Patton named Emory's first
lesbian/gay studies professor

Although Cindy Patton jokingly refers to herself as a "pointy-headed intellectual," her practical approach in the application of knowledge is what made her stand out among a host of candidates vying to be named Emory's first lesbian/gay studies faculty member.

According to Dana White, director of the Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA), what made Patton's candidacy so appealing was "a combination of her theoretical approach to the subject and the kind of practical research she has done. She's had one foot in academia and one foot out in the field, and that's the direction in which the ILA is moving."

Last semester Patton was at one of Taiwan's national universities teaching the first lesbian and gay studies course ever offered there.

A former journalist who came to Emory from Temple University, Patton has focused most of her scholarly work on the development and impact of social movements. She became actively involved in the AIDS movement in the early '80s. "The bulk of my published work has been on AIDS politics," Patton said, "and I've written quite a bit about the role of lesbians in AIDS politics and also on the emergence of the lesbian and gay rights movement as a social movement."

Because the AIDS movement was dominated by men, however, Patton's work has not been focused on lesbians. "I'm never quite sure why that is," she said. "I think one reason is that my early academic training was in anthropology, and I learned that it's better to study other cultures than one's own. So I've been kind of an anthropologist in gay male culture. When I was so involved in AIDS politics in the '80s, I was often the lesbian tagging along [with a group of gay men]. People would often say, 'Oh don't mind her. She's just kind of a strange expert on gay male life.'''

A native of Jacksonville, N.C., Patton said she grew up feeling oppressed by southern culture and "fled" to the Northeast, which she believed would be a much more friendly environment to lesbians and gays than the South. "It turns out that there was this huge gay bar [in Jacksonville] where all the gay marines went," she said. "I didn't know about this growing up. I learned about it much later." She also learned much later that nearby Greensboro, N.C., has a large lesbian community.

Several of Patton's students have begun doing research on southern gay culture, and she believes they won't have much trouble finding material. "I'm almost wondering whether embracing gay southernness may be part of the new liberal, multicultural south," she said. "We'll see. I've always felt that the South is the queerest place in America. The traditional drag cultures in the South are really quite highly developed. And I think southerners are just kind of peculiar as a people."

In addition to being intrigued by the idea of returning to the South, Patton also was impressed by the ILA's designation of a faculty member specifically for lesbian and gay studies. The availability of domestic partner benefits also influenced her decision. "I was very impressed that Emory had not neglected this area," she said.

For her first semester, Patton is teaching one graduate lesbian and gay studies course and one undergraduate course called "American Identities." Patton said that while some lesbian and gay faculty make a habit of coming out in class, she doesn't directly reveal that she is a lesbian. "Other people do it, and I hear it works out really well," she said. "But that's just not my personality. So I rely on the fact that people already know."

Similarly, Patton works to avoid situations in class where lesbian and gay students feel pressured to come out. "I feel that's kind of an act of violence," she said, "particularly with undergraduates-who are kind of under your control-to force them to make personal claims. I like it if they try to think about that stuff, so I try to make it possible to think about it in a safe way. Whether they announce that in class is not so important to me. As long as I can tell that somewhere out there, they're thinking about these issues, that's good enough for me."

-Dan Treadaway

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