Earlier this month, California approved textbooks that include LGBTQ+ history for use in public schools for grades K-12. I’m enthused to see California addressing this material because in high school, I generally had to aggressively search to find people like me in the curriculum. LGBTQ+ voices were almost entirely absent in my elementary and middle school education.
I assumed that when I got to Brown, that reputed bastion of progressivism, I would have an easier time finding LGBTQ+ topics in my education. I was wrong. Brown has a reputation for being a campus friendly to LGBTQ+ people, and in a lot of ways, it is. But very few courses focus on LGBTQ+ subjects, leaving room for considerable improvement as Brown goes about implementing the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan in the curriculum. According to The Herald’s poll data from the last two years, about 20% of students identify as not heterosexual. LGBTQ+ people aren’t taught our stories growing up — the history we’ve made and the books we’ve written. We deserve a chance to learn our heritage, to learn who we are.
To see if there really is a lack of LGBTQ+ content in Brown’s classes, I searched course descriptions for keywords relating to gender and sexuality in Brown’s online course catalogue. The search covered all semesters for the 2017-18 school year. I did not include canceled courses. My results are below:
“lesbian:” 2 courses
“gay:” 3 courses
“bisexual:” 0 courses
“trans” (used specifically as an abbreviation for “transgender”): 3 courses
“transgender:” 0 courses
“queer:” 7 courses
The terms “gender” and “sexuality” had around 140 and 60 results, respectively. I don’t mean to dismiss those numbers, as I’m sure many of those classes do include LGBTQ+ topics. However, I hesitate to place much weight on them. It’s also worth mentioning that the courses listed for specific identities are not exclusive of one another — the two courses that contain “lesbian” in their description are also two of the three courses including the word “gay.” Actually reading some of the descriptions for courses whose descriptions include “gender” and/or “sexuality” drives home the point that these subjects aren’t central to the material being covered. The description for DEVL 1803R: “Bringing Small States in,” showed up in my search because it listed the following as topics of discussion: “issues in governance, migration, climate change, food security, sports and culture, gender and sexuality, among others.” Gender and sexuality are two topics among many, not the focus of the course.
Another issue is that talking about gender or sexuality isn’t the same as talking about LGBTQ+ subjects. HIST 0522O: “The Enlightenment,” includes “gender relations” in the list of ideas that the readings cover, but examining gender relations between men and women does not imply that LGBTQ+-related material will be addressed.
“Gender” and “sexuality” are therefore not necessarily indicators of LGBTQ+ content, let alone a course actually centered around these identities. It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that at Brown, one of those liberal havens where students are supposedly being indoctrinated with radical ideas, there are very few LGBTQ+-focused courses, at least for 2017-18.
I don’t believe that LGBTQ+ topics are so niche that asking for their inclusion is unreasonable. The history department can have courses as specific as HIST 1820B: “Environmental History of East Asia” and HIST 1977B: “Feathery Things: An Avian Introduction to Animal Studies,” yet there are no courses which are dedicated to LGBTQ+ histories. In the English department, there are two courses in the 2017-18 year about J. R. R. Tolkien, but not a single class dedicated to LGBTQ+ literature.
In fairness to the English department, they have previously offered a course called “Queer Relations: Aesthetics and Sexuality,” which of course included LGBTQ+ authors. But what they haven’t offered, at least in the time I’ve been at Brown, is a course not bogged down with theory: with Butler and Barthes, and sentences that stretch on for miles while explaining some convoluted academic idea that has no applicability to real life — I’ve never seen a course that just explores LGBTQ+ writing in a way that’s accessible for folks who aren’t English concentrators (or for those like me, who just aren’t into theory).
It’s frustrating to have to continue to build space for the content I want to study. I include LGBTQ+ content in many of the final papers or projects that I complete for classes that aren’t specifically LGBTQ+-related. But it would be nice if there were more classes dedicated to subject matter that’s central to the identities of many Brown students, and which is increasingly relevant as LGBTQ+ people become more and more visible to a society that has historically excluded us.
Caroline Mulligan ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.