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Year of the Queer Sparks Community Dialogue

Oct. 31, 2012

Elizabeth Kuhr

Oberlin is in the midst of a watershed moment. For the first time in the institution’s history, Oberlin is holding an interdisciplinary series of academic courses, performances, social events, and lectures focusing on the broad and varied subject of queer theory, a topic that has thus far been addressed by extracurricular organizations and in a handful of classes. Year of the Queer, however, is changing that.

Even David Halperin ’73, a leading expert in the field and recent author of How To Be Gay who spoke about his work as a part of the series earlier this month, was unsure of what to expect of his lecture experience. But the event was a success, drawing many students and inspiring discussion, following the trend set by the handful of events that have already taken place, talks by renowned speakers like theorist Judith Jack Halberstam, activist Dean Spade, and editor and poet Stephen Motika.

An academic discussion and reading group on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) theory inspired the program’s creation. After several years of informal meeting, the Oberlin professors who made up the group decided to invite the larger community into their conversations, and the organizing of Year of the Queer began.

With financial support from various academic departments and the Oberlin-University of Michigan-Kalamazoo Collaboration Project (OKUM), Year of the Queer is meant to engage students and faculty in discussion in both the academic and social realm.

Founding member and sociology professor Greggor Mattson describes the program’s purpose as “Making queer theory accessible to students who aren’t queer and to those who think queer theory is not relevant to our lives.”

And in the half-semester since the school year began, the programming has already succeeded in making queer theory an active part of the campus’ academic life.

Professor of Comparative American Studies Meredith Raimondo, another member of the original group and current faculty committee heading up Year of the Queer, believes that queer theory “is an important field for people to study as a part of a liberal arts education.” With that goal in mind, professors pulled curricula together for classes in several departments that would focus on queer theoretical subject matter in their own ways, making it possible for students to be able to take classes taught with a lens of historical and contemporary queer theory in their respective majors.

Queer studies are no longer reserved for those students studying sociology, where the topic has traditionally been confined. In the 2012-13 academic year, students can take courses focusing in some way on queer studies in the departments of African American Studies, Classics, the First Year Seminar Program, Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, History, Politics, Religion, Sociology, Comparative American Studies, and Theater & Dance.

Year of the Queer also connects the lecture aspect of the program with the academic side, inviting visiting speakers into the classrooms to interact more closely with students. The morning after his lecture, Halperin attended Mattson’s sociology class, where students asked him questions about the inspiration for How to be Gay, lesbian theory, and critiques on his past works.

Such an informal setup allows students, professors, and speakers to interact with each other as equals, as “intellectual peers,” as Raimondo puts it. “Rather than being in a classroom setting, it allows them to talk.” Raimondo herself has spoken extensively with students about their reactions to speakers and exchanged new ideas with them about the field of queer studies. These conversations are often what guide Raimondo in developing her curricula for future classes.

But as far as the program itself goes, Year of the Queer has thus far been successful in its goal of facilitating community interaction. Mattson notes that students see and get to know their peers who are participating in the program at events, which encourages community around queer theory dialogue.

Although the official program lasts only a year, the faculty behind Year of the Queer is sure of the lasting impression the events will have on the Oberlin community.

“There has long been a critical mass of students and faculty interested in these issues on the Oberlin campus,” says Harry Hirsch, professor of politics and comparative American studies. “We are confident that the conversation will continue beyond this year.”

The next lecture in the series is by Esther Newton, “My Butch Career: A Scholar’s Life” on Tuesday, November 13th at 7:30pm in West Lecture Hall. To find out more about Year of the Queer and its upcoming events, visit their website


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