4 min

Sexy nerds

University launches new centre

Credit: Joshua Meles

The study of sexuality is gaining greater prominence at the University Of Toronto, with the creation of a centre and the expansion of the sexual diversity studies program.

The Centre For Sexual Diversity Studies officially came into existence this month, including and building upon the sexual diversity studies (SDS) program. Political science professor David Rayside, who’s been named director, says the centre will sponsor conferences, hold seminar series, invite visiting scholars and reach out to the broader community; many of the activities are open to the general public. About a dozen faculty members from a variety of disciplines, such as English, history and geography, will be involved in the centre’s activities.

It will also give more heft to the public discussion of sexuality issues, Rayside says, because having such an academic body at a major university will “create the sense that these are important and legitimate issues.”

Rayside says funding is coming from the university, as well as from private donors. It’s difficult to estimate the amount raised so far, he says. But, he adds, a $500,000 endowment has been transferred to the centre from the now-defunct Toronto Centre For Lesbian And Gay Studies. That endowment is in memory of the late Michael Lynch, who was an English professor and AIDS activist.

“We’ve grown spectacularly,” Rayside says, “and we’ve put ourselves on the map in a very significant way.”

Meanwhile, as of the fall semester, U of T students will be able to major in sexual diversity studies; up until now, only a minor was offered.

“It’s a mark of what students are pushing for at the university… that we have a real academic presence,” says Maureen FitzGerald, the program’s director. “The time has come for that.”

The SDS program was created in 1998 at University College, which is based at U of T’s downtown St George campus. It was the first of its kind in Canada, FitzGerald says. In the interdisciplinary program, students explore such heady topics as the nature of sexual identity and orientation, including the labels we use and the way sexuality is regarded in various cultures and times.

FitzGerald says more than 100 students are currently registered with the subject as a minor. It’s not known yet how many students will register for the major because registration for the fall semester is still underway.

FitzGerald says she and others in the program hope to beef it up even more in the next few years by offering a collaborative masters degree to students in other departments.

But the program is not just about the students. It has an advisory board with about two dozen members. Along with some faculty members, people outside the university sit on the board, and Rayside says he hopes to continue attracting members of the broader community.

“We’re always adding new people,” he says. “We want to diversify the group.”

Since its inception, the SDS program has received support, moral or monetary, from a diverse crowd: from the U of T’s president to a local philanthropist to a group of drag queens.

Last year president Robert Birgeneau gave the program a supportive boost when he attended an event to celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary. He followed up shortly after by writing an opinion piece for the Toronto Star, in which he said the university must celebrate sexual diversity “in much the same way that we celebrate our remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity.

“I believe that as an institution of higher education,” Birgeneau wrote, “we have an obligation to show leadership in areas where the public may lag behind. This was the case during the era of civil rights, and it is the case today as we address issues of gender and sexuality.”

In 2001, one of the biggest gifts the program has received came from Toronto businessman and philanthropist Mark Bonham. Bonham, who graduated from U of T in 1982, donated $200,000 to establish the Mark S Bonham Teaching Endowment in Sexual Diversity Studies. The gift helped the program create its own courses. (Bonham is also the namesake of an annual scholarship that goes to an SDS student who demonstrates outstanding academic performance and contributes significantly to the life of the program.)

A few years ago, the program also attracted the attention of some drag queens, who used their lip-synching acts to raise money. The divas, members of the Imperial Court system, raised $11,500 by taking up a collection after their performances at Church St bars. The money resulted in an annual scholarship, called the Emperor I Sergio Apolloni Scholarship, in memory of Sergio Apolloni, Toronto’s first elected emperor who died in 1991. The $700 award goes to a student in the SDS program who achieves academic excellence.

Rayside says many donors are former students who, when they attended U of T 20 or 30 years ago, didn’t have the opportunities that today’s queer students have.

“It’s seeing what students can do now, and what they couldn’t do,” Rayside says.

As part of its goal to reach out to the broader, nonacademic community, the centre has established a new scholarship, known as the Citizenship Award. This award will go to an individual or group outside the university community who has contributed to the public understanding of sexuality. Nominations can come from across Canada and from a variety of fields, including the arts, politics, media, religion, law and social activism. The annual award is $5,000; the recipient gets half and the other half goes to the recipient’s chosen cause.

* The SDS program is seeking nominations for its Citizenship Award. The deadline is Sun, Aug 15. To get a nomination form and for more information, check out the SDS website at