York’s Sexuality Studies Program gets international notice

The Sexuality Studies Program at York is less than four years old, but already it’s getting noticed by some of the top universities in North America.

York’s Sexuality Studies Program in the School of Women’s Studies was invited to participate in a conference at Yale University Nov. 29 to 30, looking at the future direction of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender) studies at Yale in particular and the state of sexuality studies in Canadian, US and European universities in general.

As one of 10 university research centres and academic programs invited to take part in the two-day conference, members of York’s Sexuality Studies Program participated in panel discussions on a variety of topics, including "The Future of LGBT, Queer, and Sexuality Studies". Representatives of Columbia University, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Los Angeles, City University of New York, New York University, the University of Toronto and two European universities also attended. York’s was the most recently-established program invited.

"I think it’s no accident Yale only invited major research universities and left out a lot of small and some quite elite institutions because they have less to offer Yale in terms of figuring out what Yale wants to do in the future," said history Professor Marc Stein, coordinator of York’s Sexuality Studies Program. "One of the reasons York was invited to the conference, is that we have developed a pretty substantial program with a great group of faculty members."

The conference explored issues facing LGBT, queer or sexuality studies programs today, the institutional and structural concerns for directors of such programs, changes in intellectual and political contexts over the last 20 years, program successes and failures, and relationships between these programs and women’s studies, gender studies and LGBTQ student services.

Right: Marc Stein

"One of the significant subjects of discussion at the conference was the question of LGBT/queer studies versus sexuality studies. I argued for sexuality studies as a broad rubric where what’s taken up in the classroom certainly includes, and in a prominent way, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues, but also heterosexuality," said Stein.

"There’s a lot of interest in our program in both normative and dissident heterosexuality, moving beyond the assumption that it’s only gay and lesbian people who are outside heterosexual norms and moving beyond the assumption that gay and lesbian people are always dissident and non-normative. So, for example, we can think of interracial heterosexual relationships as outside the norm, cross-generational heterosexual relationships as outside the norm, transsexual heterosexualities as outside the norm, and sexual violence as outside of the norm in some contexts and inside the norm in others."

Sexuality Studies at York is an interdisciplinary program that offers between 50 and 70 courses sponsored by various academic units, including Anthropology, English, Fine Arts, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Sociology and Women’s Studies, with about 25 faculty affiliated with the program. Sexuality Studies’ two core courses are Introduction to Critical Sexualities and Advanced Seminar in Sexuality Studies, but there are three more courses in the works – Heterosexualities, Transnational Sexualities, and Sexual Politics, Activism and Movements – that Stein is hoping will be offered in the future.

"We have a very broad conception in our program about what we cover, and if that is one vision of the future development of the field, the other is to retain a focus on LGBT studies," said Stein.

Another of the issues that emerged at the conference concerned just where sexuality studies should be located administratively and where it fits the best.

"I think a lot of universities are struggling with the question of the relationship between women’s studies and sexuality studies and sometimes there are hostile relationships. We’re blessed not to have that, but many questions remain, because I think there are people in Women’s Studies who would like to broaden their focus," said Stein. "In many respects, this has already happened, as Women’s Studies already houses many gender studies and sexuality studies courses. Two years ago, Women’s Studies hired specialists in masculinity studies and sexuality studies, so this is a new departure for women’s studies and it raises the question of gender studies versus women’s studies. At the same time, there is a strong feeling that the foundational work that was done by women’s studies needs to be recognized, and part of that may involve retaining a focus on women’s studies."

In the meantime, Stein is hoping a major BA in Sexuality Studies can be developed at York. The program currently offers an undergraduate honours minor BA and a certificate. There are 64 students in either the minor or certificate program from various York Faculties, including Arts, Fine Arts, Health, Glendon and Atkinson.

As a new program at York, Sexuality Studies has the potential to grow in a number of directions, said Stein.

"Several of our faculty members are really interested in developing a research centre with the idea of attracting post-doctoral scholars, grad students and other researchers. This would allow us to host conferences and other special events on a more regular basis," he said.

"I don’t want to move too fast, because I’m a believer in institution building. We have to make sure we have the minimum resources necessary to proceed to the next step, but I definitely think there will be a time when that would be a great development."

For more information on Sexuality Studies, click here, or e-mail the School of Women’s Studies at wsyork@yorku.ca or Marc Stein at mrstein@yorku.ca.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer.