In just a cursory look at the pages of the Blue Book, one thing jumps out at me: Yale’s History Department is having a love affair with the history of identity groups. African Americans, Native Americans, Jews and women all have at least one course devoted to them in the History Department.
You will not be surprised to hear that gays and lesbians do not.
Recently, a minor storm has emerged around the Larry Kramer Initiative, a storm created in part by its dissatisfied namesake, famed queer activist and playwright Larry Kramer ’57. The storm concerns the direction of the program, which Kramer feels departs from his initial vision. In a letter to the Yale Daily News (9/30), Kramer wrote that the direction of LKI “is not so much the wrong direction– as it is a direction too much one thing.” And by “one thing,” Kramer means “gender studies.” To be honest, I am generally concerned about some of the assumptions of “gender studies” and “queer theory,” particularly where queer theory focuses solely on ideas of identity construction. But while I personally am concerned, I do not deny that queer theory, like feminist theory and race theory, deserves a prominent place in academia. But that does not mean that queer theory should be studied to the exclusion of all other forms of gay and lesbian studies.
The University long rejected Kramer’s planned gift to Yale because administrators believed at the time that gay and lesbian studies was not a legitimate academic field. Given this history, it is possible the University is enabling the direction LKI is taking because it does not feel a study of queerness belongs in the revered History Department; instead, it should be kept at bay along with the marginalized disciplines of women’s and gender studies. But I cannot blame the state of queer identity studies across the country on university administrators alone. It is also the case that queer studies departments have popularized theory above all else and have focused their attention and resources largely on what is trendy.
I might remind those academics that LKI’s full name is the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — not the Larry Kramer Initiative for Anything and Everything Involving Gender, Race, Identity, Sexuality, Fluidity, Performance and Construction. If that is the path LKI plans to take, there needs to be some talk about where gay and lesbian studies that involve history, sociology and political science will be given their rightful place. And if LKI is not careful and does not acknowledge Kramer’s legitimate concerns, it may end up the Initiative for AEIGRISFPC, and will be searching desperately for funding — which will probably not be forthcoming from the University.
LKI Executive Coordinator Jonathan Katz is a tremendous resource and a strong supporter of the activities of queer student groups. But Katz’s vision for LKI is far different from the one Kramer expects. Katz argued in the Yale Herald, for instance, that his “Gender and Sexuality in American Art” class, which “moves chronologically and talks about sexuality,” is history. This passes for a history of art class, and it certainly has enough of the right code words to fit right into the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies major, but it is not a history class. When I see a history class titled simply, for instance, “History of Gay America,” I will feel more comfortable with queer studies, and I will know that it is finally an accepted academic field.
LKI’s recent media attention stems from a September conference on Michael Jackson. As a pop icon who has clearly dealt with issues of race and sexuality, Jackson was a perfectly valid topic for discussion at LKI. I personally would rather see a Yale conference on Jackson than, for instance, on playwright Tony Kushner, whose critically lauded “Angels in America” I find overwrought and impeccably boring. But my feelings certainly did not stop Kushner from making a recent appearance on campus. Neither should others’ concerns about the validity of studying Michael Jackson have prevented the conference from taking place. If I have any problem with the Michael Jackson conference — and you will see at the continuation of this sentence that I do — it is that it’s emblematic of a tendency for LKI to focus not on queer history, not even on queer studies, but on sexuality studies and gender studies. I feel I am able to make a distinction here between broader questions of sexuality and questions of gay and lesbian sexuality. With all this talk about fluid sexuality, where is the talk about the actual people having the sex?
The “performance of sexuality” has become a huge buzz word in the world of queer theory and sexuality studies. I have shopped lesbian and gay studies courses in the past, but there is a reason the only one I chose to take was William Summers’s “Gender, Science and Sexuality,” in which the word “performance” was never mentioned and the study of sexuality was more concrete than theoretical. I don’t mean to suggest that theoretical studies of gay and lesbian identity aren’t valid or useful, but they are not interesting to me. Where are the courses that are interesting to people like me, or people like Larry Kramer? Nowhere. In this case, there can be too much of a good thing, particularly if it comes at the expense of another.
Jessamyn Blau is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.