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Queer studies, sexual diversity studies, or LGBT studies is the study of topics relating to sexual orientation and gender identity usually focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender dysphoric, asexual, queer, questioning, and intersex people and cultures.
Originally centered on LGBT history and literary theory, the field has expanded to include the academic study of issues raised in archaeology, sociology, psychiatry, anthropology, the history of science, philosophy, psychology, sexology, political science, ethics, and other fields by an examination of the identity, lives, history, and perception of being queer.
Queer studies is not the same as queer theory, which is an analytical viewpoint within queer studies (centered on literary studies and philosophy) that challenges the existence of "socially constructed" categories of sexual identity.
Queer is the implicit identity of gender and sex, and how it is incorporated in individuals lives. It can be used as an adjective, verb and a noun. Queer has been used intersectionality in academia, becoming a mode of analysis. This is since the reclaimed-slur encompasses inclusivity into the 21st century. Some find using the term queer studies more defining than LGBTQ+ Studies, as it provides more universal experiences.
Many topics within queer studies focus on the open possibilities beyond heteronormativity; detailing texts, cultural artifacts produced by queer individuals, as well as expanding beyond into how queer interacts with daily life.
Though a new discipline, a growing number of colleges have begun offering academic programs on the expansive topics of queer. This has been a trend in higher education since the early 90's.
Queer as a reclaimed slur
The term Queer itself has become the topic of controversy over the reclaiming of a word which has been used against LGBTQ+ individuals for the last century. There is an ongoing debate within the community itself between the use of LGBTQ+ studies or queer studies. LGBTQ+ provides a more categorical description of its subjects, whereas queer has a history of going from being a common descriptor for someone who exhibited any emotion from happy to drunk in the 19th century, to being used as a slur against same sex individuals in the 20th century. The term did not have an implicit sexual definition until the early 20th century and reclamation of the slur started during the late 80's and 90's. This was a response to the overall LGBTQ+ movement, with influence from the AIDs crisis of the time. Some say "queer" offers an expansion of definition without categorical labels, while others do not accept the term due to its harmful history.
During the 1920s, same-sex subcultures were beginning to become more established in several larger US cities. Studies centering around queer life and culture originated in the 1970s with the publication of several "seminal works of gay history. Inspired by ethnic studies, women's studies, and similar identity-based academic fields influenced by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, the initial emphasis was on "uncovering the suppressed history of gay and lesbian life;" it also made its way into literature departments, where the emphasis was on literary theory. Queer theory soon developed, challenging the "socially constructed" categories of sexual identity.
The first undergraduate course in the United States on LGBTQ studies was taught at the University of California, Berkeley in the spring of 1970. It was followed by similar courses in the fall of 1970 at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL).
According to Harvard University, the City University of New York began the first university program in gay and lesbian studies in 1986. The City College of San Francisco claims to be the "First Queer Studies Department in the U.S.", with English instructor Dan Allen developing one of the first gay literature courses in the country in Fall 1972, and the college establishing what it calls "the first Gay and Lesbian Studies Department in the United States" in 1989. Then-department chair Jonathan David Katz was the first tenured faculty in queer studies in the country. Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York were among the first to offer a full-fledged major in LGBTQ Studies in the late 1990s and currently has one of the few tenure lines specifically in a stand-alone LGBT Studies program as a period when many are being absorbed into Women and Gender Studies programs.
Historians John Boswell and Martin Duberman made Yale University a notable center of lesbian and gay studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Each historian published several books on gay history; Boswell held three biennial conferences on the subject at the university, and Duberman sought to establish a center for lesbian and gay studies there in 1985. However, Boswell died in 1994, and in 1991 Duberman left for the City University of New York, where he founded its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. A 1993 alumnus gift evolved into the faculty committee-administered Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies, which developed a listing of courses relevant to lesbian and gay studies called the "Pink Book" and established a small lending library named for Boswell. The committee began to oversee a series of one-year visiting professorships in 1994.
Anti-Gay Curriculum Laws
Anita Bryant, a popular face in the media and widely known by the public, was at the forefront of the “Save Our Children” movement in 1977, born in response to an Oklahoma ordinance criminalizing discrimination due to sexual preference. This campaign aimed to discourage the hiring of homosexual schoolteachers, Bryant claiming that they would molest the children and wrongfully serve as an example that any marriage outside of a one between a man and a woman is respectable. The movement and its publicity gained Bryant much public support and eventually resulted in the overturning of the gay rights ordinance just half a year after it was implemented.
Bryant’s campaign caught the attention of California state senator John Briggs, who eagerly expressed his interest in expanding the Save Our Children campaign to his state, which initially took the form of Proposition 6 or the Briggs Initiative. This initiative allowed for employment discrimination against those who engaged in homosexual activity in public, or publicly encouraged or promoted homosexual activity towards co-workers and their students. Unlike Bryant’s movement which focused solely on gay teachers, Briggs’ campaign could be applied to homosexual and heterosexual people alike, since his initiative discriminated against the discussion of homosexual behavior, which could be done by anyone. Briggs’ initiative was ultimately denied in 1978.
In 1997, writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer offered his alma mater Yale $4 million (and his personal papers) to endow a permanent, tenured professorship in gay studies, and possibly build a gay and lesbian student center. His requirements were specific, as Yale was to use the money solely for "1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature..." including a tenured position, "and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale..."
With gender, ethnic and race-related studies still relatively new, then-Yale provost Alison Richard said that gay and lesbian studies was too narrow a specialty for a program in perpetuity, indicating a wish to compromise on some of the conditions Kramer had asserted. Negotiations broke down as Kramer, frustrated by what he perceived to be "homophobic" resistance, condemned the university in a front-page story in The New York Times. According to Kramer, he subsequently received letters from more than 100 institutions of higher learning "begging me to consider them".
In 2001, Yale accepted a $1 million grant from his older brother, money manager Arthur Kramer, to establish the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. The five-year program aimed to bring in visiting faculty, host conferences and lectures, and coordinate academic endeavors in lesbian and gay studies. Jonathan David Katz assumed the role of executive coordinator in 2002; in 2003 he commented that while women's studies or African American studies have been embraced by American universities, lesbian and gay studies have not. He blamed institutionalized fear of alienating alumni of private universities, or legislators who fund public ones. The five-year program ended in 2006.
In June 2009, Harvard University announced that it will establish an endowed chair in LGBT studies. Believing the post to be "the first professorship of its kind in the country," Harvard President Drew G. Faust called it "an important milestone". Funded by a $1.5 million gift from the members and supporters of the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus, the F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality is named for a mid-20th century gay Harvard American studies scholar and literary critic who chaired the undergraduate program in history and literature. Harvard Board of Overseers member Mitchell L. Adams said, "This is an extraordinary moment in Harvard's history and in the history of this rapidly emerging field ... And because of Harvard's leadership in academia and the world, this gift will foster continued progress toward a more inclusive society."
Academic field of queer studies
The concept of perverse presentism is often taught in queer studies classes at universities. This is the understanding that queer history cannot and should not be analyzed through contemporary perspectives. Ways to find out how people historically identified can include studying queer community archives.
While queer studies initially emerged in the North American and, to a lesser extent, European academy and mostly relates to Western contexts, it recently has also developed in other parts of the world. For instance, since the 2000s there has been an emergent field of Queer African Studies, with leading scholars such as Stella Nyanzi (Uganda), Keguro Macharia (Kenya), Zethu Matebeni (South Africa), S.N. Nyeck (Cameroon), Kwame E. Otu (Ghana), and Gibson Ncube (Zimbabwe) contributing to the development of this field. Their work critiques the eurocentric orientation of Western queer studies, and examines the longstanding traditions of sexual and gender diversity, ambiguity and fluidity in African cultures and societies.
Queer studies at non-U.S. universities
At Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Brazil there are many initiatives on Queer Studies. UFMG offers a multidisciplinary program on Gender and Sexuality for undergrad students: "Formação Transversal em Gênero e Sexualidade: Perspective Queer/LGBTI" (https://www.ufmg.br/prograd/). In its Faculty of Law, ranked amongst the best in the country, Marcelo Maciel Ramos established in 2014 Diverso UFMG - Legal Division of Gender and Sexual Diversity (www.diversoufmg.com) and a study group on Gender, Sexuality and Law, which is now led also by Pedro Nicoli. Diverso UFMG organizes since 2016 the Congress of Gender and Sexual Diversity (Congresso de Diversidade Sexual e de Gênero: www.congressodiverso.com) that has become one of the biggest and most important academic events on Women and LGBT studies in Brazil. At the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences, Marco Aurélio Máximo Prado has been running since 2007 Nuh UFMG (Human Rights and LGBT Citizenship Division), a successful initiative on LGBT studies. Scholars who focus on queer studies at other universities in Brazil include Luiz Mott and Moisés Lino e Silva, among others who write on LGBT rights in Brazil and on LGBT history in Brazil.
Fudan University, located in Shanghai, China, opened the country's first course on homosexuality and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) prevention in 2003 entitled "Homosexual Health Social Sciences". In an article focusing on this college course, Gao and Gu utilize feedback from participants, detailed interviews with professors, and a review of course documents to discuss China's first course with homosexuality at its core. Their article analyzes the tactics used to create such a course and the strategies used to protect the course from adverse reactions in the press. The authors especially take note of the effects of the course on its attendees and the wider gay community in China. The authors note that "Homosexual Health Social Sciences" was described as a "breakthrough" by South China Morning Post and Friends' Correspondence, a periodical for gay health intervention. Surveys were given to attendees of the class and many responded that the class helped them understand the homosexual perspective better. One student stated that "Even if we cannot fully understand these people, we need to respect them. That is the basis for real communication." Many of the course attendees admitted that the course changed their lives. One Chinese police officer had been hiding his sexuality his entire life stated "The course really enhanced my quality of life…" Another man who had been prescribed treatment for his homosexuality for 30 years heard talk of the course in a newspaper and expressed "This precious news has relieved my heart."
"Homosexual Health Social Sciences" was developed to be interdisciplinary to cover the social sciences, humanities, and public health. Interdependence on different academic focuses was achieved in the curriculum by covering "Theories of homosexuality and Chinese reality", "homosexual sub-culture" and "Men seeking men (MSM) intervention in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) prevention," in addition to reading literature with gay characters and themes and taking field trips to a gay bar. The article goes on to describe the attendance of this course and its significance by clarifying that the official registration in the class was low, with only one student in 2003 and two in 2004. Officially registered students were not the only people attending the classes though because the course was open to the general public. The average attendance in 2003 was 89.9 and rose to 114 in 2004.
Gao and Gu also reveal the precautions taken by the creators of the course to shelter the new class from harsh criticism. The authors depict the creators' fear of attracting too much negative attention from the Chinese media could adversely affect the course and its continuation. Most coverage on this course at Fudan University was delivered in English at the beginning. This phenomenon was explained by one journalist from China Radio International—Homosexuality is very sensitive issue in Chinese culture so by discussing it in English, it is distanced from the conservative Chinese culture. Fudan University led Chinese academia to develop more comprehensive curriculum that will educate future health care professionals on the needs of more Chinese citizens.
On the African continent, South Africa has been setting the trend of developing queer studies. This is partly due to the country's constitutional framework, which explicitly protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. One of the leading South African queer studies scholars Zethu Matebeni, who is an activist, writer, documentary film maker, and academic, working as Professor and South Africa Research Chair in Sexualities, Genders and Queer Studies at the University of Fort Hare. She curated the volume Reclaiming Afrikan: Queer Perspectives on Sexual and Gender Identities (2014) and co-edited the book Queer in Africa: LGBTQI Identities, Citizenship, and Activism (2018).
Present-day issues in the US
The US Supreme Court has made gay marriage legal but as a result the discourse has shifted from the issue of legalizing gay marriage to attacking queer studies and prohibiting certain conversations around the queer community. Attempts are now being made in school settings to prohibit teachers from encouraging same-sex relationships, sex before marriage, and therefore leaving same-sex relationships outside the definition of marriage. This also results in a regulation on the education of safe sex, HIV, and AIDS.
Homophobic curriculum laws have continued to be present in schools in recent years across the US. In 2017, studies showed that 20 states had implemented anti-gay laws affecting school curriculums. These included laws that made it mandatory for teachers to educate from an anti-gay standpoint, and ones that gave teachers the freedom to choose between using these homophobic curriculums or not including sex education in their curriculum at all. Many states also have curriculum laws that require teachers to educate their students from the viewpoint that abstinence before marriage is the sole option for safe prevention against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Emphasis being on abstinence before marriage, this often excludes same sex couples due to their absence from the definition of marriage in their state.
In 2022, an estimated 5,000 books featuring LGBTQ characters and stories have been banned from bookshelves, libraries, and classrooms according to a report by PEN America. Their research shows that 41% of books banned featured queer protagonists or secondary characters, 40% featured protagonists or secondary characters of color, and 22% featured sexual content. 40% of these book bans, regardless of topic, are estimated to be in direct result of lawmakers’ public opinion and presence, as well as enacted legislation. PEN America also reports that the overwhelming majority of these titles are books that fall in the young adult category, restricting education relating to gender, sexuality, diversity, and difference from 13-17 year olds. PEN America also reports that 96% of these bans were put into place against the National Coalition Against Censorship and ALA’s guidelines.
PEN America reports that Maia Kokabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir is the most banned title, with bans in 30 districts. Kokabe’s memoir discusses their experience growing up feeling outside of the gender binary and not feeling like they fit into their body. It follows parts of Kokabe’s childhood into their early adult years and experiences coming to terms with their gender identity and coming out. Gender Queer was met with a contrast of responses, many expressing gratitude and love for the sharing of their story, as it was written with an audience of family, friends, and those that can identify and sympathize with Kokabe in mind. Others claimed the book is too sexually explicit, specifically in its illustrations which include that of the human body, but no sex scenes. In an interview with NPR, Kokabe discusses how they felt they included the appropriate amount of illustrations to tell their story accurately and due to their importance in the representation of their journey with gender and sexuality. They also express their stance that they illustrated the book in a much less explicit manner than it could have been had it been written by a different author.
Attempts to educate and fight against these book bans have been taking place across the country. Free libraries, library pop-ups, and book giveaways have been go-to methods for grassroots organizations and activists to make banned books accessible. Little Free Library members install wooden curbside mini-library boxes and fill them with books of their choice. These books are available to take for free for any passers by. In 2022, the organization reported 140,000 Little Free Libraries had been installed across the nation, with 87% of their owners stating that they make banned books available in their boxes. Bookstore owners and booksellers have been taking actions into their own hands and giving their books away, covering some costs out of their own pocket and gaining donations both in person and through social media. Authors and publishers have started taking similar actions, carrying around their own books, handing them out, and donating to free libraries. While in most cases a book ban hurts the book’s sale rate and the author’s exposure, some bans result in higher publicity and recognition, like in the case of All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, now a bestseller. Publicity on its ban put it on the radar of many readers who would otherwise have never found it, and it is now in its 10th printing. In an increasingly accessible digital age, digital libraries and book websites are also making banned books more accessible. Free library apps, like the Brooklyn Public Library, allow digital library cards and access to readers which can be used from any device anywhere in the country.
"Don't Say Gay or Trans'' Bill or Act
The Parental Rights in Education Act (HB 1557), also known as the "Don't Say Gay or Trans'' Bill or Act, was signed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis on March 28, 2022. The act prohibits public schools from discussing sensitive topics such as sex education, gender identity, and sexual orientation in grades kindergarten through third grade, and prohibits any discussion deemed to be not age-appropriate by state standards. The act does not specify what is inappropriate or who makes this decision. This act also includes restrictions on a public school’s ability to protect and maintain the privacy of a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation from their parents. As a result, school counselors will be limited in how they serve as a confidential resource for students. The act also gives parents the right to sue the school district if they feel their rights have been violated. On May 17, 2023, DeSantis signed a new bill expanding his measures on LGBTQ education in schools in the state of Florida, including lengthening the prohibition of sex and gender topics in kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as restricting these topics in sixth through twelfth. The bill also requires that schools teach “that sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth; that biological males impregnate biological females by fertilizing the female egg with male sperm; that the female then gestates the offspring; and that these reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable.”
There has been an increase in protests as students and parents across the country respond negatively to the bill, as some assert that the broad language is meant to specifically target the LGBTQ community. As a result, some public schools have punished and suspended students for staging demonstrations on campus. Other educators have faced backlash for showing support for the LGBTQ community, such as discussions about gender identity in class and showing movies or documentaries that showed openly gay characters. Some have been censored, suspended, and even fired. Equality Florida, an LGBTQ group that is currently suing the DeSantis administration for the proposed law, argues that it marks an “extraordinary government intrusion on the free speech and equal protection rights” in public schools.
The discourse caused by this bill also led to backlash from The Walt Disney Co. employees, who shared their disappointment in the company on social media for not speaking out publicly against the bill. According to Disney CEO Bob Chapek, Disney leaders were opposed to the bill "from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle." He has stated that Disney has pledged 5 million dollars to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in support of protecting LGBTQ rights, but the HRC has declined to accept the money until they further their commitment to supporting the LGBTQ community.
On February 1, 2023, College Board, the organization that is responsible for creating standardized tests such as the SAT and AP, revealed the changes that it made to its African American studies course. This came after Florida governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican party condemned the class and banned the original version from Florida schools. The new version is without names of major events in contemporary history, mention of the Black Lives Matter movement, black feminism, black queer theory, critical race theory, or intersectionality. According to a College Board representative, however, “To be clear, no states or districts have seen the official framework that will be released on February 1, much less provided feedback on it.” However, College Board has historically given in to many conservative leaders demands in other courses, such as AP United States History, where readings would focus less on colonial settler’s harm towards indigenous people and more on founding fathers and their religious influences.
42 different versions of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill have been proposed since 2021 in 22 state legislatures, including Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, and many others. All of these bills similarly prohibit discussion and inclusion of LGBT Q related topics. These bills are also associated with many other bans that have taken place in Florida and many other states, such as bans on gender affirming medical care, pride flags in public places, drag shows, and others.
As more and more universities and schools begin to add more resources and classes for students to take about queer studies, there is also a growing recognition that gender, sex, and identity also coincides with race, nationalities, class, disabilities, etc. This overlap is also known as “intersectionality”, a word that has roots in black feminist activism. This term was coined by Columbia professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw. According to Crenshaw, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” The word intersectionality was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2015.
While this was originally used as a term to describe the specific type of oppression that African American women face, it has grown relevant to many other groups of people. According to them, “The theory of “intersectionality” — which posits that individuals simultaneously experience oppression based on multiple social categorizations, and that this oppression is multiplicative — has made queer studies more inclusive.” The idea of intersectionality came to be after second wave feminism, which is thought to only benefit straight, white, middle-class women. Third wave feminism became the springboard for intersectionality, when there became an awareness that women faced different types of oppression based on their race, gender, and class. Kimberlé Crenshaw maintains the fact that the idea of intersectionality and true feminism is lost if black women continue to be overshadowed by their white counterparts. The idea of intersectionality began when discussing feminism, but has grown to be relevant in many other subjects such as LGBTQ discrimination.
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From 2001–2006, a generous gift from a donor allowed LGBTS to establish and oversee the Larry Kramer Initiative, which hosted a wide array of public programs on LGBT issues and strengthened LGBTS at Yale.
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- University Queer Programs
- Undergraduate Journal of Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto
- The Rockway Institute for LGBT research in the public interest at Alliant International University
- The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society
- Trikster - Nordic Queer Journal
- Lesbian and Gay Research in UK Universities and Colleges(compiled in 2006)
- LGBT Studies Minor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette