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Teaching Our History

Article excerpt

It is Still not clear whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) studies will become securely entrenched in the university world. Academia remains--despite the right wing's claim to the contrary--a traditional-minded place. A limited number of campuses have extended a cautious hand; almost none a bear hug.

To speak of the field I know best, historical studies, many straight faculty and administrators continue to regard the history of homosexuality as a marginal enterprise, others as an ersatz field spawned by political polemics rather than by any organic scholarly necessity. It sometimes seems that the university world is more open in theory to LGBT studies than in actuality to LGBT persons, scholarly or otherwise.

Even sympathetic faculty caution their students about directly linking themselves with so controversial a topic. Some professors advise a certain amount of dissembling, an end run: "Bill yourself as a specialist in gender studies [or human sexuality studies or cultural studies]." The advice carries weight in an academic job market disastrously bad even for those teaching entirely traditional subjects. Nor is there much hope of any improvement in that market for the foreseeable future.

What is more likely is that we will see a continuation of the already pronounced trend of hiring low-salaried and badly treated (for example, no benefits) adjuncts in place of more professors and an accelerated challenge to the very concept of awarding "tenure"--the guarantee, at a certain earned point in someone's academic career, of a job for life, a guarantee that in the past has proved an essential protection for those researching unpopular subjects or voicing unorthodox opinions.

Yet it remains true that courses with lesbian and gay content have proliferated on college campuses over the past decade. If this is not an "explosion" of interest (as sometimes claimed), it does represent a real and incremental advance in the explanation and encouragement of gender and sexual nonconformity.

Perhaps I can best illustrate that advance with some personal history. In the mid 1970s I was denied the right to teach a course at the City University of New York Graduate School on the general topic of the history of human sexuality; the subject was not a legitimate one for scholarly inquiry, I was told, and students would not sign up for such a course.

In 1991, after I had founded the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the CUNY Graduate School, I was finally given permission to teach a course titled Reclaiming Gay History, Politics, and Culture. But I was warned that the course might not draw the typical enrollment of ten students--and if not, would have to be canceled.

In the upshot some 40 students from nearly every graduate department in the university--not excepting Japanese literature--signed up.

And 38 of them were self-declared gay men and lesbians. (Of the remaining two, one sheepishly announced her "aspiration" to become lesbian. …