“One reason I’m so anti-zoom,” Grace Lavery, Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, confided to 21.8k followers on Twitter a few days ago,“is that I teach classes in queer and trans studies, where part of the point is to handle ideas that the family home renders unthinkable. My undergrad students say things that, were they to say them in their parents’ houses, might expose them to harm.”
Three ideas spring out from this tweet. Firstly that classes in queer theory teach ideas that a family home would find “unthinkable”, secondly that “part of the point” of such classes is to create this situation, and thirdly that expressing these ideas within earshot of parents “might expose (students) to harm”.
It almost sounds as if the classes are intended to alienate young adult children from their parents. Most parents are not idiots and most parents are quite capable of thinking about and discussing complex ideas.
Firstly, let’s look at the ‘family home’ Grace is envisualising. Note, not ‘some family homes’ but the generic family home. It seems that on the one hand we are told to embrace diversity, while on the other we are offered ignorant stereotypes.
The family home Lavery envisages is a place with staid, conventional, bigoted parents. Parents, it seems, who aren’t even aware of the subjects their kid is studying at Uni. It’s unlikely that mum has ever smoked a joint or read a volume of philosophy, or that dad has ever even considered the idea of same-sex attraction or getting his ears pierced. This is clearly bonkers. Most parents of kids now at university came of age in the 80s and early 90s. We knew how to protest. We rocked against racism. We wore pink ‘Crazy Colour’ in our hair, pink triangle badges and safety pins on the lapels of our Sally Army Chelsea Girl jackets and painted CND signs on our home-bleached jeans. We wanted to Stop the City. We stood up for the acceptance of same-sex attraction at a time when the police were quite definitely not on our side. We listened to Boy George and swooned over Cyndi Lauper. My first 80s boyfriend wore more eyeliner than I did and wrote endless volumes of poetry (which reminds me, why oh why did I never make out with the beautiful, corkscrew-curled Simone who was so clearly out of my league but wanted me anyway?)
80s and 90s kids were anything but conventional. They were, among other things, the heroin generation, and those that weren’t gouged out on the sofa watching Neighbours re-runs were more often than not crawling around a field of cowpats looking for magic mushrooms or watching fractal videos and wondering if they should drop another Super Mario. We discussed Germaine Greer and Timothy Leary, listened to Chumbawamba and Consolidated and hitch-hiked up to Manchester to share bottles of water on sweaty dancefloors at the Hacienda. When Leary was sampled into the iconic Tool track, ‘think for yourself and question authority’ became a mantra and oh, how we danced.
“Breach the peace, break the barrier, make some fuckin’ noise!” belted out Spiral Tribe as we organised a network of self-supporting, spontaneous free festivals- without mobile phones! Don’t talk to us about not conforming. We’ve been there. We had the T-shirt to prove it once, but we discarded it somewhere in a back room at Megatripolis around 1993.
I’m not trying to idealise those times – not all 80s/90s kids were semi-enlightened, tripped-out, embryonic philosophers and for many of those that were the journey ended badly and often prematurely. Sections of mainstream society were rife with casual racism, homophobia and sexism: the NF graffitied the ‘n’ word on buildings; jokes about ‘shirt-lifters’ and ‘poofters’ were everywhere and if a guy grabbed your boobs as you were walking home late then you’d probably have been told you shouldn’t have had such a short skirt on. The AIDS epidemic unfolded. The 80s and 90s housed bigotry and bias, just as any generation does. I’m not suggesting that everyone who grew up in those times is compassionate and open minded, just making the point that not all parents are bigoted morons whose brains will explode if they’re exposed to a bit of queer theory. There will always be cruel, narcissistic people who enjoy crushing others, and I don’t doubt that some unfortunate kids starting out at uni have parents who fall into this category. However, to suggest that this is the norm is disingenuous.
Lavery’s idea that ‘the family home‘ would render the ideas of queer theory ‘unthinkable’ is both ageist and absurd. Lavery is fast approaching forty, so seems a pretty weird candidate to be waving the ‘don’t trust your parents’ banner. Blogging about Viagra and erections, telling girls – no, not even when you do it ironically- to ‘tuck a corner (of a shawl) into your pussy’ and calling pro-LGB organisations ‘transphobic’ does not make you edgy or revolutionary. Nor does dressing ‘like the mignonne bitch of my autogynephilic dreams’ exempt you from the trundle of time’s winged chariot hot on your kitten heels.
A parent might be forgiven for concern about Lavery’s desire for secret Zoom chats with their newly-flown-the-nest offspring. Indeed it’s not unreasonable to consider the idea of queer theory unhealthy or dangerous, advocating as it does for the normalisation of medication and modification of body parts to closer comply with conventional social stereotypes. It’s more likely that your average parent would find it pretentious and downright bloody stupid to be honest, but ‘unthinkable’? I think not.
Which brings us to ‘might expose them to harm’. Lavery teaches in the States, so things may be different there. In the UK students pay for their accommodation for a full year whether they’re living there or not.
(EDIT: College campuses have been closed in the USA due to the COVID19 outbreak, but less than 16% of undergraduate students live on campus. Like students in the UK, the rest of them either continue to live at home while attending college or pay rent to live in housing close to where they study.)
Of course, the lockdown (yes, I know it’s not literally a lockdown) is a complete pain in the arse for young people who had moved out to go to Uni. Being stuck at home when they should be vomiting into a plant pot in the student union was never part of the plan. However, most of them – please note I said most – have chosen to go home during this trying time. Most universities in the UK have allowed students to live in halls if they really don’t feel they can go home or have no home to go to. UC Berkeley News claims that no students will be forced out of campus accommodation. Perhaps this is untrue and they really are evicting students and forcing them to return to abusive homes. Evidence of this being the case would be appreciated.
Most students have gone home – wait for it – because they want to be with their families right now.
Lockdown aside, it’s a pretty cushy deal for most students to return home. Chances are that- whatever social class they’re from- mum is cooking their meals and doing their laundry (plus ça change) and they’re spending large amounts of the day on the family Netflix account and the evenings drinking Dark Fruits and attending Zoom parties.
Yes, I’m exaggerating. I know they still have work to do- and the combination of ‘lockdown’ and strikes means my own uni-age-child, for example, has only had about a dozen weeks of actual teaching this year. It sucks.
So most of these kids have chosen to go home. Which makes me ask, very tentatively, if their homes are genuinely unsafe places and they had finally got away, why didn’t they remain in their digs in their uni towns? Or go to stay with friends? (We offered a space to a friend of Jessie’s whose parents were abroad, but he declined. We can’t have been alone in this.) Of course some kids, as middle-child pointed out as we discussed this over breakfast, may feel they have a moral duty to return home. Just because parents are abusive doesn’t necessarily mean their kids won’t love them anyway. Perhaps a parent or sibling desperately needs looking after in these dark times. So let’s be clear – I’m not discounting a situation where a child has felt they have no option than to return to an abusive household during this pseudo-lockdown. For a very few, this will indeed be the case. And if this is the case, taking part in a queer theory class via Zoom will probably be the least of their concerns.
Of course, there are households where space is of such a premium that the young person returning home cannot find a quiet corner to do some work or take their queer studies Zoom chat in private. The parental home may be an overcrowded high-rise, with no garden or balcony. Parents may not be willing or able to clear a quiet place for a young person to study. In this situation there is more at stake than parental disapproval: a student’s entire degree may be at risk if they have no privacy to study. The Zoom chat will, again, be the least of their worries: after all you can wear headphones on Zoom, and there’s a chat bar for stuff you don’t want to say out loud. Not ideal, but needs must in a crisis.
So it seems we must have it both ways. On the one hand, students are responsible adults, mature, independent, pioneering free thinkers. On the other, they are vulnerable babies who absolutely have to move back home and need protecting from the idea that their dad might dismiss queer theory as a load of bloody bollocks. Which is it to be?
For what it’s worth, I’d suggest that Grace’s concern is most likely to be about parents realising what utter nonsense their kids are being fed for their thousands of dollars in tuition fees. After all, anyone with even a few brain cells left insitu can see ‘queer theory’ for what it is.
Nor does Lavery stop to consider that an interesting and educational dialogue might open up between a parent who overheard parts of such a Zoom chat and their offspring. After all, we learn a lot when we debate with those who disagree with our position. That’s how we challenge, strengthen and formulate our beliefs.
And finally, saying the unsayable- gender studies and queer theory are not generally modules taken by working class kids, who have a lot more than cash invested in getting a good degree with practical application. If the ‘queer activists’ I’ve come across are anything to go by, it’s very much the domain of the middle class. I’m left with an image of Tarquin up in his converted attic bedroom, sipping lager from his mini fridge, chatting to his friends on his MacBook about how his dad won’t call him Tarquina and doesn’t understand his gender-queer pansexuality. Meanwhile mum’s downstairs washing his socks and making dinner, wondering what the fuck happened to the sexual revolution.