When the University of Chicago founded its gender studies department in 1996, it trailed other colleges and universities in doing so by about two decades. It is perhaps no surprise then that the prestigious school never became a target for gender studies majors.
However the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, an old campus house wedged into a muddy lot at 5733 S. University Ave., is abuzz this year with change.
The center is going after a reputation as destination school for LGBT and women's studies. That effort started with adopting a new name last summer (it was formerly called the Center for Gender Studies), will continue with the hosting of lesbian comic writer Alison Bechdel and will stretch over the next three years as the campus begins recording its LGBT history for the first time.
"We're trying to make the center more visible," said Director Linda Zerilli.
That has meant updating the name of the center to highlight work on LGBT lives and history, which faculty members say the department has engaged with since the department's inception. The inclusion of the word "sexuality" is more about acknowledging current work than changing course, said Zerilli.
The shift happened over the summer of 2011, without resistance from community membersa surprise to some who thought that feminists might worry about the role of women's studies in a growing and more inclusive department. Other project names that bore the name "gay and lesbian" have also been updated to include the full LGBT.
Part of growing its visibility for LGBT life and studies in the future, will be an effort to look back at the school's past. In March, the center in launching its "Closeted in the Quadrangles" project (the "quadrangles" refer to a part of campus), a three-year oral-history project aimed recording the school's LGBT history from the early twentieth century through the present.
In the coming years, the center will be working to supplement its lack of archival records with oral testimony from LGBT people who experienced the campus in decades past.
Monica Mercado, a graduate student in history, is kicking off that effort in her Spring undergraduate class. Over the course of the quarter, approximately 12 students will begin digging through the university's archives and through its rolodex. Students will be contacting alums and past community members in hopes of recording a history of the institution not yet on paper.
The task is not an easy one, said Mercado.
"We're really starting from scratch," she said. "If I walked over to the archives in Regenstein Library right now, I wouldn't find anything [on LGBT history at the university]."
Mercado speculates that historical LGBT documents on the university exist, but that few have made their way into the archives. Gathering up oral histories may dig up some of those lost records, she said.
"I think that people don't realize that what they have is valuable," Mercado said.
The project is hardly business-as-usual for a department that works to bring in some of the more current names in LGBT and women's studies. The department will host Alison Bechdel, cartoonist behind "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" and "Dykes to Watch Out For," this spring. It is also home to English and gender-studies titan Lauren Berlant. It regularly hosts talks, programs and workshops, including a recent talk with controversial feminist figure Catharine MacKinnon.
Looking back into the LGBT past has not always been the focus, said Mercado. The oral-history project will change that.
"In some ways, it's not a super-sexy project," she said. "Most of what we do here is very current."
The project was inspired by another successful undertaking from the department that completed in 2009 when students compiled women's oral histories from the university. That project included between 80 to 90 interviews and culminated in the thin, glossy book "On Equal Terms."
But the challenges facing the LGBT oral history project will be steeper. For one, the project will rely on alumni relations to outreach to former students. With the women's oral history project, contacting right alums was simply a matter of looking up women who attended the college. With the LGBT history project, determining where to start looking means figuring out who identifies as LGBT to begin with.
It's an issue that Christopher Hoover, an undergraduate student in the department ran into when he started working on his thesis. The fourth-year is studying people often derogatorily deemed "lesbians until graduation" and "gay until graduation." Hoover uses the terms "LUG" and "GUG" for short.
Hoover wanted to interview people who had identified as LGBTQ in college and then went on to have long-term heterosexual relationships or changed the way the identified to heterosexual.
However, finding people to interview was hardly easy. As expected, the university's alumni office thought his request to interview LUGs and GUGs was weird, and they declined to put the call out on through their networks. In the end, Hoover found seven people, all women, using other school resources to interview. His thesis will be completed later this year.
When he graduates, he will have the option of taking the department's new name in gender and sexuality studies on his diploma or keeping the old.
The building that houses that center, an odd mix between the Harry Potter-esque architecture of the university and the bare space-like updates that now adorn it, was quiet on a recent Thursday afternoon. Upstairs, longtime Affinity Community Services member Kelly Saulsberrywho is studying public policy at the university and working at the centertapped away at a computer.
Mercado notes that when helping other students find the center, she often describes its proximity to the math building, well-known because an extra-alarm blaze burned through its roof in October, 2010.
The center itself, however, is less known on campus, something that Zerilli is determined to change.
"Gender studies has to create a lot of energy. ... This place just has to be an intellectual magnet," she said. "I think we're really rocking here now."
Upcoming events at the Center include a talk by Katherine Crawford entitled "Love Talk and Dirty Jokes: French Erotic Poetry and Masculinity in the Renaissance" Thursday, Feb. 9, 4:30—6:00 p.m., at Harper Memorial Library, Room 103. There's also a lecture by Jasbir Puar, "Homonationalism Gone Viral: The Affective Politics of Sensation," on Thursday, Feb. 16, 4:30—6:00 p.m., in the same venue.