University of Iowa English Ph.D. student creates a course with a focus on queer history in Iowa

Enrico Bruno wanted to create a class with the focus on queer writers of color, but also the queer history that has yet to be discovered in Iowa and in the Iowa City Community.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

Grad student professors, (left to right) Aiden Bettine and Enrico Bruno pose for a portrait inside of the LGBTQ Iowa Archives at the Wesley Community Center on May 6 2021.

Caitlin Crome, News Reporter

Over the spring semester, 22 undergraduate students have been working in seven different groups to create narratives of queer topics specific to Iowa’s history in a class called Queer Movements: Queer of Color Literature and Theory.

University of Iowa English Ph.D. student Enrico Bruno is in his final year of graduate school. Being a fellow for the English department this year, he was able to teach a course for English majors and was also able to pitch this idea to the department.

“The focus of my course consists of queer writers of color and as I moved through the novels and the major texts we were reading, I really wanted to make sure the work was informed by the historical moments that these texts emerged from,” Bruno said. “So a big focus of my class is on the local and on the community and the way that texts emerged from local communities.”

Bruno originally wanted to work in physical space and create a physical exhibit about the queer history in Iowa. But, because of the pandemic, he had to re-design the final project.

“Now for my students’ final project, they are doing this work with the archives where they are uncovering the local queer history of Iowa City by looking into a specific topic or story from our queer past that really has not been recorded anywhere publicly,” he said.

Bruno is graduating next month and will not be offering this course himself, but he said he hopes that this class shows the department the importance of having classes like this and working with the local community.

“I do hope that this class can serve as a model for other similar types of classes the department will do,” he said.

Bruno’s overall goal with this class is to offer an English class that was not limited to only books his students would get at the bookstore, but to show them the way that the queer history that they are studying was lived by real people.

“Doing this project, the way they are mostly doing their research is going to the archives,” he said. “I want them to think about the impact of this history on actual real people, and not just characters in a book.”

LGBTQ Iowa Archives will publish the students’ final projects on their website under a tab titled, Queer Iowa Narratives, starting in the end of May, Bruno said.

Executive Director of the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library Aiden Bettine said he has worked very closely with Bruno and his class over the past semester.

When looking at aligning the archives with Bruno’s english class, it made sense to Bettine to help with the narrative work surrounding the LGBTQ community to help share the history of Iowa and Iowa City specifically.

“This felt like a really great opportunity to collaborate with Enrico and his class to have english majors and folks interested in an english class do some research and the narrative work around these Iowa City topics,” Bettine said.

Bettine is hoping that by working with this class and having the online site to post all of their narratives under Queer Iowa Naratives, it will open up opportunities in the future to work with other classes to expand the series.

“It is really an incredible opportunity to see students dig into the queer material that we do have on our campus and get excited about,” Bettine said. “I think it is just really incredible to give students an opportunity to engage with the history that is right around them, whether it is on our campus or in our city.”

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The LGBTQ Iowa Archives opened its doors for the first time in January 2021 and are located in the Westley Center in downtown Iowa City. There is a lending library, an archives space, and a gallery featuring queer artists of Iowa.

The LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library mission statement is a community archives and lending library whose mission is to collect, preserve, and share the queer history of Iowa and increase access to queer literature for all ages, written by archives volunteer Olivia Anderson, Bettine said.

“As we have grown, it has been important to not only remind people that Iowa certainly does have queer history and a past, but to actually tell them about and share narratives and stories,” Bettine said.

One thing that has been clear to him during his time in Iowa, he said, is that people do not know Iowa’s LGBTQ history and that it is also actually pretty hard to research. He said there are only so many sources in the institutional archives.

“That is one reason we wanted to start the community archives because we know there is a lot of material out there that just has not been collected, and it really does not fall under one organizations mission until now,” Bettine said.

Three students in this class are focusing their project on Better Homes and Dykes, a queer newsletter publication based out of Iowa City that ran from 1972 and 1982.

“It is a series of publications that kind of work to unify a lesbian community within Iowa City and it had a lot of advertisements for events people could go to but also a way that people could talk about their experiences,” second-year UI student Tamara-Jo Schaapherder said, who is working on the project.

UI second-year student Carmela Furio, who is also working on the Better Homes and Dykes project, said she specifically talks about a discourse between two different articles from Better Homes and Dykes speaking on venereal disease.

“Alongside like the fun poetry stuff and announcements and community gathering stuff that Tamara-Jo talked about, it was also like a space for discussion about queer topics – specifically queer topics related to lesbians,” Furio said.

UI second-year student Quinlan Stafford, who is also a part of the project, said she focused on the rise and the downfall of the Women’s Coffee House that was created within the publication’s advertisements and announcements.

“This was them trying to promote a community space,” Stafford said. “It is just so cool to read.”

These students were drawn to taking this class by not only the authors and content they were going to be able to read from, but the idea of exploring their identities in a safe space.

“It is really hard for me to take gender sexuality studies classes – so far all of the classes I have taken have been attached to an English studies course,” Furio said. “For me it was an opportunity to learn more about your queer history.”

Stafford felt very similarly to Furio, and said she feels people of color are a very vital part of the queer community. She felt that it was important to read their narratives, she said, as well as narratives different from her own experiences as a queer person.

Furio said from one of the first meetings they had as a class, Bruno told the class he hopes that they will come out of this class with a stronger sense of queer community in Iowa City.

“It was very important for me to learn about the history of queer communities but also learn about writing in queer communities today that are not attached to academia,” Furio said. “For me it gives me a sense of safety that once I graduate from academia in general, I will still have a sense of queer community and there will be queer community for me outside of academia.”