The public quarrel between Larry Kramer ’57 and the Yale administration over the direction of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies is illustrative of a national academic debate now brewing over how the next generation of gay and lesbian scholars should be trained.
While many gay and lesbian studies programs tend to be interdisciplinary by nature, with faculty spanning a variety of departments, they still differ in the relative importance they place on academic staples such as history, sociology and anthropology. Kramer’s contention that LKI should focus as much attention on gay history as it does on gay theory mirrors a national debate in the field.
Gay theory was in its prime throughout the 1990s, but there is currently a movement away from purely theoretical research to more historical analysis as programs expand their offerings, said Carolyn Dinshaw, director of New York University’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Of late, NYU’s program has been shifting attention toward relating gay theory to more practical subjects, Dinshaw said.
“Our approach is pretty much in concert with where queer theory has gone over the last 13 to 14 years of its existence,” she said. “I think it’s not very focused on theory. I think we’re all theoretically informed, but we deploy [theory] to study specific phenomena.”
Jonathan D. Katz, LKI’s executive coordinator, said the field has traditionally tended toward a greater focus in theory because gay and lesbian studies programs often are rooted in English departments at universities, which makes it easier for professors to focus on theory. But LKI has been able to focus more of its programming on gay history, Katz said, in large part because it maintains academic autonomy while being located in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.
“What we’re trying to pioneer is a program that controls its own offerings,” Katz said.
At the University of Chicago, the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project is located in the university’s Center for Gender Studies and is recognized for its extensive emphasis on history.
“At Chicago, we made a primary commitment to training the next generation of gay and lesbian scholars,” program director George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’83 said. “Our focus has been on supporting graduate students. The largest number of graduate students is in history.”
Nationally, there exists a “false dichotomy” in academia between gay theory and social and historical issues affecting gay Americans, said Sean Cahill, director of the Policy Institute for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a national civil rights and advocacy program.
“There’s more compartmentalization than is healthy,” Cahill said. “I think queer theory could inform some high-level analysis of what’s going on, vis a vis anti-gay politics, how issues play out in mainstream American politics.”
Ideally, gay studies programs should have broad academic reaches, said Dawn Moon, the former director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies program.
“I think it should be a combination, not only of history and theory, but of cross-cultural studies as well,” Moon said.
Berkeley’s six-course minor program, which is located in the Women’s Studies Department, consists of four core courses spanning history, sexuality and culture, and two electives about sexuality, Moon said.
Like Yale’s LKI, Berkeley’s program is taught by faculty drawn from departments across the university, and its courses are cross-listed in several departments, Moon said.
While most gay and lesbian studies programs are funded largely by their universities and face budget constraints, LKI is unique in that it draws its funds from a private endowment created through a $1 million donation from Kramer’s older brother.
“We have deeper pockets than other programs,” Katz said. “I certainly get the sense that we’re widely viewed as a leading program.”
Still, there is pressure on LKI to expand its program beyond bringing two visiting professors to Yale each year to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in a range of fields pertaining to gay studies.
“I think [LKI] has done a great job organizing lectures and conferences,” Chauncey said. “But if Yale is going to become a major player, it’s going to have to hire senior faculty.”
But LKI is already accomplishing a lot in its present state, Graham Boettcher ’95 GRD ’05 said.
“[LKI] contributes a queer academic outlet. It allows students who want to study all aspects to feel supported in their research,” Boettcher said. “There are scores of students who are thrilled with the current state of the program, who frankly wouldn’t know what to do without it.”