The Importance of Queer Studies

The Importance of Queer Studies
portrait of R.B. Brooks, M.Ed.
By R.B. Brooks, M.Ed.

Published on August 5, 2021

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Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera. The Stonewall riots. Harvey Milk. ACT UP demonstrations during the AIDS epidemic.

Many have likely learned about these historical figures and events through trivia, ads during Pride Month, or documentaries on their favorite streaming service.

What many may not know is that they can learn about significant milestones of LGBTQ+ history and analyze their impacts on movements for gender justice and sexual liberation in college classrooms.

What Is Queer Studies?

LGBTQ+ studies focus on "matters related to gender, human sexuality, and sexual orientation with emphasis on LGBTQ+ issues and culture." The field emerged as a prominent academic discipline in the 1990s. It was preceded by a large wave of political action and scholarly examination of lesbians and gay people throughout the '70s and '80s.

Opportunties for learners to study history and theory related to queer and transgender identity differ depending on the school.

Some institutions house fully developed academic programs and departments, such as LGBTQ+ studies, gender and sexuality studies, or queer studies. Other colleges and universities may only offer minors, certificates, or individual classes — or nothing at all.

Examples of LGBTQ+ studies programs include:

Common elements among queer studies programs include feminist and queer theories, intersectionality, LGBTQ+ history, and other concepts related to sexuality and gender. These programs and courses are interdisciplinary, meaning they incorporate research and insight from multiple areas of study, including history and sociology.

Transgender studies first appeared in the 1980s amid growing attention to LGBTQ+ rights. However, it gained "an unprecedented level of institutional support and legitmiation in the first decades of the 21st century," according to Susan Stryker, author of "Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution" and co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, the first peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal in the field.

In queer studies classes, LGBTQ+ students are more likely to experience a learning environment that allows them to grow without being used as a case study for their peers.

LGBTQ+ studies and transgender studies are unique in that they focus on LGBTQ+ knowledge, experiences, and liberation.

These fields may be housed within commonly titled women, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS) programs. However, it cannot always be assumed that WGSS programs include curricula that accurately portray LGBTQ+ experiences.

Why Is Queer Studies Important?

Queer studies and related fields are interdisciplinary. No matter what major or career students pursue, learning LGBTQ+ history, theories, and concepts can enhance their overall education. For LGBTQ+ college students, discovering the impacts of past events and knowing more about larger community struggles can affirm their own experiences.

Here are a few reasons why taking even one LGBTQ+ studies course may be a transformative experience for college students:

History Informs the Present

Many of the issues LGBTQ+ communities face today are long-standing struggles. Knowing more about the root causes of disparities LGBTQ+ individuals face in areas like housing, jobs, education, and rights can illuminate ways to advocate for change today.

Promotes Viewing the World Through a Queer Lens

Taking a queer studies class can show students the ways LGBTQ+ people navigate society. Learning about LGBTQ+ struggles and accomplishments offers a more expansive lens to students. They then can carry that knowledge into whatever they pursue beyond college.

Affirms LGBTQ+ Student Realities

In many classroom settings, LGBTQ+ students say they experience tokenization, being called on to speak on LGBTQ+ issues for the benefit of their classmates. In contrast, in queer studies classes, LGBTQ+ students are more likely to experience a learning environment that allows them to grow without being used as a case study for their peers.

Additionally, queer studies and related courses tend to be taught by LGBTQ+ instructors. This may allow LGBTQ+ students to learn from a possible mentor. It could be among the first times LGBTQ+ students learn from instructors with similar identities as their own.

Deepens an Understanding of Oneself

While LGBTQ+ studies and related fields focus on LGBTQ+ experiences, the overall message is that everyone has a sexual and gendered experience. Including LGBTQ+ studies in your educational journey can help you think more deeply about your sense of self and your relationship to others.

These studies also may provide a valuable stepping stone to new understandings of gender and sexuality in a safer environment.

Challenges to Queer Studies Education

As enticing as queer studies (hopefully) sounds at this point, don't be surprised if there aren't offerings at whatever college you're currently/planning on attending.

There are many barriers to the formation and maintenance of such programs and classes. Knowing what these obstacles are can prove useful in advocating for changes that would allow these programs to flourish at more colleges and universities.

Shrinking Budgets and Small Enrollment Numbers

Higher education is no stranger to dwindling funding for college operations. As annual budgets shrink, campus decision-makers must plan for deficits. Smaller programs — majors and minors with fewer students enrolled — are often seen as potential places for saving money. This can have dire consequences on identity-based programs like queer studies.

Lack of Dedicated Staff

Related to budget restraints, LGBTQ+ studies programs and related courses require hiring scholars in the field. There is a great advantage to having a team of faculty members explicitly trained in LGBTQ+ studies who are dedicated to building a program's curriculum.

LGBTQ+ people are still commonly subjected to discrimation in hiring practices. Higher education is no exception. Homophobia and transphobia could prohibit an LGBTQ+ professor from being hired in an academic department where they may have been able to offer LGBTQ+ studies classes.

Sometimes, schools cross-list courses taught by professors in other fields and designate these options as loosely related to LGBTQ+ studies if they can't offer a full program. This can be a good starting point. However, this can lead to an inconsistent curriculum and puts the onus on students to make connections between each class.

Misconceptions About the Field

It's not an outlandish wish to want to see LGBTQ+ knowledge and experiences being incorporated into the curriculum of every academic program a college offers. However, if representation of LGBTQ+ content in other majors is increased, this doesn't mean the need for LGBTQ+ studies programs vanishes.

Queer studies is a legitimate academic discipline that draws from other existing fields. The field cannot be reduced to a single section of other classes. This practice would oversimplify the field and stunt opportunities for advancement and new discoveries.

Feature Image: FatCamera / E+ / Getty Images

Women's studies programs were founded to improve equality in higher education. The field remains relevant to college diversity and inclusion efforts. Higher education has a history of exclusionary policies and practices toward students of color that schools must address moving forward. As institutions push biased measures to penalize trans youth, learn about different ways colleges can reaffirm their support for trans student-athletes.