The History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Studies, and Queer Studies at UCLA

UCLA has sponsored research in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer studies for over fifty years, longer than almost any other university in the United States.

The program enjoys this distinction thanks to the work of Evelyn Hooker, a research psychologist at UCLA, who was urged by a former student and other gay men she knew to study homosexuals who were not in psychiatric treatment. Her research, which she began presenting publicly in 1954, showed that there is no detectable difference in the psychological health of homosexual and heterosexual men. As one of the very first academics to challenge the belief that homosexuals are in some way flawed, Hooker assured UCLA a place of honor among U.S. universities in the struggle to combat prejudice with creditable research.

UCLA also holds an important place in transsexual history. About the time Hooker began her research, some of the first sex-reassignment surgeries in the United States were performed at UCLA by the urologist Elmer Belt, who, incidentally, also played a major role in the campaign to establish a medical school at the university. In 1962, doctors in the Department of Psychiatry established the first gender identity clinic in the United States, primarily a discussion group for those studying minority genders and sexualities. The legacy of the clinic is problematical, since it was dedicated to instilling traditional gender roles in children. Nevertheless, because of its interest in cross-gender behaviors and identifications, it became a center for the study of transsexuality and a model for other such clinics.

After several years of discussion and planning, an undergraduate minor in lesbian, gay, and bisexual studies was approved early in 1997, and the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Studies Program began its work in the fall quarter of that year. In 1998, the program was renamed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies. And in 2016, the program will broaden its reach and be renamed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies.

Not until 1976 was the first course in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies taught at UCLA. It was devoted to “Gay and Lesbian Literature” and was taught by Peter Thorslev, professor of English. More recently, the Gender Studies Program has sponsored courses with lesbian and gay content, among them the “Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Studies,” first taught in 1992 by Daniel Calder, professor of English, and Linda Garnets, lecturer in psychology and (then) women’s studies. Over almost two decades of the program’s operation, other departments also have offered a steadily increasing number of related courses—African-American Studies, Asian-American Studies, Chicana/o Studies, Disability Studies, English, Gender Studies, Music History, and Psychology.

Why Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies?

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Studies is no longer a new field, but it has certainly become one of the most dynamic fields in academia. LGBTQ Studies actually represents the intersection of two traditions that have existed for thousands of years. The better known is the learned tradition, which, at least since the end of the ancient world, has been overwhelmingly hostile. Medieval theology condemned the sodomite; nineteenth-century medicine pathologized the invert; and until the late twentieth century psychiatry felt called upon to “cure” the homosexual. For at least as long, however, men and women attracted to others of their own sex have kept alive another, affirmative tradition, a knowledge of their past that sustained them, often in the face of overwhelming official hostility. The guests at Plato’s Symposium looked back to Achilles and Patroclus; women-loving-women in early twentieth-century Paris remembered Sappho.

As the political movement for lesbian and gay rights gained strength after 1969, the knowledge that had flourished underground for centuries found a public voice sufficiently strong enough to mount a sustained challenge to the official teachings concerning minority sexualities. This challenge led to a dramatic increase in research on same-sex desire, most of it the work of scholars without academic affiliations. Inspired by these accomplishments, students and faculty at colleges and universities eventually mustered the courage to address similar topics, thereby transforming—partly by assimilation, partly by contestation—the previously hostile learned tradition. This originally rather disparate work gradually coalesced into lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer studies, which, over the last two decades, has developed into an academic discipline of remarkable breadth and vitality. The field embraces work in genetics and cultural studies, in literature and anthropology, in the health sciences, history, and the visual arts. It ranges from archival research to the elaboration of queer theory, from the analysis of constitutional law to questions of public health, from the study of popular culture to investigations into the development of sexual identity.

Although the initial focus in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies is usually on minority sexualities and genders, it is impossible to study them in any meaningful way without raising questions about sexuality and gender in general. And those questions cannot be responsibly answered without considering class, race, ethnicity, history, political economy, and the construction of scientific knowledge. Thus lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies, which may at first seem to concern the private practices of a small number of people, inevitably leads to the much larger study of sexuality, gender, and culture. It represents an important vantage point from which to investigate the social construction of gender and sexual identity, social control of behavior, changing definitions of the family, and the place of sexual expression in the public and private spheres. Because of the kinds of questions asked, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer studies is the site of some of the most exciting work being done today on the relation of culture, gender, and sexuality.

Due to the recent multiplicity of sexual genders and identities that go beyond the LGBT of our traditional focus, we have sought to be as inclusive as possible by adding the word “queer” into our acronym, and thus, through LGBTQ Studies, we hope to teach to and about this very diverse and constantly-evolving gender spectrum.