Letter from the Director

Welcome to the redesigned and interactive website of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Our many new features include a blog, “School for Scandal,” which we hope will serve as a conversation starter around issues concerning gender and sexuality. There will be regular posts from yours truly as well as from an exciting array of guest bloggers. Look here, too, for follow-up reports on the Center’s events throughout the year.

Our website makeover is deliberately—and playfully—tabloid in style, with the bubble gum colors reminiscent of US Weekly. Now, playful is not the opposite of serious. Indeed, if we are openly courting scandal, we do so to mark the ongoing caricature of gender and sexuality studies as at once too trivial to count as serious scholarship and too dangerous for impressionable students.

These two accusations may seem like throwbacks to the culture wars of the late 80s and 90s. But, when it comes to the combustible combination of queers, classrooms, and budgetary bad times, certain accusations, to quote the well-known ad from Master Card, are priceless. So, rather than refuse the charge, we thought we’d go straight at it (well, not exactly “straight,” but you know what I mean…). After all, critics of gender and sexuality studies are hardly pulling their punches.

For example, in February 2009, Republican legislators in the state of Georgia took aim at classes in queer theory and the sociology of sex at both Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, promising to team up with the Christian Coalition to rid public universities of faculty teaching these scandalously inappropriate topics. The Athens Banner Herald headlined the controversy, “Steamy sex courses fire GOP’s ire.” Luckily, “ire” was the only thing fired, and no faculty lost their jobs—this time round.

However, as historian and self-avowed “tenured radical” Claire Potter has pointed out in her blog, we should not be surprised by the return of these old-school attacks on queer and feminist faculty and queer and feminist studies. Let me quote her at some length: “In the face of declining state revenues, right wingers are once again ‘Mapplethorping’ the public. They are shilling their ideologically rigid view that even more school privatization, and deep cuts in higher education, are an appropriate fix for a plunging economy that has been jointly devastated by pirate capitalists, corporate lobbyists, and decades of neoliberal fiscal policies. How can the dismantling of higher education be turned into a happy thing, you might ask? Because you can get rid of fields of knowledge that students don’t need to know, and that might even harm them, like queer and feminist studies, while preserving the teaching of ‘universal values.’ And by doing this, you can divert attention from the real consequences to real people of policies that are turning our public universities into a simulacrum of the wretched, privatized Postal Service.”

Potter wrote these comments well before “death panels” and “abortion on demand” became rallying cries for right-wing talk show hosts, who urged on a “grassroots” social movement to oppose Obama’s “socialist” take-over of national health care. (We should be so lucky.)

No matter the actual facts of the matter, these particular attacks on health care reform have succeeded in sowing confusion, mistrust, and outright anger in no small part because of the way they link into morally loaded issues concerning bodily life, and sexual life remains a hot button issue no less under the Obama administration than during the Bush years, progressive hopes notwithstanding. There is already plenty of evidence that Obama’s much-trumpeted talent for finding the center falters when it comes to sexual equality, never mind sexual freedom. Attacks on gender and sexuality studies, and ongoing attempts to defund them, are thus part of larger battles over the meaning and limits of sexual justice and gender equality.

This is no laughing matter, to be sure, but it is all the more reason to make room for serious play as we dig in for the long haul. Social change is not built in one election cycle. Obviously, we need to do more than “just” laugh in the face of outlandish attacks on queers and feminists and anti-racist organizers, but laughter is one way to start girding our loins. (Thank you, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.) Otherwise it’s gonna be one unhappy march to the revolution.

— Ann Pellegrini
Director, CSGS