ARDEL THOMAS NEW CHAIR OF LGBT STUDIES DEPARTMENT
BY ELIZABETH SKOW
Ardel Thomas teaches her Introduction to LGBT studies class, one of the LGBT classes.
NINA ROBINSON/ GUARDSMAN
Over tea at Café Flore, Ardel Thomas, the new Chair of City College’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) studies department told me how she came to City College. Outside, the Castro zipped by and inside a song in languid Portuguese filtered through the blur of other people’s conversations. Copper tabletops glinted a shade similar to that found in Thomas’ mischievous and spectral hazel eyes.
This solidly built, athletic Stanford Ph.D. is in her early 40’s, competes on Stanford Masters swim team and has won the gold medal for dead-lifting in the heavyweight division at the Gay Games in Amsterdam in 1998, and again in Sydney, 2002. Her personal best dead-lift is 450 lbs.
Her powerful physical presence works with her vivid charisma, and she has an obvious knack for making those around her feel comfortable. She laughs loudly and often with her head tilted back
“I intend to leave San Francisco when I make that final trip down 280 to Colma,” she says , putting her palm down on the table softly for emphasis, “They’re going to have to drag my carcass out of here.” Her eyes sparkled and I found myself laughing again. We had talked and laughed for two hours already, and my abdominal muscles hurt.
Thomas earned her Ph.D. in Modern Thought at Stanford, and taught there while she studied. She loved teaching, but something was missing.
“Stanford students may be able to write those perfect sentences, but the critical thinking and life experience elements are just not there,” Thomas said. She prefers teaching at a community college.
“If Stanford called me tomorrow, and they won’t, I’d say ‘Sorry,’
She took over the chair position for what she calls Queer studies in fall of 2006 after teaching at City College for over one year.
“We all get a healthy dose of the heterosexual, white, male view of the world every day,” Thomas says, matter-of-factly. She does not sound resentful and clearly she isn’t angry. She is just spreading the word.
Queer studies are not just for queer people. They can enlighten anybody, just like Women’s studies or African American studies or Mid-Eastern studies. The curriculum includes Lesbian and Gay American history, Psychology of Sexual Minorities and Lesbian/Gay culture and Society, to name a few.
Thomas estimates that 40 percent of her Introduction to LGBT studies class identify as heterosexual. Many HIV counseling and nursing students are enrolled in the classes so that they can serve and understand their patients better. Enrollment is growing, and they plan to offer a certificate or degree in LGBT studies soon, Thomas said.
The road to City College wasn’t a smooth one. Growing up in Oklahoma City was difficult for Thomas. She identified as a lesbian in grade school, but didn’t come-out until her first year of college. An only child, she was raised by strict Baptist parents and spent much of her time with an evangelical grandmother.
“It was very, very difficult growing up in Oklahoma,” Thomas said. She seemed lost in thought for a moment, and then mused, “How does one survive Oklahoma?”
She dated boys and befriended a closeted lesbian couple from a different school. She drank too much for a short while. She got out of Oklahoma.
She went away to a women’s college in Missouri her freshman year, but transferred to Colorado University, Boulder, the following year because of its rich culture and political climate. Thomas was the head of the Lesbian Caucus and was politically active. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis and Ronald Reagan was president
“I was always at a demonstration. I missed quite a few classes because of that,” she said.
During her masters studies Thomas realized she wanted to be a teacher. As part of her studies, she taught students who had been accepted provisionally to CU Boulder, but needed to improve their writing. She liked working with writing-challenged students.
Around this time she attended the 1987 AIDS march in Washington, D.C. It was the first time the AIDS quilt was unrolled, and nearly 800,000 people marched.
“That was the first time I thought I would be an ‘out’ teacher. I made the decision to be out from then on,” Thomas said.
She realized later the decision might have been naïve, but she stuck to it. She has been out ever since. The resulting problems can any area of her life. She and her partner would like to have a child, possibly through adoption. Only the United States will knowingly allow a gay couple to adopt a child. It is only legal in some states, even here. Thomas read that and thought,
”Well forget that. All somebody needs to do is Google me or find out what my job is and there it is.”
While at Stanford she co-authored a book on writing for service learning — one of her main passions in teaching. “Service learning is kind of like opening up the school to the world,” she said. She explained that it was learning by doing service in one’s community. Her students made signs for parks and wrote materials for health and human service industries. City College has many service learning programs, and Thomas is including some service learning in the LGBT program.
After Stanford, Thomas moved to Kentucky for a few years before she came to City College. It was a difficult experience for her living in the South again, but she worked at a community college while she was there. Teaching a relatively diverse population there made her realize that the community college was where she wanted to be.
“I love working one on one with writing students and helping them to gain confidence.” She said she prefers teaching at a community college because it allows her to be more of a generalist. Her degrees enable her to teach almost all humanities classes, rather than restricting her to a narrower field. Thomas’ colleague Trinity Ordona has a similar degree. There are very few Interdisciplinary Studies Ph.Ds out there, Ordona told me by phone later.
“We’re wanted everywhere, and we are not doing it for the prestige. We are here because we want to teach. We have learned to try to look at everyone, every way.” Ordona said there is a recent educational trend of moving away from segmentation and specializing.
“In the last couple of decades people have been putting things back together. Going deeper now means going broader.” She said. She said The LGBT studies department is lucky to have Thomas as its chairperson.
“She’s revitalizing the department after a long wait for leadership. Ardel works in the present but has a broad horizon. She’s grounded without having her nose to the ground.”
To an interviewer Ardel Thomas and City College seem to be a good fit. She says she will stay as long as they will have her here.
Chancellor Philip R Day Jr., sums it up:
“The fact that we could attract a new department chair who has such a distinguished educational background and experience, such as Ardel, is incredible, and speaks to not only the quality of her leadership, but also the quality of City College’s efforts with this program,”