[homosexuality] has generally been treated by the accredited thinkers and writers as a thing to be passed over in silence, as associated with mere grossness and mental aberration, or as unworthy of serious attention...In latest times however...a group of scientific and capable men...have made a special and more or less impartial study of this subject: with the result that a quite altered complexion has been given to it; it being indeed especially noticeable that the change of view among the scientists has gone on step by step with the accumulation of reliable information.
excerpt from a pamphlet written by Edward Carpenter in 1895
Most of the coverage of the current Western Culture debate makes reference to "works by women and people of color," but some of the faculty members calling for change have specifically included gays and lesbians as well. Since the media has not addressed this aspect of the debate, I would like to.
Many of the great thinkers who shaped our culture have been bisexual, gay or lesbian. As a result, there are probably a great number of works by gay/lesbian authors already assigned in Western Culture classes. But my guess is that they are being read from a heterosexual perspective. To explain, let me describe an argument I witnessed in high school between a particularly conservative English teacher and a friend who prided himself on being a rebel.
My friend was arguing the obvious point that Shakespeare's sonnet twenty is written to a young man whom Shakespeare passionately loved. The teacher insisted that my friend was wrong, but couldn't explain why. She refused to argue anymore, but pointed out that even given my friend's interpretation, the author denies any sexual interest in the young man. This makes the poem all the more interesting to me, because I realize that being gay has much more to do with love than it does with sexual acts.
It wasn't until my friend pointed out the ambiguity in sonnet twenty that it even occurred to me that Shakespeare might have been gay. Even now I find it fascinating to read a Shakespearean love sonnet and wonder whether it was written to a man or a woman, and how that changes my understanding of it.
Society has chosen to silence any discussion of gay/lesbian issues. Some of Greece's greatest works of art sit in storage because museums don't want to show homoerotic art to their patrons. Some of Walt Whitman's most heartfelt poems are kept out of anthologies because they discuss his love for another man. Monuments are built to remind us of the many who suffered the atrocities of the Nazis, but the builders most often chose not to mention the thousands who died wearing pink triangles, the insignia selected for gays by the Nazis. Everyone has heard of Oscar Wilde, but few mention the three-year prison term that rushed him to an early death. Then they would have to admit the disturbing fact that Wilde's only crime was to love another man. Wilde himself provided the best description when, in his trial, he talked about "the love that dare not speak its name."
Mere inclusion of works by gay/lesbian authors, therefore, is not enough. Students should be told when they are reading works by a gay person, and they should be given references to other less mainstream works by the author that elucidate this aspect of his/her life.
This still leaves open the question of whether certain gay and lesbian authors have been overlooked. Consider Edward Carpenter, a man of great influence in the gay/lesbian movement at the turn of this century. Are his writings on a par with Thomas Aquinas and Charles Darwin? The answer is yes and no.
I was stunned when I first read Carpenter to find how modern he sounds. He mentions conclusions that didn't become clear to me until I was twenty, ideas that most Americans don't understand. Some of his ideas are a little odd; for example, that gays are valuable to society because their freedom from family obligations allows them to risk death and perform extreme acts of heroism.
Carpenter's ideas are not particularly earth-shattering or complex. He doesn't compare favorably to Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas had advantages that Carpenter did not. Aquinas was probably encouraged to pursue theology and was able to study the published thoughts of other scholars. He had a forum for discussing his ideas and for publishing works of his own.
Carpenter was battling society all the way. He had no encouragement, what few references he could find to other scholars' work were difficult to locate, and his own works were censored because they were thought dangerous and immoral.
Thus, it is not fair to compare gay/lesbian thinkers to scholars like Darwin or Aquinas. How can gay/lesbian scholarship evolve when it is constantly suppressed? Society has time and time again thrown away the life's work of a gay person, as with Magnus Hirschfeld, the leader of the German gay movement early in this century. Hirschfeld spent years compiling a tremendous library of literature about gay/lesbian culture, which was all lost when the Nazis burned it and Hirschfeld's institute to the ground.
Thus, only when you consider the oppression of gays can you begin to appreciate the greatness of men like Carpenter. But there have been many great people, and perhaps we can't discuss them all in a one-year course. Secretary of Education Bennett, for example, seems to think that studying nontraditional culture will take something away from the study of western culture.
He doesn't realize that the easiest way to learn about yourself is to listen to someone quite different. As a male friend once said, "Those feminists are such a pain in the ass. I'm tired of learning things about myself that make me feel guilty." I was amazed when I first talked to a left-handed friend to find how many seemingly neutral objects like zippers are, in fact, quite right-handed. My nongay friends are similarly amazed at the things I point out about themselves and the society we live in.
Thus, I honestly believe that studying gay/lesbian writers would add to the course rather than water it down. A pamphlet like Carpenter's "Homogenic Love" would be quick reading in a course that often assigns entire books, and its many references to Greek and European tradition and its speculations about modern society would fit in nicely. I also think students would be entertained by stories about people like Karl Ulrichs, who had the courage in 1867 to stand up in the Council of German Jurists and argue for gay rights. Ulrichs was quickly shouted down, but one can't help but respect his selfless determination.
I end, then, with the advice that Western Culture instructors attempt to point out gay/lesbian authors whenever possible and try to incorporate works that specifically address gay/lesbian issues. Perhaps Stanford can, in this small way, help to end the silence that has oppressed us for so long.
I make no recommendation concerning the core list and other disputes. The important issue is the attitude of the instructors, and I will vote and campaign for any legislation that can accomplish that change. The current process seems to be mostly politics, so I will leave it to the politicians.