The History of LGBTS at Yale

The Origins of Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale, 1980-1994

Yale has played a leading role in the development of LGBT and queer studies for more than thirty years. In 1980, the Yale medievalist John Boswell published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. This magisterial, highly acclaimed, and highly controversial study argued that the modern Catholic Church’s condemnation of homosexuality departed from the tolerance and even celebration of homosexual love that had characterized the first millennium of the Church’s teachings. The book’s electrifying implications for one of the central religious debates of our time made Boswell the best known gay studies scholar of his day. Its phenomenal erudition also earned him an American Book Award and helped establish the scholarly rigor and compelling significance of gay studies.

Six years later, Boswell chaired a committee of faculty and students that established the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale (LGSCY, or “Legacy”), one of the first such centers in the nation and the predecessor of today’s LGBTS.

In October of 1987, LGSCY organized its inaugural conference, and in October 1988 and October 1989 Yale hosted two more such conferences, each drawing more speakers and registrants than the one before it. In ways the organizers could not have foreseen, these three conferences played a crucial role in constituting the field of LGBT Studies at a critical early moment in its development. The conferences drew together pioneering community-based scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Vito Russo and young academics just starting their careers such as Judith Butler, George Chauncey, Lee Edelman, Regina Kunzel, and Elizabeth Povinelli (all of whom earned their Ph.D.’s at Yale in the 1980s). The three Yale conferences inaugurated a series of six national conferences in lesbian and gay studies, with the fourth held at Harvard the following year, the fifth at Rutgers in 1991, and the final one at the University of Iowa in 1994. The largest of these conferences attracted a thousand people, including a small army of graduate students whose work would go on to shape the field. As academic gatherings of the most generative sort, they played a critical role in building a new community of scholars and a new field of study.

In 1992, inspired in part by the success of these early ventures, an anonymous donor made it possible for a group of faculty associated with LGSCY to establish the Research Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies (now known as FLAGS). The FLAGS endowment, since augmented by additional donations from numerous alumni and other supporters, continues to play an essential role in fostering LGBTS at Yale. It supports the research of faculty and graduate students; the acquisition of books, journals, and research collections at Sterling Memorial Library; and the purchase of films for use in courses and research by the Film Studies Center.

After Boswell’s tragically early death due to AIDS in 1994, other faculty took over the leadership of lesbian and gay studies at Yale, including Charles Porter, professor in the French Department, who chaired the FLAGS committee for four years; Marianne LaFrance, a professor in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies, who served as chair of its successor committee, Lesbian and Gay Studies, from 2000 until 2007; Joanne Meyerowitz, professor in History and American Studies, who chaired the committee in 2007-08; and George Chauncey, professor in History and American Studies, who chaired the committee in 2008-10. 

Curricular Developments in the 1990s

Although Yale’s program became best known nationally for its conferences and faculty and graduate student research, it also devoted considerable attention to developing an undergraduate curriculum. That work was enhanced in 1992, when Stephen T. Baker ‘67 left a bequest to fund visiting professorships in lesbian and gay studies. This bequest allowed the FLAGS committee to appoint a series of one-year visiting lecturers, usually recent Ph.D.’s, to teach courses in the field. The impressive roster of academics who began their careers as visiting lecturers at Yale includes David Román (author of O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance and Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, & AIDS), Judith Halberstam (author of Female Masculinities and In a Queer Time and Place), Lee Badgett (author of Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men), and Megan Sinnott (author of Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand).

In the mid-1990s, the committee formalized its collaboration on curricular matters with Yale’s program in Women’s Studies. In 1998, the Women’s Studies program renamed itself Women’s and Gender Studies and added a track in LGBT and queer studies. This made it possible for the first time for a student to organize a major based on courses in LGBTS. Lesbian and Gay Studies remained an independent committee, but it worked closely with WGS to develop the curriculum. That cooperation has deepened in recent years, which WGS signaled in 2004 when it renamed itself Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS).

The Larry Kramer Initiative, 2001-2006

In 2001, a major donation from Arthur Kramer ‘49 in honor of his brother, the writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer ‘57, enabled the LGS faculty committee to establish and oversee the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies (LKI). With Jonathan D. Katz, an art historian, serving as its executive director, LKI organized numerous lectures and conferences, built the libraries’ collections of LGBT periodicals and pamphlets, helped bring the archival papers of Kramer, David Mixner, and Harvey Fierstein to Yale, and expanded curricular offerings by hiring a second visiting lecturer and increasing the length of both lecturers’ appointments to two years. The five-year-long Initiative was a tremendous success. It brought greater visibility and enduring institutional support to LGBTS at Yale and helped pave the way for continuing growth.

Recent Faculty Growth and Plans for the Future

In recent years, LGBT Studies (so renamed in 2007) has seen several major advances. Most important, a series of prominent faculty appointments at both the junior and senior levels has brought new strength and dynamism to the program and made it possible for us to expand our teaching and research missions.  Our new affiliated faculty in History, Anthropology, English, American Studies, Religious Studies, African American Studies, East Asian Studies, Film Studies, and other departments regularly teach lecture courses and seminars in LGBTS and sexuality studies, all of which are cross-listed by WGSS and are attracting considerable student interest and growing enrollments.  The generosity of Andrew Solomon ’85 and Bruce Cohen ’83 has allowed us to build on this growing student engagement with the field by providing summer fellowships to undergraduates conducting research for senior essays in LGBTS and academic-year grants to students conducting research or organizing lectures, workshops, or other academically-oriented events designed for undergraduates.  The growth in our faculty has also attracted a new generation of graduate students to Yale, with the greatest concentrations at present in History, American Studies, and African American Studies.  We support their research with FLAGS research grants and by co-sponsoring the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Graduate Colloquium at which students present their work. 

In the coming years LGBTS intends to expand its role as a research committee by building on the growing strength of the faculty to collectively organize working groups and conferences.  In 2008-09, we sponsored a two-day symposium on the Black Queer Diaspora (organized by Jafari Allen of the Anthropology Department), which drew together almost a dozen scholars from North America and the Caribbean.  In 2009, a six-member faculty committee organized a major international conference on why homosexuality has played such an important role in global religious conflict, especially in the potential schism in the Anglican communion.  In 2010, a Global Queer Film and Discussion Series was organized to explore the complex global manifestations of queer issues.  LGBTS continues to foster the innovative scholarship and teaching that have made Yale a vital center of the field for more than a quarter-century.