Queer Suicide: An Introduction to the Teach-In

(First in a series.)

With so much affect percolating in the public discourse around the recent spate of gay teen suicides, what can an academic teach-in offer vis-à-vis these events? Should it be a space to process our collective grief, fear, rage and compassion, or a disinterested counter-event for thinking through the stakes of queer studies in relation to activism, issues of student life, and the formation of university — and wider — communities? The sheer volume of cultural (self-) production via YouTube, blogs, tweets, and Facebook about this issue, together with reports of more deaths in recent weeks, mark a moment where queer, popular media and activist consciousness converge with a kinetic urgency. This Periscope dossier features an eclectic collection of essays, blogs, position papers, and op-eds from a multidisciplinary group of scholars zeroing in on a spectrum of issues, from gay rage and new technologies of sexuality to anti-bullying legislation. It organizes a kind of online teach-in, a portal to the multiple conversations and action happening around the country about gay teen suicide.

There are no easy ways to do a teach-in which, like performance, involves a complex of participatory, practical and philosophical musings oriented toward action. Some of the earliest teach-ins were set in the protest landscapes of the Vietnam War on campuses like University of Michigan and University of California, Berkeley in 1965. They involved students, faculty members and activists committed to an educative forum for dissenting notes and progressive politics. They were ad-hoc events riding on public feelings for social change. If feelings and futurity can somehow be debated and staged for the common good, our collective destinies as people with egalitarian ideals might also somehow change for the better. Can an online teach-in extend that platform and its educative promises for a queer and virtual community that is paradoxically more connected and yet simultaneously more alienable?
Today, we live in a world of myriad connectivity but old technologies of bias, discrimination and hate find their way into our gadgets and consciousness. The fact of losing so many young lives because of queer bashing, homophobic abuse, gender bias and sexual discrimination is not new. Why are these suicide stories newsworthy now? Is the American culture of sentimentality clearing a space for some queer stories to tug at our heartstrings while erasing others without much thought? If the violence of erasure is only brought out by death, some cases register barely a heartbeat in the press. For instance, the homeless old queen erased from the gay bourgeoisie and facing death on the street is never reportable. Besides, the absence of lesbians and transkids in the media coverage begs another question: what kinds of dead queer bodies are (more) grievable in the public sphere?
The stakes for a teach-in, I think, are not about calibrating the weight of our emotional identification with these teens or even about the redemption of children from bullies. It is a difficult thing to look at the pictures of 19-year old Raymond Chase and Zach Harrington, 18-year old Tyler Clementi, 17-year old Cody J. Barker, 15-year old Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas and Phoebe Prince, 14-year old Brandon Bitner, and 13-year old Asher Brown and Seth Walsh. We behold their faces with complex identifications as the quivering queerlets we might have once been ourselves, sadness and terror at their sense of hopelessness, simmering rage at their violation. But these affective tendencies are also our own as we etch their names in our collective consciousness in remembrance of countless others similarly afflicted in the dark.
While the saturation of a media-generated emotionalism may make some of us cry over how we’ve failed these kids, we have to think — wet Kleenexes in the garbage bin — about where we’re placing our critique, intervention, and action. Such a call initiated the Brown-RISD gay teen suicide teach-in on October 13, 2010, from which this dossier is borne. Within a week of ad-hoc organizing, the teach-in took place in response to the media event on the suicides and as a show of solidarity with queer identified students and faculty in the area.
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The event with eight speakers was conceived as a public forum directed at students and other members of the university community in the area. We looked at different issues tied to the spate of suicides from our own disciplinary perspective or areas of expertise, from Media Studies, Medicine, Social Activism, American Studies, English, Theatre and Performance Studies, Race and Sexuality Studies, Women’s Studies to Political Science. The combination of issues that was raised and addressed from our various scholarly and political perspectives made the teach-in invaluable, particularly as a space to think through multiple action and intervention. Four pieces from that interdisciplinary panel are included in this dossier to document some of our pedagogical crossings and to further the discussion begun there. They are Lynne Joyrich’s “Looking Through and At Media Treatment of LGBTQ Youth”; Joon Oluchi Lee’s “Gay Rage”; Gail Cohee’s “Bridging Feminist/Queer Theory and Practice”; Eng-Beng Lim’s “No Kid Play.”
But this dossier also goes beyond the cross-institutional conversations and connections that were forged between Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Community College of Rhode Island, and local activist groups around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues. In the spirit of engaging the wider discourses on a national level, I asked scholars located in various other institutions around the US to contribute their perspectives and teachings on the topic. The other five contributors to this dossier expand the eclecticism of thinking with a queer polemic, epistemology, pedagogy and organizing that both attend to and exceed the media moments defined by the suicides. They are Jasbir Puar’s “Ecologies of Sex, Sensation, and Slow Death,” Jack Halberstam’s “It Gets Worse,” Ann Pellegrini’s “Making It Better in the Classroom: Pedagogical Reflections,” Chandan Reddy’s “The Tear of Politics,” and an afterword by Jacqui M. Alexander.
The dossier is made up of diverse perspectives, politics and disciplines but they are neither isolated from one another nor simply counted up and amassed. They show a range of responses to our current situation even as they intersect and interweave with one another.
We hope you can join us in this important conversation, and organize your own teach-in.
Look for further entries in this series to appear over the coming days, beginning with the first group on Monday, November 22nd, 2010.

Eng-Beng Lim is Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University.

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