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Scholarship on sexual orientation

Gail Bederman | Wednesday, March 24, 2010

At the recent “Beyond Fruits and Vegetables” forum, students complained that Notre Dame’s professors teach almost nothing about sexual orientation.

We agree. We think it’s time for the faculty — in their capacity as experts and educators — to join Notre Dame’s ongoing conversation about LGBTQ issues. Student government and the Office of Student Affairs — especially Core Council and the Gender Relations Center — are already doing great things in these areas. Why should Notre Dame’s professors lag behind?

Informed political and ethical judgments require solid and up-to-date knowledge. Professors are the best possible sources about cutting edge academic research — in this, as in other areas. In fact, isn’t that why universities employ professors in the first place?

That’s where this column comes in. For the rest of this semester, a different Notre Dame professor each week will write a column about sexual orientation using the most up-to-date research in her or his discipline. Each column will provide an entertaining but up-to-date introduction to one important area of scholarship.

These columns will not be venues for professors to air their personal opinions about politics, ethics or anything else! Rather, columnists will write as professional experts about the scholarship on sexuality and sexual identity in their own disciplines.
As a taste of what’s to come, here are some topics currently being researched in the humanities and social sciences.

Anthropology: Anthropologists are working on ethnographies of gender identity and development across cultures, the role and status of homosexuality in modern times, the historical and the archeological records and a broader understanding of the ways in which humans express their sexuality. Recently anthropologists are interfacing with physiological and neurological studies in creating transdisciplinary approaches to understanding human sexual behavior and identity.

Film Studies: This discipline:
* looks at the work of GLBT filmmakers and at representations of GLBT people;
* considers GLBT reception of films;
* analyzes the queerness of dominant culture and dominant reception;
Rather than a marginal area of study, queer studies is a methodology and approach that film scholars bring to bear on a wide range of film practices.

History: Historians research the lives, identities and attitudes towards LGBTQ people, from ancient Greece and Rome through the 20th century, in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Asia and Africa. The behavior, gender identities or sexual orientations we now label “bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender or intersex” have existed throughout time, and in nearly all societies. Yet, scholars continually discover how variable attitudes towards same-sex loves and transgender identities have been, from outright encouragement to fierce suppression. Nor have these attitudes or practices necessarily “liberalized” as societies grew more “modern.”

Political Science: Topics from the social science branch include:
* Attitudes toward gay people and gay rights;
* Attitudes, actions, and impact of GLBT individuals — as citizens, voters, candidates, office-holders;
* Legislative or judicial policy-making on gay rights;
* LGBT political movements, interest groups, communities;
* Intersectionality (the related impact of race, sex and sexual orientation on attitudes, voters, politicians);
* The so-called “culture wars.”
As usual in political science, most research considers gays and gay rights not only as important topics with unique dynamics, but also as cases. E.g., scholars analyze the gay rights movement as one example of a political movement, applying and testing the same theories about origination and impact used to analyze other political movements.

Psychology: Current research on LGBT-related issues ranges from neuroscience to clinical. Some examples:
* The genetic basis for non-straight sexual orientations;
* Brain differences in people of different sexual orientations and gender identities;
* Same-sex sexual and pair-bonding behavior in other animal species;
* How factors from homophobia to extended family affect children with gay or lesbian parents;
* Gay and lesbian teenagers;
* How to help gay and lesbian couples improve their relationships.

Sociologists study sex in relation to society, including:
* How sexual orientations are understood in Western as well as non-Western cultures;
* The relationships between gender and sexuality;
* Social influences on the development of sexual identities;
* Gay men and lesbians in families;
* The political dynamics of organizing gay rights movements around the world, including how these movements influence public opinion, policy, society, culture, and the construction of gay identity.

Spanish Film and Literature: Current scholarship analyzes the place of homosexuality in Spain, particularly since General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime fell in 1975. Some of the most innovative work focuses on authors and film directors like Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda and Pedro Almodóvar.

Do Notre Dame faculty specialize in all of these areas? Hardly. Should a Notre Dame education therefore omit the latest research on sexual orientation? We don’t think so!
With thanks to the many faculty members who shared information about their disciplines.


Gail Bederman is associate professor of history, American Studies and Gender Studies at Notre Dame. Bederman can be reached at gbederma@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.