LESSON PLAN FOR EDUCATORS
This lesson plan is intended for students from grades 9 through 12. It is designed to be used in conjunction with a visit to the Bancroft Library Gallery on the University of California, Berkeley campus.
A PLACE AT THE TABLE is an exhibit that explores the many ways lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender creativity has manifested itself in American history and culture. On display are books, photographs, posters, crafts and other objects that represent a variety of creative efforts. A small theatre in the middle of the gallery shows LGBT video clips, and an audio track of LGBT music plays over a sound system. We have attempted to create an enveloping environment that surrounds the visitor with a variety of manifestations of LGBT creativity.
If you have not already done so, we strongly recommend that you visit the website of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/home/index.html ) which offers excellent tools for classroom use.
BEFORE YOUR VISIT
Students should have an understanding of the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.
Do you identify as male, female, both or neither?
Are you sexually attracted to males, females, both or neither?
Discuss the variety of options available because of various gender identifications and sexual orientations. Stress that gender identification and sexual orientation are not either/or propositions. People do not need to be only gay or only straight, only male or only female. These deeply personal issues are complex and fluid, and are as individual as a person’s fingerprints.
Students should have some understanding of who Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were. You might point out that Toklas was born and raised inSan Francisco, and that Stein grew up inOakland. Stein’s familiar quote about Oakland (“There is no there there”) was not meant to criticize the city, but was an observation that everything that was familiar to her as a girl had been torn down and built over. When asked about returning to the scenes of her childhood, she explained that there was nothing there to return to.
AT THE GALLERY
When you first enter the Bancroft Gallery you will see a display case in which a long table has been installed. This is the “head table” where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are hosting a dinner party. Have the students look for the white teapot at the center of the table. This teapot was once own by Alice B. Toklas, and was filled with rose petals from Gertrude Stein’s garden inFrancein 1937. The flowers are still fragrant.
At the table are ten “place-settings” for American artists, writers and performers who were/are primarily lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They also represent a variety of races and ethnicities. Students should explore the intersection of race and sexual orientation, and observe the many ways LGBT creativity has blossomed in theUnited States.
At the head table, immediately to the right of Gertrude Stein, are place settings for Christine Jorgensen and Ruth (also known as Arroh-ah-och). Christine Jorgensen was born a biological male, but her gender identity was female. In 1952 she went toDenmarkfor gender reassignment hormone therapy and surgery. When she returned to theU.S.as a woman, she became one of the earliest activists for transgender issues.
Sitting next to Jorgensen is a Laguna Pueblo potter named Ruth (no last name). Ruth was a berdache, a person who was biologically male, but who assumed a female gender role, wearing women’s clothing and taking on traditional female tasks. There were berdaches in nearly all Native American tribes. Berdaches were not considered to be male or female, but instead were a third gender.
How did Christine Jorgensen’s gender identity differ from Ruth’s? How does the notion of a third gender affect our concept of identity?
Jorgensen encountered much hostility after her transition, while Ruth’s role in her tribe was expected, even ritualized. What effect does society’s attitude toward gender conformity or non-conformity have on decisions about how a person lives her or his life?
Was Christine Jorgensen a woman? Was Ruth?
The students should know something in advance about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, especially that Hughes was a black gay writer celebrated for his poetry. In one of the two poetry cases in the Gallery there is a broadside of a poem by Hughes titled “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The broadside was signed in ink by Langston Hughes himself. Here is a link to a recording of the poet reading his poem:
In this poem is Langston Hughes speaking as a black man, or as a gay man, or as both, or as neither?
How many separate identities can a person have? Is it necessary that all of our identities be displayed in all of our creative works?
If you knew nothing about Langston Hughes as a person, what could you learn about him from this poem alone?
During the 1950s and 1960s a genre of literature developed known as lesbian pulps. The novels were published in cheap paperback editions, and while they were marketed primarily to heterosexual men, they became important sources of information for closeted lesbians, making them feel that other women like themselves existed somewhere. Because ofU.S.postal regulations against mailing pornography, the stories could not praise lesbianism or have happy endings. The women in the novels were usually sad about their sexuality, and almost always by the end of the novel they had been murdered, had committed suicide, were declared insane, or were married to a man. Despite the unhappiness of most of the stories, lesbians of the period read them eagerly.
Lesbian pulps are especially known for their lurid covers. On display in the Gallery is a group of these from the Bancroft Library’s collection. This exercise will focus on the artwork and text presented on the covers of the books. They were designed to sell the novel, though they sometimes had little connection with the story within.
Have the students “read” the covers on display. What messages are the covers sending about lesbians?
Based on the covers of the books titled Queer Affair and Women’s Barracks, who does the publisher expect will buy the book?
Beebo Brinker is one of series of six novels written by Ann Bannon (pseudonym of Ann Weldy). The books represented lesbians in a fairly positive light, and were hugely popular. Looking just at the artwork on the cover of Beebo Brinker, what does this image of a woman suggest about the story inside? How does reading the text on the cover change our perception of the woman depicted waiting on the street corner?
Here are a few exercises that employ video clips available on YouTube:
The first is the trailer for the film Red River, directed by Howard Hawks in 1948. Begin by explaining to the students that this is a classic Western, widely considered to be one of the top examples of the genre. The story is about a man named Tom Dunson, played by the ruggedly masculine actor John Wayne. Dunson adopts a boy named Matt Garth, who grows up to be a young man played by Montgomery Clift. The two men — stepfather and stepson — clash during a cattle drive, as they take their herd from their ranch inTexas to the railhead inMissouri, where the cattle will be sold. The film includes all the standard features of this genre — two men who fight over very different views of what is proper behavior, two women trying to survive in a harsh environment where men have the upper hand, Native Americans portrayed as merciless savages. Play the trailer for the movie, which captures all of these elements.
Now explain that the movie star Montgomery Clift was gay, and that while most of the movie-goers inAmericaat the time were not aware of his sexual orientation, it was an open secret inHollywood. Because of the production codes, homosexuality could not be portrayed openly in movies, but frequently scenes were inserted into movies where viewers who were aware of the sexual orientation of the actors could read more into a scene than appeared on the surface. Here is a scene between the gay actor Montgomery Clift and the straight actor John Ireland.
Discuss with the students the idea of a subtext in movies or in literature. Ask them to imagine being a gay man in the 1940s or the 1950s sitting in a movie theatre watching this scene with a straight audience that didn’t know that Montgomery Clift was gay. How does the existence of a subtext contribute to one’s sense of being part of a community — or of being outside of a community?
Less frequently, movies included a lesbian subtext, but where gay male subtext tended to be humorous, lesbian subtext was almost always ominous. A classic example is the character of Mrs. Danvers from the Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca (1940). Give the students a brief plot outline: a woman whose name is never revealed (played by Joan Fontaine) has married a wealthy widower named de Winter (played by Laurence Olivier) and he has brought her to his country home, a mansion called Manderley. There she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson). Mrs. Danvers had enjoyed a very close relationship with the first Mrs. de Winter and she resents the fact that the young woman has come to replace her late mistress. Though there is no overt mention of lesbianism, the subtext is very clear. Judith Anderson, the actress playing Mrs. Danvers, is widely believed to have been a lesbian herself.
Discuss the difference between gay male and lesbian subtext. What type of message is being sent by the film-makers in these different depictions, and why?
There have been many biographical movies about famous people who were almost certainly LGBT. Until fairly recently, the sexual orientation of these famous figures was completely omitted from their film biography. In some cases movie studios seem on the surface to have avoided the issue, but a closer look at the film reveals a subtext that suggests something about the sexual orientation of the person -- without making an overt statement.
Here is a clip from the movie Calamity Jane (1953). Little is known about the sexual orientation of the actual woman known as Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Burke, 1852-1903), but in many of her photographs she appears to be very masculine in her presentation. In some photographs it is difficult to tell if she is a man or a woman. In the 1953 film Doris Day, playing Calamity Jane, sings the song “Secret Love.” Have your students view this film clip to see if they detect a lesbian subtext in this scene.
Things that might be discussed: 1.) the costume and hairstyle chosen for the actress, 2.) the lack of gender references in the song “Secret Love,” 3.) the reactions of the town people to Calamity Jane as she enters town after having sung about her secret love. What is being encoded here?
Discuss current examples of openly gay or lesbian characters in film or television, and current examples of encoded sexual orientation. In Hollywood in an earlier time, open portrayals of homosexuality were prohibited. Now that openly LGBT characters may be included in films and on TV, why are some characters still gay or lesbian only in subtext?