Another meaning of 'Sex Ed:' Stramel's philosophy class

In preparing college students to enter into society, it is increasingly important that colleges offer courses rich in tolerance and cultural diversity.

Classes with a heavy focus on LGBT issues are rare in community colleges. SMC, however, offers a class that truly is breaking down barriers.

Professor James Stramel has been teaching about LGBT awareness and issues since 1994. His class, Philosophy 5 "Contemporary Moral Conflicts: Sex and Sexuality," creates a safe environment for students to confront contentious social issues about sexuality and sexual morality.

The class is Stramel's baby. He originally created the curriculum for a class at the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education (IGLE) in Los Angeles, and then adapted the course content to meet SMC's transfer credit requirements.

"We just focused on a subset," he said. "Instead of doing the usual range of issues like abortion, capital punishment, and animal rights, we just focus on sexual morality and GLBT issues. We created this special topics class and we were able to do that without going through the curriculum review process for a new course."

Although the title makes no mention of it, the class is offered with a heavy emphasis on homosexuality and gender study. The semester begins with an overview of the philosophical history of sex and sexuality, moral theories and sexual ethics.

Once the students gain a basic understanding of the related theories, the class delves into the sexier issues. Lectures and discussions cover the morality of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the ethics of disclosure and gays in the military, amongst other controversial and socially relevant issues often relegated to the fringes of academia.

Stramel's philosophy class runs in the fall and spring and is almost always in high demand. "It always starts out basically full," he said. "I have good retention, but there is a bit of a tendency for the straight men to drop out. That's always the hardest audience to keep."

Of these students, Stramel says the straight demographic is the most important element in moving the LGBT debate forward. "For me, the most important audience is the two-thirds of the class that are straight," he said. "That's where I can be most effective, by winning friends in the straight community. We can't win on our own."

While Stramel admits SMC is near the forefront of acceptance and tolerance, he says that prejudice does still permeate beneath the surface. "It doesn't mean there are not people on the campus that don't have more conservative and traditional, even anti-gay views," he said. "That does exist."

One summer in the late 1990s, that anti-gay sentiment became all too evident. Stramel was teaching an entirely unrelated class at SMC when he was confronted by blatant discrimination.

"I hadn't come out in the class, but apparently one of the male students in the class figured out I was gay," he said. "I started to receive a series of anonymous letters saying all kinds of things about how homosexuality was a perversion and an abomination in the Bible and that they hoped someone would find a medicine to cure me."

He addressed the issue in class and followed up with the police, but little could be done. One subsequent letter followed but nothing more came of the incident.

With that rare exception, Stramel says that he has always felt supported and accepted during his time at SMC.

"SMC is on or near the cutting edge of things," he said. "It has always been a gay-friendly campus. I have always felt welcome. We have always had a non-discrimination program that includes sexual orientation…I feel very supported."

Philosophy 5 is by far his most rewarding class. He says students leave the class equipped with the tools to affect change on a social level and directly impact on the world around them.

"I hope that my students are enlightened," he said. "I hope they will leave the class better armed with an arsenal of logical and argumentative skills so that they can address the moral issues and engage in the public debate, and make a little contribution towards this cause. Little by little it's moving us further and making some progress."

Philosophy 5 is an all-too-rare breed of class, allowing open discourse of a socially taboo topic in a safe environment. In essence the class creates the building blocks of an accepting and equal society. It is a step in the right direction, not only for the LGBT community, but also for humanity on the whole.