50 Years of LGBTQ Studies at UNL
UNL was the first university in the US to include an approved, full-credit LGBTQ Studies course in its catalog, giving UNL the distinction of having the longest continuously running LGBTQ+ Studies programming. In recognition of this historic, pioneering course, the Department of English will host events and projects in a year-long festival.Scheduled EventsEvents in DevelopmentHistoryFacebook
In 1970, the first courses in the newly developing field of LGBTQ studies were offered at U.S. universities. Among these few pioneers was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Proseminar in Homophile Studies,” led and designed by English professor Louis Crompton and psychology professor James Cole, enrolled 34 students, featured 13 guest lecturers, and provoked hearings in the Nebraska Legislature while the course was still in fall session. The course received an unprecedented level of scrutiny by scholars, administrators, legislators, mental health professionals, and social activists. Its bold, multifaceted, prescient scholarship set the path for a national trend in LGBTQ Studies around the world.
The Department of English will celebrate this milestone with events and projects throughout the next academic year. Beginning in fall 2021 and extending into spring 2022, we pay tribute to UNL’s groundbreaking role in LGBTQ history, past and present. Award-winning cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel (author/illustrator of Fun Home) will be among the notable guests joining us on campus to celebrate.
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Fall 2021 Events
- Unkissed Kisses / Untold Stories: LGBTQ+ Literature and UNL English, an exhibit at Love Library;
- Timothy Schaffert reading and reception for his novel The Perfume Thief, in conversation with Chigozie Obioma, on 9/9/21 at 7pm, at the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts
- A staged reading of materials related to the 1970 course, on 9/30/21 at 5 pm in the Student Union Auditorium
- An evening with Alison Bechdel, the author/illustrator of the award-winning memoir Fun Home (which was also the basis for the award-winning musical of the same name), on 10/7/21 at 7pm at the Rococo Theater
- A reading by novelist Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You (noted as “best of the year” by over 50 publications upon its release) and the much heralded Cleanness; at the Nebraska Union, Platte River Room South, on 10/14/21 at 7 pm
- A lecture by Jack Halberstam, Professor of Gender Studies and English at Columbia University, entitled “An Aesthetics of Collapse”—the keynote for the exhibit “The Nature of Waste” at the Sheldon Museum of Art, 5:30 pm on 10/21/21
- “Cartoons & the Queer Aesthetic,” a discussion of LGBTQ+ graphic novels/memoirs and the history of queer comics, on 11/3/21 at 5 pm in Andrews Hall Bailey Library
Events in Development
- Poets Danez Smith and Natalie Diaz
- Novelists and UNL alumni SJ Sindu and DeMisty Bellinger
- Readings and discussion of new books by UNL faculty
- The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis by Melissa Homestead
- The Perfume Thief, a novel by Timothy Schaffert
- A Queer History of Adolescence by Gabrielle Owen
- An exhibit of archival materials that trace LGBTQ history at UNL from the nineteenth century through the twenty-first
Selected moments in the LGBTQ+ history
of the UNL Department of English
Before publishing his gay classic The Picture of Dorian Gray (a novel that would be used against Wilde in trials that led to his imprisonment for homosexuality), Oscar Wilde presented lectures throughout the United States. He appeared on the UNL campus during his visit to Lincoln, and he spoke to poetry students as a guest of English professor George Woodberry. According to an article in The Nebraska State Journal, Wilde criticized the university architecture and called for a gymnasium where “might be seen models of the old Greek athletes, such splendid examples of physical beauty.”
Willa Cather is enrolled at UNL as a student of English. Cather would go on to win international awards and recognition for her novels set in Nebraska, including the Pulitzer Prize; and she lived for 40 years with a woman named Edith Lewis. (Their relationship is the subject of Professor Melissa Homestead’s book, The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, published by Oxford University Press in April 2021.)
Cather’s sexuality, though widely recognized as queer today, was the source of decades of debate and denial among scholars. But letters she wrote to her friend, Louise Pound (also an English student and also queer), in 1892 reveal the complexity of her feelings for Pound, and for years served as evidence of Cather’s queerness for literary scholars and biographers. Among the young Cather’s protestations to her crush: “It is manifestly unfair that ‘feminine friendships’ should be unnatural.”
Scrip, a student-run literary journal in the UNL Department of English, had the opportunity to publish an original poem by the acclaimed countercultural poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, who at that point was already a controversial figure—his poem “Howl,” a classic of queer literature, faced obscenity charges in 1956—was invited to campus by a group of student activists. For the occasion, Ginsberg wrote for Scrip a new poem titled “Auto Poesy to Nebraska.” The poem included references to Lincoln and Omaha, and ended with a reference to O Street, which he calls “Zero Street” in the poem. (You can listen to a recording of Ginsberg himself reading the poem, thanks to Smithsonian Folkways).
The student work to be published in the special issue of Scrip was specifically inspired by Ginsberg, and the cover featured a collage of photos of the poet. A university authority restricted publication of the Ginsberg poem in the journal, so the student editors (including Steve Abbott, who would go on to become an acclaimed queer poet himself) simply mimeographed the four-page-long Ginsberg poem, stapled it, and slipped it between the covers of every issue of Scrip sold.
“Proseminar in Homophile Studies,” a course designed by English professor Lou Crompton, becomes one of the first LGBTQ studies courses to ever be offered at a U.S. university.
Sinister Wisdom, the first journal of lesbian scholarship, is housed in Lincoln for issues #7-14, with English professor Julia Penelope as one of its editors. Dr. Penelope would also offer the first lesbian novel class in the nation.
emily danforth published her first novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, set at an LGBTQ conversion therapy camp, which she wrote as a graduate student at UNL and submitted as her creative dissertation for an English Ph.D. The book was later adapted into a film that won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
The leading award for LGBTQ+ literature, the Lambda Literary Awards, recognized four books by authors who once studied English and writing at UNL: two books by Roxane Gay (Hunger, a memoir which won in the category of “bisexual nonfiction,” and Difficult Women, a finalist for short fiction); the novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu (the novel was also recognized with an award by The Publishing Triangle, the other leading award for LGBTQ+ authors); and Blind Girl Grunt: The Selected Blues Lyrics and Other Poems by Constance Merritt.
[A note on the “50 Years” logo: the off-register impression of the typeface represents the history of underground publishing, which has long served as the main avenue of dissemination of LGBTQ literature. Design by Erin Chambers.]