Ideas Still Matter
‘In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics, and Community Life’
by Kit van Cleave
When John D’Emilio became enamored with gay history, he couldn’t have guessed how it would affect his academic career. In fact, this outstanding essayist would soon be helping to discover, and invent, the future.
In his new book, In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics, and Community Life, the teacher and activist outlines how a commitment to history and ideas can lead to a defining moment in creating national history.
Born into a traditional Southern Italian family, he grew up in the Bronx, eventually moving to Manhattan for college. The world he began building for himself “was populated by political dissenters and cultural radicals.” It was, he notes, also a gay world. As an enthusiastic graduate student on his way to a PhD, he decided to research and write gay history “as a tool for community building” during the first years of the AIDS crisis.
Seeking employment after graduation, he quickly found that “no history department in the U.S. had ever hired someone whose work was gay identified…. So for three years I applied for jobs, scads of them, until, implausibly, the University of North Carolina in Greensboro offered me a tenure-track position,” as a 20th-century U.S. historian, D’Emilio recalls. So in 1983, then 34 years old, he was given an opportunity to teach history to college students.
He and his lover, Jim, moved to the Southern city of 160,000. It was not New York. But they found some gay people, though “virtually no one was out of the closet,” and joined the Gay Academic Union, which D’Emilio had helped found in New York City 10 years earlier.
The Landmark of Orange Country, North Carolina, announced his appointment in its May 10, 1984, edition: “Dr. John D’Emilio recently joined the staff of UNC-Greensboro in the history department. D’Emilio comes to North Carolina from New York. UNC-G recently held a Gay Awareness Week celebration on the campus, and I understand the fag doctor participated. Greensboro now rivals Chapel Hill and Charlotte as the leading center for faggotry in North Carolina.”
Yet, eventually, a pleasant life was possible, if under camouflage. D’Emilio clearly remembers that “for virtually all my students in the 1980s, I was the first gay man they had ever knowingly met.”
And “during my time at UNCG, I was asked to submit an ‘expert’ affidavit in court challenges to state sodomy laws.” He invited students to help with the background research for these affidavits, and though neither of these cases succeeded, in 2003 this academic work would make a difference in Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court case that finally declared state sodomy statues unconstitutional.
It’s important for readers to know about D’Emilio’s journey, because he carefully explains how he could not resist becoming a human rights activist after his time in a small North Carolina town during the Reagan years.
He was invited to plan a town meeting on sex and politics with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—the growing conservative moment under Reagan and mid-1980s AIDS protests “had spawned a new outburst of homophobic responses to gay sexuality as menacing to the health of the nation.”
D’Emilio published Sexual Politics, on the homophile movement, and brought out Intimate Masters with Estelle Freedman, but he finally found “it was too difficult being gay in North Carolina in the 1980s.” So he resigned from his tenured teaching position, and joined the NGLTF—“my five years on the Task Force board changed forever my understanding of collective moments.”
Today he is a professor of gender and women’s studies and of history at University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of a half dozen books. In this latest one, however, the major accomplishment is recorded about the 2003 USSC case that started here in Houston—Lawrence v. Texas.The result was a Supreme Court decision declaring state sodomy statues unconstitutional, reversing a prior case just 17 years earlier.
In Bower v. Hardwick (1986) the Court let stand a Georgia anti-sodomy statute. Usually (until recently) the principle of stare dicisis—“to stand by what has already been decided”—has largely characterized the history of the federal courts. “In Lawrence, the need to bring historical perspective to bear was relevant because the l986 decision had been heavily laden with historical references.”
Justice Byron White wrote “prospections against that conduct have ancient roots,” while Chief Justice Warren Burger declared, “Condemnation of those practices is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards…. To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching,”
The amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief submitted by D’Emilio’s academics challenged this view, stating that “no consistent historical practice singles out same-sex behavior as ‘sodomy’ subject to proscription.” More, the historians emphasized, “government policy of classifying and discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their homosexual status is an unprecedented project of the 20th century.”
That meant “the phrase ‘homosexual sodomy’ would have been incomprehensible to the framers of the Constitution,” because the concept of “homosexuality” only became available in the late 1800s. The historians had transformed same-sex sodomy laws into “a method invented in the 20th century by a powerful state to target a class of its citizens for cruel, blatant oppression.” And the case was won.
D’Emilio is quite right to state, “Intellectual work can be a force for change in society.” In this book in a series of essays, speeches, and research papers, he shows how the “idea men” can leapfrog America into a new progressive future.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.