Harvard to Endow Chair in Gay, Lesbian Studies

Harvard University is creating a visiting professorship in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies with a $1.5 million gift from the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus.

Tom Parry, past president of the Caucus, said Wednesday he believed the professorship will be the first specifically for sexuality or sexual minorities in the United States. The University of Louisville has a chair in race, class, gender and sexuality studies named for lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust said the professorship was "an important milestone" for LGBT studies at the university.

Gay and lesbian studies is a relatively young field of academic study. The first programs began in the 1980s, and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center opened in 1991 as the first university-based research center.

Harvard students could not major in gay and lesbian studies until the university made changes in the fall of 2003, Parry said.

"It's certainly about time, that something like this has happened," said Sarah E. Chinn, the center's executive director. "Plenty of programs are really flourishing in colleges and universities all over the country.

Under the F.O. Matthiessen professorship, one professor will visit the university for a semester each year. They will work with the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality, but also could work with other departments, such as history or literature.

"You have a lot of exciting scholarship in the field of gay and lesbian studies in the country, so you want to get some of those people who are on the cutting edge," Parry said. "It's not only great for students, but it also opens the eyes of faculty."

The university hopes to have the first visiting professor on campus in either the fall 2010 or spring 2011. The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will choose a committee, which will recommend professors for the position.

The $1.5 million gift came mostly from donations from members of the Caucus, which advocates for LGBT faculty, staff, students and alumni at Harvard.

Matthiessen was a beloved Harvard professor, distinguished literary critic and gay man who died in 1950.

Harvard philosophy professor Warren Goldfarb said they wanted to honor a man who also helped foster a new field of study — American studies — much as gay and lesbian professors work to expand their field of studies now.

"That is, of course, what we are trying to do here," he said.