Dyson Voices: A Conversation with Karla Jay, PhD

The author and Distinguished Professor Emerita of Pace University discusses involvement and influence in the women’s rights movement and queer liberation.

If Karla Jay, PhD was one to accept labels, “disruptor” would most definitely apply. An esteemed radical activist, Jay has helped upend the systems of oppression and push for the rights of many. At Pace, Jay taught American literature and directed the Women’s and Gender Studies department between 1974 and 2009. As an author, Jay has edited various anthologies in the field of queer studies­—Lesbian Texts and Contexts (1990), Out of the Closets (1992), Lavender Culture (1994), Dyke Life (1995), and Lesbian Erotics (1995)—and written a memoir, Tales of the Lavender Menace (1999). Shea Donnelly, ’21, Women’s and Gender Studies and Peace and Justice Studies, caught up with the Distinguished Professor Emerita recently to discuss the past, present, and future of the LGBTQ+ and women’s movements.

Karla Jay, PhD
Author, Activist, and
Distinguished Professor Emerita

Donnelly: What words would you use to describe your identities?

Jay: I refuse to categorize myself with identities or words that symbolize fixed identities. While I recognize that it makes others more comfortable if we do so, the Women’s Movement and the radical Gay Liberation Movement were struggles against patriarchal demands that we label ourselves and then live, dress, and act accordingly. Having refused to conform to traditional labels, I am no more inclined to adopt new ones. I do embrace political identities, feminist, activist, radical. I do like the word “queer” as a shorthand way of cutting through a long alphabet of terminology, such as LGBTQAITS+.

Donnelly: What do you view as one of the biggest successes of the Women’s Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement?

Jay: There are so many successes of the Women’s Liberation Movement. We have moved the needle forward in terms of employment in all fields, marriage equality, laws, women’s right to control our bodies, and more. Most importantly, Redstockings—which I belonged to—and other radical feminist groups challenged the world to rethink gender roles throughout society and within the family. There is still so far to go in combating the sexual objectification of women, ending double standards, and the pernicious effects of racism and classism on the lives of women and children. We need to do more to stop wars, get rid of guns—especially automatic weapons—and violence, in all its incarnations, and stop the rape of the planet; but we have made meaningful progress, at least until Trump was elected.

As for the Gay Liberation Movement, we have come further than I ever imagined. At an early meeting of the Gay Liberation Front, we all laughed when a woman said she wanted to get married. It was a time when it was totally dangerous just to hold your lover’s hand in public, to dance with a partner of the same sex, to wear clothing that was deemed “inappropriate” for your gender assignment at birth, or even to be served a drink in a bar if you were known to be homosexual.

It seems amazing that we have marriage equality, but we still don’t have many civil rights outside those covered by marriage statutes. Violence against trans women in particular is on the rise, and the mainstream LGBT movement threw gender radicals under the bus to get marriage equality. We could have changed society so much more. Marriage hasn’t worked so well for heterosexuals, just for starters. Buying into that ideal was a mistake.

Our first goal was for everyone to come out. Then society would have to change when they understood our sheer numbers. Well, that first goal hasn’t been reached yet.

Donnelly: What do you believe that history has misremembered or romanticized from the movements you’ve been part of?

Jay: It would take a few books to sort out the truth. The Stonewall Uprisings have turned into a mythological event as more and more people have decided they could have been inside the Stonewall bar on June 28, 1969. On one hand, I wasn’t there taking attendance. On the other hand, I have to point out that there are arrest records from that night and afterward.  Maybe twenty people can prove they were there, and the rest have to rely on their credibility.

Other ideas become stated as if they were fact and the real truth, often less glamorous, never seems to stick. For example, every year we had a demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. One year, we had a “trashcan of freedom,” into which we threw symbolic objects of repression. Someone falsely reported that we burnt our bras. No one ever did that, and had we lit anything on the old wooden boardwalk, it would have gone up in flames, but you can see how the story of feminists burning bras sounds so much more interesting than what was actually done.

Donnelly: What is your hope for new people entering the world of queer and women’s and gender studies?

Jay: I hope that opportunities today and tomorrow will be as vast for current women’s and gender studies and queer studies majors and minors as they were before I retired from Pace. Former students of mine have become filmmakers, lawyers, directors of battered women’s shelters, museum educators, social workers, nurses, administrators of NGOs, teachers and professors, small business owners, and on and on. The understanding of issues of gender, race, class, and homophobia/transphobia has increased their abilities to navigate diverse workplaces and the patriarchal economy. A student’s choice to unpack gender roles can be generally self-empowering and lead to richer relationships and better life choices, regardless of sexual identity.

Tuesday, April 23 — Karla Jay, PhD joins a panel of fellow queer movement founders and student activists. More info →

I also believe that our focus on community service, as well as internships, encourages young people, whether or not they are Women’s and Gender Studies majors, to participate actively in their communities for the rest of their lives.

Donnelly: What are you most proud of in your life?

Jay: There are so many things I’m proud of that it is hard to think of just one. I am so proud of the many Pace students I have had the privilege to teach over the years. Sending college students into the world to shine their light has been an amazing experience. Teaching is, above all, an act of love. I’m particularly proud of the five anthologies I edited or co-edited because many of the contributors who were given their first opportunity to break into print went on to become widely published authors.

For the past two years, I have been working on Stonewall 50. I’m so proud to have been one of those who lit a torch in the embers of the Stonewall Rebellion and then helped create the first modern LGBT organization and the first Pride March.

Donnelly: Looking back with the knowledge you have now, would you do anything differently?

Jay: I am going to have to quote the late French singer Edith Piaf here, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” (No, I do not regret anything.)

Donnelly: What lessons do you want to impart from your experiences and activism?

Jay: If all the feminists in 1969 linked arms, we wouldn’t have made it from New York City to Pennsylvania. I would be surprised to learn that there were as many as 100 people present at early Gay Liberation Front meetings. Yet, both movements changed the world. The takeaway here is that you do not have to have a huge organization to make change. If you want to prevent climate change, end global violence, enact gun control, find a few like-minded people and an innovative way to get your message across.

Donnelly: Do you believe you’ve learned anything from younger generations of activists? If so, what?

Jay: I winter in South Florida, just a few miles from Parkland High School. I have been awed by the brilliance and resilience of the Parkland students, whom I have marched with and listened to over the last year. Their maturity, their understanding of social media, and their persistence toward their goal impresses me and moves me more than I can express. I know the planet is in good hands with Gen Z.

Shea Donnelly '21
Women's and Gender Studies & Peace and Justice Studies

About Shea Donnelly: As a young queer person, I’ve spent a lot of time searching for representation. I’ve consumed almost all of the LGBT media that I could get my hands on, the good, the bad, and even the downright stereotypical. High school Shea would have settled for anything that made her feel less alone in her identity. The desire to be seen and understood helped me to find a home in activism. I thrive off of the feeling of empowerment that comes from advocating for yourself and others. When it came time to decide what I would study in college, women’s and gender studies felt like the obvious fit. The ability to see myself and the issues I care about represented in my studies was so important to me. Through women’s and gender studies, I have connected with so many incredible people who have similar goals and aspirations of fighting for equity for all people. My professors continually push and inspire me to think critically about my identities and role in the world and how I can best use my platforms and privileges to make meaningful change. I was honored when I was given the opportunity to talk to one of the individuals who helped make the department into what is it today, a department shaping the next generation of changemakers and status quo shakers.