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Scholars Debate Gay Issues

Consider Role of Academia, Differences Within Movement

By Peter J. Keith

Five scholars offered five different visions for the future of lesbian, bisexual, and gay studies at a panel discussion Saturday morning.

Much of the discussion, which lasted about two hours, centered on differences within the movement, and how those differences should affect the study of lesbian, bisexual and gay issues. The forum, entitled "Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Studies: Where Do We Go From Here?" was part of the fourth annual conference on the highly politicized academic discipline held at Harvard this weekend.

Kath Weston, an assistant professor of anthropology at Arizona State University, said the biggest challenge for scholars today is to recast theoretical work, so that people who are not professors can understand it. Although theoretical work helps to lend Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Studies legitimacy in academic circles, Weston said scholars must try to reach non-academics if they hope to agitate the public and help spark grassroots political change.

"A concern for change remains at the center of Gay and Lesbian Studies," Weston said. "Academia should not self-divorce from the rest of the gay and bisexual community."

While Weston concentrated on how scholars can reach the public, panelist Jacqueline Zita, associate professor of women's studies at the University of Minnesota, said she was most concerned with recognizing the different interests of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

"[The term] `queerness' is pragmatically generic, but does not mean that there is a common denominator," Zita said.

For instance, she said that while oppression would seem to be a common denominator of the movement, gays, lesbians and bixsexuals in fact face different kinds of oppression, such as classism, racism or sexism.

"Lesbians are oppressed as women, perverts, and homosexuals," Zita said. "`Woman' is a category that has to be addressed in the hatred of homosexuals."

Panelist Ed Cohen, a graduate student at Rutgers University's Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, also talked about sexism within the movement. He noted that those first involved in organizing the conference were primarily well-educated, middle class gay white males.

Yet Cohen said the movement itself is still quite diverse, and should "seek to establish commonality on the basis of sexuality."

Gay historian Allan Berube, author of Coming Out Under Fire, said that the current scope of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Studies needs to be expanded.

In his informal speech, titled "Fitting In: Expanding Queer Studies Beyond `Gay Identity' and `Coming Out,'" Berube said that the discipline often ignores homosexuals who have other major concerns.

Other Identities

"It leaves out people who have other primary identities besides sexuality," he said. "People of color, people who have strong home cultures...such as Jewish or working class people."

Panelist Chuck Barragon said that the movement could work within existing academic structures, and he cited successful programs at universities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He said that the City College of San Francisco reached non-academics in the homosexual and bisexual community, and that the University of California at Berkeley provided a varied program in Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Studies.

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