The University Record, April 17, 2000

English course sparks controversy

By Jane R. Elgass

“It is the role of a university to think about what it means to be human, to think about the physical world and also about the human world,” President Lee C. Bollinger told the Regents at the start of their April 13 meeting. He was commenting on the inclusion of “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” (English 317, Literature and Culture) among the fall term offerings of the Department of English Language and Literature.

Bollinger’s comments followed several weeks of controversy and heavy media coverage about the course, which is taught by Prof. David Halperin, and preceded remarks at the public comments session by Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan (AFA-Michigan).

The course description states in part: “Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn how to become one. Gay men do some of that learning on their own, but often we learn how to be gay from others. This course will examine the general topic of the role that initiation plays in the formation of gay identity. We will approach it from three angles: as a subcultural practice . . . ; as a theme in gay male writing; as a class project, since the course will constitute an experiment in the very process of initiation that it hopes to understand.”

“This course,” Bollinger told the Regents, “is a study of a facet of what it means to be human. One of the intellectual interests, especially over the past 20 years, has been to think about popular culture and the way in which people create their identity in the world. This is a course in that tradition.

“We believe that this course has academic value and we believe the process by which this course has been created is sound,” the president said.

Glenn told that Regents that, “AFA-Michigan believes it is wrong to force taxpayers to foot the bill for a class whose express purpose is to ‘experiment’ in ‘initiating’ teenagers into a lifestyle of homosexual behavior that violates state law, violates the moral and religious convictions of many taxpayers, and poses a threat to the life and health of students who engage in such behavior, further burdening taxpayers with the costs of its public health consequences.”

Glenn provided the Regents with a 71-page bound report, “Health Implications Associated with Homosexuality,” to support the organization’s call for the University to “stop using our tax dollars to promote, legitimize and thus encourage high-risk homosexual behavior.”

Glenn asked the Regents “to adopt the following broad-based policy: that U-M will not offer classes that affirm, legitimize, promote, and thus encourage behavioral choices that are (1) threatening to the life and health of students, or (2) in violation of state law.”

In a letter supporting the course (on the Web at www.lsa.umich.edu/english/undergraduate/howtobegay.html), John Whittier-Ferguson, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, writes: “I place this course in a fairly long line of distinguished courses, offered at colleges and universities around the country, that have focused on matters of culture and identity over the past 30 years,” including those examining what it meant to be African American and what it meant to be a woman. “College courses,” he adds, “respond to cultural changes, and issues of homosexuality are increasingly being discussed in a wide variety of venues in our country (and in the world).

“We would be remiss as an institution that hopes to produce reflective and socially responsible graduates if we were not, at a number of different points in our curriculum, considering issues of sexual orientation and the ways that orientation affects and is affected by society.”