Gap in the syllabus: “You can’t responsibly talk about the Victorian Era without talking about sexuality”


Credit: Julia Rosner

Ilia Hionidou

Earlier in 2019, the UK experienced a wave of protests against same-sex education in primary schools. Ilia Hionidou interviews academics about their experiences in teaching courses that feature LBGTQ+ content. The series discusses the benefits and backlashes of including LGBTQ+ studies in higher education across the UK and the US, and aims to inform readers about important moments in LGBTQ+ history.

In November 2018, Scotland became the first country in the world to embed LGBTQ+ teaching across its school curricula. Just months later, British MPs voted 538-21 in favour of new guidelines that would allow English schools to address LGBTQ+ relationships. Meanwhile, university education walks a few steps ahead of secondary and primary education in its inclusivity of side-lined minorities. Over the past few decades, queer studies have become increasingly prevalent in certain fields of higher education. From Sappho through to Judith Butler it becomes clear that some subjects have a history inseparable from matters of gender and sexuality. As academic departments have become more welcoming to such issues, there has been an increase in the attention given to the resistance of systematic whitewashing in university syllabuses. How do universities pioneer LGBTQ+ inclusion and diversify their curricula?

As Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature at American University (AU), Dustin Friedman’s teaching centres around sexuality in British Literature from the Victorian Period, focusing on the representations and theorisations of 19th century queer or non-normative desire. Friedman also teaches more general modules which establish a broader context and address a variety of significant themes from the era: from social conflict and industrialisation, to the expansion of the British Empire and colonialism. Almost all of his courses, at some point, touch on queer topics.

“One of the things that the Victorians gave to modern civilisation was, for better or for worse, sexual identity categorisation”, Friedman explains, “so, you cannot responsibly talk about the Victorian era without talking about this topic, above and beyond anything political.” Indeed, 21st century categories of sexual identity can be traced back to the Victorian era: “I think it’s important that people living today realise that these ways of thinking about identity are not inherent or immutable categories; they actually do have a history. So, the way that we think about ourselves and our sexualities and our identities are inflected by social and political issues that might not seem to have anything to do with sexuality.”

The disregard or “erasure” of queer existences in Victorian Literature was common until quite recently. Friedman addresses this disregard, stating that “if you look at scholarship that was written earlier in the 20th century, there is either no mention of it, or a very embarrassed mentioning of it, often in footnotes”. It wasn’t until the 1990] that queer readings of Victorian texts were properly recognised: “I do think that [queer theory] has become very much an established academic field. And I feel that – because I’m in 19th century studies, which is where queer studies in academia started in literary studies – that people now think, ‘well we did that already’. But I see so many graduate students in so many different fields who are interested in queer studies.”

While 19th century sexuality has become an established and prevalent research subject in academic circles, stereotypes of Victorian sexual prudery persist in the popular discourse. However, modern scholarship suggests that the era is in fact distinguished by the very opposite. Carolyn Dever argues that the Victorians hid so incessantly from sex, that they “put that which they seek to conceal on public display”.

Moreover, Michel Foucalt’s “repressive hypothesis” postulates that the Victorians so rigorously attempted to repress any reference to sex, that every facet of society became a manifestation of sexual potency via legislation, medical practice etc. One example of the Victorian desire to control the public discourse on sex and sexuality is the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, who was charged and condemned for “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. The Act’s definition of “gross indecency” was purposefully ambiguous: under Victorian moral code, to provide even a definition of gross indecency would, in and of itself, be immoral.

Is it typical for queerness to be featured in a course taught about Victorian Literature? “Yes and no,” according to Friedman. “As much as it has become a part of the scholarly field, I think you will sometimes encounter instructors who will not talk about it or mention it only glancingly.” Friedman notes that this may have something to do with generational variances: “Not to reinforce stereotypes … but if there is someone who maybe came up through the educational system earlier, for example in the 60s or 70s when [queer matters] might not have been such a topic, it just might not occur to them to address that in a 19th century class.”

Despite this, student engagement tends to be generally positive: “By and large, students enjoy the course content. Regardless of how they identify – I often don’t know how they identify in their own lives – but pretty much across the board, I think students find it to be one of the more interesting topics.” Due to Washington, D.C.’s progressive environment, Friedman observes that many students at AU take queer content as part and parcel of their studies; they “take it as a matter of course, almost”.

Friedman goes on to compare this to his experiences teaching queer topics in Victorian Literature in other academic institutions. For a number of years, Friedman taught in Singapore, “a famously conservative place”; to this day, there are no laws in place to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination, and sex between men is still illegal. Whilst teaching at the National University of Singapore, Professor Friedman observed that his students were particularly intrigued and in fact “really excited” by the queer content featured in his modules.

Professor Friedman did not receive such positive or tolerant reactions from students at all of the institutions he has taught at. Before teaching at AU and the National University of Singapore, Friedman taught queer studies classes as a PhD student at UCLA: “Surprisingly, I would get pushback from students who would foreground their religiousness. Once or twice I got comments from students who said things like ‘I can’t talk about this’ or ‘I feel like you’re not presenting a balanced perspective’. In my view I’m not really presenting any perspective, I’m just saying ‘this is what happened, and this is how people talked about it.’”

Why is it, then, that some students are unfazed by the queer content, but instead have a problem with courses that enfranchise women’s experiences? “Maybe in the cultural moment that we are in, because we are hearing so much … about how important queer topics are, people feel as if they need to be on board with that, even if on some level, they’re not. Whereas I feel like there’s not as much of a conversation around women as women, and the importance of these experiences, and so maybe people feel more comfortable articulating this.”

In recent years, there has been an increased demand to diversify institutions of higher education, either through public pressures from YouTubers to increase the admission of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or protests against university statues that symbolise historical forms of institutional racism. For most Western Literature departments, the simple diversification of reading lists could act as a positive step forward.

Every Literature department faces its own individual challenges in furthering such developments: the changes that must be made at AU differ from the changes that must be made at the University of Glasgow, or the National University of Singapore. Professor Friedman observes that AU is “pretty inclusive as it is, [however,] we can always do better.” In relation to his own teaching, Friedman is interested in the intersections of sexuality with race and nationality: “I think that that’s something that my colleagues are doing really well with, and are pioneering, and that I look to as a role model. I have other colleagues who I think could look to that more.”

Friedman also states that there are more productive ways to further inclusion than to simply toss texts written by minority authors onto the tail-end of syllabuses: “I would ask [departments] to think about white male heterosexuality as an identity in its own right, and not just as the default. So, if you have a syllabus, look at who is on your syllabus and consider why they are on your syllabus above and beyond the fact that they are the most famous and prominent texts.” Professor Friedman advises: “Think about what voices you are excluding. And think about how your picture of the 18th century, 19th century, or 20th century, is completely distorted by only including [works by] white heterosexual male authors.”

While it is crucial to consider which voices are absent from prevalent academic fields, it is just as important to consider why. This is not a question that should solely be asked of Literature departments but should in fact be posed to all faculties of Higher Education: “Something that I think other disciplines should consider is how the knowledge that we create is never neutral. It’s never completely, neutral at least.”

“And it’s never completely uninflected by cultural and historical interests.” Friedman notes that even faculties with more apparently objective focuses – such as STEM subjects – should question the inclusivity and discrimination that exists within their fields: “Even if you are teaching particle physics … you should at least question ‘what is the makeup of people who are studying particle physics?’ And if that is not representative of the population as a whole, why is that? Just because what you study is supposedly ‘neutral’ or ‘objective,’ doesn’t mean that the makeup of your field is neutral and objective.”

Could the inclusion of LGBTQ+ subjects in Higher Education impact non-academic communities? Professor Friedman believes so, and he argues that a progressive conversation surrounding LGBTQ+ inclusion could repair the “split between academic researchers and activists … activists are the ones that are taking this information to the street and making these practical and political programmes”. Friedman believes that progress must begin with collaboration; in order to tackle homophobia and improve LGBTQ+ inclusivity, institutions must openly cooperate with local, national and international activists. A central concern that Friedman highlights is the false dichotomy that exists in which academics are perceived by activists as too removed from issues they research, whereas activists are seen to overlook the nuance necessitated for a better course of action. As such, both parties must eliminate this “false dichotomy.” Rather, there needs to be “more conversation between activists and academic communities in LGBT life.”