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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Stanford program examines human diversity of sexuality, gender

Sex is a conversation of bodies and minds, and there are many ways to talk. The ways in which we express sexuality depend on both gender and genitalia. We are each of us special and unique. Diverse.

Though sex is a fundamental aspect of life, sex research is met more often with snickers than seriousness. Despite Harvard Professor Alfred Kinsey's pioneering reports on human sexuality, published nearly 50 years ago, and the flurry of studies that came after, sex research remains at a primitive stage.

On Oct. 18, sex scholarship will get some respect as Stanford faculty launch a colloquium to discuss cultural and biological diversity in human sexuality and gender. A public reception from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Serra House will launch a year-long initiative that will bring speakers in the sciences and the humanities to campus for substantive scholarly dialogue (see sidebar on page XX). The reception coincides with the launch of the Women in Natural Science and Engineering (WINSE) program of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Support to bring in the speakers comes from WINSE, the Stanford Humanities Center, the Center for Integrated Research in Science and Humanities, the LGBT Community Resources Center (LGBT-CRC, for support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender faculty, staff and students) and the Offices of the President and Provost.

The colloquium is the brainchild of the Committee on Cultural and Biological Diversity. Committee members say the talks likely will foster conversations that guide them in conceiving of an academic program in diversity studies. Program components are likely to include literature, history, ethnography, linguistics, primatology, ecology, genetics, medicine and law.

"[The initiative] represents a very broad-based Stanford commitment to looking into the academic dimensions of diversity," says committee chair Joan Roughgarden. "There is a need nationwide to start building bridges between the humanities and the sciences academically and to begin the millennium with a sense of rapport rather than continued warfare between these sectors of the academy. The problem is finding a topic on which there needs to be professional-level contact between humanists and scientists."

That topical bridge is sex. "This is one of the few topic areas where there is active scholarship in both the humanities and in the sciences and where there's a genuine professional need for humanists and scientists to collaborate," says Roughgarden, who is a professor of biological sciences and geophysics.

What don't we know about diversity of sexuality and gender? A lot, says biologist and committee member Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies: "Our knowledge is still fragmentary; we are only beginning to sort out the genetic and cultural factors that contribute to gender, and to deal with the social issues raised by gender diversity."

While collaborations between scientists and humanists are sure to bring new knowledge, scholars may experience culture clash, says biologist and committee member Robert Sapolsky: "One of the defining features of humans as a species is our diversity, the extraordinary range of it, and as soon as you try to grapple with its causes with a topic as provocative as sexuality and gender, you get the major 'two cultures' problem ­ the biologists who are loathe to accept that biology is not destiny, and the social scientists and humanities types who really are intent on denying that biology exists, even for humans. That's why this interdisciplinary approach here is so promising."

What kinds of new knowledge and real-world benefits might interdisciplinary collaborations bring? "Scientists can address problems such as working out the gene-environment interactions that determine gender (the broad sense), but people in the humanities are essential to the discussion of how people with diverse sexual orientations can live decent lives, without conflict or prejudice and with equal opportunity, in the same society," says Ehrlich.

"Increasing evidence from research on other animals indicates that the notion that each species has only two gender types, male and female, is too simplistic," says committee member Patricia P. Jones, professor of biological sciences and vice provost for faculty development. "Behaviorally and perhaps physiologically, some individuals within each species differ from the male and female stereotypes. This knowledge should help us understand human gender diversity, and to recognize that this 'rainbow' of gender types is normal within the animal kingdom, of which humans are a part."

The Committee on Cultural and Biological Diversity, open to any interested faculty member, currently includes biologists Ehrlich, Jones, Roughgarden and Sapolsky; historians Estelle Freedman, Paul Robinson and Kennell Jackson; Stanford Symphony Orchestra Director J. Karla Lemon; Spanish-language scholar Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano; linguist and Feminist Studies director Penny Eckert; earth scientist Julie Kennedy; and Assistant Dean of Students Ben Davidson.

"There is nothing like this initiative anywhere," says Davidson, who directs the LGBT-CRC. "This will be the first, and that's one of the reasons that we're all so very excited about the project." The Stanford initiative is unlike academic programs that employ identity politics to address diversity through study of specific demographic groups, such as women or homosexuals. Such programs have gone a long way in attempting to address the intersections of gender and sexuality with differences in ethnicity, race, culture and religion, Davidson says. "But we will be uniquely positioned to be able to go further in looking at the intersections because we're not focused on a specific group. We're not focused on women, we're not focused on people of the African diaspora, we're not focused on lesbian and gay people per se. We're focused on diversity, both in biology and in culture."


Sex: A topical bridge for diversity studies, or a bridge too far?

Will Stanford be able to embrace diversity through sex?

"What's especially at the tip of the iceberg is trying to understand whether our affirmation of diversity as a society extends beyond solely cultural and religious diversity to include explicitly biological diversity and to reposition the biological minorities that are currently pathologized as first-class citizens," says Roughgarden. While people in general like the idea of diversity, she says, a lot of people want to pick and choose which diverse groups they will accept. "We really need to discuss whether that's possible."

Roughgarden, a transgendered woman who has been at Stanford since 1972, has given this topic more thought than most. Since her transition in the spring of 1998, she says she has felt nearly "invisible" on campus, where she teaches graduate students and conducts ecology research that looks at the natural world through the lens of math. On her desk sits a manuscript, thicker than a phone book, of a book she is writing: Evolution's Rainbow: Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People (Princeton University Press, expected 2002). On her wall is a drawing of a dancing bear with the caption: "Out of chaos comes the dance of balance."

Roughgarden has experience forging interdisciplinary academic alliances of the type necessary to make the diversity initiative a reality. Nine years ago she founded the Earth Systems program, Stanford's second-largest interdisciplinary program next to Human Biology, to bring together researchers from geology, ecology, civil engineering and economics for interdisciplinary environmental studies. That program took only two years from conception to approval by the Faculty Senate.

The diversity program is "something whose time has come," Roughgarden says. "I feel in some respects I'm surfing a wave. And I think a lot of people are about to catch the wave as well."

The diversity committee is not interested in creating a new interdepartmental program, Davidson says. Rather, it aims to supplement and complement the work of Stanford interdepartmental programs, such as those at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and in the Feminist Studies Program. "We definitely don't see this endeavor in any way as being in opposition to those programs," he says. "What we hope to do is to broaden and enrich the scope of cross-disciplinary, comparative diversity studies. So that means that although our primary focus will be on gender and sexual orientation, we're also very interested in looking at other cultural and biological differences, including race."

The ultimate goal, Roughgarden says, is to found an interdisciplinary research center for diversity studies that would offer an undergraduate honors option available to majors from any department or program, as well as graduate fellowships. "We hope for some faculty billets that would reside within existing departments," Roughgarden says. "We're hoping ultimately to build the academic strength for research in diversity studies by seeding the existing departments with new appointments."

Challenges remain for the initiative to succeed. Stanford is "behind the curve," Roughgarden says, in studies of diversity in gender and sexuality specifically. "A lot of scholarship that's of great concern to us is not available here." Stanford lacks a queer studies department, for instance. The Medical School does not have a course in human sexuality. The diversity program will address this gap by bringing important scholars to campus.

Only time will tell if sex will be a topical bridge for diversity studies ­ or a bridge too far. Throughout the ages, controversy about sexual diversity has rocked institutions from marriage to the military.

"We at Stanford and we in the United States have to start talking about gender and sexuality above board," says Roughgarden. "The major policy issue prior to the Sept. 11 disaster was stem cell research, and that's all about the ethics of different reproductive technologies. We're still continually being blindsided by this and other developments concerning gender, sexuality and reproduction generally."

Controversy does not worry Davidson, who sees the initiative as a meaningful academic vehicle through which Stanford students and faculty can explore issues of sexuality and gender identity. "Work in diversity studies and the type of comparative work that we're interested in encouraging really does represent the cutting-edge of research in a range of fields," he says. "In focusing on people who are doing important scholarship and not necessarily people who are celebrities, our project will have a great deal of academic legitimacy. And we're not promoting the political interests of any group of people, either within academia or outside of academia. We're interested in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge."

Says Roughgarden: "We see presumptions in a university that are incorrect and sometimes discouraging and harmful to the diverse peoples that are actually here and that we ultimately have to encompass if Stanford's to be a successful university in this society as a whole and not just to a privileged minority within it."  


Speaker Schedule: Colloquium on Cultural and Biological Diversity  

Oct. 25

4 ­ 6:30 p.m., Serra House, 556 Salvatierra Walk (Map:

Joan Roughgarden, professor of biological sciences, Stanford: "Ecological Aspects of Gender and Sexuality"  

Nov. 1

4 ­ 6:30 p.m., Serra House, 556 Salvatierra Walk

Judith Halberstam, professor of English literature, University of California­San Diego: "Female Masculinity"

Nov. 29

4 ­ 6:30 p.m., Serra House, 556 Salvatierra Walk

Mathew Kuefler, assistant professor of history, San Diego State University: "Masculinity in the Late Roman Empire"

Feb. 8-9

Time TBA, Stanford Humanities Center (the former Bowman Alumni House, 424 Santa Teresa St. Map:

Michael Moore, professor of biology, Arizona State University: "Hormones and Gender Multiplicity"

Jennifer Terry, professor of women's studies, University of California-Berkeley: "Science and Sexuality"

Paul Vasey, professor of psychology, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada: "Evolution of Same-Sex Sexuality in Japanese Macaques"


By Dawn Levy

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