech. Yet, I would kindly ask you to ponder upon what I am about to present here tonight.
Stuart Hall, one of the most influential theorists in my way of thinking, says that identity is “a story, a narrative which we tell ourselves about ourselves.” He adds that since these stories “change with historical circumstances … identity shifts with the way in which we think, hear and experience” these stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. So, I’m here to tell you a short story about queerness, cinema and college—and don’t worry, I’ll try to make it as short as Sharon Needles’s appearance during last year’s Pridefest. In revealing part of who I am, I want to call attention to how vital and transformative the college experience can be for lgbtqi people like us.
Aside from being the focus of my career as a professor in Film Studies, movies and TV shows have always been integral resources in my life. Growing up in Puerto Rico without any distinct references to lgbtqi lives beyond questionable stereotypes in local TV shows, my vision of a gay future was predominantly nurtured by imported popular culture. Ironically, this vision was seldom concrete. Some of the few examples that I recall from that time are Steven Carrington (Al Corley), the gay son in the TV show Dynasty, as well as Zach (Michael Ontkean) and Bart (Harry Hamlin), the main gay couple in the Hollywood film Making Love. Most of the times, my queer imagination grew through more indirect or oblique references—which I now understand to be part of a camp canon—such as the deliciously wicked Endora (queer icon Agnes Moorehead) in Bewitched, the adorable tomboy Letitia “Buddy” Lawrence (openly lesbian actress Kristy McNichol) in Family, and the sensually charged disco music of Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and Sylvester—the San Francisco singer, not the cartoon cat although I guess even that character could be queered!
During the six years that I spent as an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico (yes, you heard me right, six years, so feel free to throw some shade after I’m done), I encountered an amazing variety of works and artists from all over the world—and even my own island—that showed me the richness and complexity of queerness. Through the short stories of Puerto Rican writer Manuel Ramos Otero, the novels of Chicano author John Rechy, the plays of English dramatist Caryl Churchill, the theories of French thinker Michel Foucault, and films like Taxi Zum Klo (Dir. Frank Ripploh, Germany), Teorema (Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy), La ley del deseo (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain) and Doña Herlinda y su hijo (Dir. Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, Mexico), among many others, I realized that a world full of queer possibilities was awaiting me.
College became a historically significant moment in my life because I discovered my intellectual calling, and I came to terms with my sexuality. Back then, the identity category that I had available was “gay”; “queer” didn’t enter into my life until after I moved out of Puerto Rico in 1991. I bring up this point about categories and labels because recently, many contemporary theoretical models (particularly in academia) have proposed that identity doesn’t matter anymore since our society is supposedly post-racial, post-feminist, and post-queer, among many other posts. To me, all of these terms are problematic and misleading. And remember, you don’t have to agree with me but I want you to entertain these ideas! If identity really didn’t matter, the Supreme Court would not have to decide on the legality of same-sex marriage, Jason Collins’s coming out wouldn’t have been one of the biggest news this month, and we wouldn’t be commemorating at the end of this year the 20th anniversary of the brutal slaying of Brandon Teena. Identities matter but we need to recognize that there are multiple and different ways to embody what it means to be lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender or queer or intersex or female or male or Latino or African American or Milwaukeean or Wisconsinite or American. Identities are always predicated upon negotiations between who we want to be and who we are allowed to be by others as well as the structures of power of our times. We should strive to produce versions of ourselves that are honest, exciting, inspiring and satisfying. The production of these identities is always connected to our struggle for recognition and a sense of power—what is often referred to as “empowerment.” Yet, we always need to be conscious of what that empowerment means, particularly in a society like ours that vehemently fosters individualism, competition, and the survival of the fittest. Thus, our enfranchisement needs to be realized, felt, and embodied in such a way that we do not disempower others in our quest for truth and meaning in the world.
My undergraduate years also helped me understand what it truly means to be part of a generation. Characteristically, generations have to do with one’s age. However, I also realized that it is possible to expand the definition to mean not only the period of time when you discover that there are many people who think, feel and are like you even though they belong to different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and class strata, but also a moment when you can forge a sense of political and cultural collectivity on your own terms that are deeply personal and emotive. It helped greatly that most of my friends were in the Humanities but there were also people from the Social Sciences and the Natural Sciences. Along with this mix of disciplines, this group of college friends was very diverse in terms of regional backgrounds, national origin (Mexico, Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic), religious upbringing, socioeconomic context, sexual orientation (bi, homo, hetero, a), etc. With this heterogeneous group of people I would go see the latest Pedro Almodóvar film, listen to Sandra Bernhard’s Without You, I’m Nothing, and dance to the latest Pet Shop Boys song. Our bond, however, went beyond enjoying similar cultural artifacts. Puerto Rico’s precarious political situation as an unincorporated US territory brought us together (up until this day) in our fight against the Island’s colonial status. As intellectuals like Frantz Fanon and Edward Said have argued, in order for the dismantling of any society’s colonial and imperialist structures to take place, people need to decolonize their minds. Yet, as feminist thinkers like Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa have emphatically reminded us, the decolonization of the mind also needs to engage in a bitter battle against other discriminatory practices such as sexism, ageism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and class inequality in order for real transformations to materialize. Thus, my college experience allowed me to apprehend both how perversely intertwined different forms of prejudice and bigotry are, and how necessary it is to create genuine bonds and friendships with people from all walks of life. As a result, I clearly grasped how central allies are in advancing any cause that we believe in—and this is something that Jen is always reiterating in our LGBT Certificate Studies faculty advisory committee meetings. Thank you, Jen for the constant reminders!
It is always a temptation only to want to be with like-minded people. In our personal lives, we can potentially make that decision without any big problem. However, as we very well know, that is not always the case during most parts of our everyday lives—be it at our jobs, the supermarket, the gas station, the movie theater or even the dance club! So, we need to figure out ways to live our queerness in more inclusive ways. Choosing to study at a public urban institution like UWM helps greatly in this quest for tangible roads to inclusiveness. The university’s commitment to providing a liberal arts education is designed to produce engaged citizens for our neighborhood, our city, our state, our nation and our global world. I have come to realize that, in this day and age, queerness is integral to any conversation about our civil society, especially when it comes to rights and equality. In fact, queerness allows us to experience distinctly alternative forms not only of being in the world, but also of forming alliances, networks, and coalitions. In this way, queer is both about the self, our individuality and sense of who we are in the world, as well as about others, be they part of our communities or not.
This last point brings me back to the centrality of cinema in my life and my thinking. In many ways, the malleability predicated by the term queer suggestively explains what happens to each one of us when we go to the movies. We are asked to inhabit, albeit temporarily, subjectivities that might not correspond to who we are in real life. As a result, we get to live vicariously outside of our own age, race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and sometimes even species. In many different ways, these fleeting insights into other axes of identity allow us to constantly reconfigure our own sense of self and to discover other ways of being in the world. So, next time that you are in a movie theater with people who do not consider themselves queer, tell them that for the next two hours they will be! My cinematic apprehension of the world is also connected to my belief in the importance of watching films in their historically traditional format. This means in the darkness of a movie theater were the film is projected onto a big screen and surrounded by other people that you might not know. This type of experience allows for a sensual involvement that engages you in such a way that you have simultaneously to acknowledge and to surrender who you are in order to experience a world that is been created both for you and by you. Amazingly, this is happening not only to you but also to everyone else in that movie theater. As a result, going to the movies is predicated upon the vibrant dialogue between our individual viewing and what is going on with the larger group that accompanies us. So, a stimulating shared experience emerges while we are alone in the company of others in a shared public space. That, to me, is how everyday life works—in terms of the dynamics between our private self and those of others in a shared space where our collective lived experience is always so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Our queer ancestor Henry David Thoreau says in Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, “if one advances confidently in the direction of one’s dreams, and endeavors to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Being here tonight at the 4th Lavender Graduation is part of the unexpected success that will continue coming into your life, especially if you bring along the queer tribe that you have formed here at UWM. Good night, and good luck!
Hall, Stuart. “Negotiating Caribbean Identities.” New Left Review 209 (1995): 3-12.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.