What Ever Happened to Gay and Lesbian Studies? An Interview with Henry Jenkins

Teresa W. Lau: Can you begin by telling me a little bit about the
history of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Program here at MIT?

Henry Jenkins: Insofar as there is Gay and Lesbian Studies at MIT, it
is the creation of David Halperin who was and is, one of the leading
international figures in this discipline, both as a historian and as
an editor. He has probably done as much or more to put Gay and Lesbian
Studies on the map than any other scholar. He edited the Gay and
Lesbian Studies Reader, an anthology from Routledge which is probably
the core textbook in a lot of introduction [to Gay and Lesbian
Studies] courses today. And also 100 Years of Homosexuality is a
really landmark piece. Halperin set up the program [at MIT] while he
was here and taught four different courses which I think we could
loosely define as Sexuality Studies. One was the course, Introduction
to Gay and Lesbian Studies. One is a course in gay and lesbian
literature. Another is a course called Construction of Sexuality which
he taught or traded off [teaching] with Ruth Perry. And finally [there
was] a seminar that he has taught several times, in the time that I
have been here, on Foucault, who has been an important thinker in
terms of issues of sexuality. Halperin left on extended leave under
circumstances that I am sure the Thistle covered very amply at the
time, and that involved lawsuits and a feeling of being harassed and
charges of harassment thrown back and forth. It was a messy set of

TWL: When was that?

HJ: About four years ago. Halperin has said several times now that he
is coming back and, for a variety of reasons, hasn't been able to come
back when he wanted. So in some ways, those courses that were his have
been put on hold in part, with the expectation that he would come back
sooner rather than later, and a series of circumstances have set in
that meant that David hasn't come back. In order to insure the courses
initially, he set them up as HASS-D courses, which seems like a good
plan; but the fall-back of it is that a HASS-D must be taught by an
MIT faculty member in theory-at least, that is the rule. The dean has
said that because these are HASS-D courses, they should be taught by
MIT faculty and the funding is not available to hire a staff person to
teach them.

TWL: All four of those classes were HASS-Ds?

HJ: Not all four of them. The two, Introduction to Gay and Lesbian
Studies... Actually three of them, I think. I believe the Construction
of Sexuality may have been. That course has not been taught long
enough so I don't remember, but the other two: Gay and Lesbian Lit.
and Intro were both introduced as HASS-D type courses. That has made
funding difficult. The absence of a trained faculty member in the area
of Gay and Lesbian Studies contributes [to the lack of funding]. There
are out gay faculty here at MIT, but most of them have not shown
	Halperin had started his Construction of Sexuality reading
group the first semester that I was here as a junior faculty person,
and I attended it and did the readings. So I was learning from David
the area of Gay and Lesbian Studies which were not taught at any of
the universities I went through. At about the same time I was
grappling with my own sexuality, coming to grips with the fact that I
am bisexual, so that was an important transition for me. I was drawn
to it on a very personal level. It was not what I was trained to do,
it is not in my field of expertise, but I had begun to introduce queer
perspectives into the mainstream literature courses at MIT. When I did
Forms of the Western Narrative, we were looking at things like Tongues
Untied; when I do comedy we do Dykes to Watch Out For and other queer
material. My goal had been to make it part of every course that I
teach here at MIT so that anyone who passes though my classroom gets
exposure to those issues. It was after some prodding from David and
thinking through it when I decided [to introduce] the course Gender,
Sexuality and Popular Culture, which we have taught twice now: first
by me and later by Tara McPherson last year. It was an attempt to add
a course that was not pure Queer Studies, but heavily relied upon
queer perspectives. It was designed to do triple service: to Film and
Media studies, to Gay and Lesbian Studies, and to Women's Studies. My
time is very limited, in terms of what I can teach, so I found this as
a way of serving three groups that I am very committed to on campus. I
subsequently did Myths of Gender and Masculinity, which did not
necessarily serve the lesbian community at MIT, but was an attempt at
a more advanced gender course that drew heavily on gay perspectives
and drew on feminist perspectives on masculinity. We had a sizable
number of queer students in the class.
	So it is not the case that there haven't been courses; there
have not been purely Gay and Lesbian Studies courses on the books.
That's what David can teach, and probably uniquely teach. We did
intend to offer the gay and lesbian literature course this semester,
taught by Steve Tapscott, and the pre-enrollment numbers were so low
that it was canceled.

TWL: That's why it was canceled?

HJ: Yes, it was canceled purely on enrollment numbers, at least that
is what I was told. They could give you more complete explanations.
What may have happened is that the period of time of not having the
courses offered lowered student awareness and interest in the program
to the point that it is going to be hard to build it back up to the
level it was when David Halperin was here. David was leading the fight
against ROTC and some other things were happening around his presence
on campus. And now there's a vacuum there.
	Gay and Lesbian Studies has gotten a programming budget every
year since David has left; I have been administering it. The dean has
given us a fair amount of money to play around with: to bring in
speakers, to bring in films. And with Chris Pomiecko's help we've
stretched that very far. We do a lot of activities, and we have very
highly attended activities. The dean has not been willing to fund the
classes because they were HASS-D courses. With no money for Gay and
Lesbian Studies to finance its own courses, the courses have to come
from elsewhere in the university: from Women's Studies' already
stretched budget, from Literature where you could find someone like
Tapscott who is willing to teach if they have enough numbers to
justify teaching the course, or from some other department. Ed Turke
has expressed a willingness next year to teach Gay Cinema, and so that
course will probably be on the books as a formally Gay and Lesbian
Studies type course. But you are at the mercy of who the faculty is.
And right now we don't have a central faculty person who sees that as
their primary mission. I'd like to be that, but I can't, just because
I have to be Cinema Studies at MIT, and that is what I was hired to
do. I am grossly over-extended doing that, and we've got a growing
program, with large numbers of majors that have got to be met. So I
can handle the programming, and I'm willing to do what I can to
incorporate those perspectives into classes, and I have written some
pieces within the field of Gay and Lesbian Studies now; but I can't be
David, that's not who I am. So basically, until Halperin returns, or
until it becomes a priority for the university to hire someone to do
that, which is not likely, or until other gay and lesbian faculty at
MIT begin to think about teaching these kinds of courses, it's not
going to happen.
	It's not something that we can point to a villain and say
"it's a bad guy here who is blocking it." It's more a case of that we
don't have the resources at this point to be able to do that. It is a
really unfortunate situation, because I personally feel very strongly
that there should be such courses taught at MIT.

TWL: What is your official position, as far as Gay and Lesbian Studies
goes, now that David is gone?

HJ: I am acting director. I would continue to call myself acting
director, because I do believe David is coming back, and I was left in
charge of it. Some people suggested that I should be director, but
it's David's program. David set it up, David is the one who is the
expert on it, I was left in charge and I'm trying to do the best job I
can with it.

TWL: So the official status of the program is the same as it was
[before David's leave of absence]?

HJ: Nothing's changed with the status of the program. It was not easy
for him to teach the kind of courses that he wanted to teach, and it
took someone with the clout that Halperin could bring to it to insure
that those courses were taught on a regular basis. With him away, that
clout just isn't there, and there's not anyone else who wants to do

TWL: With what I know from my experience with the Women's Studies
Program, I am wondering if the Gay and Lesbian Studies Program is set
up in a similar way?

HJ: It was never set up that way. The Gay and Lesbian Studies Program
really exists virtually on paper. It never had an administrative
structure. No one appointed Halperin as director of Gay and Lesbian
Studies, and Halperin appointed me to serve in his absence. He just
started listing courses that were relevant; they were mostly his
courses. He got some money from the dean to support some activities.
It doesn't have quite the interdisciplinary structure of Women's
Studies or Film Studies.

TWL: So, when the courses were offered, what were they listed under?

HJ: Literature, mostly, with cross-listings with Women's Studies. If
Halperin were here, I think he would be fighting for Sexuality
Studies, and probably be making a lot more headway, because that would
have been the central focus of what he wanted to do.
	One way that I've found of serving both [Film and Queer
Studies] has been to focus the Speaker's Program on queer media as an
issue. We've brought in a lot of media scholars who are also central
to queer perspectives, and that seems to have attracted a large
contingent here. That's where I've left my mark, is the series of
talks that we've had, some that I've done, some that outside speakers
have done, all queer media. In many ways the shape of Gay and Lesbian
Studies as it is today is shaped by the fact that I'm doing both Film
and Media Studies and Gay and Lesbian Studies, and I'm not a
specialist. Since David left, the courses I mentioned have been pulled
away, and there have been my efforts to mainstream queer perspectives
as part of all of the courses that I teach.

TWL: How are decisions or scheduling of courses made?

HJ: Basically a faculty member at MIT has a fair amount of say in what
they teach, but only as much say as a department chair is willing to
give them. For a course that is listed in a particular department,
that department's budget is responsible for paying for it, and
typically it will be taught by a faculty in that department. [Halperin
was based in Literature], so most of the courses he taught were listed
as Literature courses. The Intro to Gay and Lesbian Studies was an
exception. I think that was listed under Women's Studies.
	It would take a faculty member saying, "this is what I want to
do," taking it to the department, having the department agree that
this was a priority and provide the funds for it.
	In the past the dean has given the Gay and Lesbian Studies
programming money, but all the course funding has been from the
Literature department. Every year since I've been acting director I've
sent through a request that formally asks for money for Intro to Gay
and Lesbian Studies, and every year I've been formally told that "No
you can't because it's a HASS-D and only faculty can teach HASS-Ds." I
continue to propose it because of my belief that rules are made to be
broken. Maybe some day they'll say yes.

TWL: Is it somehow bad protocol for the dean to give money for an MIT
faculty to teach Intro to Gay and Lesbian Studies?

HJ: No, not at all. Women's Studies gets [funding for] some of its
courses with MIT faculty. Gay and Lesbian Studies has not been given
those kinds of funds, and it's partially an issue of the [academic]
level that the course is offered at. There was a transgender IAP
course that was taught this year, and that's one way to establish an
experimental course. I've tried to do some activities along those
lines as well, where you have a [series] of one time events of one
sort or another. All IAP activities are unpaid, and that's part of the
problem. You have a month where faculty could go off to do research,
and MIT says why don't you come here instead and teach a cold course,
and handle a bunch of students, and not get paid anything? The reality
is IAP ends up being something where each person does one talk apiece,
but is conceivably a space for an educational activity that would
represent Gay and Lesbian Studies.
	There are a number of faculty at MIT who are either closeted,
or out queer, but they don't define themselves intellectually [with
queer studies]. It would be a question of whether any of them were
willing to take on that as an additional responsibility. Most of the
people who would be interested are already overstretched, with courses
in Women's and minority studies programs.

TWL: What do you think would be the reactions to hiring new faculty or
staff lecturers who would have Lesbian and Gay or Sexuality Studies as
part of their academic work?

HJ: I think that it's not going to happen for a number of reasons. One
is that the university as a whole is trying to cut back on faculty
because of the budget retrenching. That pressure is felt in every
humanities section. Their priorities are to preserve what they see as
their traditional functions of their sections, and other things are
luxuries. That is in some ways a rational management decision: you've
got a limited number of teachers. Are you going to teach Shakespeare
or are your going to teach Gay and Lesbian Studies? If you're a
Literature section you're going to choose Shakespeare because that's
your job; the other is something that many people agree ought to be
taught. It's dessert as far as what the university in its mission
considers itself. If this were a traditional liberal arts school that
had thirty faculty members in Literature, the likelihood that two of
them would be hired specifically with a focus on Gay and Lesbian
Studies would go up. If you're trying to run a whole Literature
section with majors and only twelve to fifteen faculty who have to
cover multiple bases, and you're facing a budget cut, which means when
people retire or leave they're not going to be replaced, [Gay and
Lesbian Studies] is not going to be a priority. When David was here it
was his number one priority. It was the most important thing in his
intellectual and personal life, and he was a dynamic leader of that.
If David comes back it will spring back. If David doesn't come back,
then we have to hope some hire that is made for totally different
reasons generates someone who still sees this as central to their work
and is willing to push it forward.

TWL: Along those lines, how would you describe the attitudes or
atmosphere among the Humanities faculty about the Gay and Lesbian
Studies program?

HJ: I think they've been generally supportive. I have not personally
been harassed since I took over Gay and Lesbian Studies; I've been
pretty public, I've done a lot of talks. David took a lot more because
he turned it into a political stake when he took on the ROTC, and he
got a lot of issues around that. On the other hand, I think there is
an apprehension in the Humanities that Humanities has drifted away
from its traditional functions.
	There is a conservatism-it's not a homophobic reaction, it's
not a reaction that says "I hate Gay and Lesbian Studies; it shouldn't
be taught." It's "this is a specialized form of literary study," or
this is a specialized form of social science, or whatever, that isn't
reflective of the general population. And therefore it shouldn't be
central to our mission, it should be marginal; that's the way in which
the queer agenda always gets marginalized and shut out. I think that
it is too strong to call that homophobic. I think that it is more a
sense of apathy, of disinterest, of ignorance, or of a pragmatic
recognition of limited resources and how you spend them. It is not
translated in my experience to homophobia, but there are homophobes in
the faculty. There are faculty who strongly oppose any recognition of
Gay and Lesbian Studies. I don't think that there are any in the
humanities. Their acceptance to these issues is remarkable.

TWL: What do you think is the attitude of those people who are willing
to put some energy into reviving the courses in the course studies
program. What do you think that their attitude is to the whole "is
there anything we can do?..."

HJ: No one has come to me since I took over as acting director and
said "how can I help." I was given this job, as I said, without a lot
of preparation. I could use that help, but it hasn't been forthcoming.
In some ways, I am in a very safe position. I think of myself as bi,
I'm married, I have a kid, I am at a height of respectability as far
as the administration is concerned. They couldn't choose a better
person to make Gay and Lesbian Studies safe at a place like MIT
because I am not very political and I am not in a lifestyle that is
very controversial, so therefore I can do this and I can use what
capital I've got to push to open doors and create space. If I was
primarily in a gay relationship, I might feel much more at risk.
	If David comes back in the fall, like he says he will, the
problem might literally disappear, or at least it will be shifted to a
different level, and the courses will be offered again. If David
doesn't come back, I don't see a lot changing in what is going on
here. I will continue to fight to keep Gender and Sexuality and Pop
Culture on the book and either teach it myself or get another
qualified person to teach it. I will continue to mainstream queer
perspectives into all of the courses that I teach at MIT. I will
continue to bring in speakers as long as we get money from the dean,
and films, and we will do a lot of activities and with luck we will
get some IAP courses taught, but I don't see the curriculum changing
any time soon unless either a faculty steps forward, or David comes

TWL: What is the likelihood of that?

HJ: I sense that he wants to find a job somewhere else. I sense that
he is not very happy with the way he was treated by MIT and that he
wants out. He had Counterpoint breathing down his neck, and he had
this lawsuit, and he was charged with sexual harassment, and so forth.

TWL: Is there anything that we, as students can do?

HJ: I think that you have to make clear that there is a demand for it.
That has to be clear to the administration and that has to be clear to
the faculty. When courses are offered and they don't make [it], then
we lose ground on that. When things are offered, students have to be
behind them. When things aren't offered, they have to signal to people
that this is something that they would like to study. I would write
letters to section heads and to the dean of humanities to make clear
that this is a priority for you. Then I would also talk to faculty
that you think would be capable to teaching such a course and see what
they are willing to do. I know of individual students who would like
to take these courses, and I feel as a matter of principle they ought
to be taught, but I can't say that there is a huge demand for these
courses. I can't show any proof of that when I send through requests.
I can just say that it is something that MIT ought to be doing, and I
think it should be sufficient to just say that we ought to be doing
this. We have a moral obligation to be teaching Gay and Lesbian
Studies, to make this an inhabitable place for gay, lesbian, and
bisexual students. We do better by that when we have visible
organizations like GaMIT. MIT is accepting, but there is so much more
we could do here, so much more in terms of leadership on Gay and
Lesbian Studies. We don't have the right to sit back on our laurels
and say we are doing enough. There is more that should be done, there
is more we have to do.

interview transcribed by Adrian Banard, Teresa W. Lau, Kristen
Nummerdor, and Sarah Veatch 

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