Sexual diversity in the classroom

Chico State minor explores how society shapes sexual identities

Nikki Allaire is working on a minor in sexual-diversity studies and says her classes have changed her perspective on the world.

Nikki Allaire is working on a minor in sexual-diversity studies and says her classes have changed her perspective on the world.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

Everyone loves to talk about sex, especially when it comes to taboo topics.

But today the academic world is acknowledging more and more that how society influences sexuality, and vice versa, is more than just something to gossip about—it’s deserving of its own field of study.

“Sexuality is not just sexual orientation,” said Liahna Gordon, a sociology associate professor at Chico State. “It affects people’s lives in very profound ways that are worthy of academic interest. And it has largely been ignored, not just from some activist point-of-view, but also in the academic point-of-view.”

Gordon, who specializes in the field, is one of the individuals responsible for bringing the minor in sexual-diversity studies to Chico State a few years ago, offering an area of study that explores how societal factors—especially sexual orientation, race and socioeconomic status—influence the ways individuals construct their sexual identities.

“Sexuality is not this add-on thing,” she said, referring to how sexuality is ingrained in everyday life. “It is a part of politics, war, migration, globalization; those things influence sexuality, and sexuality influences those things.”

Chico State’s sexual-diversity-studies minor is one of dozens of certificate, minor and degree programs around the United States that explore sexual diversity and sexual orientation in an academic way. Most other schools offer “gay studies” or “sexual diversity” tracks in their women’s- and gender-studies programs.

That was a fact that Gordon and her colleague, Sara Cooper, expressed when they pitched the minor to the Academic Senate in 2004. The two got the ball rolling after they arrived at Chico State in 2000 and recognized that the university would fall behind more-progressive schools without a program of its nature.

“It helps us keep pace with the rest of the nation,” Gordon said.

Gordon and Cooper, along with Carol Burr, the director of the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies at the time, and a few other integral instructors worked through heaps of paperwork and answered tough questions, such as what the minor should look like, which classes to include, and what it should be called.

Those involved in its creation ultimately decided to shy away from terms used by other colleges, such as “gay studies” and “LGBT studies” (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), Gordon said.

Some expressed concern that students might hesitate to take on a “gay studies” minor out of fear that employers or universities would see it on a transcript and assume they were gay.

The title “sexual diversity studies,” on the other hand, denotes a wider range of study, including how sexuality intersects and interacts with race, class and gender, as well as things many people don’t think of, such as technology, politics and the economy, Gordon said.

She used the example of the stereotypes that Latina women have out-of-control fertility and that black men are aggressive, violent and animalistic sexually.

“You don’t understand racism until you understand how the tools of sexuality are used,” she said. She went on to explain the notion that welfare reform was based on stereotypes, and how that could spark a classroom discussion.

“Gender and sexuality always get mixed together,” she continued. “Race and sexuality are also connected, but the connections are less clear. We look at sexuality from all angles. The minor brings them all together.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the minor, officially offered starting in 2006, made it “interesting but frustrating” to design the program, Gordon said, because it required other departments to get on board, including sociology, religious studies and political science, to name a few. (Now, the number of departments involved is what has kept the minor alive in the face of harsh budget cuts.)

Gordon said the strong support she and her colleagues received from the university and other departments was surprising.

“I expected there to be some resistance. Anything new and related to sex gets marginalized,” she said. “And the Academic Senate did ask for some clarifications, some tweaking [of our proposal], but they never questioned the legitimacy and whether the minor would benefit the campus.”

Chico State student Nikki Allaire was a theater major for a few years before she switched to women’s studies in 2009. She recently decided to complete the sexual-diversity-studies minor after a few instructors sparked her interest.

“Every time I walk out of a class, my mind is reeling with ideas,” she said while cozying up on the Women’s Center couch in the Bell Memorial Union basement. “It’s changing my perspective on a lot of things, like how influenced we are by our gender in our culture and how unnecessary titles are.”

Allaire said she often takes what she learns and continues the conversation outside the classroom.

Gordon said that’s the point—questioning and talking about different forms of sexuality and sexual orientation, regardless of whether they’re deemed deviant by society.

“Whether you’re a business major or working at a nonprofit, you’re going to interact with people who have a wide range of sexual identities,” she said.