Dr. Ehrhardt is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an affiliate faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Ehrhardt received her B.A. in English while minoring in Women’s Studies from Duke University, and her M.A., M. Phil., and Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. Her foci include women’s literature from the turn of the twentieth century to the present. Her current courses include Gay and Lesbian Literature and Contemporary American Women’s Writing. She is the author of Writers of Conviction: The Personal Politics of Zona Gale, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Rose Wilder Lane, and Josephine Herbst (2004), and is currently working on a book about dieting in American literature.
As a mentor, what has your experience with sexuality and reproductive rights been like on the OU campus?
I’ve had the good fortune to hear people’s coming-out stories, to learn about students who are transgender, who come out to me and come to me for resources. I think one of the great things about college is, when you’re away from your family and your support system, you can sort of try things out on professors and people in the community. I have heard stories and I’ve thought, I don’t know how this person is still alive. I’ve heard of people who were disowned for being gay or lesbian, or people who’ve had to go to conversion therapy for being gay or lesbian. I’ve heard of transgender students who couldn’t explain to others what transgender was. There are students who have been victims and survivors of incest, who were told that this was just the way life was. I’ve also had a lot of students who have questions and curiosity about different methods of birth control or sex education that they never heard about when they were in high school. You’re helping them deal with anger about that, about sex education alongside medical and social information that they had been shielded from.
What is it like working with young LGBTQ+ students and their allies? How is that different from working with previous generations?
Generationally, things are different. The generation ahead of me was hesitant about coming out. I didn’t come out until college, and even then people said “Well, don’t do that, because it could affect your career.” Now I’m teaching a class, Gay and Lesbian Literature, and one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to teaching that class and excited about the people in it is because they’re bringing me up to speed on current information. They’re bringing me books that I might want to read and questions I might want to consider or that I just haven’t thought about or need to think more about. I was really nervous about teaching the class, because I was worried the students would think I wasn’t up to speed or teaching them stuff that was going to be useful. But people are very receptive to these topics when we talk about them in class. Now they know me as someone who’s really interested in this and who will listen and try to understand. It’s my good privilege to work with students who are always stretching my imagination. They’re coming up with brilliant research topics while holding me accountable, and saying, “Look, we’re having this event, you’d better be there!”
Why is it important to have classes on gay and lesbian literature, or classes focusing on female authors?
Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that you can go your whole life without reading literature by a woman. In many departments and English classes around the country, you have “Gender Week,” or “Race Week,” where okay, here we have our black author and here we have our female author. That female author tends to be a middle-class white woman, right? In developing my classes, I’ve been really conscious of including voices that testify to the female experience who are also really talented writers, whether they identify as female or feminist or not. The problem with the way the literary establishment works is that we tend not to see male writers as gendered. That person is just a writer. Female writers always seem to have that gender tag in front of them. There’s this idea that there’s a kind of women’s fiction that women are really good at writing: chick lit, the beach book, children’s literature. You rarely see women lauded for being really tremendous novelists. Toni Morrison is an obvious exception to the rule, but we also have to pay attention to intersectionality and how class, religion, region, and education affects how one imagines oneself as a writer. It’s very individual to each author. But there are also constraints in terms of gender when you talk about access to publishing. Look at how many books by women are reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, even though their chief book reviewer is a woman. I wanted to teach the gay and lesbian literature class because it seemed to me that students were very familiar with contemporary gay and lesbian fiction, such as Fun Home, Tipping the Velvet, those sorts of things. But they really didn’t know what we would call canonical gay and lesbian literature, starting with Whitman and Dickinson and even further back. These are important writers in the American literary tradition. There’s a gay and lesbian literary heritage that people should know, but they don’t know, and that’s why I wanted to teach that class.
What do you think OU faculty members can do to support or assist students struggling with their sexuality or reproductive rights?
I think it’s a responsibility of the faculty to educate yourself about this topic, and also to show students that they are not alone, that there are people like them. When you go to school, you’re becoming who you’re going to be in the world. I always tell people, “I don’t care if you like my class or not. I really want to teach you, or hope you realize that what really matters is being a good person and being true to yourself.” And when you’re gay, lesbian, or queer in any way, you know that the world isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. And it’s hard to testify to that, but you’re lucky because you know the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. I think that we have a lot of work to do. We need faculty members to be there. OU has a great faculty who come to activities, people who come to lectures. They’re trying to show that we are also engaged in these issues, not only because of our intellectual work, but also because we have a personal stake in this. I think most people who are in this field really care about students. We want them to do well and we want them to thrive. Again, it’s a challenge to be out and have to do all this self-education and exploration when you may be working, may be having a job. You know, college is hard enough when you have to take organic chemistry and try to figure out all this stuff.
What resources on campus would you recommend for LGBTQ+ students or students who are seeking more information about reproductive rights/justice?
We’ve got great resources like the Gender and Equality Center, the Women’s and Gender Studies programs, and also faculty members who might not be affiliated with these programs and who are also out and available to students to talk about this. A great organization from the Gender and Equality Center are the Sexperts. They’ll give presentations on sex, sexuality, safe sex, and questions about reproductive politics and ways to educate and take care for yourself. I also think Take Root is very important. A lot of times when people talk about reproductive justice, what they’re thinking about is the right to choose. That’s not only what reproductive justice is – it’s the idea that people have the right to decide whether or not they’re going to have children, how they want to raise those children. They need options and the freedom to do that, and that’s a right, it’s not a privilege. Take Root also deals with questions of HIV, the environment, and also non-traditional parenting, on what that would really mean if we had a truly just society in terms of reproduction. I’m also very impressed and inspired by the work of individual students and research projects, and in QUIC (Queer Inclusion on Campus) and other student activism. I think that Goddard Health Center can be helpful. I think also there’s a lot of resources at OU, but it’s hard to find them because of the web, because we don’t call offices anymore.
How could OU improve on this aspect?
I would like it if Goddard would hire someone who had a specialty or a nurse practitioner who had worked in the areas of gender health, lesbian and gay health, and transgender health, which aren’t the same issues. Each of those communities has different needs. I think it would be really great if we could get some more health practitioners, not only who have been educated in this area, but who are really invested in issues of LBTGQ health. Here is where people who are transitioning can get hormones, and a lot of people are going to be getting birth control for the first time. I think every lesbian, when you go to the doctor, they ask you “Are you sexually active?” You say yes, and they ask, “Is there any chance you might be pregnant?” You say no, and then they’re all freaked out because you’re not on birth control, that sort of thing. I also think the Office of University Community is good, but we really need to press them on issues of gender, and also on disability and mental health. I think that studies have shown that gay, lesbian, and transgender youth are more likely to try to commit suicide. They may be depressed, and their mental health needs may not be answered here.