by Rory Dreyfus (he/him) & Jess Karan (she/they)
“If academic homophobia, racism, and ableism had their way, I would not be here right now,” Dr. Travis Chi Wing Lau said to a Zoom audience on Saturday, April 10.
The keynote speaker of the second biennial Kenyon Queer & Trans Studies Conference, Dr. Lau spoke frankly about his struggles in academia as a disabled queer person of color. Having just joined Kenyon College’s faculty from afar in a year like no other, Dr. Lau is already respected and beloved among the students who know him. Yet, in his address, he described himself as “someone who failed and failed miserably throughout much of my graduate school career.”
His narrative was not a negative one. It was a narrative many of us watching understood intimately: the process of “failing” to abide by the rules set by those around us, followed by a realization that those rules, rather than ourselves, are the problem. Dr. Lau understood his “failure” as a queer experience. He told us, “Failure was precisely how I learned that imposter syndrome wasn’t my own but what enables academia to function in the first place.”
This did not mean that he was ready to give up on academia entirely. Dr. Lau emphasized the importance of imagining an institution that is built by and for those on the margins of society, “especially when crisis and scarcity restricts the kind of radical imagination we need to have to realize a more just and inclusive future for us in the academy, even if its future remains uncertain.”
This “radical imagination” was something we witnessed in each presentation over the three-day span of the conference. It was present in Francesca Petronio’s poignant connection between queer nostalgia narratives and the “#WalkAway” movement in their presentation entitled “Gaga for MAGA: Conservative LGBT Media and Politics.” Petronio spoke with empathy about the isolation experienced by right-leaning LGBT+ people. It was with the very same empathy that they made room to criticize the #WalkAway ideology, and the particular ways its adherents chose to respond to their disenfranchisement. They made clear the connections between media narratives, even the ones we like, and slippery nostalgia that can even lead us to yearn for a time of more intense homophobia.
The radical imagination made itself known in the presentational style of Mattie Schaefer, Max Cordes Galbraith, and Jeremy Torres as they shared the data from their study of queer and trans college housing practices. The three students, pursuing their graduate degrees at the University of Vermont, encouraged viewers to come up with their own thoughts and solutions. Responses came sparsely at first, as most of us felt automatically removed due to the remote webinar format. But as Schaefer, Galbraith, and Torres charged on, viewers began sharing our personal experiences with housing in higher education. The presenters’ honest desire to integrate community thought into their own work going forward was uplifting. Almost every single attendee ultimately shared some of their thoughts and perspectives.
Finn Johnson, a graduate student at Oregon State University, employed radical imagination when conceptualizing a trans-inclusive United States at the conclusion of his session, “‘I Refuse to be an Anomaly’: Trans Surveillance Practices in a Neoliberal Security State.” In his presentation, Johnson tackled the transphobic policies of the TSA, among other government agencies. He anchored his presentation in a powerful personal example of a time he had been profiled in the Portland International Airport. By “refusing to be an anomaly,” the trans participants in Johnson’s study gave voice to their community, silenced by this country’s bureaucratization of identity.
In his keynote address, Dr. Lau connected queer scholar Sara Ahmed’s description of “disorientation” with the disability studies concept of “crip time.” Disorientation describes how queer experience puts one out of place in a societal landscape; crip time addresses the different pace at which disabled people’s lives move.
Conference attendees watched Dr. Lau speak from five different time zones. We came to the conference after over a year of remote working and living, a year that has made time constrict and expand in unfamiliar ways; disorienting ways. Dr. Lau’s words hit home. The conference was what helped some of us combat that very same disorientation: detached from the community spaces in which we normally gather, queer & trans students coalesced online from over 50 colleges and universities. The remote nature of the conference widened our scope, and potentially our impact.
As we ran sessions from the lounge of Kenyon’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as we attended meet-ups from our separate dorm rooms, and as we met in masked pairs to stuff mailers for our 250 conference attendees, conference organizers were grateful for the opportunity of a remote conference. Travel to a physical conference is expensive and time-consuming. Kenyon is not an easy place to get to. Situated in rural Knox County, Ohio, we know better than to see our location as out of place.
Hayden Nolan, a student at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, spoke to the geographic diversity of queer and trans folks in the United States in his presentation, “Small Town Queers: The Presence of LGBTQIA+ Community Building in Rural, Southern Spaces.” Nolan warned against idealizing urban spaces as “queertopias.” He emphasized that queerness and transness exist in all corners of the country. Community can be built anywhere. This year’s conference was not only an extension of the queer community built on our rural campus, but an invitation to build an even greater one, transcending the boundaries of urban and rural.
“Access is not optional,” Dr. Lau said firmly and sincerely in his keynote. Accessibility was a cornerstone of this year’s Kenyon Queer & Trans Studies Conference. The conference remains entirely free of charge to attendees. In addition, attendees were given the option to request safer sex materials, information on LGBTQ+ rights on college campuses (in English or in Spanish), instructions for PrEP, and more resources alongside fun takeaways like stickers and tote bags. Knowledge does not belong to only those who can afford it. Queerness and cripness alike, Dr. Lau argued, are “world-building,” and it is access that lies at the intersection of these identities. In order to build an inclusive, accessible world, we must participate in active and continuous solidarity.
The sharing of knowledge, and the communal generation of further understanding, is part of that solidarity. Ending his keynote speech, Dr. Lau cited José Esteban Muñoz’s conception of queerness not as something we are, but as something we aspire to be. Though he cited previous scholars and previous experiences, Dr. Lau shared our presenters’ (dis)orientation toward the future: “Here’s to our work ahead,” he concluded, “that brilliant horizon.”
Thanks to all our presenters and peers who made the conference possible, and in particular to Dr. Dorian Rhea Debussy, Associate Director of Kenyon’s Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. Those interested in viewing Dr. Travis Chi Wing Lau’s keynote address can find it on the Facebook page of the Newark Ohio Pride Coalition.
Rory Dreyfus and Jess Karan are both students at Kenyon College.