Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies (LGBT) is an interdisciplinary field that engages questions extending across a number of areas of study. Sarah Lawrence College offers students the opportunity to explore a range of theories and issues concerning gender and sexuality across cultures, categories, and historical periods. This can be accomplished through seminar course work and discussion and/or individual conference research.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies 2022-2023 Courses

First-Year Studies: The Invention of Homosexuality

FYS—Year | 10 credits

Different historians trace the invention of homosexuality to different historical moments from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries. The invention of heterosexuality, it would seem, followed after. Certainly the term “heterosexual” appeared only after the term “homosexual” was coined in the later 19th century. Neither meant, at first, what they mean today. In this class, we will study the development of modern understandings of same-sex desire in relation to understandings of sex, gender, race, class, nation, nature, culture, and opposite-sex desire. We will be drawing centrally on literary works, especially novels, which have been crucial sites for the construction and dissemination of modern conceptions of sexuality. But we will also be reading histories, science, laws, letters, and polemics, and watching films. Although we will be considering some earlier materials, we will focus on two periods: first, from the 1880s to the 1960s; then, the 1960s to the present. By the 1880s, almost everyone agrees, a recognizably modern understanding of homosexuality was becoming available. The sexual/cultural landscapes that subsequently developed were not radically rearranged until the 1960s, when the gay and women’s liberation movements insisted on a political analysis of sexuality. Over the past 50 years, that political analysis and the activism it has fostered have had profound consequences for LGBT lives and cultural presences, even as earlier understandings still persist. This course will serve as an introduction to a broad range of modern literature; to fundamental works in the history of sexuality and contemporary queer studies; and to critical thinking about how we talk, read, and write about sex. Though class materials will be generally focused on Europe and North America from the 1880s to the present, conference work may deal with histories, politics, or cultural works from this context; conference projects may also be focused on other times and places. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

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Queer Theory: A History

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

Queer theory emerged in the United States, in tandem with Queer Nation, at the beginning of the 1990s as the intellectual framework for a new round in ongoing contests over understandings of sexuality and gender in Western culture. “Queer” was presented as a radical break with homosexual, as well as heterosexual, pasts. Queer theorists and activists hoped to reconstruct lesbian and gay politics, intellectual life, and culture; renegotiate differences of gender, race, and class among lesbians and gay men; and establish new ways of thinking about sexuality, new understandings of sexual dissidence, and new relations among sexual dissidents. Nevertheless, queer theory had complex sources in the intellectual and political work that had gone before. And it has had, predictably, unpredictable effects on subsequent intellectual and political projects. This class will make the history of queer theory the basis for an intensive study of contemporary intellectual and political work on sexuality and gender. We will also be addressing the fundamental questions raised by the career of queer theory about the relations between political movements and intellectual movements, the politics of intellectual life, and the politics of the academy—in the United States, in particular—over the past half-century.

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Virginia Woolf in the 20th Century

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

“On or about December 1910,” Virginia Woolf observed, “human character changed....All human relations shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” In her novels, essays, reviews, biographies, and polemics, as well as in her diaries, letters, and memoirs, Woolf charted and fostered the cultural and political forces behind those changes as they developed across the century. Over the course of that century, Woolf’s image also changed from that of the “invalid lady of Bloomsbury,” a modern, a madwoman, and perhaps a genius to that of a monster, a feminist, a socialist, a lesbian, and an icon. While focusing on the development of her writing, we will also consider her life and its interpretation, her politics and their implications, and the use of her art and image by others as points of reference for new work of their own. Her family, friends, lovers, and critics will all appear. We will also be reading her precursors, her peers, and those who—in fiction, theatre, and film—took up her work and image in the decades after her death. This course will serve as an introduction to 20th-century fiction, feminist literary study, lesbian/gay/queer studies, the study of sexuality, and the study of politics in literature. Conference projects might focus on one other writer, a range of other writers, one of these approaches to literary analysis, or another aspect of feminist or lesbian/gay/queer studies.

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Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology

Open, Seminar—Fall

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a deaf person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular “lifeworlds” in order to understand—and convey to others—the nuances and underpinnings of such worlds in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. Phenomenology, put simply, is the study of experience. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, emotions, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific subjective or intersubjective lifeworld through a combination of interviewing, participant observation research, and ethnographic writing.

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Specters of the Subject: Hauntologies of Ghosts, Phantasms, and Imaginings in Contemporary Life

Advanced, Seminar—Fall

“The future belongs to the ghosts,” remarked the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1996. His interlocutor, Bernard Stiegler, phrases the main idea behind this statement: “Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts.” With the advent of the internet, various forms of social media, and the ubiquity of filmic images in our lives, Derrida’s observations have proven to be quite prophetic, such that they call for a new field of study—one that requires less an ontology of being and the real and more a “hauntology” (to invoke Derrida’s punish term) of the spectral, the virtual, the phantasmic, the imaginary, and the recurrent revenant. In this seminar, we consider ways in which the past and present are haunted by ghosts. Topics to be covered include: specters and hauntings, figures and apparitions, history and memory, trauma and political crisis, fantasy and imagination, digital interfaces, and visual and acoustical images. We will be considering a range of films and video, photography, literary texts, acoustic reverberations, internet and social media, and everyday discourses and imaginings. Through these inquiries, we will be able to further our understanding of the nature of specters and apparitions in the contemporary world in their many forms and dimensions. Students will be invited to undertake their own hauntologies and, thus, craft studies of the phenomenal force of specters, hauntings, and the apparitional in particular social or cultural contexts.

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Queer(ing) India: Literature, Film, and Law

Open, Seminar—Fall

What is a queer perspective on culture and society? This course aims to provide an introductory survey to queer narratives and cultural production from India and the Indian diaspora as a way to think through this question. Texts will cover a large swath of time, from the early 20th century to the present, and will range across genres such as speculative feminist fiction, political and cultural manifestos, postcolonial novels, and contemporary films. In 2018, the Supreme Court of India finally struck down from the Indian Penal Code Section 377, a colonial-era law used to criminalize homosexuality and other “unnatural” sex acts, after more than a decade of legal battles. The fight for legal rights was accompanied by growing queer representation in popular culture and literature. The supposed “coming out” of queerness into Indian social and cultural life in the last 10 years, the demand to be seen and heard, has been critiqued by some as a by-product of “Westernization” or the influence of “foreign-returned” elites inspired by the Euro-American LGBTQ movement. This has brought with it the need to understand the diversity of queer India as well as the diaspora. In the case of the diaspora, we will work to de-center the Euro-American diaspora, paying attention to long histories of migration to the African continent and indentured labor in the Caribbean and the Pacific as sites for possible South-South solidarities. Taking seriously questions of race, caste, class, nationality, and gender, we will consider what a queer orientation to those hegemonic structures might be and what it might reveal. Thinking through the ways in which experiences of gender and sexuality were iterated and experienced across times and spaces will help us think through the specifics of each text (and its contexts) while also following threads and connections beyond. By considering these questions, this course hopes to think through the contradictory realities of a moment in India during which major Bollywood studios are producing gay dramas and even rom-coms, while questions of sexuality, gender, class, caste, and religious identity are being violently weaponized by mobs with seeming impunity granted by a Hindu-nationalist state. Students will engage with a diverse set of cultural, political, and legal artifacts—such as the writings of “founding fathers” like Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar—as well as legal briefs opposing the punitive Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, which further stigmatizes non-normative gender identities by requiring transgender people to register with the government. We will read fiction, old and new, such as Untouchable (1935), The God of Small Things (1997), and A Life Apart (2016), as well as watch movies ranging from indie films like Chitrangada (2012) to Bollywood rom-coms like Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan (2020).

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Global Queer Literature: Dystopias and Hope

Open, Seminar—Spring

In this seminar, we will study queer texts and films, considering their particular articulations of queer life and its possibilities. Texts will cover a large swath of time, from the early 20th century until the present, and will range across genres such as speculative feminist fiction, first-nations narratives, postcolonial novels, and contemporary Bollywood films. We will end the course by looking at science fiction that explores life in spaces that some consider dystopian futures but are already becoming the present for many. As this arc indicates, an underlying theme of the course will be the maintaining of the creativity and vitality of everyday life while drowning in literal and discursive trash. Across the globe, queer lives have already been lived in materially and discursively toxic contexts. Engaging with text and films produced across the world—set in places such as South Africa, India, Argentina, and even galaxies yet undiscovered—we will think through the lessons that the creation of a queer life illuminate for us. Queer life within the context of this seminar refers to the multifarious ways in which marginalized and non-normative bodies and peoples create social and political lives. Carefully considering the contexts and possibilities that the characters encounter, we will explore how “queer” is a term that translates and mutates in interesting ways across time and place. In paying attention to the specificities of the texts, “queer” itself is thus a term that we will reckon with. Taking seriously questions of race, class, nationality, and gender, we will consider what a queer orientation to those hegemonic structures produces or reveals—not only in past literary texts but also as a way of imagining a hopeful future. As we encounter air and water that is more polluted, toxic even, than at any time in which homo sapiens have walked the Earth, the only response may seem to be pessimism. Rejecting pessimism, we will ask what queer futures and hope we can imagine at a moment of planetary crisis. Potential texts: Sultana’s Dream, Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain (1905); Lihaaf, Ismat Chugtai (1942); The House of Hunger, Dambudzo Marechera (1978); The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi (1990); Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee (1999); Bloodchild, Octavia Butler (1994); Animal’s People, Indra Sinha (2007); Moxyland, Lauren Beukes (2008); The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy (2017); Happy Together (film, 1997); Margarita With a Straw (film, 2014); and Pumzi (film, 2009).

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Radical Strategies: Experimental Documentary

Open, Seminar—Spring

In this course, we examine the experimental documentary form as political/social/personal discourse and practice. We take as a starting point avant-garde documentary production and explore this in the manner that theorist Renov defines as “the rigorous investigation of aesthetic forms, their composition and functionm,” and in which, “poetics confront the problematics of power...” Throughout the semester, students will produce a series of experimental film exercises while simultaneously researching and producing a single, short, experimental documentary film for conference work. This class acquaints students with the basic theory and purpose of experimental film/video, as compared to narrative documentary formats. Instruction will include critical methodologies that will help establish aesthetic designs for a student’s own work. In the class, we will survey a wide range of avant-garde documentary films from the 1920s to the present, with the central focus being student’s options for film production in the context of political and cultural significance. The various practices inherent in experimental documentary film speak to a range of possibilities for what a movie might be. Within these practices, issues such as whose voices are heard and who is represented become of crucial Importance.

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Space, Place, and Uneven Development: Building the Countermap of New York City

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

The 1981 collection, This Bridge Called My Back (edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua), is a landmark text in women’s political and organizing literature. Forty years later, the text understandably no longer sits comfortably alongside our more contemporary critiques of gender and class. Despite its limits, and what no longer ages well, Audre Lorde’s essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, still resonates. We find the adage in our texts to one another, in our organizing materials, and in our own writing. For geographers, generally, and mappers, specifically, we encounter Lorde’s provocation every time we decide to map. The history of cartography is inexplicably linked to the history of imperialism and colonialism. Maps built the master’s house. And yet, despite this, countermaps of our experiences have also emerged to tell our stories of resistance. What do we make of this? Are they, too, tools that eventually undermine our efforts to carve out a different way of being and doing? Or are they truly radical bulwarks against racial capitalism? Whereas the Critical Cartography course in the fall focused on geography literature as it relates to GIS, this course discusses the politics of placemaking and, therefore, necessarily combines feminist, urban, and economic geography literatures. Here, we will situate what we already technically and critically know about spatial practices into the much broader context of placemaking in the unequal city. Our focus is New York, but our lens is varied. Student conference projects will focus on identifying particular vectors of inequality in New York, illustrating the spatial aspects of social, environmental, economic, or any other issue of the student’s choosing. This course will also be an opportunity for students to explore alternative, qualitative mapping practices.

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Human Rights

Open, Lecture—Spring

History is replete with rabid pogroms, merciless religious wars, tragic show trials, and even genocide. For as long as people have congregated, they have defined themselves, in part, as against an other—and have persecuted that other. But history has also yielded systems of constraints. So how can we hope to achieve a meaningful understanding of the human experience without examining both the wrongs and the rights? Should the human story be left to so-called realists, who claim that power wins out over ideals every time? Or is there a logic of mutual respect that offers better solutions? This lecture examines the history of international human rights and focuses on the claims that individuals and groups make against states in which they live.

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Movement and Migration: Modern Caribbean Women’s Writing

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

Though discussions of immigration in the United States have recently focused on the transnational movement of people from Central and South America, this country, in general, and the Eastern Seaboard, in particular, have long been porous to the movement of Black people from the Caribbean. From the 16th-century importation of Africans enslaved in Barbados to the Carolinas, through the immigration of African Americans to Haiti after Haitian Independence, up to the contemporary seasonal migration of Jamaican farmworkers to Upstate New York, Black people have long moved between the United States and the Caribbean. How might we understand the gendered, racial, and classed dimensions of migration differently if we focused on the recent history of Caribbean arts and letters? This course seeks to answer this question by studying anglophonic 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean women’s writing on migration between the metropole (be it New York City, London, or elsewhere) and the Caribbean. Reading across forms (novels, poetry, and so on) and genres (historical fiction, epics, etc.), we will attend to the writings of authors such as Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, and more. Along the way, we’ll read recent works of theory and scholarship to advance our understanding of the texts and the subjects. In so doing, we will seek to understand how modern Caribbean women’s writing continues to influence Black studies and Black thought across the globe. Short assignments may include close readings, historical papers, and more.

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Black Trans Studies

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

The publication of the first issue of Trans Studies Quarterly in 2014 both announced a field and institutionalized already existing knowledge production. In the years since, trans studies, in general, and Black trans studies, in particular, have continued to expand, yielding new ways of thinking about identity, state violence, and the political production of life, among other things. This course seeks to acquaint students with recent developments in Black trans studies. We begin with writing about early American history to study the ways in which the understandings of gender by enslaved Africans differed from European colonial genders. We continue through the 19th century to read narratives of slavery alongside recent scholarship on such narratives in Black trans studies. And, finally, we turn to the 20th and 21st centuries, focusing on artistic production by Black trans authors in mediums such as film, visual art, and literature. On top of our central focus on the relationship between race and gender, we will pay special attention to resistance, incarceration, and visibility—engaging with cultural producers such as Janet Mock, Tourmaline, Rivers Solomon, CeCe Macdonald, Danez Smith, and more. Along the way, short critical assignments will help us to engage more closely and more deeply with research methods, cultural criticism, and individual cultural works.

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The Philosophy of Sex and Love

Open, Seminar—Year

One of the fundamental transformations to occur in society and culture over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries is the understanding of sex and love and the relation—or nonrelation—between them. Among the many catalysts for this change, we may count changing perceptions of sexual difference, gender, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles; an increasing range of possibilities for reproduction or nonreproduction; and the problematization of the nuclear, monogamous, heterosexual family structure. This yearlong seminar will engage in the philosophical examination of these topics. While we will read some ancient philosophy, including Plato’s Symposium and some late-modern texts by the Marquis de Sade and the Baron von Sacher-Masoch (the authors who gave their names to Sadism and to Masochism, respectively), most of our readings will be from 20th- and 21st-century sources, including Sigmund Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Audre Lorde, Lee Edelman, Paul Preciado, Maggie Nelson, and Luce Irigaray. Students will be required to not read Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Gender and Sexuality in Greek Literature and Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Fall

Modern discussions of gender and sexuality have a predecessor in the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece, which have informed recent thought on the topic. Of the Greek discussions, we shall focus on just a few. We shall begin with poetry by Sappho, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Euripides’ Bacchae. We shall go on to Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, and Book Five of Plato’s Republic.

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Community Psychology

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

The purpose of this course is to introduce students to the field of community psychology, which is primarily concerned with individuals in their social context. Community psychology seeks to support and understand communities and to conduct research that helps communities thrive. Sometimes, community psychology engages broadly by doing work focused on large connected and diverse communities, such as the Black community; and sometimes it is more focused, such as on a community of students at a single university. As a critical community psychologist myself, my focus has always been on social justice, change, and activism. As such, this course will engage with critical theories, concepts, and methods within the field of community psychology. In doing so, it is my hope that students will gain a deeper understanding of community psychology. The course will move away from and challenge the traditional community deficit models and, instead, emphasize community psychology that focuses on community issues, engagement, empowerment, activism, and work.

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Sociology of the Body, Disability, Illness, and Health

Open, Seminar—Year

In this yearlong seminar, we will examine bodies: how disability and illness shape life experience; the ways in which the body is surveilled by government and other institutions, including the medical profession; and the individual development of social identity. The course explores several themes, including the politics of reproduction, agency and labor, bodies in transition, stigmatization, and resisting bodies. Substantive topics include the experience of pregnancy, gender development in childhood, the development of sexual identity, the onset of severe mental illness, the isolating experience of physical decline, and the politics of death and dying. For their conference work, students are invited to select one bodily experience, disability, or illness to explore in depth. The first semester will be devoted to background reading and the development of a research question. This will lay the groundwork for second-semester data collection and analysis.

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Contextualizing Communications: The Poetics of Seeing

Open, Seminar—Fall

Seeing is not a natural process or an individual activity; rather, it is embedded in social forces and imbued with historically and spatially constructed meanings. This seminar is designed to interrogate how we communicate and to make meaning from such a vantage point. While the course takes a broadly construed sociology of culture as its point of departure, it also understands sociology as what a British sociologist called a “parasitical” discipline that frequently disrupts and violates disciplinary borders and boundaries. This course will follow in that vein. Our initial readings—which will include Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Aime Cesaire, and John Berger—will set the conceptual framework for what follows. We will draw upon literature, film and music, (auto)biography, letters, diaries, oral histories, and archival and legal texts emanating from different parts of the globe, with an emphasis on cultural productions about and from the Global South and/or diasporic communities. Our analyses will be framed in terms of a number of themes and questions, relating these to the contexts within which the works were produced. We will start with an overview of historical and methodological questions; examine colonial texts and their critiques, the production of nationalism(s) and identities, censorship, postcoloniality and the violence of “home,” and conclude with transformative visions. It is hoped that this perusal of a diversity of genres and voices will enable us to rethink the relationship of objectivity and subjectivity, fiction, biography and fact, and political and social censorships to which their producers subscribe or against which they struggle, as well as struggles over voice and in the remaking of space. Our goal is to problematize naturalistic “ways of seeing” (a term borrowed from John Berger) and, thus, show how seeing (through sonic, cinematic, and literary constructions) is both an ideologically regimented activity and a creative form of emancipatory action. Rather than seeing our readings as the expression of individual genius, we will engage with them as a way to become astute readers of the material poetics of social life.

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Technology and Social Identity

Open, Seminar—Spring

In this course, we will explore the nature of agency—or the motivation behind and responsibility for action—and the role of technology in shaping personal social identity. We begin by discussing how to treat nonhumans as actors in their own right before exploring key concepts that include Donna Haraway’s cyborg and Bruno Latour’s hybrid agent—concepts that allow us to consider how humans utilize nonhumans in their environment (assistive technologies for people with disabilities, animals, clothing, etc.) to enact social identity and become inseparable from them. This lays a foundation for us to explore how social identities like race, gender, ability, and socioeconomic status are made and unmade in interactions with technology. We will consider how identities are shaped by institutions, embodied in individuals, and conceived as lifelong projects. In past conference projects, students have explored deaf identity and cochlear implants, responsible pet ownership and leashes, bicycles in urban space, and hacking culture on video-game servers.

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Readings in Latin American Literature

Advanced, Seminar—Fall

This course is meant for students who have a solid command of Spanish and are capable of conducting language work at an advanced level. The main purpose of the class is to develop and consolidate a reading capacity that will allow the in-depth study of literary texts in the original language and from all over the Spanish-speaking world. An important segment of the seminar will be devoted to the examination of the most relevant works inscribed in the tradition of so-called “magical realism,” exploring its roots in Africa and the Indigenous cultures of Latin America. This includes fiction by Rosario Castellanos, María Luisa Bombal, Gabriel García Márquez, Cristina Peri Rossi, Alejo Carpentier, and Lydia Cabrera, among others. We will then proceed to examine the connections between the fantastic as a genre and the complexities of politics, both historically and in the most recent literary manifestations. In the course of study, we will also cover fundamental moments of the Latin American poetic tradition from its origins to the present day. Women writers will be one of the main areas of literary analysis, as their productions have resulted in a radical reversal of the canon—as is also the case with LBGTQ+ and Afro-Caribbean authors.

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Performance Art

Open, Seminar—Spring

Since the early 20th century, artists have explored performance art as a radical means of expression. In both form and function, performance pushes the boundaries of contemporary art. Artists use the medium for institutional critique, social activism, and to address the personal politics of gender, sexuality, and race. This course approaches performance art as a porous, transdisciplinary medium open to students from all disciplines, including painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, sculpture, video, filmmaking, theatre, dance, music, creative writing, and digital art. Students learn about the legacy of performance art from the 1970s to the present and explore some of the concepts and aesthetic strategies used to create works of performance. Through texts, artists’ writings, video screenings, and slide lectures, students are introduced to a range of performance-based artists and art movements.

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Performance Art

Open, Seminar—Fall

Experiment and explore contemporary performance art. Surveying a range of important artworks and movements, we will review the histories, concepts, and practices of performance art. Born from anti-art, performance art challenges the boundaries of artistic expression through implementing as material the concepts of space, time, and the body. Examples of artists that we will review are John Cage, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Pope.L, Laurie Anderson, Anne Imhof, Joseph Beuys, Janine Antoni, Suzanne Lacy, Narcissister, Pauline Oliveros, Aki Sasamoto, and Anna Halprin, to name a few. Dialogues introducing performance art are utilized in sculpture, installation art, protest art, social media, video art, happenings, dada, comedy, sound art, graphic notation, scores, collaboration, and movement. Students will be able to relate the form and function of performance art though workshopping ideas, experimentation, improvisation, and movement—thereby developing the ability to confidently perform in any manner of the performance-art genre.

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