Social Justice Warriors: QueerCon 2016

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Morgan Clapp, Sophonie Bazile, Samuel Barrons and Kyle Shupe of UC’s WGSS department – Photo: Jesse Fox

If you search “social justice warrior” or “SJW” online, chances are you’ll see a lot of hate surrounding the term. It’s used pejoratively, a label for those who supposedly promote their socially progressive ideologies in aggressive and gratuitous ways.

But that’s not what Kyle Shupe has in mind when it comes to the theme of the inaugural QueerCon 2016 — taking place this Friday at the University of Cincinnati’s Tangeman University Center — which is just that: Social Justice Warriors.

Shupe is the co-chair for the conference along with Jo Teut, who came up with the theme. They’re both Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) second-year graduate students at UC who want to reclaim SJW and present it in a positive light.

“Typically, a social justice warrior emerges as this figure on the Internet of a rabid, angry feminist that will viciously respond to any sense of injustice,” Shupe says. “So we’re kind of taking that idea and looking at how a social justice warrior is perhaps a positive — something people can use to combat social injustices.”

To shed light on these injustices, WGSS graduate students came up with the idea for the day-long conference, which is focused on feminist, queer and trans studies and politics. It’s free and open to the public.

The presenters are mostly UC graduate students, both in WGSS and in different humanities and social sciences departments. UC faculty and students from other universities like Otterbein University and the University of Kentucky will also be presenting.

The keynote speaker is Valentino Zullo, an English department PhD student at Kent State University. He is interested in how social issues can be presented in comic books.

“He is involved in a project at (the Cleveland Public Library) where he basically gives a free class that kind of examines the role of comic books and graphic novels and their relationship to academics, and more specifically clinical therapy,” says Shupe.

The conference is arranged in five different sessions with two or three different panels going on at once. Near the end, the panelists will take questions to make it more of a conversation.

“We have a pretty diverse range of topics involved in (the convention),” Shupe says.

“It spans anywhere from Civil War history to comic books to psychoanalysis.”

For example, he says there is a panel on institutional violence such as with universities committing violence against students and faculty, and medicine committing violence against transgender patients.

“We have a panel on media representation and feminist issues in the media looking at the pathologization of transgender women on talk shows,” Shupe says.

The other panels touch on queer diversity, women’s research, the gender binary and, finally, superheroes and social justice.

“There is a pretty large group of people who are not UC students that come from different universities or are interested in these kinds of topics from a political activist standpoint,” says Shupe, who hopes the event reaches beyond the university and into the community.

Co-chair Teut explains that “queer” refers to the subject matter of the presentations as well as the fact that the organizers really wanted to bring together activists and researchers in the LGBTQ realm, something that is harder to do in traditional conferences.

“It is important to give space for activists and researchers to meet, collaborate, discuss and grow together, not apart,” Teut says.

Teut studies asexuality, as well as other minority sexualities and genders. Ze says the activism within the asexual community has driven zem to be more visible with zir research (those are the pronouns with which Teut chooses to identify; each speaker at the conference has their preferred pronouns on the event program). Teut is presenting a panel on diversity in the asexual community and how that influences our understanding of sexuality in general.

“I’m very excited about this research and the conversations I’ve been having about it, both in queer and asexual communities,” Teut says. “(My activism) made me want to organize a conference for people in my position to also display their work — work that might otherwise get overlooked at more traditional conference spaces.”

Second-year WGSS masters student Morgan Clapp is the financial chair for QueerCon. She agrees that there could be more exposure and outlets for these less traditional conversations.

“There are a number of conferences at UC that center around these issues,” she says. “Every once in a while you’ll see one, but I think especially with the general social climate, there needs to be more awareness.”

Clapp is presenting a piece on the Netflix Marvel television series Jessica Jones. She says her presentation will be about how the show uses inhuman inabilities to tell a very human story.

“(It centers) around violence against women and general day-to-day misogyny, but the show uses Jessica’s superpowers as well as the villain Kilgrave’s superpowers to tell a pretty normal story in an extraordinary way,” Clapp says.

The organizers have mainly been using Facebook to get the word out about the event. Related to Jessica Jones, the keynote speaker’s presentation and other panels about pop culture, the Facebook event’s cover photo and other conference materials feature a comic-book Pop art theme, with “Pow” and “Bam” in starbursts.

Shupe says there is a little bit of a play on Comic-Con with the theme, because there is a lot of discussion about comic books and media in relation to feminist, queer and trans theory. But he wouldn’t go as far as to suggest they’re going to be dressing up in costumes of their favorite queer theorists or anything.

“It is very much an academic and politically oriented conference,” he says. But he jokingly adds if people want to go all out, they should go ahead. “Someone dress up like Michel Foucault. That would be just phenomenal.”

Originally written for Cincinnati CityBeat: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.

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