Teaching Differences: Lesbian/Gay Studies

By Cavin, Susan | Transformations, September 3, 1991 | Go to article overview

Teaching Differences: Lesbian/Gay Studies


Cavin, Susan, Transformations


Teaching Differences: Lesbian/Gay Studies

I inherited the course, "Homosexuality and Society," in the Women's Studies Program at Rutgers University, and taught it yearly from 1985 through 1990. The most important lesson I learned from teaching what was once the only Rutgers course to have the word "homosexuality" consistently in its title was this: never make assumptions about who your students are!

I was always surprised by the magnificent range of students interested in the topic. They wore all sexuality stripes and politics: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, unclassified. While most students came to class with an openness and willingness to learn, there were always a few homophobes and a few radical lesbian or gay activists. The differences in the classroom were vast.

I used the old feminist technique of consciousness-raising to equalize the class and to get everybody's hidden agenda out into the open gradually, doing about an hour of C-R once every two weeks. I chose the discussion topics, then facilitated, always attempting to create a safe space for students to tell the truth about their lives. Gradually, the lesbian, gay and bisexual students came out of the closet, which made my job easier, and is probably what everyone remembers most about a class like this.

Because I also discovered that most of my students know little about heterosexuality, I found myself teaching about this topic as well. Students come to sexuality classes for various reasons; however, they all share a great private need to publicly talk about their own sexuality through ostensibly talking about other people. A class like this can often be cathartic for all students who have been waiting for a chance to express themselves.

All of this student self-awareness is apart from the academic agenda of the professor who may just want to cover the latest in the field of Lesbian/Gay Studies. But, as teachers, we all know that there's always a lot more going on in the classroom than following the syllabus and the emotional learning and growth I saw in my students throughout this course was more than most of us ever dreamed was possible.

What follows are simply the syllabi to "Homosexuality and Society" and to "AIDS and Gender." But the enormity of the change, growth and understanding that resulted from these classes would fill a book (perhaps my next one?).

Homosexuality and Society

This course explores historical and cross-cultural approaches to lesbian/gay studies. We will compare lesbians and gay men to other minority groups and study the rise of lesbian/gay liberation movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in relation to the first and second waves of feminism. Relevant contemporary topics include: the coming out process; lesbian/gay culture and media; lesbian mothers and gay fathers; lesbian/gay families and communities; theories on the interconnections of sexism, racism and heterosexism; lesbian/gay non-violent resistance and organizing; AIDS. Since this is a Women's Studies course, we will focus primarily on lesbian studies, but not to the exclusion of gay male studies.

A term paper, oral book review and group history project are required assignments.

Oral Book Review

Read and review one of the books on the list below, and give a ten-minute presentation about the book to the class. Summarize the main themes/arguments of the book. What has the author chosen to address these themes? Choose one chapter for detailed comments.

Book Report Possibilities

*Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera.

*Bell, Weinberg & Hammersmith, Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women (Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana, 1981).

*John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.

*Lilian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men.

*Gay Men and Women in History.

*Judy Graham, Another Mother Tongue.

*Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value (Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988).

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