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Silhouettes on stage behind a red curtain


Doyle Seminar Creates a Supportive Space for Innovation about LGBTQ+ Stories, Both Historical and Personal

By: Lindsey Parnas

September 22, 2022

Georgetown students explored creative approaches to adapting LGBTQ+ historical materials into performance through the spring 2022 class Performing LGBTQ+ History (TPST 242). This course was a Doyle Seminar co-taught by Michael T. Williams, assistant professor of the practice in the Theater and Performance Studies Program and artistic advisor to co-curricular theater, alongside Sivagami “Shiva” Subbaraman, adjunct faculty in the Department of Performing Arts and founding director of Georgetown's LGBTQ Resource Center (2008-2021; emeritus).

Doyle Seminars are small, upper-level classes that foster dialogue on diversity and difference through student research and co-curricular learning. The seminars are sponsored by the Doyle Engaging Difference Program at Georgetown University.

TPST242 students adapt oral histories and archival documents—such as interview transcripts, letters, video recordings, newspaper coverage, and diaries of real-world LGBTQ+ activists, change-makers, and allies—to give voice to the leaders of the global queer justice movement. The analysis of dramatic literature, all born from verbatim interviews or real-life historical materials, offers creative reference points for the students as they choose structures, themes, and styles for their own final projects. According to the syllabus, this course asked students “to connect their own personal journeys and identities to the larger social, cultural, and political histories of the queer movements.”

The course was also intersectional, including readings covering race, disability, and mental health as well as featuring guest speakers from those fields. For example, the students read five core plays grappling with LGBTQ+ histories, including stories of queer peoples in Lebanon, India, the Black American South, England, and Scotland. Likewise, the course was cross-listed with Disability Studies, History, Women and Gender Studies, and the Culture and Politics program.

Professor Subbaraman emphasized both the historical and personal significance of this course’s subject material. “I was drawn to this course because while theater is not my area of expertise at all (I have more expertise in literature),” she said, “I was really attracted to LGBTQ+ history because I am a big believer in situating LGBTQ+ histories at Georgetown both in the context of larger movement histories and with my work creating the LGBTQ+ Resource Center.” Subbaraman also stressed the course’s importance for the Georgetown community.

There are [very few] classes that look at LGBTQ+ histories at GU. This is the only class that embeds the queer history of GU in the larger histories of the community. That is a real loss for the community because there is no way for people to know where we came from. This is one way our identities and histories are erased.

Creating a Supportive and Creative Space to Celebrate LGBTQ+ Stories

Matt (C’22)* highlighted how the class taught him the importance of celebrating marginalized communities.

“As the only assigned-male-at-birth person in the class, not everyone was a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I initially asked myself why are non-LGBTQ+ people here, but people don’t need to look like me and sound like me to celebrate what it is to be LGBTQ+,” he reflected. “The class made me realize that LGBTQ+ people need to be celebrated, but so does everyone else, members of all communities. Also, celebration should be something that extends beyond that, not just in classes or during certain months.”

Yas (C’23, they/them)* is a student from Georgetown University in Qatar spending a semester on the Hilltop who also appreciated the course’s celebration of its students: “I feel like it was one of my favorite classes that I have taken. The instructors did such a good job at supporting us. It was the very first time at Georgetown that professors told us how beautiful things we submitted were.”

Yas also mentioned the disability and social inclusivity of the class. “I have ADHD…[and] it was the only true class I was accommodated in. I didn’t feel the usual shame that I would [in other classes]—it was very inclusive,” they said. “It allowed me to have more engagement in this class. I would do work for this class first because I loved it so much.” This creation of a safe space allowed them to engage with the coursework in a deep way.

I truly learned the importance of theater in social movements and learned to enjoy a piece without thinking it has to change the world. It could just be a piece of art that you could be in the moment and enjoy. You can make beautiful pieces out of anything.

Connecting Movements to Personal Histories through Performance

Core assignments in the course included sourcing, editing, and performing a monologue from the words of an LGBTQ+ trailblazer, and a collaborative project where small groups of students researched the history of queer rights on the Hilltop and forged this material into short theatre works. For their final assignments, students were given wide latitude to develop a short researched performance work inspired by the core plays and projects of the class. For his project, Matt talked about the simplification of what it is to be queer and performed a song about the struggles of queerness behind superficial “glittery facades” (see selected lyrics below).

It’s just another boy’s face that you see when passing by
But you’d never suspect that boy would rather die
He’s got a million faces, plays his cards just right
But the hardest thing he does everyday is stay alive

It’s more than putting glitter in your eyes
And pulling your shorts way past your thighs
And waving a flag from left to right

It’s wanting to love you
It’s wanting to want you
When you don’t know just who you are and you drive for hours in your car
And at the same time
You think you’re losing your damn mind
When everybody in the world’s saying prayers he’ll change
You just want somebody to love
It’s all the same

One student from the class who adapted their personal histories into theater pieces is Han Miller (C’23, they/them). Han is very involved in the technology side of the extracurricular theater activities at Georgetown. Han also performed a piece based on their life experiences, as well as those of their friends and mentors, about the intertwined struggles of being autistic, queer, and non-binary:

Number 1: I don’t think I get the they/them thing.

Han: Well I don’t know if you knew this but autistic people are more likely to be trans or non-binary, or maybe it’s vice versa. But basically, the theory is that it's because the set rules of society don’t really work for the autistic brain. Like I certainly do not understand the gender binary, and I do not have any desire to live under a system that I do not understand at all, so for me, it just makes more sense to not fit into it. I remember as a kid I used to love playing dress-up and wearing Disney princess costumes. And then one day, I learned that that is considered a gendered activity and I stopped. So much of my gender identity is formed by the way society perceives me and my actions.

Similarly, Yas’ project touched on defying gender and sexual binaries while also talking about the “hidden society in Qatar.” Yas’ performance video describes the experience of the majlis: “a room separated from the household to host guests—mainly male guests. The majlis is our space—our queer space, our therapy, our gay parties, where everyone is accepted, as long as you’re queer of course. It’s where we had queer weddings, queer parties, or just where we played video games and danced and chilled.”

According to Yas, this piece was “100% adapted from my own experience to show the experience of being queer in Qatar…. It’s a world where there is a lot of Islamophobia, but this is a world to show where people are normal like you and to give them an image of what it’s like to be queer in Qatar.”

This project also allowed Yas to reflect on a critical intersection between their culture and identity. “It’s where I realized I was gay. Coming as a hetero-cis woman and coming into my own identity, the first time I walked into the majlis, I was shocked and it was really beautiful because it was the first time I was able to be myself and ask many questions,” they said. “Because the majlis is so masculine, it’s such a male place, no women are allowed, but we are able to debunk that and make it a queer space.”

Professor Williams, the original creator of this course first taught in spring 2021, was deeply moved by the experience.

To guide a class of students in the study of queer histories, supported by the tools and embodied practices of the theater, is a profound gift, and also really fun.

He welcomes “students of any identity from any school [at Georgetown] interested in knowledge about queer history [to] check out the course. We’re really nice, and you’ll learn a lot.”

*Last name redacted for anonymity