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The House That Queer Theory Built

The low-class problems of high-class queer theory

Thirty years ago, Teresa de Lauretis spliced together the disreputable queer and the esteemed theory for the title of an academic conference. An irreverent, deconstructive pairing, queer theory garnered critical cachet that distinguished it from gay and lesbian studies, in perception if not always in practice. It found its institutional footing not only by making sex and gender differences integral to broad swaths of academic inquiry but also, simultaneously, by refusing to locate sex and gender as necessarily central, fixed objects of study. Queer theory could go anywhere.

Even in those early days—which were not coincidentally the early days of our ongoing racist, anti-poor, transphobic, and homophobic AIDS disaster—queer theory had already formulated what I take to be its best and most forgotten lesson: because all kinds of people need it in all kinds of ways, queer theory is a fundamentally shared and inevitably contested space. From that comes my definition of the discipline: the project of queer theory is to explore and respond to the universe of queer need, including the need to reimagine the universe of queer need.

In its disciplinary capacity—that is, as a semi-formalized idea-generating conversation and critical apparatus—queer theory has been a notable success. Advantaged scholars across the academy who do good queer work with institutional support have led the charge. In the background, the work of scholar-teachers without advantage often goes unsupported but not unimagined; they imagine it. A broad, blurry picture emerges in which queer theories and pedagogies can be found in classrooms across the uneven landscape of higher education, not only at Research 1 universities and private liberal arts colleges but at community colleges, public four-year institutions, and international universities. Though that landscape is racist, and though we are faced with the heterosexism of the university (and real) world, queer studies teachers and scholars have tried to meet queer need where and how it arises.

The project of queer theory is to explore and respond to the universe of queer need.

But queer theory seems not to know the depths of its success, and this is because the field’s signal provocations have been irresistibly yoked to high-class places and pedigrees. With this top-down orientation, queer theory has a class problem. More precisely, the academic field has a class stratification problem, situated as it is within a higher education system hellbent on sorting the rich from the poor and the already privileged from the already abandoned. Pick any measure you like. A comparison of college endowment dollars per student, for example, reveals the gross disparities between rich and poor schools (and their alumni donors). At multiple Ivy League colleges, the endowment surpasses two million dollars per student, with Princeton University the easy winner at $3,145,372 per pupil, according to a 2019 study conducted by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The top small liberal arts schools hold their own with endowments of over one million dollars per student. The economic picture is very different down below. At my open-admissions, defunded public institution, the College of Staten Island (CSI) in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, the 2018 endowment was $705 per student—or around 4,461 times less than at Princeton.

Within this context of deprivation and excess, CSI has at present about twenty full-time, tenure track faculty (out of 326 total) who work in queer studies within their disciplines. We have a busy LGBTQ student resource center. We have an annual lecture in Black queer studies and an international queer film series. We have a named tenure track faculty line in the field: professor of queer studies. That’s my job title. True, it’s not an endowed position like the F.O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship in Gender and Sexuality at Harvard. Yet at CSI, as at Harvard, we make queer theory.

The real point of these pairings is not to draw out a similarity but rather to trace a structural, disciplinary relationship between queer studies at poor schools like CSI and queer studies at rich schools like Harvard. At the extremes of a university hierarchy that—whatever else it may do—most efficiently reproduces socioeconomic disparity and racial inequality, queer theory is a field utterly, materially divided from itself.

By reflecting on the ways that unequal material conditions produce queer ideas in the university, we become alert to the more fundamental and complex truth that queer studies is inextricable from institutional class arrangements and overarching sociocultural class relations. An alternate history might frame queer theory less as an edgy new field with an anti-normative chip on its shoulder than as the product of intentional strategies for excluding underclass queers and queernesses from well-resourced sites of knowledge production, including queer theory’s most prominent campuses and its class-curated virtual conversations. Now, queer theory has the chance to recognize class warfare in the university as a largely unspoken but field-defining trouble of its own. The field must draw on its history of self-reflexivity to interrupt the small and insular networks of institutional prestige that further distort the already battered academic job market. It must orient itself downward, outward, toward the full complement of queer ideas being produced not only across the tiers of academe but beyond its gates. So much about class-based queer life has been purposefully made unknown that a good deal of corrective work has been cut out for us; it will require reimagining not only the “what” of queer theory but also the “who” and the “where.”

Queer Acceptance

The polite term for the logic by which the rich, white, and advantaged separate themselves from the poor, people of color, and disadvantaged in higher education is academic elitism. The better term would be academic hoarding, which more accurately conveys a psychological intent that far exceeds a human need. A smattering of recent headlines sums up the background data: “Some Colleges Have More Students from the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.”; “20 Elite Universities Received 28% of College Donations Last Year—They Educate 1.6% of Undergraduates”; “Rich Kids Are Eating Up the Financial Aid Pot.”

In this atmosphere, a cash-bloated college can brag, out loud, about spending $100,000 to educate each student per year. But it does not take $100,000 per year to educate one student. (Nor, to take another example, does a good education require Tempur-Pedic mattresses in every dorm.) The boast thus becomes a double insult: rich schools waste resources on the enormously wealthy and then brag about that irresponsibility, all while public education starves. The logic of plunder that justifies and normalizes the hoarding of surplus intellectual and material resources is not, in university-speak, “class warfare” but rather “meritocracy.” Buoyed by wealth-based college ranking systems such as the U.S. News & World Report, the university’s “engines of inequality” excuse their rigged game by calling it by the opposite name: fair play. No one deserves to live at Versailles, yet education guru Cathy Davidson rightly argues that a “tyranny of selectivity” pervades higher education, a dynamic created and sustained by prestigious schools’ ironclad commitment to “exclusion, sorting, selecting, and ranking” while they congratulate themselves for magnanimous but largely failed efforts to enroll more lower-income students through “need-blind admissions.”

Queer-friendly ranking systems tend to identify those same hoarder schools as “the best” for queer students, too, since, to cite one such study, “other lesser-ranked universities and colleges regard the top-ranked as aspirational institutions and role models.” Just recently, Columbia University was named “The Best School for LGBTQ+ Students in New York State” by Best Colleges. Columbia’s acceptance rate for the class of 2023 was 5.1 percent. How can what is best for only 5.1 percent of applicants be best for queer students? Columbia gives preference to legacy admits (a mechanism of pro-white affirmative action). How can legacy preference be best for queer first-generation students of color? The overall cost of attending Columbia (a reflection of its self-valuation) was approximately $77,000 in 2018-2019. How can that be best for queer students who do not qualify for, do not know how to access, or suspect that they cannot trust financial aid? Yet neither Columbia nor the list-makers flinch under a class-conscious gaze. Who am I to argue with their claim? “Here is the intellectual good life to which young queers ought to aspire,” they say. “Here is what is best.”

Not all queer theorists at top schools agree with all this bluster, but queer theory has frustratingly little to say about how college acceptance rates and financial aid shape a queer life of the mind. Why then, if it’s not the marketing, does the field of queer theory at the “best” schools overwhelmingly hire queer theorists from other “best” schools?

If you want to earn a PhD and become a professor, you must first secure access to a selective undergraduate college and then attend a top-flight PhD program, both of which will go a long way toward determining one’s eventual placement in what Val Burris calls “the academic caste system.” Though jobs in academia are far from guaranteed, working-class studies scholar Lynn Arner similarly names pedigree as “a monumental determinant of what jobs which candidates will be offered.” Predictably, prestige hierarchies harm scholars from poor and working-class backgrounds the most, as they often lack the cultural capital necessary to navigate structural elitism. Like legacy admissions, the commonsense preference for prestige-based peer selection undermines anti-elitist possibilities for cross-class, anti-racist change not only in the interdisciplinary field of queer studies but across higher education. Queer theory doesn’t have a marketing problem; it has a structural problem.

The most recognizable sites of queer theory production were always and are still the most privileged schools, many of which were originally founded to reproduce white wealth and power, including the “birthplace” of queer theory, Duke University. Taken together, these storied schools currently enroll the lowest percentages of poor students and poor students of color in higher education, and they uphold the tradition of hiring only from the pinnacle of the academic hierarchy. These are private, deep-pocketed (though technically “nonprofit”) colleges and universities, as well as selective flagship public campuses that afford significant professional opportunity and attract academic superstars. As would be expected, our most illuminating ideas about queerness, race, gender, and even class have come, with notable exceptions, from our most well-lit educational worksites. That light bill is enormous.

In this way—that is, as it comes to us lit up and draped in the regalia of the most well-resourced, expensive, and highly ranked universities in the country—queer theory appears as normal as could be: unqueerly, it mirrors the real world of racialized inequality in which the perspectives of the privileged few are elevated over the potential of the many.

The Egalitarian Impulse

I intend this provocation to be disruptive of the status quo understanding of the “democratizing mission” of the university and the status quo workings of the field of queer studies within academic hierarchy. To clear the way, I need to defuse some well-worn criticisms about queer theory’s perceived elitism, including the charge that ivory tower queer theorists disengage from community activism and the twin accusation that we write inaccessible, “jargon-filled” books for select initiates only. Yes, bad writing exists in queer theory. Yes, the threads between theory and practice are sometimes tenuous. But not only do these charges underestimate the intellectualism of activist communities, they obscure rather than elucidate the material disparities (in everything from class size to debt burden to racialized wealth to gendered pay) that lie, paradoxically, at the heart of access to queer scholarship and teaching. I say paradoxically because queer theory, as a justice-oriented intellectual project, strenuously rejects higher education’s structural classism and racism even as it is structured by both.

Queer theory has a class problem.

Queer theory’s egalitarian impulses, as recently explored by Kadji Amin in his de-idealizing study of the field, Disturbing Attachments, make the question of its complicity with class stratification in higher education more complex and more troubling, but they also inspire. Queer studies scholars have been not only intellectually rigorous but politically astute in the ways we’ve distanced ourselves from class-structured power in academia, not least when we offer incisive and layered critiques of the insinuation of racial capitalism into the university and, more generally, the role of political economy—the way power relations determine how resources are produced, distributed, and consumed—in higher education.

It is also surely true that queer theorists’ disavowals of the neoliberal university are intended to advance a strong version of a mundane fact: this is me, that is my institution. Locating ourselves among the egalitarian political commitments of the field, we can, perhaps self-servingly, sharpen the distinction between the good politics of what we do and the bad politics of where we do it. I am suggesting that such distinctions tend to unlink our queer ideas from the material conditions of their production in the specific academic sites in which we do our work.

Rich Queer Theory, Poor Queer Theory

If the reader has heard of queer theory, they’ve likely heard it associated with brilliant scholars housed at (and traded among) exactly those schools that are the unambiguous drivers of class stratification in higher education, the schools that operate unimpeded in the cultural imaginary as college. This is true in the queer and straight cultural imaginaries alike, as journalist Masha Gessen’s recent article in The New Yorker about college and Covid-19 demonstrates. Asking “What Do College Students Think of Their Schools’ Reopening Plans?”, Gessen looks to young college student protesters for on-the-ground insight about how residential colleges should resume. Gessen observes,

At Occupy City Hall, organizers have set up talks and teach-ins in a safe and responsible manner. Attendees have been learning about the workings of the police and city government, the politics of rent and housing, and the history of abolitionist movements, but, most importantly, they have been learning how to learn, together, while keeping one another safe. Colleges ought to be asking young people like them how to bring that knowledge, and that sense of care and responsibility, to campus. Instead, they are treating them alternately as clients and as children, people to be pleased or managed.

Naturally, given the overlap between the racial demographics of the mass protests, Occupy City Hall’s location in New York City, the over two hundred thousand students of CUNY who are racial minorities, and the devastation wreaked by the pandemic here, I expected that CUNY students would figure in Gessen’s reporting.

They do not. Gessen, one of our leading public intellectuals who is also trans, orients concern for college life around rich schools and their students, as do nearly all mainstream stories about colleges reopening. Gessen interviews students from Williams College, Vassar College, and presumably Amherst College, where Gessen has been teaching. Notably, Gessen foregrounds student activism at the University of North Carolina Asheville, and this is an unmarked but welcome exception to the high-class “college” rule. The other schools Gessen mentions as part of the conversation about how to care for college students are Middlebury, Bard, Bowdoin, Oberlin, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, NYU, University of Washington, Cornell, and Colorado College. These schools, nearly 90 percent of which are private, are precisely the institutions that give affluent white people disproportionate access to their resources as students and as faculty. Each of those private institutions significantly overenrolls the top one percent, and four of them reserve 20 percent or more of their seats for the top one percent. Eleven of the fifteen schools in the article have endowments over one billion dollars.

CUNY’s “In Memoriam” webpage honors forty-eight members of our university community who have lost their lives to Covid-19. This list includes students, faculty, staff, and administration. Tragically, it is far from complete. These college lives, lived in part on CUNY’s community college campuses, are more difficult to profile—or even imagine profiling—despite the fact that poor colleges wrestle with the same kinds of questions Gessen asks about how to carefully return to campus, and despite the fact that underclass colleges are the majority of colleges in the United States. Even smart and politically imaginative queers tend to look for “college” elsewhere.

Queer theory has the chance to recognize class warfare in the university as a largely unspoken but field-defining trouble of its own.

The poor, Black and brown, immigrant, CUNY college communities—which are queer as fuck—have a few ideas of our own about college, Covid-19, activism, and class warfare. Living at these intersections, we make queer theory. For instance, we remake Gessen’s question, “What Do College Students Think of Their Schools’ Reopening Plans?”, as our own. We make it a poor queer studies question, understanding that we are interlopers in generic discussions of college and, consequently, in queer discussions of college. Overlooked, we understand that queer theory comes into sharpest focus on the academic mountaintop, though it’s not always easy to see from below. I don’t know how many well-placed queer theorists are still street activists. I know they were involved in ACT UP and Queer Nation in the 1980s and 1990s, and I know of more recent on-the-ground activism around anti-Occupation politics, women’s movements, graduate student unionization, Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter, and immigrant rights and freedoms. I say this, again, to challenge the idea that queer theory is cut off from activist communities.

But more fundamentally, I know that queer studies scholars are intimately connected to activist demonstrations because I see those connections being made at CUNY—and queer studies at CUNY and other underclass schools is also queer studies. With pleasure but without surprise, in June I randomly bumped into four other queer theory scholars at a demonstration organized by our faculty and staff union, the PSC-CUNY, to protest the racist, anti-worker threats by CUNY’s leadership to cut our adjunct numbers rather than distribute funds from the CARES Act as required by law. (CUNY did enact those cuts, firing thousands of adjuncts and leaving over four hundred people without health insurance in the middle of a pandemic. The PSC-CUNY has sued.) I regularly see CUNY queer theorists, including students, at rallies and demonstrations, especially protests against income inequality, workers’ rights, and racism. We do not need to confirm the bounds of our field by looking to see whether rich queer studies is taking to the streets, or by saying that rich queer studies isn’t doing this work. Rich queer theory is not the yardstick by which we know the measure of the discipline, nor is poor queer theory. Queer need stretches from here to there.

PeCUNYary Damages

In (queer) higher education as in real estate, hoarding wealth harms the poor. In its discussion of the new tax on outsized college endowments (i.e., those with more than half a million endowment dollars per student), the Tax Policy Center reports that “few low-income [queer] students enroll at institutions with large endowments, which tend to have very selective admissions. In both the public and private nonprofit sectors, the higher the endowment income per [queer] student at a college or university, the lower the share of its [queer] student body receiving federal Pell grants for low- and moderate-income students” [queer emendations mine]. The harms of academic hoarding extend far and wide: to poor Republican students at CSI, to faculty who do not come from affluence, to poor students at elite schools whom Anthony Jack terms the “doubly disadvantaged,” and to many students at the other hidden educational tier of for-profit colleges that Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “lower ed.”

Consider one more recent headline, this one by finance writer Helaine Olen: “The Problem with Michael Bloomberg’s Massive Donation to Johns Hopkins University.” Bloomberg’s 2018 gift to Hopkins (his alma mater) was $1.8 billion, bringing his total lifetime donations to Hopkins to $3.3 billion. Surveying the charity scene in academia, Olen suggests there’s a problem: with its slashed budgets, annual tuition hikes, and crumbling infrastructure, “CUNY could certainly use and benefit from Bloomberg’s largesse.”

Now, Mike Bloomberg will never give $3.3 billion to CUNY, the university that educates the same communities of color that the former mayor tried to stop and frisk into carceral oblivion. Bloomberg’s philanthropy may make a few lucky poor queer students of color at Hopkins rich one day, but that money can never make those students exceptions to the unbearable shared truth of the Black and brown trans and queer lives whose freedom to be in public Bloomberg policed away.

It really does go without saying, then, that queer studies has been paid for upfront by the students who have managed to access the system despite, to echo CUNY professor and poet Audre Lorde, the system trying to grind them to dust. The cost of this hidden tuition is the cost of making it to the subway or bus or across the Ivy League quad on the way to your queer studies class without becoming one of the five million instances of stop and frisk or without getting picked up by ICE or without being asked to prove one single thing. That is the price of the poor queer studies ticket at CUNY and beyond. The first donation to that depleted fund should come from Johns Hopkins University.

The Costs of Queer Theory

If queer theory were only a product of the material conditions of its class-stratified university worksites, the way forward would be clearer. Most obviously, public queer studies schools could be generously funded and provided with basic tools of the trade (like books and affordable, nutritious food on campus). Or queer theorists could share material resources across institutional tiers (rather than swapping resources with “peer institutions”) to elaborate much more textured and unpredictable disciplinary relations. Ironically, because queer theory is not only materially produced, queer theorists can quite easily exempt ourselves from worrying about all the ways it is.

An accounting of the disparate material conditions of queer knowledge production inevitably leads beyond a pedantic comparison of our crumpled work receipts to meatier questions. What do queer ideas cost to make and to circulate, yes, but also what do they cost to adopt and to believe? Though I direct those questions to the field of queer studies, they are unanswerable without reference to the class power relations that structure the university. They are the questions that queer studies, thus housed, must not fail to ask. And they point us to queer-class power relations outside the academy.

Are queers class-made?

If you believe as I do that the university world is like the real world rather than distinct from it, then perhaps we can agree that class relations constitute a basis for understanding queer life more generally. This is to say that queers know ourselves through class as early and thoroughly as we know ourselves through gender and sexuality. In line with the many other ways class structures determine how we come to know ourselves, class-stratified education sets a formal stage for acquiring new ideas about queerness. The academy therefore gives us a focused context for framing larger questions. For instance, are queer people materially produced by the queer ideas they learn and sometimes adopt and, even, come to believe at rich and poor schools? Assuming queer studies in the university provides theoretical tools for self-reflection, does access to elite queer knowledge production alter the possibilities for knowing oneself as—indeed, for being—queer? Does political economy create different kinds of queer people at different material thresholds of queer knowledge, including the threshold that two-thirds of queer people never reach: graduating from any four-year college? Might materially produced queer ideas register in such deeply subjectifying ways that they produce different queer-class embodiments? Are queers class-made?

I would like to think, without resorting to crude formulations of either LGBT identity or class identity, that queer theory can give us special purchase on the questions of class that press us from all sides in the current moment. I have been suggesting to my field that such analyses might well begin at home, given the explicit class warfare that rages not only within but as higher education in the United States. Queer theory’s future success might depend on its capacity to imagine, enact, and model redistributive and resubjectifying practices within the university hierarchy that is, to adapt May Swenson’s great line about the ailing body, queer theory’s house, its horse, its hound.