By Lois Elfman
College students studying gender constructs is nothing new. It is a theme that emerged more than four decades ago and has evolved as a field of scholarly inquiry. What has risen dramatically over the past decade is the desire of LGBT students to explore topics of gender and sexuality they find relevant to themselves.
Very often, college and university women’s studies programs and departments have served as the nurturing ground for such courses. In many cases that has brought about change in those programs—even going so far as to change the name from women’s studies to women’s, gender and sexuality studies on many campuses.
“The questions of gender and sexuality are entangled,” said Dr. Marie J. Saldana-Portillo, a Latin America and Latina studies scholar who is the director of the gender and sexuality program at New York University (NYU). The undergraduate program is administered through the department of social and cultural analysis. Students are encouraged to question the meanings of “male” and “female” as well as sexual norms from a transnational perspective.
“To the degree that women’s studies departments are concerned with issues of gender, it’s difficult to discuss that without discussing sexuality—though they’re not the same thing,” she added.
Gender and sexuality studies is an undergraduate major at NYU. There are hopes it will also become a master’s program or graduate certificate in the future.
“I think that our strengths are what is called queer theory,” said Saldana-Portillo. “We have a lot of faculty both within the department and outside of it that are active, kind of intellectual architects of queer theory in the United States.”
At Binghamton University in upstate New York, women, gender and sexuality studies is an undergraduate minor. Students can also earn an undergraduate certificate, which means they have that focus within their major, be it English, psychology, anthropology, etc.
“In the past 10 years, women’s studies programs have had to sort of reexamine what their roles on campuses are,” said Dr. Dara Silberstein, executive director of women, gender and sexuality studies at Binghamton.
“I believe women’s studies isn’t necessarily about answering the woman question, but it is about developing a certain kind of critical analysis. It’s about developing a certain kind of relationship of campus to community. In that context, it makes perfect sense for women’s studies to expand their focus to include sexuality and to a certain extent gender,” Silberstein said.
Yale University has been a leader in the area. In 1986, the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale was established. In ensuing years, conferences around the topics were presented.
In 1992, an anonymous donor made it possible for a group of faculty to establish a research fund. As the 90s continued, an undergraduate curriculum began to develop. In 1998, the women’s studies program was renamed women’s and gender studies and a track in LGBT/queer studies was added. It changed its name again in 2004, becoming women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
From 2001-06 Yale was home to the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. During that five-year period an extensive library and archives were created. Today, LGBT studies is housed within women’s, gender and sexuality studies and undergraduates may pursue an LGBTQ studies track.
For Silbertstein’s women, gender and sexuality studies colleague at Binghamton, Dr. Sean Massey, a great deal of the historical literature he cites comes from people who were working in women’s/feminist studies.
“Some of the sophisticated ways to look at sexual orientation have emerged from feminist studies,” said Massey, whose doctorate is in social personality psychology and whose research has focused on sexuality and gender, anti-homosexual prejudice, same-sex parenting, queer theory and the relationship between social science and social change.
“My own work has always been informed by feminist theory and gender research,” said Massey. “The way that I think about sexual prejudice—studying sexual prejudice, heterosexism and homophobia—has always been informed by the way that gender is constructed, especially the way that masculinity is constructed.
“Feminist understandings of masculinity have been very vital to understanding anti-gay prejudice.”
Although there have been scholars focusing on LGBT issues within their research and teaching for decades, they are now coming together in more cohesive manners. Students desirous of pursuing such a course of study are requesting majors, programs and departments that address their intellectual curiosity.
Massey said the LGBT students group on campus has made their desire to see a major created known. It reflects both an intellectual interest and a political commitment. Right now, they are able to request it as a major through the university’s individualized major program.
“As the scholarship and the literature grow, the questions change,” said Massey. “We’re building on past research, past ideas. We’re thinking in new ways. Certainly, new questions have emerged that have shaped the direction of the field. The overlap between understanding sexuality, gender, politics and culture has led to a need to expand the questions that we’re asking.”