"Where's all the homosexual desire?" I used to wonder at the University of Pennsylvania, trudging through a survey course of classical Greco-Roman literature and yawning over Sophocles.
Apparently, I had enrolled in the wrong class and school.
Critics may call it homos for dummies or queer studies for the masses, but the recently launched Gay School smashes decades of academic prudishness with offerings ranging from the gender- bending women of opera to gays and the Bible. On the verge of its fourth semester, it's also leading continuing education right to the closet, where all the juicy topics and skeletons are hidden.
The brainchild of Scott Wallace, a 62-year-old semiretired college professor, the school addresses topics infused with gay sensibility yet deemed too marginal by mainstream institutions like New York University or the New School. "I wanted something that's wide-open to everyone."
Accessibility is one of the school's most prized keystones. In practical terms, this translates into classes that are affordable as well as provocative. At only $65 for a six-week course, the school costs far less than NYU, where a five-week course typically runs upward of $200. Adhering to a loose, noncredit structure, it also has no entrance prerequisites.
So far, prospective teachers at the Gay School aren't required to have any special qualifications either, though experienced academic professionals have offered their services. For Sandra Langer who's published six books, holds a Ph.D. in art history and criticism, and has taught at Hunter College and the School of Visual Arts volunteering at the school is a breath of fresh air; oxygen is about all the educators get, besides a small honorarium.
"I was teaching art history in the South and I mentioned that Michelangelo and Da Vinci were gay. One student went to the dean to complain and I was told to tone it down," she says, rolling her eyes. Instead, Langer is much more excited about "Camp Hollywood: Strange Fruit," a course she co-instructs on the hidden influences of gays and lesbians on the silver screen.
As for homework, it's optional. Even hot-windy brain-busters like "Sex and Society: A History and Deconstruction of Gay Identity" lets slackers slide. Adolph Freda, who took the course in the winter, knows. "It was a college-level seminar, but some just listened and participated in the discussions on an impromptu basis."
Informality is very important to Wallace, whose idea for the Gay School stemmed from various discussion groups he started three years ago at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. After these roundtables and other personal-growth seminars proved to be successful, Wallace concluded that there was a real need for a gay-centered adult educational institution. He submitted a proposal to the Center's directors, they liked it, and the school was inaugurated last October.
"I didn't have enough sense to be scared about failure. We just announced it," he says of the school's opening. With only a small advertisement in the Center's newsletter, the introductory reception drew enough students to launch five of the nine courses originally offered, with about six to eight students apiece.
Since then, both the fall and winter semesters have exceeded Wallace's expectations. And, according to Wallace, there's no shortage of source material for future classes: same-sex oriented manuscripts and artworks have been squirreled away in university research libraries and museum archives for centuries. "Graduate students and scholars have always known about them. It's just that until 30 years ago, nobody was willing to discuss them openly," he says.
Despite the Gay School's auspicious beginning, the fledgling institution is still finding its way, with occasional fumbles. At the spring registration, held on a rainy Sunday afternoon in mid March, barely anyone showed up; it hadn't occurred to Wallace that most people had already registered for spring courses in January.
Financial constraints are also a hindrance. "It's nickels and dimes," says Wallace of his advertising and operating budgets, though the Center and Identity House charge the school very little for classroom space. Nonetheless, Wallace is optimistic that its mix of queer studies lite, arts surveys, and practical-skills building will catch on. "I'm looking for grants, which I think I'll get once the word gets around," he says.
In the meantime, though, he'll keep slapping curricula together. "Certain things you just have to jump in, get started, and sort of polish as you go."
For registration information on the Gay School, call 917-921-1866 or 201-798-9566, or write to The Gay School, P.O. Box 163, Church Street Station, New York, NY 10008-0163.
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