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Ignored, reviled

Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Jill Godmilow | Friday, February 24, 2006

Long before University President Father Jenkins made his famous speeches about this event and “The Vagina Monologues,” we participated in discussions with the University administration in which the University asked us to change the name of the event, which had previously been called The Queer Film Festival. Their rationale was that “queer” was too inflammatory and “festival” too celebratory. (One of the organizers asked whether the administration would also be advising the organizers of upcoming “The Asian Film Festival” to change their name. This query was not appreciated.) We emphasized that the event was driven by student desire, and reflected a felt need among students, gay and straight, to have spaces to discuss and explore issues like homosexuality in a Catholic context. From the University’s perspective, this was less important than the public nature of the event and the attention it would draw from alumni and critics outside the University.

Despite our misgivings about participating in the culture of the closet, we decided to run the event within the University’s parameters. We felt it was important to have the event and to make it as successful as possible in the hopes that it, and other events like it, could find a place on campus in the future. Unhappily, we negotiated the name change, checked all our publicity and advertising through the administration, and accommodated other restrictions. We even fired a poster designer whose design for the poster seemed to have an almost subliminal “Q” lurking in the image.

Nonetheless, we felt it was important to engage in some form of protest or critique. We thought about ordering T-shirts that say “Queer? Not Here!”or “This is Not a Festival.” Finally, we decided to write and distribute an “audience survey.”

Our “survey” began with a series of questions aimed at the University’s assumption that only people who were themselves gay and lesbian would attend the event. This included multiple choice questions such as “Do you listen to Judy Garland: a) daily b) occasionally or c) never.” Then we moved to slightly more pointed critiques such as “I did/did not (circle one) attend the Asian Film Festival because a) I was afraid I would ‘go’ Asian afterwards; b) I felt that the Buddhist viewpoint of the films would conflict with my faith; or c) I wanted to see quality films from a culture other than my own.” The survey ended with a question about whether the festival should be held again and whether it should be called “The Rock Hudson Memorial Festival,” “The Festival That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” or “The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Festival.”

The survey was intended to introduce some levity into the discussion, and to poke fun at some of the absurd and offensive assumptions we had encountered. To our surprise, people filled them out – earnestly. In the last week or so, we have received a few dozen. Most telling, though perhaps not surprising, are the answers to question five: “As a staff/faculty/student (circle one) member of the University, I feel that my sex/gender/identity (circle one) is a) welcomed; b) ignored; c) reviled.” Not a single response we got answered “welcome.” Regardless of whether they circled “sex,” “gender” or “identity,” all felt “ignored” or “reviled.”

We asked ourselves, who are these people? Leaving aside racial and ethnic identities, since the tenor of our questions was geared more to issues of sex and gender, we considered the options. Gays and lesbians? Certainly, since their presence on campus is ignored, and since their student organization has been refused official club standing. Heterosexual women? Quite possibly, especially as the name of their body parts are deemed offensive, and they are caught in a culture of date rape and hook ups. What about straight men? Could they also feel ignored or reviled? To the degree that heterosexual male desire is also caught between the twin social poles of parietals and hook-ups, maybe straight men might also feel that their sex/gender/identity does not fit exactly with the dominant ideal. Ultimately, we thought, unless you are straight, anti-gay or asexual, you might not feel completely at home in your sex/gender/identity here.

In Alexander Doty’s lecture “Gay and Lesbian Film, Queer Theory and the Academy,” which he presented during the “event,” he put forth a definition of “queer” that captures the strong sense of marginalization and difference that we read in the surveys. For Doty, queer is distinct from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered identities. Queer can function as a shorthand for those identities but is not limited to or simply a reflection of one’s sexual identity. Instead, Doty argues, queer can be a flexible subject position for the expression of all sorts of non-, or anti-, or contra- straight cultural production and reception. And, he suggests, even straight people can have queer moments, like the straight male athlete who finds himself sympathetic to the plight of the lovers in “Brokeback Mountain,” or the straight girl who discovers a sympathy for lesbians during a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” In this broad sense, perhaps all the students who feel ignored or reviled at Notre Dame are a little bit queer, and maybe we are, too.

And, in this spirit, maybe we need more “queer” festivals and events of all kinds that enable students to create spaces where they feel less marginalized and more welcome at Notre Dame.

Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Jill Godmilow are faculty members in the Department of Film, TV and Theatre and served as official and unofficial advisors to the student organizers of “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships.” They can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer