First-Year Studies: The Invention of Homosexuality

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Different historians trace the invention of modern homosexuality to different historical moments from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries. The invention of heterosexuality, it would seem, followed after. Certainly the term “heterosexual” appeared only after the term “homosexual” was coined in the late-19th century. Neither meant, at first, what they mean today. In this class, we will study the development of modern understandings of same-sex desire in relation to understandings of sex, gender, race, class, nation, nature, culture, and opposite-sex desire. We will be drawing centrally on literary works, especially novels, which have been crucial sites for the construction and dissemination of modern understandings of sexuality. But we will also be reading histories, science, laws, letters, and polemics—and watching films. Although we will be considering both earlier and more recent materials, we will focus on the period from the 1880s to the 1960s. By the 1880s, almost everyone agrees, a recognizably modern understanding of homosexuality was becoming available. The sexual/cultural landscapes that subsequently developed were not radically rearranged until the 1960s, when the gay and women’s liberation movements insisted on a political analysis of sexuality. This course will serve as an introduction to a broad range of modern literature, to fundamental works in the history of sexuality and contemporary lesbian/gay/queer studies, and to critical thinking about how we talk, read, and write about sex. Conference work may be focused on any period from the 19th century to the present.