2013-2014 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Courses
Perverts in Groups: The Social Life of Homosexuals
Contradictory assumptions about the relations of homosexuals to groups have dominated accounts of modern LGBT life. In Western Europe and the United States, from the late-19th century onwards, queers have been presented as profoundly isolated persons—sure that they are the only ones ever to have had such feelings when they first realize their deviant desires and immediately separated by those desires from the families and cultures into which they were born. Yet these isolated individuals were also seen as inseparable, always able to recognize each other by means of mysterious signs decipherable by no one else. Homosexuals were denounced as persons who did not contribute to society, homosexuality as the hedonistic choice of self-indulgent individualism over sober social good. Yet all homosexuals were supposed to be stealthily working together, through their web of connections to one another, to take over the world—or the political establishment of the United States, for example, or its art world, theatre, or film industries. Such contradictions can still be seen in the battles that have raged since the 1970s, when queers began seeking public recognition of their lives within existing social institutions, from the military to marriage. LGBT persons have been routinely attacked as threats (whether to unit cohesion or the family), intent on destroying the groups that they have been working to openly join. In this class, we will use these contradictions as a framework for studying the complex social roles queers have occupied and some of the complex social worlds that they have created—at different times and places and shaped by different understandings of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and nationality—over the past century and a half. Our sources will include histories, sociological and anthropological studies, the writings of political activists, fiction, and films.
Queer Americans: Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, and James Baldwin
Queer Americans certainly, James, Stein, Cather, and Baldwin each fled “America.” James (1843-1916) and Stein (1874-1946) spent their adult lives in Europe. Cather (1873-1947) left Nebraska for Greenwich Village after a decade in Pittsburgh, with a judge's daughter, along the way. Baldwin (1924-1987) left Harlem for Greenwich Village, then the Village for Paris. As sexual subjects and as writers, these four could hardly appear more different; yet Stein described James as “the first person in literature to find the way to the literary methods of the 20th century,” Cather rewrote James to develop her own subjects and methods, and Baldwin found in James’s writings frameworks for his own. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 2-th, James, Stein, and Cather witnessed the emergence of modern understandings of homosexuality and made modern literature, each pushing boundaries always, in subtle or dramatic ways. Stein, for example, managed to parlay the story of her Paris life with Alice B. Toklas into an American bestseller in 1933. In the second half of the 20th century, Baldwin began to dismantle modern understandings of sexuality and of literature. Examining the development of their works side by side will allow us to push the boundaries of lesbian/gay/queer cultural analyses by pursuing different meanings of “queer” and “American” through an extraordinary range of subjects and forms. Beginning with James on old New York, vulnerability, and ruthlessness, this course will range from Cather’s plantations and pioneers to Stein on art and atom bombs and Baldwin on sex and civil rights. We will read novels, novellas, stories, essays, and memoirs by James, Cather, and Baldwin—plus Stein’s portraits, geographical histories, lectures, plays, operas, and autobiographies. Literary and social forms were inextricable and inseparable from the gender and cross-gender affiliations and the class, race, and ethnic differences that were all urgent matters for these four. James’s, Stein’s, Cather’s and Baldwin’s lives and works challenge most conventional assumptions about what it meant—and what it might mean—to be a queer American. Conference projects may include historical and political, as well as literary, studies that focus on any period from the mid-19th century to the present.
Queer Theory: A History
Queer Theory emerged in the United States, in tandem with Queer Nation, at the beginning of the 1990s as the intellectual framework for a new round in ongoing contests over understandings of sexuality and gender in Western culture. “Queer” was presented as a radical break with homosexual, as well as heterosexual, pasts. Queer theorists and activists hoped to reconstruct lesbian and gay politics, intellectual life, and culture; renegotiate differences of gender, race, and class among lesbians and gay men; and establish new ways of thinking about sexuality, new understandings of sexual dissidence, and new relations among sexual dissidents. Nevertheless, Queer Theory had complex sources in the intellectual and political work that had gone before. And it has had, predictably, unpredictable effects on current intellectual and political projects. This class will make the history of Queer Theory the basis for an intensive study of contemporary intellectual and political work on sexuality and gender. We will also be addressing the fundamental questions raised by the career of Queer Theory, about the relations between political movements and intellectual movements, the politics of intellectual life, and the politics of the academy in the United States in particular, in this new millenium. (For students with a background in women’s, gender, or LGBT studies.)