September 13, 2012
Two graduate students, Talya Zemach-Bersin (American Studies) and Susan Surface (Architecture), presented on their research at the year’s first meeting of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Graduate Colloquium and Working Group, held on Monday evening.
Zemach-Bersin’s presentation, titled “Women at Home in the World: the Sexual Politics of Foreign Relations and Sentimental Diplomacy,” discussed the creation of the Experiment in International Living during the period between World War I and World War II. Donald Watt founded the program, which still runs foreign exchange and homestay trips, with the hopes of fostering international friendships among the (specially selected, homogenously white and upper-class) youth and their counterparts in other nations. Watt wanted to teach the next generation of American leaders to connect with other countries and other cultures, and believed that it would be those skills, rather than anything learned in a classroom, which could prevent war. It’s not a coincidence that he chose Germany, Zemach-Bersin explained, given the increasing geopolitical tensions between America and Germany at the time.
Zemach-Bersin’s talk focused on Watt’s gendered vision of international relations, framed in the terms of sentimentalism. His conception of the home as a place where virtues could be taught and minds could be changed directed his emphasis on recruiting women to the programs. Women, Watt believed, possessed a natural inclination towards the sort of emotional connections and social openness that was necessary for the success of the programs, and would therefore provide a civilizing influence on the male participants.
Running alongside analysis of the role of gender in the early years of the EIL was the striking reality of the places to which the programs went—and the trips’ unexpected consequences. Trips to 1930’s Germany found students returning having received an appreciation for, understanding of, or perhaps even indoctrination into Nazi beliefs and culture. Zemach-Bersin began her talk with a New York Times photo of a group of coed students returning from Germany, right arms outstretched in a Nazi salute. No less disturbing was Watt’s later turn, following the outbreak of World War II, to Latin America, and the increasingly militaristic rhetoric with which he promoted his programs.
Surface’s talk, “Queer Spatial Practice,” looked at the way in which queer identities can be found built into the blueprints of buildings and addressed the question of what it means to design a “queer” building. She focused her analysis on Yale’s famous Art and Architecture building, designed by the late and famously homosexual Paul Marvin Rudolph.
While critics of the building have called it authoritarian and harsh, Surface explained, it contains a number of homoerotic undertones. She cited such details as the textured walls which, rather than being simply rough stone, could be said to mirror the corduroy fabric that was integral to “flagging” culture, in which gay men seeking sexual encounters hung different colors of corduroy handkerchiefs from their back pockets to indicate their sexual preferences. The isolated nooks and hallways, she continued, contrast with the wide-open workroom in which everyone could monitor the progress of their peers as they worked. The former could have been designed for just the opposite—as the perfect spot for furtive trysts.
Surface also discussed her work on the renovation of the Audre Lorde Project office building, which included the design of a community centered space in which different queer groups could meet. Surface talked about the team’s goal of remaining open and democratic throughout the design process, as well as creating an office space that encouraged community in its use of sliding partitions rather than cubicles, allowed for natural light and natural airflow, and used backlit walls to encourage workers to personalize their own space with photos and images they found inspiring.
The next meeting of the Colloquium will be on October 8th, when Marita Von Weissenberg (History) will present “Uses of Masculinity in Constructing Late Medieval Holiness” and Aaron Potenza (American Studies) will present “Cold War Gay Rights: Employment Discrimination and the Depathologization of Homosexuality.”
Courtney Hodrick is a freshman in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.