October 9, 2003

Say Hello to the Prof in Drag

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Students in Human Development 284: Gender and Sexual Minorities had anything but your typical lecture several weeks ago. In place of two professors, two drag queens, Cherry Forever and Sir Luscious Lurell, danced and lip-synched to the music of Blu Cantrell and Sean Paul and then answered students’ questions.

The performance was entirely Prof. Ritch Savin-Williams’ idea. He and Kenneth Cohen, co-lecturers of HD 284, wanted to show students what being a drag queen is really like.

“We can know it and learn it, but what does it feel like?” Savin-Williams said.

The drag queen presentation was not a “show and tell. I want to think of ways to push students further. I keep searching for opportunities to provide personal contact,” he continued.

“Their performance was a little surprising, but once they started talking and answering questions, we could tell that they were comfortable with themselves. Because they were so approachable, it made everyone in the audience eager to talk to them,” said Danielle DeMasi ’06, who attended the show.

As stated in the syllabus, HD 284 aims to “challenge, using the accumulation of the best scientific inquiry, misconceptions that are often embraced. The best way to challenge stereotypes is to provide multiple and consistent evidence to the contrary through traditional academic means of study and discourse as well as reflection on personal experiences.”

The course covers a myriad of minorities: homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexed individuals.

At the first lecture of the semester, Savin-Williams played clips from the television episode in which Ellen DeGeneres disclosed her homosexuality. Since then, students have seen a documentary on the journey of a male-female transsexual, close-up images of ambiguous genitals and photographs of children with gender identity disorder.

Established in the fall of 1984, the course was originally called “Theory and Research on Homosexuality” and became the first class in the country on homosexuality. Savin-Williams chose the course title carefully because “it was important to keep it academic,” he said.

At the time, 30 students enrolled in the course, each one full of “excitement, interest and passion,” Savin-Williams said. As years

progressed, enrollment dropped to 10-15 students: typically 12-13 women who wanted to be social workers and 1-2 gay men, according to Savin-Williams.

“It became boring,” Savin-Williams said. At one point he questioned the students: “Why aren’t more people here?” he said. They explained to him that it was because the course title contained the word “homosexuality.”

Savin-Williams decided to take a year off to reformat the course. He made it into a night class and re-named it “Introduction into Sexual Minorities.” The new course met once a week.

After these changes, enrollment leaped to 70 people and eventually 120 students.

Because there was no textbook, “Ken and I wrote our own,” Savin-Williams said.

The same text is used today, and it is arranged around the way the course is taught.

In 1998, though, the course changed again.

“A student slammed me and the course by asking: ‘Where are the gender minorities?,'” Savin-Williams said.

After that, the course was altered to include transsexuals and other related minorities.

This semester, the class meets in the morning, so the atmosphere is quite different. Next year Cohen will teach alone, and the class will move back to its evening slot.

“The course is predominately women, around 70-80 percent. The men in the class are 50 percent gay and 50 percent straight,” Savin-Williams said.

At the first lecture he warned women: “The number of bisexuals in the course increases dramatically by the end. Women realize what they are feeling may not be straight, and some end up becoming bisexuals, and some lesbians,” he said.

The straight men in the course are, according to Savin-Williams, “gentler, kinder men, committed to being decent human beings. Those are the men who feel comfortable taking the course.”

The course has never confronted any red tape or barriers from the administration.

“We passed through all channels. The key was to maintain a high academic standard,” Savin-Williams said.

He continued: “The course is based on research, so it is purely academic. They wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”

The only objections have come from conservative students or gay radicals who “put down students who didn’t agree with them,” Savin-Williams said.

Tenica Holiday ’06 said, “I’ve only had the class for about a month or so now but I feel like it’s really opened my eyes. I’ve learned so much about acceptance of different people and how the bottom line is that we’re all pretty much the same and we all deserve to find love and happiness wherever we see fit. The class is enlightening.”

Although the course is based on sexuality, the professors have significantly reduced explicit sexual content since the birth of the

class. As Savin-Williams pointed out, “Nobody is required to take this course.” During the first week, he warned students that the class included viewing some unsettling videos and slides. He urged people to drop the course if they were unable to handle vivid, often pornographic images.

As the professors plan for next year, Savin-Williams said he hopes to get transsexuals to speak at a lecture. As research on gender and sexual minorities increases, so will the depth of topics discussed in class.

Today, HD 284 remains the largest lecture in the nation on the subject of sexual minorities. Although Savin-Williams will not be teaching the course next year, Cohen will find new ways to transform it even further.

Drag queens were just the beginning; the possibilities are endless.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman