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Schools Open Doors To Sexuality Studies

These courses, offered at universities across the country, are part of a growing trend of creating college curriculums that explore lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues.

After an LGBTQ Advisory Committee report stated the inadequacy of UNC's LGBTQ course offerings in comparison to peer institutions, the University has made efforts to develop the curriculum by preparing to implement a certificate of completion to accompany the diplomas of students who take a specified number of courses in the area.

Some universities trace their LGBTQ course offerings back to the 1970s, but, like UNC, some universities are just now beginning to develop a sexuality studies program.

LGBTQ communities across the nation are praising the long-awaited development, but the courses have not been as well-received in other circles.

David Halperin, a professor of English and women's studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, offered a course, "How to be Gay," that landed him in the middle of a controversy with the Michigan legislature.

Halperin said legislators feared the class was leading students to be gay, though the class objective was to explore how gay men relate to non-gay culture.

The legislature threatened to cut the university's budget by 10 percent if the course was taught, but lawmakers didn't get the necessary votes to enforce the threat.

Halperin taught the course, which stirred little controversy among students on campus. Rather than discourage enrollment, the legislature's attention actually recruited students to his class, he said.

While Michigan officials battled to expand their LGBTQ courses, in 2001, a group of UNC faculty and students submitted a request to administrators asking that they examine the LGBTQ campus environment, including LGBTQ-themed class offerings. The result was the formation of a LGBTQ planning committee in August 2001.

Committee Chairwoman Pamela Conover, a UNC political science professor, said the committee found that although UNC offers several LGBTQ classes, it lags behind peer institutions such as Michigan and the University of California-Los Angeles.

"Around the country you have an intellectual dialogue, and UNC was missing out on it," she said.

Next semester "Transnational Queer Politics" will be offered in the curriculum in women's studies. Courses that have been offered in the past include "Queer Lives and Literature" and "Practices in Cultural Theory."

UCLA offered its first LGBTQ-themed course in 1976 -- "Gay and Lesbian Literature" -- but didn't implement a minor in the study until 1997.

UCLA, which operates on the quarter system, requires eight courses for the minor. The minor features an introduction to LGBTQ studies course; six other LGBTQ-themed courses, including at least one each from humanities, social science and life science; and a senior seminar. The seminar is an internship with a LGBTQ organization in the community.

Desiree Buford graduated from UCLA in 2002 with a theater major and an LGBTQ studies minor. She did her internship as a programmer with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

"I was able to take what I learned from the classes ... and relate that to what people of L.A. would want to see in a gay film festival," she said.

James Schultz, director of UCLA's LGBTQ program, estimated that 25 people there are pursuing the minor.

Buford said her LGBTQ classes were the most diverse in age, race and socioeconomic status of all the classes that she took at UCLA.

Halperin said his classes attract both men and women, straight and gay students in equal number. "Many of the courses that I teach, my impression is there is no sexual majority," he said.

Schultz said the large number of straight students in LGBTQ classes reflects a change in attitude since the courses were first offered.

"(LGBTQ classes were) brand-new, and people hadn't considered taking the course, but people in the (LGBTQ) community could hardly wait," he said.

Halperin said the addition of LGBTQ classes is becoming standard in arts and sciences departments nationwide, creating a more well-rounded education.

"All students need to deal with (LGBTQ issues) if they are going to be confident in their area," he said. "You can't be qualified in the field you're in unless you have some background in this."

Buford said her sexuality classes provided an open forum to discuss themes in literature ignored in other classes because of the controversial nature of the subjects.

"You would find work with a queer angle in the classroom, but you're afraid to approach it because of the homophobic undercurrent of the class," she said.

Though general courses usually do not incorporate sexuality issues, LGBTQ classes are often scattered in departments such as history, English and classics.

Buford sees having sexuality courses spread through different departments as an advantage for LGBTQ programs.

"I think it's totally beneficial to have professors from across the board," she said. "You can learn more from a professor that knows the basics and also has a niche in their field."

But schools that have concentrated LGBTQ programs often use the more well-established women's studies department as a home base.

Many compare the developing study area to the growth of women's studies in the 1980s.

"When women's studies came out people scoffed at it," Buford said. She said the purpose of both areas is to educate students and fight ignorance and oppression.

Though LGBTQ programs are beginning to evolve, officials can't yet predict where the curriculum's development will lead.

Schultz said UCLA does not have plans for implementing a LGBTQ major in the near future. "We don't have the organizational niche right now to handle a major," he said.

But Schultz said the university is expanding its program by reaching out to graduate students through student conferences and graduate seminars in varying departments.

Conover said UNC is preparing to offer a certificate of sexuality studies that will appear on students' diplomas. She said there are already enough classes offered to support a certificate.

One of the more attainable steps in developing UNC's LGBTQ curriculum is organizing course listings so a student seeking sexuality classes can easily access them.

Students must search each department separately to locate LGBTQ classes. "That's not a very efficient way to serve those students' needs," Conover said.

She said it is difficult to predict what will happen to the program five years or more into the future because growth and development depend on student interest, which can be unpredictable.

Buford also said future advancement in the discipline depends on student interest.

"People have already begun to do the work in academia, but the question is, 'Are there people in the next generation to continue that?'"

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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