Patrick Trautfield

“Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private,” poet Allen Ginsberg once said.

The same can be said of analyzing poetry and literature more broadly. This is certainly the case for ENGL 382, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Literature and Media, a class in which literature is used as the conduit for speaking and analyzing sexuality (that which “is known in private”) in a public forum.

And on this sunny and unbearably hot afternoon, the main topics of discussion are two poems by Ginsberg, a beat “poet and dreamer in the 1950s, in a society that didn’t really allow that,” to use English professor David Hennessee’s description. Ginsberg – like many of the authors discussed in this class – was a man who sought to break free from the mold of conformity, and used literature, among other things to do just that.

The class is exploring themes of sexuality, as they pertain to the LGBT community, through literature and other media representations in Britain and America during the late 19th century to the present.

Some of the topics covered throughout the course, which is in its first quarter experimental phase, include: internalized homophobia; the “coming out” process; the effects of AIDS on individuals and communities; and the current hot topic of same-sex marriage and child rearing.

“When you’re talking about human sexuality, you can approach it in a (variety of ways). This class comes at it from the standpoint of literature,” Hennessee said.

“. In the late 19th century, homosexual identity was seen as a perversion. And then people began to challenge this notion and have continued to challenge it. That’s the broad story that I wanted to tell.”

And tell that story he has – to people of all sexual orientations. Here’s a glimpse into the minds of two students on the opposite ends of the spectrum, so to speak:

The LGBT perspective

Rebecca Bettencourt, a software engineering sophomore, first heard about the class through Spectrum, the Pride Alliance and friends. For her, a male-to-female transgendered lesbian (someone who received a “double dose of queer,” as Bettencourt jokingly put it), the material is one of personal interest.

“There’s a lot of reading, but at least this reading is about something interesting to me. And I like these books,” she said.

Creating a class like this – one where a minority group on campus is the majority in a class – means that many of the students already know each other and the material well, at least from a contemporary or personal perspective.

“Basically, when you offer a class like this, all the queer people are going to fly toward it. So there are a lot of us in the class, and a lot of us are already friends. It makes it easier because we already know how to communicate with each other,” Bettencourt said.

The class dynamics work well: Many of the students are already friends and savvy with current LGBT topics, and the straight people are open and accepting, she said.

“They’re allies, otherwise they wouldn’t be taking this class. They’re friends, classmates, it works very well,” Bettencourt said.

Though Bettencourt has questioned, explored and researched sexuality, she said that this class has given her a new appreciation for the historical aspect of the LGBT movement. For instance, “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are fairly recent designations, dating back only 150 years or so, she said.

“The division between straight and gay is new, too. Before that, sexuality was divided into true love and false love. I love learning about all these authors who had these ideas, these concepts, these questioning processes before the general population thought of anything like this,” she said.

So far, Bettencourt has especially enjoyed Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” and Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” the latter for its “questioning of gender stereotypes at the time.”

“(I like these books) because I can relate to the characters on a personal level. I just like reading these books because I can relate to them,” she said. “Usually, I don’t read a lot, but these books I’ll read.”

ENGL 382 is a class she hopes will not end in its experimental stage, but will continue to give people the opportunity to explore these issues through literary means.

“I definitely hope that it will continue because very few people realize that same-gender relationships and gender identities that don’t match up have existed since the beginning of time. And LGBTs have been ignored for a long time in media and literature,” she said.

The straight perspective

On the other end of the spectrum is Daniel Landsman, an economics sophomore who signed up for the class for one reason only: because it fulfilled the general education upper-division C4 requirement. At the time, he had no idea what the acronym LGBT stood for.

After his first day in class, though, Landsman left “shocked,” and even contemplated dropping the class, especially after seeking counsel from friends urging him to do so. But Landsman stuck with the class, opting instead to challenge himself.

“I have been exposed to new literature that has challenged me mentally and made me more aware of the LGBT community,” Landsman said. “I have also become more aware of certain paradigms that the straight community has of the LGBT community and certain paradigms within the LGBT community that I didn’t even know existed.”

He has come to see that many of the stereotypes surrounding the LGBT community are false, but that some of them (from which these stereotypes are derived, no doubt) are true, Landsman said.

Since beginning the course, Landsman has been working through some of his own issues with these subjects. When he was younger, Landsman described himself as homophobic and ignorant of “alternative” lifestyles.

“(As I grew older) and began to meet more gay people, it made me realize that it is normal and a part of life,” he said. “This class has made it apparent that I can react to different situations and deal with the situations brought to the table.”

But unlike Bettencourt, the text does not hold a special significance for him – though that doesn’t mean he can’t learn anything from it.

“Reading it from my perspective, from a straight perspective, it’s hard for me to understand where (the gay people in my class) are coming from, because I read it differently. Sometimes an allusion will mean something to them, but I’ll just gloss over it,” he said.

The subject matter may make relating to the text on a personal level more difficult for him, but Landsman said he has learned what to look for so that he can have a better understanding of these subtle nuances.

Though he entered the class with only one expectation (to pass), Landsman said he will leave with “a better appreciation for what gay people had and continue to go through. I support their effort and will strive to make the world more accepting of gays and homosexuals.”

Already, he has begun to do his part in making a difference: On April 26, Landsman wore a sticker declaring, “I speak for those who have been silent” in honor of the Pride Alliance-supported Day of Silence.

The broader scheme

Hennessee said that he has been impressed with the class as a whole so far.

“The students are very interested in the subject matter. Because there are so many LGBT students in the class, there’s a level of sophistication that’s not usually there in a GE class,” he said.

According to Hennessee, the heterosexual students in the class are in general not as outspoken as the LGBT students in the class, though that’s not to say they have not contributed greatly to the class discussions.

“And it’s nice for me because I don’t feel like I have to censor or edit what I have to say,” Hennessee said.

Already past the quarter’s halfway mark, Hennessee and the students will continue their trek through literary history, analyzing Ginsberg and other non-conformist authors in the process.

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