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April 29, 2008

Men find academic home in gender studies

Sexuality, masculinity, and interracial pornography have held particular allure for David Klein since high school, but only after coming to the U of C did Klein find a theoretical framework for talking about his interests.

“Theories of gender and sexuality have a part in everything. I think queer theory has a lot to offer in terms of frameworks for looking at the world,” said Klein, who is a second-year in the College.

Klein is one of only three undergraduate men currently declared as gender studies majors at the University.

Since the creation of the major in 1996, men have comprised around 20 percent of undergraduate gender studies majors, said Stuart Michaels, assistant director for curriculum development at the University’s Center for Gender Studies, which was established in 1996 in conjunction with the gender studies major. However, with an average of only four undergraduate gender studies majors per year, the small department often graduates classes without any men at all.

Last year’s graduating class boasted two male gender studies majors, out of a total of six total graduates in the department, Michaels said. But this year’s cohort of third- and fourth-year gender studies majors are all women, and all three current male gender studies majors are in the class of 2010.

Klein came to the University wanting to study English literature. Now an English and gender studies double major, Klein said that he made the decision to pick up the gender studies major only after entering the University.

“I happened upon it my first year. I took Problems in the Study of Gender in the spring of my first year, and everything just made a lot of sense to me,” he said.

Justin Reinheimer graduated from the College in 2004 with degrees in both gender studies and political science and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in jurisprudence and social policy at the University of California–Berkeley. One of the two male gender studies majors in the class of 2004, Reinheimer said that he stumbled across gender and sexuality studies unexpectedly in his Sosc sequence Power, Identity, and Resistance.

“The gender studies concentration offered a way to organize and unify my interests in sex inequality and social change that spanned traditional disciplinary boundaries,” Reinheimer wrote in an e-mail interview.

Although women outnumber men in gender studies departments nationwide, Klein said that he doesn’t feel out of his element either in class or on campus.

“I think when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, these issues affect everyone, so that being a male [gender studies major] shouldn’t affect me. I don’t feel outnumbered,” Klein said.

Recalling his own classroom experience at the U of C, Reinheimer said that he felt that the issues discussed in his gender and sexuality studies classes were relevant and accessible to men as well as women.

“While I don’t know if my presence changed the experiences of the female students, I don’t think my being male affected the classroom dynamics very much. The courses I took covered a wide range of topics and issues, and I never felt especially qualified or disqualified, as a man, to contribute to discussion,” he said.

Since the gender studies major is largely interdisciplinary, many of the department’s classes are cross-listed under other departments. Gender studies courses span biology, psychology, human development, literary criticism, and even economics.

“Most of the people in those classes aren’t gender studies majors anyway. I never really thought about it. I feel comfortable in those situations,” Klein said.

Gender and sexuality studies: then and now

The University of Chicago established its gender studies department nearly two decades after larger state schools had introduced similar departments on their campuses nationwide in the 1970s, Michaels said.

As a bastion of rightist political thought in the 1970s and the 1980s, the University was home to notable neoconservative thinkers that included political theorist Leo Strauss and his students, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense under President George Bush until 2005, and the philosopher Allan Bloom.

“At the time, the University of Chicago resisted [incorporating a gender and sexuality studies department]. We were not amenable to new areas of study,” Michaels said.

“We’re a University that’s greatly open to interdisciplinary programs, so I don’t think that was the issue. I think the reason for this [resistance] was the newness of the discipline. There’s always resistance to change. There are always border disputes. And I think there are also always doubts about how research and knowledge should be organized,” he added.

The gender and sexuality studies departments that cropped up from this initial move went toward the establishment of the discipline in the 1970s were listed under women’s studies. The University established its own gender studies department during a time when the discipline was expanding outward to include areas of study beyond gender and feminism.

“Personally, we kind of missed the boat in not naming the department gender and sexuality studies—because that’s sort of what it is,” Michaels said.

But as academia transitions into the 21st century, Klein, Michaels, and Reinheimer each said that University administrators and the student body are welcoming to gender and sexuality studies on campus.

“I think the only thing I’ve encountered is snootiness,” Klein said. “‘That’s not a real major.’ But I definitely think it is. There’s a lot to be done in this field of research. There’s a lot to think about.”

Michaels added that while pockets of resistance to unorthodoxy will always remain; he said that the University is largely supportive of new initiatives within the gender studies department today.

“There were angry battles within departments, nationally, internationally. And what’s striking to me is that these questions aren’t really asked anymore,” he said.

Reinheimer echoed Michaels’s sentiments and said that the U of C’s political environment and long-standing reputation for conservatism do not negatively influence the general reception of gender studies on campus.

“While I certainly had conversations with friends and peers that evinced a dismissive attitude toward gender and women’s studies, I doubt this response is unique to Chicago nor am I sure it’s any stronger or more common at Chicago due to its conservative reputation,” he said.

Intersection of theory and practice

For Klein, who identifies himself as gay, the decision to study issues of gender and sexuality is intensely political.

“It also sort of marks me as a queer person. I’m pursuing a ‘gay major.’ A man getting a gender studies major is most likely to be gay. But I’m cool with that. I’m into LGBTQ activism on campus,” he said.

Klein is active as the outreach chair for Queers and Associates (Q&A), the University’s largest LGBTQ campus organization. Earlier this month, Q&A sponsored Pride 2008, a two week–long celebration of sexual diversity that included educational events, study breaks, and a keynote address by classicist and queer theorist David Halperin.

Both in his coursework and as a gay man, Klein said he is particularly interested in thinking about what it means to live in a “post-gay” world.

“I think the next generation of scholarship will have to look into how much [the gay identity] really matters. There’s a whole new trend of gay men who are ‘post-gay.’” For many, homosexuality is not necessarily the defining characteristic of a gay man, he said.

“I think people have the right to identify however they want. I think you can fight back against categories. But at the same time, there are things that affect gay men. So it’s also frustrating when some people don’t feel these issues affect them,” he added.

In the future, Klein hopes to work with department faculty to organize a class on theories of pornography, and is considering writing his B.A. thesis about trends in gay pornography. Klein said he eventually plans to pursue a doctorate degree in gender and sexuality studies.

But for now Klein said he wants to acquire new frameworks for systematizing the growing body of queer scholarship, history, and activism. He said that Halperin’s work on gay subculture and political theorist Judith Butler’s concept of “performativity”—the notion that language and discourse influences gender development—have been particularly useful in thinking about what it means to be a queer-identified person.

Last quarter, Klein enrolled in Michaels’s course on problems in the study of sexuality. He recalled how a particularly vivid classroom discussion solidified his belief that academic theory forms the foundation for political activism.

“Stuart [Michaels] said this thing I thought was amazing. ‘I’m a Hutu, you’re a Tutsi. I’m going to kill you for it. I’m going to marginalize, dehumanize, kill you for being in a category I’ve placed you into.’ He was comparing this political situation to incidents of hate crimes you hear about because someone is gay. ‘I’m straight, you’re gay. I’m going to kill you for it,’” Klein recalled.

“How did these categories come into being? What is it like to live in those categories? It’s so troublesome. It’s the whole aspect of how people aren’t treated like human beings,” he said.