A group of Bowdoin students and professors met in Johnson House last Sunday to discuss current sexual-orientation issues and to speak about the gay and lesbian field of study, also known as "queer studies." This discussion included the perspective of several faculty members and students of different sexual orientations who came together to share their own experiences. They talked about how they would like to see gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, and transgender issues progress in the future.
"In terms of Bowdoin and America, I believe that exposure to queer issues is integral to our progress as a society. We have come a long way in dealing with queer issues, but there are still great strides we can make," said Marc Donnelly '07, a member of Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance (BQSA).
Bowdoin students have many opportunities to grapple with the tough questions of contemporary sexual orientation through the gay and lesbian studies department and through BQSA.
At the teach-in, professors examined the history of gay and lesbian studies, which began in the 1970s as an offshoot of feminist theory. This new discipline differentiated between gender and sexuality, which used to be commonly studied in conjunction with one another. The discussion then moved on to a debate about views of gender and sexuality; for example, the teach-in participants discussed traditional gender and sexual roles and what it means to be male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered. One student asked if a transgendered person is homosexual or not, which led to a debate about whether or not a transgendered person can every really transform to the opposite sex. Finally, the professors led a discussion about gender and sexuality in the classroom, an environment in which issues of sexual harassment, grading bias, and unequal numbers of students in certain fields often arise.
According to the BQSA web site, "The Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance is a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, queer, transgender students, and their allies. The BQSA is also committed to raising awareness at Bowdoin and in the Brunswick community at large."
Donnelly and Jared Hunt '08 organized the teach-in. According to Donnelly, he and Hunt first considered organizing a teach-in about a month ago at the BQSA retreat.
"We thought it would be informative for the Bowdoin community, regardless of sexual orientation. Later, we spoke with the professors present about presenting different topics at the talk," said Donnelly. "They were all very enthusiastic. I believe that many of the issues discussed yesterday are not present in everyday thought for most individuals."
"I'd say the question of gay marriage is not going to go away, and will require of every citizen some very exacting thought in the years ahead?thought not only about the disenfranchisement of queer people, but about what sorts of privileges we think ought, and ought not, to be bundled into marriage itself, as a civic institution," said teach-in participant Peter Coviello, associate professor of English and program director of gay and lesbian studies.
When Coviello joined the English department, part of the job description included a request for someone interested in gay and lesbian studies. The possibility of a minor had been discussed at length already, but the interdisciplinary minor had not yet come into being.
"Much work was done before I got here," said Coviello. "The conception of the minor predates me."
After the English department hired Coviello in 1998, he was able to lend himself to crafting the gay and lesbian studies minor in a substantial way. Coviello helped draft the proposal for the minor, which was approved in 1999 and went into effect in 2000.
Bowdoin is among a small number of colleges that offer a gay and lesbian studies program. Coviello is proud of its existence. Currently, the minor functions on a much smaller degree than other minors, partly because of its recent creation and limited funding.
The existence of the gay and lesbian studies minor is dependent on the support of the English department, as well as the participation of individual professors within other fields. There are no funded professorships for the minor, which means that every other fall the English department gives up one of its courses in order for Coviello or Professor of English David Collings to teach Gay and Lesbian Studies 201, the central course of the minor. The infrequency of this course offering can be problematic for students who want to study abroad during their time at Bowdoin.
Aside from 201, the program requirements include four additional courses. These courses are provided by various departments every year. This year, one can choose classes from the anthropology, classics, and gender and women's studies departments, among others, to fulfill the minor requirements.
There is hope that the Department of Gender and Women's Studies will hire someone who is capable of teaching in that field as well as in gay and lesbian studies in an effort to make the minor feasible for students who might otherwise be unable to fill the requirements.