2 min

Universities woo students with queer studies

Most departments still piecing together funding to study sexuality

Students preparing for university this year are part of the first generation able to choose “gay” as their major.

University applications are typically due over the winter, with big deadlines — including the deadline for high school students applying to first-year undergrad programs in Ontario — arriving as early as Jan 12.

Daniel Faranda is the president of York’s Undergraduate Sexuality Studies Association. Academic programs like York’s are important because they increase visibility of gay and trans people on campuses, he says. It’s also helped Faranda broaden his academic horizons.

“It’s endless, all the things you can study under ‘sexuality,’” he says.

There are 80 students enrolled in sexuality studies at York. Professor Sheila Cavanagh, the program’s coordinator, hopes to grow that number to 100 over the next couple of years. That number is a key York metric separating large from small programs — reaching it would result in more money and administrative support for sexuality studies.

Having a fuller course offering is a boon for students, and it has spinoff benefits. Larger departments mean bigger faculties. And that means more professors with more time to research gay issues.

York and the University of Toronto are the only Canadian schools that offer a major in sexuality to undergraduates. Both programs are interdisciplinary, meaning that many of the courses are taught by more traditional departments, like English or sociology.

Like most sexuality programs, U of T’s started piecemeal, as professors with an interest in gay topics convinced their departments to fund one-off courses that could count toward a sexual diversity studies degree.

But now, U of T boasts a healthy dose of courses offered specifically within the sexual diversity studies program, says Scott Rayter, the program’s associate director of undergraduate studies.

Since students don’t declare their majors at U of T until their upper years, high schoolers in the midst of applying will be selecting only their faculty (in this case, arts and sciences) at this point, Rayter points out. That means they can dabble in the program before deciding to make it their focus.

“And, of course, they’re not learning about sexuality studies in high school, so taking a sociology course or a history course before jumping into theory may be a benefit,” Rayter says.

Other schools have offered minors in sexuality studies for years — with the dream of a full curriculum perpetually just out of reach — including Concordia, Carleton and the University of British Columbia.

The courses themselves are offered by a mishmash of departments, including sociology, English and women’s studies. Most sexuality studies programs have just one or two full-time faculty.

That’s the situation at Carleton, which offers a minor in sexuality studies through the school’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies. And while piecing together financing for courses or guest speakers can be a lot of work, it also has its benefits, says Carleton professor Jennifer Evans.

“Before we started our program, I wasn’t even aware of some of my colleagues and their interests. Sharing resources, collaborating, builds community for students and faculty alike,” she writes from Calgary, where she’s attending a sexuality studies conference.

Evans points to a lecture by leading queer theorist Jack Halberstam, which she is planning for March. She cobbled together the cash for the project by approaching several departments at two universities (Carleton and the University of Ottawa), plus the campuses’ queer and women’s centres.

York’s Faranda says he discovered the program too late in his studies to graduate with a sexuality studies major (he’s pursuing a certificate instead). But he says that high school students should give some thought to sexuality studies.

“Don’t be afraid of it. This is a great learning environment,” says Faranda.

Cavanagh agrees.

“Our courses receive some of the highest student evaluations across the university,” she says. “The feedback I receive from students is overwhelmingly positive, and the commitment of our faculty to sexuality studies at York University is very exciting.”