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10 years of ARC-GS

Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality

In June 2010, Niko Besnier, Sébastien Chauvin, Robert Davidson, Jan-Willem Duyvendak, Gert Hekma, Amade M’charek, and Rachel Spronk met in the Commissariskamer in the Spinhuis to discuss and promote cooperation between gender and sexuality studies from an interdisciplinary perspective at the University of Amsterdam.

ARC-GS emerged in a particular moment in time when two different fields of inquiry – one focused on gender (women, feminism…) and one focused on sexuality (gays, lesbians, queers…), each with their own dynamics and intellectual and institutional histories – were joined. While today at the UvA we might use the expression “gender and sexuality” as if these terms somehow belong together, the interconnection between the two was anything but natural or self-evident. Rather, it was the result of much labour, and notably the labour of theoretical articulation as well as the personal and political labour of gathering people with different agendas and different attachments around one table.

ARC-GS was by no means the first attempt at having “gender and sexuality” conversations, but it did represent the first time in which these efforts translated into an institutional reality, even if this institutional reality remains precarious. The history of the scholarly inquiry into gender and sexuality is indeed, until today, marked by a struggle for institutionalization, in which moments of achieving institutional grounding are alternated with moments of de-institutionalization.

Since the end of the 1970s, Women’s Studies emerged at the UvA as a vibrant interdisciplinary community and network with an administrative anchor within the Political Science department, where the field was spearheaded by pioneers such as Saskia Poldervaart. The gender studies community was consolidated in institutional terms with the foundation of the very first Women’s Studies research institute in the Netherlands, the Belle van Zuylen Institute, in 1990. From the 1980s, research on sexuality was grounded within the Sociology Department, where Gert Hekma and Dorelies Kraakman pioneered Gay and Lesbian Studies, which included establishing the George Mosse lectures.

At the same time, Han ten Brummelhuis, together with Gilbert Herdt, started the UvA Summer Institute on Sexuality, Culture & Society. By the time the Belle van Zuylen Institute was closed, and the academic community of what by then had become Gender Studies had lost most of its institutional anchoring, a new generation of scholars had emerged for whom questions of gender and sexuality seemed more entangled, and for whom a new research centre bringing these fields of inquiry together made sense.

In the preparation of such a centre, another field of academic inquiry, with its own intellectual and institutional history at the UvA, and its own well-documented difficulties to get institutional grounding, entered the picture of ARC-GS’ story of origins, i.e. the question of race. A vision of a centre focused on race, gender, and sexuality was put forward.

It turned out that this was an articulation that could not yet be made at the time, an entanglement that could not yet be recognized. In a way that unfortunately sounds all too familiar, race was left out of the equation, and the vision and attempt disappeared from the record, so much so that not many were aware of this history until we began researching and asking founding members for their 10th anniversary accounts of “how it all began”. Yet what many of us do know, is that the question of race has haunted ARC-GS on several occasions. And ARC-GS today is convinced that time has come for us to do the work of articulating gender and sexuality with race. And thus looking back to how it all began is also looking to the future, with determination: the work of articulating categories of analysis, of gathering different intellectual communities around the table, and of working through differences can never be taken for granted: it is hard work and it is often precarious work.

Yet if anything, the past ten years have taught us that it was possible with “gender and sexuality”, and that we have sustained a community of scholars for whom it would not make any sense anymore to artificially separate those two categories of analysis. And as we are blowing the candles on the birthday cake, we are preparing ourselves to continue to do the work that needs to be done when it comes to race as an analytical category – in conditions of institutional racism. This work, we believe, is in fact part of dismantling institutional racism.

We hope you will join us in celebrating ten years of (often precarious and unpaid) efforts of cultivating a Gender and Sexuality research community within the AISSR. A community which from the outset has been multiple and continues to be so, as its members bring different disciplines, different theoretical paradigms, different methodologies, different emphases on gender and/or sexuality, and different thematic concerns to the table.

Ten years of activities and events, ten years of ongoing commitments to furthering Gender and Sexuality Studies (within the Social Sciences) at the UvA, both in terms of research and teaching, ten years of joyful gatherings and of difficult conversations and conflicts – these ten years deserve a moment of celebration. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, real life celebrations will have to wait till 2021. Keep an eye on this space for announcements of our anniversary activities. For now, we offer you these impressions of the seven founding members looking back on how ARC-GS began and was important to them.

Sarah Bracke & Julie McBrien (Current ARC-GS directors)


Founding Members Looking Back

  • Sébastien Chauvin (First director ARC-GS, Board member until 2016)

    When ARC-GS was created, newbies were quickly warned of the challenges ahead. One was attempting to unite under a single tent “gender” scholars doing feminist research and ”sexuality” people working in queer studies. I had just arrived at the University of Amsterdam and, like many friends of my generation, I had always thought these projects to be inseparable. Although the warning made no sense to me, more seasoned Dutch colleagues would remind us of past wounds and failed attempts. I feel one of the achievements of ARC-GS has been to bring these epistemic communities together to a point when, to younger generations and students alike, the warning no longer made sense either. Still, taking part in most events organized by the centre for several years, I did witness the at times strikingly distinct audiences coming to attend talks on middle-class women’s careers and the life course, masculine domination in high finance, contemporary lesbian parenting, gay male 1950s Dutch history, queer disability, migrant trans lives, or the sexualization of islamophobia….

    Founders had to answer a number of pressing questions. How to inherit gender studies’ broad interdisciplinary scope, political commitments and humanities-inflected theorizing while working within the empirical social sciences that formed the crux of the AISSR? How to get the centre on the international intellectual map while also engaging with local communities and issues? How to meaningfully engage with race and intersectionality within a strikingly white university in a country that wasn’t? Most importantly, would we rather avoid meetings on Fridays, when some moms are busy, or on Mondays, when some queers are tired? What about queer moms?

    10 years, several world crises and one pandemic later, ARC-GS is still standing. Many of the earlier challenges may still be there, including on racial issues and how to deal with the neoliberalization of research and academia. Also, some of our colleagues retired before ever having found a way of pronouncing the centre’s name correctly. But, more than ever, as feminism and fights for social justice are experiencing an especially intense new period of global ebullition, having a place like ARC-GS is a chance that must be cherished and cared for.

  • Rachel Spronk (First Associate Director, subsequently Director, and current board member)

    I am a child of three fields of scholarly practice in the 1990s of the UvA: I have been formed by Postcolonial Studies, institutionally located in what was then called InDRA; I have been shaped by Vrouwenstudies (Women’s Studies), an interdisciplinary community in the social sciences; and I have equally been fashioned by Gay and Lesbian Studies, a sub-group in the Sociology Department. During the years of my PhD all three fields got caught in hot waters and to keep a long, sad story short, by the end of the 2000s none of them existed anymore. So we established ARC-GS from these ruins and rebuilt what used to be thriving intellectual communities. I find it important to mention these roots to show that there has always been a critical feminist tradition in the social sciences, albeit precariously institutionalized. This time we wished to bring people together whose aim is to show the breadth of existing research, further cutting-edge research, and foster an intellectually inspiring space welcoming people from all kinds of (disciplinary) walks.

    The naming of ARC-GS expresses how a new generation took over by building onto the crucial foundations. In the second half of the previous century, Women and Gay and Lesbian Studies were crucial fields criticizing the normative tendencies and established traditions in the social sciences, but for many students these names did not cover the range of themes, theorizations and tasks they were facing. Gender and sexuality were thematically and conceptually better able to respond to the challenges of the twenty-first century and worked better as an umbrella to bring people together. How Postcolonial Studies fell off the hook is another complicated story about the institutional history of the UvA that goes beyond this brief memory, but it is possible that another improvement of the longer-standing tradition occurs in the future. I only realised later that I had not been at the very first inception of ARC-GS when it was proposed to create a centre of Gender, Sexuality, & Race.

    Looking back at the last ten years I can say that we have done an amazing job truly cultivating an interdisciplinary community with a variety of methodological approaches. The diversity of topics and research is outstanding. I am particularly proud of the way we have established Sexuality Studies as a research field of its own. Looking forward I hope that the Euro-American modus operandi will be broken up. As I stressed acknowledging the legacies of our fore-parents, I also wish for improvement to move beyond looking at non Euro-American realities only in terms of cultural difference. In contrast, global Southern (as a set of relations rather than geographical locations) realities need to be integrated as innovative analytical directions which are of global heuristic value for the study of gender and sexuality. I wish that ARC-GS can play a pioneering role herein.

  • Robert Davidson (First programme manager ARC-GS)

    Establishing ARC-GS was important for safeguarding the position of research on gender/sexuality within the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG) at the UvA and building a community of researchers that could learn from, inspire, and support each other. In the period in which the formation of ARC-GS began to take shape, there was a clear lack of activities to bring researchers focused on gender and sexuality from within the social sciences together. At that time the Belle van Zuylen Institute, which had been the institutional home of Women’s Studies at the UvA, had been dissolved. Gert Hekma, through the Foundation George Mosse Fund, was then organizing a monthly lecture series on gay/lesbian themes, and some small conferences were organized on either gender or sexuality themes by scholars working together in small groups in an ad-hoc way. We realized the challenge of beginning a centre focused on both gender and sexuality studies given some historical divides between women’s studies and gay/lesbian studies at the UvA, but it felt like we were doing something exciting, new, and much needed!

    Each year ARC-GS has slowly but steadily grown regarding the number of activities it organises, the collaborations that it inspires, and the size of the ARC-GS community. ARC-GS continues to function as a creative hub for gender/sexuality research within the FMG. Despite its growth and success, ARC-GS faces several challenges for the future. A general atmosphere of austerity measures and cuts to scientific funding, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, threatens already marginalized fields like gender and sexuality studies. ARC-GS still does not receive any core funding for its activities, making it particularly vulnerable to further budget cuts. ARC-GS was, however, begun at the institutional margins, and I am confident that the members of ARC-GS will be able to find creative solutions to manage the challenges ahead.

  • Niko Besnier (Founding member and board member 2010-2019)

    Gender studies has had a difficult history at the UvA, as successive administrators did not see research on gender as a worthwhile pursuit, presumably because they surmised that it would not bring grant money into the institution’s coffers. (They would eventually be proven wrong.) For example, the Belle van Zuylen Institute for Comparative Gender and Multicultural Studies was unceremoniously closed in the early 2000s, a couple of years after the deeply missed Frances Gouda was hired in 1999 to be its director, a blow from which she never quite recovered.

    So the idea of starting ARC-GS grew organically as several of us in the social sciences worked on gender and sexuality but noted the absence of a forum in which we could learn about each other’s work. Sébastien Chauvin was particularly instrumental in getting ourselves organized, but it was not an easy task, as the centre had no funding and was surviving as an intellectual community only as the product of its members’ inventiveness and time investment. There were difficult moments.

    Nevertheless, ARC-GS remains to this day a vibrant grassroots-based institution that continues to be fuelled by the enthusiasm of its membership. The contentious moments of its history in fact bear witness to its vitality and to the fact that it does not shy away from problematic topics. I am honoured to have been a member of the advisory board for the first eight years of ARC-GS’s existence.

  • Jan-Willem Duyvendak (Founding member and board member 2010-2017)

    When we started ARC-GS many colleagues back then asked “Is there really a need to have such a new institute? LGBTI rights and gender equality are not an issue anymore in the Netherlands, right?” I often responded to this question by saying: “Well, actually, the Netherlands is far less of a gay paradise than you would imagine. Do you know the staggering numbers of anti-gay violence? And is there really gender equality in the Netherlands? But why then are so many women working part-time and most men full-time?” This was the easiest way to convince people that we needed research into these inequalities. At the same time, this answer was inaccurate.

    Did we found ARC-GS just because of inequalities among genders and sexualities? Of course not. Even when there wouldn’t be discriminatory practices related to genders and sexualities anymore, the academic study of these topics should still be self-evident, since gender and sexuality is so important for many aspects of our lives. As long as genders and sexualities play such a performative role in our self-understandings, our understandings of others, and in our interactions and relations with others, they need to be studied. So studying gender and sexuality it is not about “(women and gay) people studying themselves”, “playing the victim card”, or “pursuing identity politics in academia”. As with all reproaches to identity politics, the big elephant in the room is the hegemonic position: straight men who barely participate in ARC-GS activities. They have something to answer for. The self-evidence of their gender and sexuality blind them for the need of those topics in academia. And not just because there are these power differentials; there’s much more to be understood – as the programming of ARC-GS has shown in the past 10 years.

  • Gert Hekma (Founding member and board member 2010-2017)

    After 2005 the Gender and Sex Studies teachers began to wonder how their field could be included both in the teaching programmes of the Faculty of Social Sciences as well as in research at the Amsterdam School of Social Science Research (ASSR) that saw many facelifts. After many discussions with Women’s Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology, the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality was established inside the AISSR and focused more on research, as the teaching on gender and sexuality remained the concern of the educational staff of the various departments. The focus on research was developed through monthly lectures and irregular conferences, in which questions of sex still easily turned out to be controversial. It is now to the center to unravel these and other issues like gender, race, violence, and the undeserved reputation of the Netherlands as liberal.

    Within Social Sciences at the UvA we had groups who cared for Women’s Studies at the Political Science department since 1977 and for Gay and Lesbian Studies at the Sociology Department since 1980. In the early 90s, the collaboration between those groups was difficult. Thanks to the then existing International School for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (ISHSS) Gay and Lesbian Studies, and sex, was taught in English, and this gradually included Women’s Studies. The cooperation between feminists and queers slowly developed. It became closer after 2000 and also included Men’s and Sexual Studies. It attracted growing numbers of students for courses given by teachers from Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, and the outside.

  • Amade M’charek (Founding member and current board member)

    I have a vivid memory of a room packed with colleagues from sociology, anthropology, and political sciences discussing the content and contours of what would become ARC-GS. We were already told that there was neither financial nor political support for a physical centre, but should rather aim for a network, a virtual centre connecting people and their work through academic events, teaching and collaborations. The mood was ambivalent: enthusiastic about the possibility of a concerted effort, yet sceptical about the form. Would it really work to make new connections and build new bridges? But now, ten years later, the Centre is alive and kicking and has done an incredible job.

    The pivot of ARC-GS had been interdisciplinarity. Especially in a time where the boundaries between disciplines were increasingly congealed, building on the tradition of Gender Studies, the Centre made an important difference. The variety and dazzling number of national and international scholars that have come to speak in its series and conferences, have sparked conversations and debates in and outside the lecture room and inspired many young scholars in our departments.

    Ten years ago, when the centre was still a virtual reality, as one of the members of the preparatory committee I was asked if I would consider becoming its first director. I felt obviously honoured, and proposed to make it into a centre for “Race, Gender, and Sexuality”. I had been working on the issue of diversity in scientific practice for a while, started following diversity around in other context, and was increasingly troubled by the resurgence of race. Something that seemed to be obscured through a discourse of diversity. To me having race, next to gender and sexuality, as a key concept and as a visible matter of concern of the centre was urgent for both academia and society. I was told off. The centre was to be primarily a centre for gender and sexuality. It took me some rides on the bicycle to sort myself out and make up my mind. I then called the director of the AISSR to tell her that I cannot accept the offer. I did not pull the plug altogether. In the conversations that followed we made an effort to put race and ethnicity into the statement of ARC-GS. But I also decided to start my own seminar series: “Ir/relevance of Race in Science and Societies”.

    In this all too familiar gesture, race became like the dead dog of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865). During this journey the dog Satellite died. To get rid of the cadaver it was thrown out in space. But while standing by the window and discussing the laws of physics the astronauts saw an object passing by, Satellite, the dead dog circling around them. Appearing and disappearing out of sight.

    Likewise, race had been haunting ARC-GS as a ghost that is not properly taken care of. The future of race is not written in the stars. So I wish the centre a long and prolific life, but I also hope that it will care better for the issue of race.