Scholarship and Sexuality: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Today's Academy

By Corber, Robert J. | Academe, September/October 1998 | Go to article overview

Scholarship and Sexuality: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Today's Academy


Corber, Robert J., Academe


THE EMERGENCE OF LESBIAN AND GAY STUDIES AS A LEGITImate academic field seems to have provoked a new round in the debates over political correctness. A recent segment of the television program 60 Minutes on the proliferation of courses in lesbian and gay studies at the nation's leading universities and colleges began with journalist Mike Wallace warning viewers that "some of what you are about to see, indeed some of what is being taught on college campuses today, is for mature audiences only." Although the segment featured interviews with prominent lesbian and gay scholars such as George Chauncey, whose 1995 book Gay New York received the prestigious Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians, it tended to highlight the most controversial aspects of the fieldwhich is still in its infancy-taking them out of context and misrepresenting them as characteristic. Viewers were shown a class at Duke University in which the topic of discussion was lesbian and gay sadomasochistic practices. A conference organized by students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that included a photography exhibit of transsexuals was also featured. Candace de Russy, a conservative member of the board of trustees of the State University of New York who opposes public funding of lesbian and gay studies, no doubt expressed the reaction of many viewers for whom the segment provided an introduction to the field when she charged that "in the name of academic freedom, what we have here is academic license ... No subject is taboo."

That lesbian and gay studies would become the target of a news program famous for its hard-hitting interviews and investigative journalism is hardly surprising. Like women's and black studies, which have also sparked controversy, lesbian and gay studies is rooted in the social movements of the 1960s and is highly politicized. One of its goals is to contribute to the civil-rights struggles of lesbians and gays by recovering their history and culture. For this reason, it transgresses the boundaries between academe and the larger world. But in its desire to portray the nation's universities and colleges as scholastic Sodoms and Gomorrahs, the 60 Minutes segment, provocatively titled "Sexuality 101," downplayed the field's important contributions to academic life.

Revitalization of the Academy

IN ITS BRIEF HISTORY, LESBIAN AND GAY STUDIES HAS emerged as one of the most exciting and innovative of the new academic fields. At a time when the humanities and social sciences are facing budget cuts, declining student enrollments, and administrative pressures to reduce or consolidate their faculties and programs, lesbian and gay studies has helped to revitalize them by expanding disciplinary boundaries and offering new approaches. Lesbian and gay scholars working in different disciplines have moved sexuality from the margins of the curriculum closer to the center. Building on French philosopher Michel Foucault's groundbreaking work on the history of sexuality, these scholars have shown that the construction of homosexuality and heterosexuality as binary opposites is at the very core of modern societies. One of Foucault's most important claims was that in the nineteenth century the meaning of homosexuality underwent a profound shift, one that had implications for society as a whole. Whereas before then, the love that dared not speak its name constituted either a sin or a crime, it became a distinct form of personhood during the course of that century. Many lesbian and gay scholars have seized on this claim as an entry point for examining the operations of power in modern societies. For them, the invention of the homosexual marked the emergence of a wholly new form of power whose effectiveness depended on the internalization of social norms.

Nowhere has the impact of lesbian and gay studies been greater than in literary studies. Since the seventies, literary critics influenced by feminism, Marxism, and other nontraditional approaches have struggled to open up the canon of writers studied in literature departments. …

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