Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.1/2 (2005) 28-50
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Where in the World Are the Lesbians?
In 2001 I became, as far as I can tell, the first person hired at a Catholic university specifically because of my work in LGBTQ studies. I am blessed, as it were, with a departmental colleague who publishes widely in postcolonial queer studies, a colleague in another department who teaches queer U.S. history every two years, and many supportive friends on the faculty. Still, I am the most public face of LGBTQ studies on campus, and if a new queer studies course is added to the curriculum, I am likely to be the one who develops it. Over the years I have come to realize that my role is not unusual, Catholic university or not. I was in a similar position at a large state university for seven years and have several friends and acquaintances across the country at a variety of institutions in similar spots. Most of us are not lucky enough to work among even a small clustering of others teaching in our field, even if we do have colleagues who assign queer theory in their courses or publish on queer topics. Of necessity this makes us chameleons, generalists. As an interdisciplinary scholar with an interdisciplinary doctorate, I feel suited to the role.
Nevertheless, as an Americanist I was cautious when the coordinator of women's and gender studies asked me to develop an LGBTQ course to fulfill the university's "global" core requirement and year-long curriculum "globalization" initiative. But when I asked myself and my coordinator, "If not me, who?" the answer was, clearly, "No one." A scholar in a comparatively new field, hired as an interdisciplinary curricular innovator, I have [End Page 28] more flexibility than she, a noted Asianist working in a traditional discipline. She saw the need and opportunity for the course because of her campus experience and scholarly expertise; she asked me to develop it because of my institutional position. I would hazard a guess that no campus, especially an undergraduate university, has experts in all of the areas and disciplines with which it makes sense to pair queer studies in the curriculum. One of us would have had to stretch to develop a course in Asian LGBTQ studies; my position makes it easy for me, in fact requires it of me.1 So, rather than limiting my queer course offerings to my area of specialization (late-twentieth-century U.S. lesbian writers), rather than leaving the "global" core curriculum straight, and rather than steering my own research clear of one of the hottest things going in LGBTQ studies, I dove in. Relying on my colleague's advice when I felt out of my depth, I developed the now-regular course offering called Asian Gay and Lesbian Cultures. The primary consequence of my lack of expertise in Asian studies is my reliance on sources published in English, a limitation I share with almost all of my students. (This restriction shapes the course's focus on India, China, Japan, and their diasporas, about which there is more published in English than about the rest of queer Asia.) I quickly came up against a second daunting limitation, inherent in the available source material itself, which I have come to think of as the Woman Problem in Queer Studies.
Why, I wonder, do we keep reinventing the wheel? How come every time "queer studies" looks in a new direction it seems to reproduce the same "male homosexual studies"? Like academia in general, the field that gave us Gender Trouble has gender trouble of its own. "Lesbian studies," born from a combination of the women's and gay liberation movements, was in part a reaction against a male-dominated, nascent "gay studies" in the early 1970s. Sexism drove many lesbians from gay organizations—the Gay Activist Alliance, the National Gay Task Force, the Gay Liberation Front—just as it had driven women from many Left organizations to the women...