October 20, 2016

“I was looking at someone who was not a man, not a woman, but the essence of a human being” said photographer and writer Mariette Pathy Allen, recalling her engagement behind the lens with a trans-identifying subject.

Allen was speaking at the “Queer Disruptions” conference on gender and sexuality, held at Columbia on October 13 and 14. The conference opened with a visual keynote in which Allen, fellow photographer Zanele Muholi, and film producer Darren Dean discussed the significance of disseminating works related to trans and queer identities through visual representations.

“You cannot change laws without changing the visual.” Zanele said.

Zanele said that circulation of materials is political, and it is especially important to be mindful of who is distributing materials and knowledge and on whose behalf.

The two-day event was organized by the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Council at Columbia University, which is chaired by Dean of Social Science Alondra Nelson and Professor Yasmine Ergas, director of SIPA’s specialization in Gender and Public Policy.

Topics throughout the conference included marriage, trans/feminisms, disabilities, vulnerability and resilience, and the relationship between feminisms and gender expression. The politicization of these issues continued to emerge as a resounding theme, with scholars, activists, and artists from the United States and abroad describing this intersection with policy throughout their presentations.

"Acceptability, acceptance, and winning are not always the best goals for political projects" said Professor Jack Halberstam of the University of Southern California in a panel on trans/femininsms.

Professor C. Riley Snorton of Cornell agreed, describing how trans/feminism movements are constantly met with opposition, but that this opposition is often where transformation happens.

“This state of emergency is not the exception but the rule,” he said. “It occurs as a rupture in history and a state of emergence.”

Nelson said she was proud to bring together experts in the field.

“It was a tremendous pleasure to see the community-building work of the WGSS Council manifest in this successful convening that drew together faculty from both Columbia campuses and several of its schools alongside scholars from across the U.S. and abroad,” she said.

Dennis Mitchell, vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion and a conference co-sponsor, commented on how LGBTQ scholarship leads to impactful change.

“Queer studies, politics and practices have upended assumptions that range from the binary nature of sexual identities to the functions (and importance) of marriage as a social institution,” he said. “Collective conversations in all spheres of intellectual endeavor, from medicine to sociology, from the visual arts to technologies of reproduction, are different because of these contributions.”

University Provost John Coatsworth also spoke at the event.

The event left attendees with visions of the potential progressive outcomes of their cumulative work. In resounding words, Ergas made the disruption of gender and proliferation of queer theory very clear:

“Justice is never simple,” she said. “It is not only additive; it is also transformative.”

— Ginger Whitesell MPA '17