A friend asked what my LGBT Studies courses at UW-Madison entailed, and this information might be useful to others so I’m posting it here. Basically it’s fifteen credits of Women’s Studies courses that focus on queer issues, including a mandatory intro course and a capstone course. I was particularly interested in the biology behind sexual differentiation and sexual orientation, and how these differences have been dealt with (whether celebrated or outlawed) in religious, scientific and legal institutions. I took great interest in the differences and interactions between biological sex, and gender as a social construct. I am however not very interested in the type of social theories that aren’t attached to scientific or historical data and primarily take the form of cultural criticism. This includes some forms of postmodernism, queer theory and gender feminism. My professors had academic underpinnings in empirical science and history, so I didn’t really get subjected to too many of the theories I personally find to be ancillary and somewhat specious (although I did eventually encounter that later in grad school, in some art theory courses, oddly enough).
Additionally, I feel it’s necessary to point out the sad reality that in much on-line discourse regarding feminism and queer issues, conversations devolve into insults and flame wars. I have encountered many people who sympathize with issues surrounding women’s and LGBT rights, but have been turned off to feminism because they encountered nastiness on-line coming from self-described feminist bloggers and their readers. In light of this, it bears pointing out that students were most definitely allowed to question and disagree in our Women’s Studies classes. I feel very sad for people who witness divisive, angry tactics on-line under the guise of “feminism” and assume this in any way characterizes the highly professional way in which all Women’s Studies courses at UW-Madison were conducted.
Outside of the actual requirements for the LGBT Studies certificate, I took other relevant social science and humanities courses including human sexuality, sociology, social psychology, psychology, anthropology and art history. Additionally, race/culture and gender/sexuality can intersect in interesting ways so queer issues naturally popped up in courses like Chicana/o, African and Native American Studies.
There are a few notable professors I worked with. I’m posting these here as recommendations for professors students should feel free to seek out. These include:
– Teaches courses on human sexuality and social psychology.
– Co-authored the textbook used in human sexuality courses, which is generally regarded as very progressive and thorough.
– Teaches intro to LGBT studies. Also a prominent local supporter of gay rights, and he marches with the Quakers in the Madison Pride parade.
MARIAMNE H. WHATLEY
– Mariamne was a pioneer who helped establish the LGBT Studies certificate program. As I recall, she was the chair of the department during my career there.
– The courses I took with her focused more on biology, psychology and medicine, while still turning a critical eye toward scientific and medical institutions.
(Really there were a lot of wonderful professors I had the privilege of studying under, but these few deal more directly with sex and gender).
Here’s a list of the actual classes I took with short summaries:
INTRO TO LGBT STUDIES
This is the one everyone starts with, it’s taught by Professor Joe Elder and is a general overview of LGBT topics. Students get a reader with excerpts from several different books. We discussed how to define terminology; how to approach gender and sexuality in history and across cultures and the various academic perils that entails; we examined evidence of same-sex historical figures and attitudes (including John Boswell’s claim that homosexuality was tolerated in the early Christian church), and the different ways some cultures have accomodated gender and sexual diversity, including third genders, the Hijra of India, and Two-Spirit people in Native American cultures; and we learned about the foundations of the modern gay rights movement, including the rebellion at Stonewall and the establishment of the first Gay-Straight Alliance.
LITERATURE, GENDER AND SEXUALITY
Was pretty much a standard lit course, except the books had LGBT themes, including Regeneration by Pat Barker, which explored masculinity during wartime; and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, an autobiographical novel by Audre Lorde. We also read the short story Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, which was timely because the movie was just about to come out. The movie was fantastic and while it had to embellish the story quite a bit to fill out the running time, I felt everything the screenwriters added made perfect sense, particularly the relationship between Heath Ledger’s character’s daughter who exhibits much of the same social anxiety as her father.
GENDER OUTLAWS/SEXUAL DISCOURSE, CULTURAL CONTEXT
These were two Women’s Studies courses taught by Anne Enke that focused on American history, and how gender and sexuality were framed in certain time periods, as well as how sexual minorities were “Othered” by social norms and ideologies. Sadly my memory from several years ago is not very specific and these courses dealt with somewhat similar themes so I’ve combined them here. We examined a variety of interesting themes. One was WWII, and how the suddenly homosocial environments and disruption of traditional family life led to social changes such as women entering the workforce, and an increase in the ways gays and lesbians could meet each other and form relationships and gay-centered spaces. We studied gender (as distinct from biological sex) and the ways in which it is socially constructed. One of the books we read was called Female Masculinity, which argued that there is a female masculinity independent of male masculinity. We also explored trangender issues and read Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg. We explored the umbrella term “transgender”, its implications and complexities, and who can reasonably be described as fitting under it (while colloquially many people seem to use it interchangeably with “transsexual”, as an umbrella concept meaning “transgressing prevailing gender norms”, it can arguably be described as applying to drag queens/kings, intersex people, and heterosexual cross-dressers – essentially anyone considered “gender outlaws” when positioned against mainstream society’s gender roles and expectations – in this same sense I came to view homosexuality itself as a form of gender transgression, which solidified my view that those interested in gay equality should be natural political allies to trans people as well). Feinberg also stopped by the feminist coffee shop here in Madison (where many textbooks for sociology courses at UW-Madison are sold) and gave a talk, and I got to meet hir and have hir sign my copy of hir book. (Feinberg prefers gender-neutral pronouns).
This was taught by Mariamne Whatley and was more science and medicine based, although there was still a prominent element of social critique. For example, we discussed reproduction and sexual differentiation in the developing human fetus, first as an overview of the scientific facts, but also how that narrative is colored by social norms and biases when it is retold. A simple example would be how some science textbooks depict the sperm as a speedy, aggressive “masculine” entity; and the egg as passive, waiting, “feminine” (even though these are single cells with no gender identity other than what we impose on them). We discussed scientific evidence for sexual orientation and its origins, as well as the biased ways in which these are often approached (for example, too many scientists have asked “what causes homosexuality” as if heterosexuality is an automatic default that requires no explanation itself; whereas the correct, objective question should be “what causes sexual orientation and why are there different orientations?”) We looked at the ways in which science and medicine had been misused to pathologize homosexuality and oppress gay people, including the invention of so-called “gay bowel syndrome”, efforts to “cure” homosexuality, and the eventual removal of it as a mental illness from the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We talked about intersex conditions, and had a visit from Alice Dreger, an expert in this field (also the first person I ever heard describe herself as an atheist) . We discussed the ethics of “correcting” benign intersex conditions at birth. We also discussed transsexuals, hormone therapies and surgeries and their effectiveness (generally, M to F, the surgery is great but the hormones not so much; and vice versa for F to M), as well as what special needs transsexual patients require that doctors and other health care providers need to be aware of (many of the people in this class were medical students).
That’s it for now, if I think of more, or dig some more of my old textbooks out of storage, I will add them here. Keep in mind this describes my own experience when I received my certificate in 2006. Since then, some professors may have shuffled around or retired, and generally the courses rotate through different topics each semester. If you choose to pursue the LGBT Studies certificate, you will have a unique experience, partially determined by what topics are available to study along with your personal interests and leanings. Either way, I am confident it will be well worth the time and effort for anyone who chooses to pursue it! 🙂