First class of Sexuality, Gender and Queer Studies major graduating
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Posted: May 31, 2019

Third time was the charm for Finn Johnson. When he first transferred to Portland State in 2013, he majored in women's studies before switching to psychology. But as a trans identifying student, he says neither major was a good fit and the courses he was taking were not inclusive enough of the trans community.

 Last year, during his Intro to Queer Studies course, his professor Miriam Abelson mentioned there was a new major in Sexuality, Gender and Queer Studies.

"I was so excited because when I looked at the course requirements, these were the courses I wanted to take but wouldn't fit into what my major was," he said.

He met with Abelson, and that day, changed his major. A year later, he's among the first students to graduate with the new major, a first-of-its-kind degree in Oregon that combines women's studies, sociology, biology, psychology, literature and cultural studies to examine the issues connected to sexuality, gender and queer politics in the country and around the world. 

Johnson now has his sights set on becoming a civil rights lawyer for LGBTQ immigrants. He says the classes he's taken in critical race, trans and disability theories have taught him about marginalized populations, their histories, and how best to serve them.

"Everything I've learned is going to help me be the best civil rights and immigration lawyer that I can be because I'll have this background knowledge of how race, class and gender intersectionality impact immigration," he said. "I don't think many lawyers have the ability to learn this as undergraduates and I think it's going be really useful for me in the future."

The Sexuality, Gender and Queer Studies major was a response to a growing need among students who saw gaps in the conventional women's studies major and wanted to explore sexuality and gender more broadly. The department has offered a minor since 2008.

Learn more about the Sexuality, Gender and Queer studies major

In the major, students combine a set of core classes with a practicum at a community or campus organization, and electives from departments as diverse as biology, sociology, psychology, history, film studies, public health, Black Studies, Chicano-Latino Studies and Indigenous Nations Studies.

"There's a lot of disciplinary perspectives that students need to have in order to be able to understand and make change," said Lisa Weasel, professor and chair of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department. "We see employers needing to grapple with issues around how we communicate across differences, how we understand the whole range of lived experiences that people bring. Our students are uniquely equipped to be able to bring these perspectives into so many different aspects of their life."

Weasel says the practicum provides students with the opportunity to connect what they're learning in the classroom with what's happening in the real world. And the research projects that seniors take on for their final project show the breadth and depth of queer studies. This term, topics range from how transgender people use online social spaces to the oft-ignored role women of color played in the punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement and how college campuses are considering transgender student experiences in Title IX implementation.

"Queer theory can be used to look at everything — capitalism, the educational system, the prison system," Johnson said. "We look at societal groups and we see what aspects of their identities prohibit them from moving through these systems more freely."

 Weasel says many students will likely go on to careers in nonprofit work, social work or law, but there's no single path.

Take, for example, Kara Jinks, who is also majoring in math. A recently out student when she transferred to PSU, she was drawn to University Studies' Gender and Sexuality Studies cluster. She completed the Sexuality, Gender and Queer Studies minor but decided to tack on another year to her studies when the major was announced. 

She says that through the courses, she's been able to think critically about institutional forces of oppression and what can and has been done to counteract those forces. Jinks will be returning to PSU in the fall to begin a master's in mathematics, but hopes to eventually serve as a teacher advocate and help make math education more equitable.

Jinks says that women and trans and queer people are chronically underrepresented in the STEM fields. 

"The math itself is its own thing, but the people who are working on it, the people who are teaching it, the people who learn it are influenced by issues of gender and sexuality," she said. "It's important to make it so that students are encouraged to learn it and that they're capable of learning it in spite of other things that might be going on in their life."

There's currently 38 declared majors, but Weasel expects that number will only continue to grow as more and more freshmen are drawn to PSU for the unique major.

Photo caption: At top, Finn Johnson. At bottom, Kara Jinks, far left, and Finn Johnson, far right, present during the 13th annual Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Student Research Colloquium.