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UIC showcases new sexuality studies [21 April, 2010]

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Michal Kwiecien.  Photo by M.  Alejos, UIC

The University of Illinois at Chicago hosted its third annual Lavender Forum April 15, an event co-sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues.  The forum began in 2008 as a daylong series of presentations by faculty and students.  This year, it focused on student work that included the winners of a paper competition and the recipients of the Gender and Sexuality Center’s Kellogg Rainbow Merit Scholarship.

The afternoon faculty presentation was by Jennifer Brier, assistant professor of history and gender and women’s studies.  Brier recently gained tenure and published her first book, Infectious Ideas: U.S.  Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis.  She spoke of how her book changed significantly from its roots in her earlier dissertation project.  Brier’s focus and targeted audience were the students and scholars about to start their research or mired in the difficulty of getting beyond writing bottlenecks.  In a larger context, she also spoke of how scholars in sexuality studies have an especially difficult time in academia because their work is too often not considered legitimate enough and of what it means, “to write about topics outside the mainstream.”

As an example of the issues sexuality scholars might run into, Brier gave an example from her own book.  She said that the original version included images from an activist organization that featured male frontal nudity.  At the last minute, the publisher decided these could not be published.  As a compromise, Brier reached an agreement that the book would include the url to a website where the images could be found (after contacting the organization and arranging for them to be put up in perpetuity).  Brier used this instance of an example of the still-rigid norms and discomfort around sexuality that exists even in the supposedly liberal world of academic publishing.  She went on to discuss the kinds of discipline and structure required to get a large project finished, and that aspect of her talk appeared to resonate with students and faculty alike.

The afternoon session featured graduate students presenting their future research projects.  Milka Ramirez, a 2009 Kellogg Rainbow Merit scholar, gave a talk titled “An examination of homophobia and social work practice among a sample of school social workers.”  Ramirez said she began the project after hearing the news about Lawrence King, the eighth-grade California student who was killed by a classmate.  She pointed out that the “reports never mentioned the social worker” even though he or she would have been the school official most in touch with the students.

Ramirez’s study will examine social workers’ attitudes with such leading questions as: what is the degree of homophobia among school social workers, and how might this be affected by race, age and other variables?  Citing the statistic that their peers harass 80 percent of LGBT students and that 30 percent are likely to skip school regularly, Ramirez stressed the importance of such research that might help reduce incidents such as the killing of King.

Michal Kwiecien, a graduate student in the department of history, presented on “Homosexuality and the construction of sexual deviance in communist Poland.”  According to him, post-1945 Communist Poland rarely discussed issues of sexuality and the communist regime generally “viewed alternative sexuality as deviant” and as a “legacy of the bourgeois past.”  From 1940-1989, Poland was engaged in configuring a national identity that was simultaneously communist and Polish even as the conservative Church continued to exert tremendous influence in daily life.

Modernization, according to Kwiecien, has brought about “competing understandings of gender and sexuality.”  In 1985, around the time of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and the peak of the Solidarity movement, the regime instituted a program named Operation Hyacinth, which criminalized gays by linking “homosexual environments to transmission sites of AIDS” and maintained “pink files” to keep track of those known or understood to be gay.  The long-term implication of this was that it created a homosexual resistance to the regime and created what could be termed a modern gay-rights movement in Poland.

Additional presentations included research on married bisexual women, violence against LGBTs and men who have sex with men in India, and a presentation by Affinity Community Services.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 21 April, 2010

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