David LaFontaine

Awaiting the gay studies revolution

By David LaFontaine
October 5, 2009

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MASSACHUSETTS HAS a history of national leadership in the area of gay rights, but when it comes to the state’s public higher education system there has been virtual silence about including gay and lesbian studies in the curriculum. The creation of gay studies programs within the state’s 29 state and community colleges is long overdue.

The cultural revolution in attitudes toward homosexuality, generated in part by the explosion of gay characters on television and in films, has had a profound effect on today’s youth. What was once a hidden population on college campuses is now a visible and numerous presence. College curriculum, however, has failed to keep pace with the changed cultural landscape and with the needs of its gay population.

In June, Harvard University announced the establishment and funding of an endowed chair in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies, in a move that has been hailed as setting a trend for the nation. Harvard’s gay studies program should be seen as a model for Massachusetts’ state colleges. The launching of such a program can be accomplished by executive action on the part of Governor Deval Patrick in conjunction with support from the Legislature.

Professors and their departments will need to lead the way in creating an inclusive college classroom in which the contributions of gay people are validated and studied. Subjects such as literature, history, and sociology are logical academic areas in which to incorporate gay topics. Literature courses will be enriched by studying gay themes in the work of authors such as William Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Herman Melville. In addition to reinterpreting the classics, contemporary literature such as Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain’’ and Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours’’ merit inclusion within college classrooms.

History courses will also benefit from substantial revision of the curriculum. History books have been rewritten in recent years to reflect research in women’s studies and African-American studies, but textbooks rarely acknowledge the lives of homosexuals before the modern era.

The result of this silence is the failure to chronicle the social persecution of homosexuals in many cultural settings throughout the ages. An example of a neglected topic in history is the incarceration of 40,000 homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps.

The creation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies programs in Massachusetts’ state colleges would validate the contributions of a minority group still struggling for full recognition and equality. Academic excellence would be served by diversification of the curriculum, and the milestones Massachusetts has achieved in gay civil rights would be translated directly to the new generation of college students.

David LaFontaine is a professor in the English department at Massasoit Community College. He served as chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth from 1992 to 2000.

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