Gay studies, professors face rocky road at Yale

Former Yale professor Jonathan Weinberg ’78 said he first came out in 1977 because of a gay and lesbian group on campus that, on “National Coming Out Day,” encouraged students to wear jeans if they were gay or if they were supportive of gays.

“This was absurd because everyone always wore jeans anyway,” Weinberg said. “But when it was couched in that way, I had to make an existential decision and take a political stand.”

Weinberg said that coming out was made easier for him because of the accepting environment he grew up in. He was raised by a gay couple after he was orphaned at the age of 15. As a teenager, Weinberg lived in New York City and attended the progressive Fieldston School. There, most of his friends were gay.

Despite all this, Weinberg did not come out until he was at Yale, a place where, at the time, most gay people hid their homosexuality.

Today, Yale is a different environment, and an open gay community flourishes, giving rise to classes dedicated to the study of gay issues. As gay and lesbian studies slowly gains footing at Yale, however, some question whether the University is doing enough to support the program and its gay faculty.

The beginning

Charles Porter began teaching french literature at Yale in 1960 after receiving his master’s in French in 1958. For the majority of his life, Porter knew he was gay but remained in the closet.

“When I first got here, people who were gay did everything possible to conceal it,” Porter said.

In 1992, Porter finally came out of the closet at the age of 60 to several trusted faculty members, whom he found to be supportive of his decision.

“When I came out,” Porter said, “I made it my business to come out to a number of people I knew, and they all said they knew for years.”

Porter was married when he came out and is still married. He and his wife recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.

Within months of Porter’s coming out, word of his homosexuality spread throughout the administration. He was appointed director of the Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies, FLAGS. Established in 1993, FLAGS is overseen by a group of faculty advisers that supports visiting professors, lectures and conferences in gay and lesbian studies.

The program, under its current director, professor Marianne LaFrance, includes 15 undergraduate courses, 9 graduate and professional school courses, a fund to permit the employment of a visiting specialist, and support for research in appropriate subjects.

“Our intention was that these courses be for undergraduates,” Porter said, “because of the fact that there was a large undergraduate community of people who were willing to be identified as lesbian or gay and would be interested in this sort of thing.”

A crucial part of the foundation of gay and lesbian studies was the creation of the “Pink Book,” a guide to Yale University courses drawn from the undergraduate, graduate and professional school programs of study related to lesbian and gay studies.

“The ‘Pink Book’ brought together all the various courses throughout the curriculum that might be of particular interest to lesbians and gays,” Porter said.

The next huge step for gay and lesbian studies came two years ago, when Women’s Studies changed its name to Women’s and Gender Studies, thereby creating a home for gay and lesbian studies.

“It simply give a different shape to something that already existed,” Porter said. “For the first time, gay and lesbian studies was an official item approved by the faculty and administration as part of the Yale curriculum.”

Put your money where your mouth is

Many professors believe Yale could be doing more to support the program.

“There is no financial support from the administration for courses in gay and lesbian studies,” LaFrance said.

For nearly four years, University officials engaged in contentious negotiations with Larry Kramer ’57, a prominent playwright and gay rights activist who sought to donate his collection of literary and political papers and endow a gay and lesbian studies program at Yale. The University’s rejection of Kramer’s initial offer in 1997 led him to chastise Yale President Richard Levin and Provost Alison Richard publicly.

Kramer accused Yale administrators of homophobia and incompetence, referring to Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, as “that termagant woman.” He called Levin “spineless.”

During his freshman year at Yale, Kramer attempted suicide because he felt “like the only gay person in the world.” In the speech, Kramer said Yale had not changed much.

In April 2001, Yale finally accepted a donation of Kramer’s papers to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. His brother Arthur Kramer ’49 gave $1 million to the University to fund the Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies at Yale for five years.

“It is unclear as to whether there will be more funding after the five years is over,” Porter said.

Sociology professor Joshua Gamson would also like to see more energy and resources put toward gay and lesbian studies.

“That means hiring more people and coordinating the curriculum,” he said.

Levin defended the University’s decision not to fund gay and lesbian studies just yet.

“We have many, many programs that started out on that basis — with things that are outside the standard departments,” Levin said. “That is the typical case.”

Levin cited as examples of programs that get all their money from fund-raising the new center for globalization, International Securities Studies, and the very successful and large Agrarian Studies Program for graduate students and postdoctoral candidates.

“They are all similar in that they are interdisciplinary programs started up in the last decade,” Levin said.

Levin also said that the administration has done much to bring in gifts for gay and lesbian studies, and Richard said the administration is overseeing an addition to the gay and lesbian studies faculty.

“We’re moving to recruit an executive director for that program,” she said.

Not all professors believe the University has neglected gay and lesbian studies.

“The amount of support that has come from the administration and the University has increased just remarkably over the last few years,” Porter said.

Porter cites as an example the previous two years when the University picked up the cost for visiting faculty members after the program’s money for it had run out.

“If the Larry Kramer Initiative gives out and doesn’t get refunded,” Porter said, “I think that the University will once again step in.”

If you build it, will they come?

Weinberg said that whenever he taught a seminar in art history, about 40 to 50 students would show up. But whenever he taught a gay and lesbian studies seminar, only about 10 students would attend.

“I could have been giving a seminar on rocks, and I’m sure more students would have attended that than attended the gay and lesbian studies seminars,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg said that many students are not willing to have gay and lesbian courses show up on their transcripts.

“Before, Yale would use euphemisms for such classes,” Weinberg said. “I think one of them was called ‘Special Friends.’”

Gamson is concerned that the lack of substantial interest displayed in gay and lesbian studies will lead to the program’s undoing.

If there is no coordinated effort to keep people in gay and lesbian studies and to recruit them in, there is no guarantee that the University environment will continue to be conducive to the program,” Gamson said.

Naomi Rogers, the program’s director of undergraduate studies, said it is difficult to determine how many students are in the gay and lesbian studies track. While 41 students took the introductory course to gay and lesbian studies last year, they are currently spread across a wide range of concentrations outside of the immediate gay and lesbian studies track.

“Because [gay and lesbian] history is not a biological one, we tend to get scattered,” said Emily Wills ’04, a women’s and gender studies major.

Michael Boucai ’02 said the offerings in gay and lesbian studies are extremely limited.

“I think the intro class touches on things that really need to be explored in more depth,” Boucai said. “They aren’t because the University won’t hire the necessary professors.”

Some students agree that there is a stigma attached to taking a course in gay and lesbian studies.

“Many students are worried about having the word gay or queer associated with their name in an official capacity,” Wills said.

Joseph Puma ’03 has taken the introductory class to gay and lesbian studies as well. He said his decision to take the class his sophomore year was influenced by the professor.

Every year, the introductory course to gay and lesbian studies is taught by a new visiting professor. Since gay and lesbian studies works on a limited budget based on endowments, the program decided to bring in junior faculty members to make the money last as long as possible.

“I shopped the class as a freshman but was discouraged by that professor’s approach,” he said.

When Boucai took the introductory course two years ago, there were only about 20 people in the course. The year after, the students in the course more than doubled to 41.

Discrimination

When Weinberg did not receive tenure this year after teaching art history at Yale since 1989, he accused Yale of discrimination, claiming he was fired because he is gay.

“Yale is not a particularly conductive or sympathetic place to do gay studies,” Weinberg said. “The kind of work I was doing wasn’t appreciated. Queer studies wasn’t appreciated.”

Weinberg has no direct proof that he was fired because of his sexual orientation. But he said that the University discriminates against homosexual professors in a subtle way by marginalizing their work.

“Our colleagues treat our work as though it isn’t up there with the big boys,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg was a popular professor among his students. He published widely, writing the two books required to qualify for tenure. But professor Alexander Nemerov, whom Weinberg perceives as a younger and less experienced scholar, got tenure instead.

“I’m bitter and I’m very unhappy,” Weinberg said. “I feel betrayed by Yale.”

Many professors are supp.ortive of Weinberg’s argument.

“The fact that he is an openly gay scholar may have prejudiced the way people looked at his scholarly contribution,” women and gender studies professor Laura Wexler said.

Other scholars believe Weinberg was denied tenure for reasons other than his sexual orientation.

“Weinberg’s approach to American art was a very narrow one,” Porter said.

The Weinberg controversy raises questions as to the ability of homosexual professors to get tenure at Yale.

Most gay professors at Yale say homosexuality is not a factor in getting tenure.

“Most gay junior faculty members don’t get tenure,” Porter said. “But what people don’t realize is that all junior faculty members at Yale do not get tenure.”

“I don’t have tenure, but that is not because I’m gay,” Gamson said. “If that were the reason, I would sue.”

When presented with the issue, Levin said sexual orientation has nothing to do with getting tenure at Yale.

“I certainly have within the Yale administration tried to set a tone that is totally open to people of all preferences,” Levin said. “I certainly don’t believe that we discriminate in hiring or promotion advancement both in the faculty and the administration.”

But many professors agree that Yale is not yet free of homophobia.

“I’m sure there is institutionally based homophobia,” Wexler said. “But it is subtle discrimination.”

Although Gamson has not been victim to homophobia at Yale, he feels similarly.

“I’ve never felt like I had to worry about that part of my life,” he said. “But the discrimination tends to be subtle.”

Weinberg says that being gay is a constant challenge.

“You are always coming out when you are gay because you constantly meet new people,” Weinberg said. “You don’t have it tattooed on you anywhere. But there is always the decision of whether to say something or not.”

Weinberg admits that, in terms of gay and lesbian studies, Yale is moving in a direction that they would have never anticipated five or six years ago. But he still believes that teachers in gay and lesbian studies are given very low status by the administration.

“In terms of gay studies at Yale, you can see the glass as either half empty or half full,” Weinberg said.

CORRECTION: This article incorrectly stated that former Yale professor Jonathan Weinberg was fired from the University, that he accused Yale of discrimination, and that he claimed he was fired for being gay. He was not fired from Yale; he was not given tenure. He has never accused Yale of discrimination in any legal capacity, and he did not say that he was fired for being gay.

Also, the article incorrectly stated that most of Weinberg’s friends at Fieldston School were gay. He said none of them were gay.

The Pink Book lists all gay and lesbian studies courses from the Blue Book. Gay studies faces an uphill battle for more recognition by the University.
Blue BookCourtesyYaleUniversity
The Pink Book lists all gay and lesbian studies courses from the Blue Book. Gay studies faces an uphill battle for more recognition by the University.

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