This fall, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program (WGS) will officially launch a new Queer Studies concentration at Illinois State. Years in the making, the concentration  reflects the dynamic evolution and growing popularity of queer studies across the United States.

“Every respectable women and gender studies program, or gender and sexuality program, has strong queer content,” said WGS Program Director Alison Bailey. “Students need to have a critical vocabulary, so that they can be able to talk about issues of social justice with respect to  LGBTQ issues.”

The new Queer Studies concentration can be viewed as part of a movement, slowly gaining momentum toward culture change across campus, said Bailey. In the last few years, Becca Chase, Paula Ressler, and Dave Bentlin of the Office of the President started the LGBT/Queer Studies and Services Institute on campus, currently run by Danny Mathews. WGS associate Mandy Dartt led a campus-wide committee to establish a Lavender Graduation ceremony.

“Programs like Lavender Graduation and resources like the LGBT/Queer Studies and Services Institute send a message to LGBTQ and allied students that they are valued and an important part of our community and Redbird family,” said Mathews, director of the Institute. Bentlin noted the efforts are “vehicles that continue our journey toward a more fully-inclusive campus. Their presence hopefully reassures the LGBTQI+ student community that we are moving forward as an institution while recognizing that it is an ongoing process in which students are active partners.”

First steps

Providing LGBT students a visible space and ceremony on campus were vital first steps, that needed to be followed with a strong movement of queer studies into the curriculum.  “Really good conversations in the classroom—where there is room for disagreement and intelligent, even kind, discourse—will hopefully spill out into the larger culture and community”, said Bailey.  It was four years ago that the first course in the concentration, WGS 292: Introduction to LGBT/Queer Studies, was developed. Since that time it has been taught by at least three different WGS faculty members.

The new concentration is centered on several core courses: WGS 292 and WGS 392: Queer and Transgender Theory, and a number of electives including ANT 270: Anthropology of Sexuality and POL 337: Gay and Lesbian Politics. “This is a respectable beginning for the concentration,” Bailey said. “It allows students to develop a core working understanding of the basic critical tools in queer theory and a choice of topical courses that focus on contemporary issues.”

Although faculty members from across campus contributed to queer studies, WGS did not have a faculty member with extensive graduate studies in the area. That changed last year when College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gregory Simpson approved a joint position between the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, enabling the University to hire award-winning scholar Erin Durban-Albrecht. “Because so much of the work of the College of Arts and Sciences is interdisciplinary, she is the right person to take the lead in teaching the Queer Studies sequence,” said Simpson, who added Durban-Albrecht has already developed the QUEERtalks speaker series at Illinois State. “I think that students, staff, and faculty will all benefit greatly from these initiatives.”

Durban-Albrecht noted the field of LGBT/queer studies is interdisciplinary, and builds upon women’s studies’ critiques of gender relations. “It offers tools to think about gender beyond the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in addition to thinking critically about sexuality and power,” said Durban-Albrecht, who designs her classes to provide students with the analytic tools to understand the intersectionality of queer studies.

“Our conversations about sex, gender, and sexuality are always taking into account relationships to other social categories, such as race, economic class, nation, (dis)ability, and religion,” said Durban-Albrecht. “To understand what happened in Orlando, for instance, it is not enough to think about homophobia and transphobia or toxic masculinity. The people who lost their lives at the Pulse Nightclub were predominantly Latina/Latino, and my classes discuss histories of racism in the United States that foreground why queer and trans* people of color are made more vulnerable to violence.”

The new Queer Studies concentration is only the beginning, noted Mathews. “We need to do a better job at helping dominant identity groups understand that they, too, are stakeholders in the conversation around gender and sexual diversity,” said Mathews. “These are all aspects of who we are, but sometimes it isn’t until we have the language to describe such aspects of our identity that we can begin our own journey of consciousness.”