Asheville is a magnet for diversity, making it the logical place for a discussion of what some term "queer studies."
On March 23-24, UNCA will host the fourth annual GLBT Studies Conference.
It's an event aimed at raising "the question of how the [gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered] community is understood and integrated into the larger culture," says local GLBT activist Doug Wade. "While the GLBT community is becoming much more visible and the straight world is starting to understand that sexual orientation is not something we chose, how queer people fit into our culture remains a very contentious issue. How this issue is ultimately resolved, and by whom, will be very important for the well-being of the GLBT community."
"Heightened visibility" and "real participation" by students and faculty are among the conference's goals, adds Michael Jones, a UNCA assistant professor of classics who helped found the event. The conference will feature presentations of student and faculty papers from around the country, as well as a variety of dramatic and multimedia performances, he explains. The UNCA conference is modeled on a similar program Jones participated in as a graduate student at Yale in the late 1980s. Spurred by Professor John Boswell, who wrote the groundbreaking Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality in 1980, the Yale community organized a conference whose major focus was "an exchange of ideas at a very high level," says Jones.
"Yes, [Yale] did the conference partly to raise awareness of gays, bisexuals and the transgendered. But it was focused on academic issues as well as what it's like to be gay -- on the inside or out," he recounts. When Jones came to UNCA in the mid-1990s, he and several colleagues thought it would be good to establish a similar conference here. And these days, there's more literature and research available on GLBT issues -- much like what happened with women's and African-American studies in the 1960s and '70s, Jones observes.
The UNCA conference, for example, includes a session titled "Issues in Queer Youth Identity," an interactive session called "GLBT Issues on Campus," and another dubbed "Coming Out in the Classroom: A Discussion with Faculty."
Another conference goal is outreach to the general public, co-organizer Keith Bramlett points out. That's where the public poetry readings, dramatic performances and a keynote address that will appeal to the entire Asheville community come in, he says. "We've tried to [present] a scholarly conference, but have reduced prices and offered some free events for the general public," says Bramlett, a UNCA lecturer in the sociology department.
Friday evening, for instance, will feature such highlights as d.R. Holton's "Transgender Bodybuilding" (described as a "multimedia extravaganza performance") and Deryl Johnson's monologue, "A Conversation with O.W.: Oscar Wilde on Life and Love." And Saturday evening's keynote speaker will be Joshua Gamson, the author of Freaks Talk Back, which explores the way the GLBT community is portrayed on and influenced by television and talk-radio shows.
In a recent interview with Stay Free magazine, Gamson remarked: "[Talk shows have] actually increased visibility for people most TV excludes. [But] do I think visibility should always be assumed to be a good thing? No. There's some freedom in being invisible. ... It was great having [comedian] Ellen [DeGeneres] come out, but it sometimes obscures the fact that we still have no federal protection from discrimination and so on."
Bramlett suggests that the UNCA conference is "an opportunity for the general public to hear from some well-known scholars of GLBT studies." The annual conference has also enabled UNCA students -- particularly the college's Out! group -- to take an active role in organizing and assisting with almost every detail of the event, he continues.
The conference's blend of academics, art and activism is apparent in another free event (Saturday, March 24, 12:45 p.m.) titled "Performing Drag: From Camp to Community Service." This forum will be directed by Johnson, a University of Pennsylvania professor of sociology who's an expert on the role of cross-dressing in public contexts.
It will focus on New York City's July Fourth "invasion" of Fire Island:. The annual event (which now draws thousands of celebrants) commemorates the experience of three men who, in the mid-'70s, dressed in drag and crossed the bay from Fire Island to go to a bar but were refused service. Shortly thereafter, the men enlisted the aid of other cross-dressers, who joined them in a second visit to the bar. They finally won admittance to the bar -- and an apology from the owner.
Asa for Jones, his involvement with GLBT issues has inspired him to make a career change, he reports: At the end of this semester, he'll be moving to Atlanta and to study law. The UNCA and Yale conferences, he says, "have got me past 400 A.D. [in classical studies] and thinking about modern issues."