where the writers are
What a Class

Some time back in 1992 or 1993, I got a wild hair to create the first gay and lesbian literature class on the Diablo Valley College campus.  I think I'd been talking with the Dean of Students, who remarked that she'd been approached by a few students who had complained about the dearth of psychology or English classes--any classes--that focused exclusively on the gay and lesbian experience.

Gay and lesbian writing had always resonated with me.  I think it was my experience of always feeling other, of not being "in," of not truly fitting in the world of people that made me relate to it.  Or it was that feeling of unrequited love--of loving someone one could not love publicly or at all.  All that longing and despair was right up my alley.  Maybe it was the forbidden aspect, of doing what the world forbade.  For a few years before this, I'd been teaching women's literature, and women writers had long felt marginalized and ostracized and unwelcome in the world of men.  This new class seemed like an extension of women's literature in a way, a moving forward into the territory of those not heard.

In any case, for years, Maurice had been one of my favorite novels, and I thought, well, Hey, why not?  Why not create a class.  So what that I'm not gay or lesbian.  Or, for that matter, know what the hell I'm talking about.  Who needs that?  What we need is a class.

It was kind of a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland kind of moment, a let's put on a show thing, but I had no idea how to set it up.

Off I went into research, and after pushing through a number of byzantine administration closed doors and talking with many other deans, I was given permission to teach a class.  But it had to be multicultural.  It had to be a survey.  It had to be equally gay and lesbian literature.

So as a young white straight woman of 32, there I was, trying to figure out how to represent the multicultural gay and lesbian experience, and I had about three months to figure out how to do it.

That fall, I walked into a class of about 40 students.  By the end of the class, I would learn that all were gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but at first, only about half said so.  There was a group of young formerly Mormon men, rejects of Brigham Young University, one actually expelled for something I can't remember now.  There was the thoughtful poet/ dancer, who a friend and I went to go see dance one evening at a gay bar. 

There were other very interesting students, who I could probably conjure forth if I looked at my roster but who now fade into the past.  But I do remember particularly one very studious, thoughtful young woman, who said she was once a  lesbian, now sort of bisexual, and she worked with developmentally delayed young adults.   She was the student who got irritated when the class disintegrated daily into ten minutes or so of support group--which was a needed part of the class, I think.  She was the one who kept us on task when reading Sister Gin.  She had the literary interpretations of Giovanni's Room.  She asked me the questions I had to research thoroughly, and this back in the day before Google.  Every day, there was a good question I absolutely could not answer because, remember, I had no flipping clue what I was doing.  She is the one who helped me dig in, learn, prepare, augment, think.  I ended up teaching mostly to her, at least in the literary sense. 

The class ended, everyone gay now, the end of the semester party quite festive.  I planned to teach the class one more time, and then as we'd hired a gay professor who had expressed interest, I was prepared to pass it on.  In fact, he taught it for years and then passed it on to another teacher, a lesbian, who has taken it to the place it should be, the class still running every year since 1993.

But when I think about the class, I think about this student.  Michael and I had the great good fortune of seeing her in Manhattan.  As we sat eating lunch together, I thought about her in my class, so much younger and unsure about herself.  She wanted answers that I tried to answer, but what she really found in that class was a way into her life.  She left my class and moved into more writing classes, working with a professor friend of mine for years. 

She has a book of poetry now, acts regularly, and has been happily married for years.  To a man. 

I can't help but thinking that this class may not have answered the questions it was supposed to, but it answered something in this student and maybe others.  Having it available gave an opening for talk and growth.  Now, it seems like a big duh to have the class.  But then, it was something new, something needed.  Something so glad I did.

Jessica