On September 12, the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) held a symposium to honor the career of Professor Emeritus John D’Emilio. Early in the day, Pippa Holloway—once D’Emilio’s research assistant and student—observed that a hallmark of D’Emilio’s work was that he engaged historical sources “emotionally and intellectually,” “with his head and his heart.”
That joining of the head and the heart also characterized the day’s events, which combined scholarly conversation with personal reminiscences, frequent laughter, and some tender tears. Held at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the symposium brought together a community of friendship and of intellectual and political affinity that D’Emilio had nurtured over four decades. The gathering also gave attendees a chance to take stock of the history of sexuality and of LGBT history—“separate” but “incestuous” fields, as Marcia Gallo put it, that D’Emilio helped shaped since the 1970s.
The celebration of John D’Emilio’s career kicked off on the evening of Thursday, September 11, when Estelle Freedman—D’Emilio’s dear friend and collaborator—delivered a keynote lecture titled “Sexual Violence and Citizenship: Rape Reform in American History.” It drew from her most recent book and explored how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century debates about the legal and cultural construction of rape were tied up with larger conflicts over race, gender, and nation. The lecture, she said, reflected D’Emilio’s personal and intellectual influence. Freedman also spoke about her decades-long relationship with D’Emilio, which began in the 1970s when they were both graduate students at Columbia University and “coming of age intellectually when the personal was becoming a legitimate historical topic.”
On Friday, the first panel of the symposium tackled the question of D’Emilio’s influence. Amber Hollibaugh, who in the late 1970s worked alongside D’Emilio in the community-based San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, situated the roots of LGBT studies in the “radical intellectual climate” of the era. As the academy was then skeptical or even hostile to sympathetic research on queer topics, D’Emilio’s decision to write his dissertation on the homophile movement demonstrated what Hollibaugh called an “extraordinary and quiet courage.” Douglas Mitchell, an acquisitions editor for the University of Chicago Press since 1977, recalled the process of considering D’Emilio’s dissertation for publication. At the time, no academic press had ever put out a monograph on American lesbian and gay history. Mitchell noted how the success of Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities paved the way for extensive publishing in the field in subsequent years. Cathy Cohen spoke to D’Emilio’s groundbreaking intersectional approach to studying the history of sexuality and to the emancipatory political commitments that animated his work. D’Emilio, Cohen said, “insisted on understanding LGBT history in the context of white supremacy, capitalism, and sexism.” Pippa Holloway described the direct contributions of D’Emilio’s scholarship to LGBT activism outside of the academy. Finally, Kwame Holmes emphasized the enormous historiographical impact of D’Emilio’s ideas, including his still subversive argument for the social construction of homosexuality, most clearly articulated in “Capitalism and Gay Identity.”
The second panel evaluated the state of the fields of LGBT history and the history of sexuality. Panelists discussed the continuing relevance of D’Emilio’s scholarship even as these areas of study have moved in a variety of new directions. In the 2010s, Marcia Gallo asserted, LGBT history and the history of sexuality are “in flower,” and their methods—particularly their approach to oral history—have influenced the broader discipline of history. Joanne Meyerowitz remarked on the continuing output of historical studies that, following the framework established by D’Emilio, investigated lesbian and gay community building and political organizing, albeit in previously unexplored social and geographic contexts. Meyerowitz also noted a growing interest in “queer domesticity,” which looks at queer history from a new angle by considering childhood and family life. Highlighting the “fluid and dynamic relationship between sexuality and gender in historiography,” A. Finn Enke said that D’Emilio’s imprint could be seen “in so many different ways” in trans and feminist history. Ramón Gutiérrez argued that one of D’Emilio’s signal insights was an awareness of the importance of class stratification in the LGBT world, and he suggested that, especially in Latino/a Studies, an emphasis on class and culture characterized much cutting-edge research. Kevin Mumford, meanwhile, gave a presentation on his current book project on black gay identity from the civil rights era to the onset of the AIDS crisis.
The symposium closed with a panel that considered the future of LGBT history. Siohban Somerville argued that there was much promise in a continued exploration of questions of scale and place, and she noted that LGBT scholars had only just begun to examine indigeneity as a category of analysis distinct from race. Taking inspiration from the news, Julio Capó, Jr. spoke to the need for historical investigation of the recent past and wondered what conclusions might be reached if queer history were brought to bear on current events, such as the extrajudicial killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Katie Batza said historians should do more to investigate the LGBT experience in putatively straight spaces—such as churches, workplaces, and rural and suburban locales—and discussed the need to move forward with the task of weaving queer history and the history of sexuality into larger narratives of the American past.
At the end of the day, D’Emilio offered some reflections of his own. He mused about how the apparent triumph of same-sex marriage and the widespread acceptance of homosexuality in contemporary American society might change the questions that historians ask, especially in light of our day’s increasing economic inequality and the still sharply divergent experiences of queer people across lines of class, race, and age. He speculated that rather than telling stories of self-organized LBGT resistance—long a dominant theme in the field—queer historians would increasingly tell “stories of integration” about the changing place of homosexuality and gender nonconformity in mainstream institutions. D’Emilio also wondered how LGBT studies—born out of an oppositional social movement and community-based efforts—would be transformed by its relative acceptance within the academy. “There are times when I long for marginality,” D’Emilio admitted, noting that universities tend to most reward scholars whose work is directed to other academics instead of “people.” “Let’s demand it of ourselves that we write so that people who are not in our institutions get it,” he said.
The symposium attested to the vibrancy of the history of sexuality and LGBT history and to John D’Emilio’s foundational role in both fields. More striking than content of the day’s discussions, however, was the spirit of scholarly community that suffused the air. Gathered together were generations of people who, inspired by D’Emilio’s example and at times sustained by his intellectual and emotional support, had carried on a project of historical inquiry and had committed themselves to the belief that the critical study of the past can help to build a more just future.
Ian Darnell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is at work on a dissertation that brings sexuality and the family to bear on the history of white flight and urban decline in St. Louis, Missouri.
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