Red dominates his office. Red plush carpet, red pillows, red picture frame.
“Red stimulates the appetite,” says English Professor Matthew B. Kaiser.
But Kaiser’s not the only one with a large appetite. His Literature and Sexuality class has upperclassmen hungering to join. And after only its second year in the course catalog, English 154: Literature and Sexuality has drawn nearly 500 students this semester—a number normally associated with mandatory introductory classes like Social Analysis 10.
Students say they flock to the class, which is billed as a survey of 300 years of an “uneasy alliance between—and intertwining histories of—literature and sexuality,” for its distinctive curriculum, Kaiser’s charismatic lecturing style, and to fulfill a Core requirement.
But behind Kaiser’s subject matter lies a personal history of witnessing oppression that has led him to study Victorian literature as works that were written in a time of deep political upheaval.
“Sexuality is such a central organizing logic of human subjectivity in the modern era, that you need to know about it to make sense of oneself,” Kaiser says. “There’s a lot of violence and injustice perpetuated in the US because of sexuality.”
Kaiser began his path to English 154 as a student at the University of Oregon, where he observed homophobic acts against local gay teenagers and young adults.
At the time, the future faculty member says he was uninterested in academic work. He added that the University of Oregon was the only college to which he applied, in large part because of its one-page application. Fighting against homophobic activity became a focus during his freshman year.
That year, voters in Oregon debated Measure 9, which categorized homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse” and would have amended the state constitution to provide legal protection for homophobic actions. The measure was eventually defeated by a margin of 13 percent, and the debate prompted violent homophobic acts of violence and harassment against gay youth.
“Young gay kids were being killed by skinheads,” Kaiser recalls. “Coming from San Francisco, I was startled by the violence of it and the vulnerability of, especially, gay kids in that environment.”
In protest, Kaiser says he joined the countrywide “queer nation”—a queer rights movement that grew in the early and mid 90s—to counter the violent acts, even taking it upon himself to surreptitiously spray paint “a queer was bashed here” wherever he heard of a homophobic act had taken place.
“I had a stencil cut out of from the bottom of the box,” Kaiser says. “And when no one was looking, I would set it down on the ground and take a can of spray paint and spray it inside the box. It just looked like I was fiddling around in the box.”
As his social activism continued, Kaiser says he began questioning
the reasons underlying the violence against which he was protesting.