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  • Writer's pictureBenjamine Mo

George Chauncey

On the (un)masking of nascent histories.

By Benjamine Mo

Historiography on and from the margins is a lonely endeavor. When DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History George Chauncey began his graduate studies three decades ago, he was one of just two doctoral researchers in gay and lesbian history nationwide. But he was never alone, he acknowledges with characteristic humility, when producing scholarship informed by decades of vital queer activism. Chauncey testifies as an inheritor of this history as much as an originator. The honor is his, and it is ours; his popular course, U.S. Lesbian and Gay History, is imbued with that palpable gratitude. In each lecture, Chauncey urges his students to realize that our histories are not inevitable. We cannot take the past for granted.

Illustration by Alexandra Lopez-Carretero

This past June, Chauncey was awarded the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity by the Library of Congress. He is the first scholar of LGBTQ+ history to be selected for the Prize, which “recognizes and celebrates work of the highest quality and greatest impact that advances understanding of the human experience.” The impact of Chauncey’s work is certainly of immeasurable humanitarian consequence. Beyond the domain of academia, he has, for instance, served as an expert witness in a host of monumental Supreme Court cases defending queer Americans’ fundamental rights.

I climbed Fayerweather’s alpine staircases to reach Chauncey’s office, perched in a delightfully double-exposed corner. As I greeted him breathlessly, the room made itself known all at once: entirely enclosed by floor-to-ceiling bookcases, each almost fully populated. Impressive! But he quickly tempered my astonishment; amassing such a collection, after all, comes with the territory. And so we began our conversation, Chauncey occasionally donning an iconic pair of red glasses, surrounded by history as we lived it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

. . .

The Blue & White: You’ve recognized a longstanding antipathy to the work that you do. You were warned, even, that research in gay history would be professional suicide. And now you’re the first Kluge Prize recipient in LGBTQ studies. What does this recognition mean to you?

George Chauncey: First, of course, it was an incredible honor. It’s not something I ever anticipated happening, especially since early in my career I was warned as a graduate student that even though [writing about queer history] might be a good thing to do eventually, it was a very dangerous way to start my career. There was so much hostility to this work—that’s almost overstating because the work barely existed. LGBTQ history was simply not recognized as a field of history, and, in fact, very little had been published when I began my work as a graduate student. When I went on the job market, I definitely encountered some cases of just plain old homophobia where unbelievable things were said to me, or I later heard about things that were said in committee meetings about me. But more importantly, I encountered the effects of the marginalization of this field. For many historians looking at the work at that point, it just seemed marginal, narrow, because they had marginalized it. And when the book Gay New York came out, many historians realized that there was a lot to learn from this history, not only about a history of a group of people and a sexual culture that had been ignored in the historical record and about which so little was known, but that it did open up new perspectives on so many questions that were of interest to those historians. For the Library of Congress to award someone in this field a prize is an incredible statement. And it says something about how the culture has shifted that I think is rewarding. I said in my acceptance speech, and I really deeply believe, that I was accepting it not just for myself but on behalf of a field that had been marginalized for a long time and a whole group of courageous scholars who had undertaken this work long before it was acceptable.

B&W: Could you ever have imagined partaking in shaping some of our nation’s most consequential legal decisions? How did that come about?

GC: No, especially given all the warnings I was given about the risk of taking on this field of study, it was an incredible surprise to be asked by lawyers to write, to testify about this history. I didn’t realize that historical scholarship could inform the courts as they thought about these fundamental questions about the reach of liberty and the Equal Protection Clause and due process. I’m frankly not sure why I was asked the first time. I hadn’t published Gay New York yet; I was just a beginning assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

My first case was in Colorado, a case … called Romer v. Evans that challenged a state constitutional amendment that passed in a voter referendum in 1992—on the same day Bill Clinton was elected—that prohibited any level of government, city or state, or agency of government from recognizing homosexuals as a minority for purposes of protection from discrimination. And this was in the context of a huge wave of such referenda sweeping the country which was consuming an enormous amount of energy on the part of the movement. So they challenged it, and I testified on the first day of that trial about the history of anti-gay discrimination to put that amendment in context. I did well enough, I guess, that they came back to me again.

And so I eventually became the go-to historian for a lot of these cases. But it was completely unexpected and, of course, deeply rewarding to realize that historical scholarship could have this kind of impact. I don’t want to overstate the impact of history in any of these decisions, which considered many different issues, but clearly, history did matter and was often talked about in the opinions that were released.

B&W: Your course, U.S. Lesbian and Gay History, or LesGay as we lovingly refer to it, serves as many students’ first and only introductions to LGBTQ+ history—the people, the struggles, and the legacies that we honor. And for many of your students, they share in this inherited history. How do you think of this course as part of your students’ lives?

GC: I love teaching the course and I draw energy from the room every time I lecture because I can feel the intensity of students’ interest in these issues. Of course, the course does draw a lot of people who are either queer-identified in one sense or another … as well as a bunch of straight-identified students who just think this is a huge issue in the cultural and political world that they live in and they want to understand more about. So I appreciate the stakes of that as well and the significance of having classes like mine—and there are others—that really address these questions which often feel very personal, very intimate to students in a very scholarly way, and that sometimes challenges students to rethink some political assumptions they’ve had.

A broad objective of my teaching as a historian is to try to help students understand how their own lives are shaped by history, how they’re part of a historical moment, how much that moment has been shaped by the struggles before, and how different things are going to be in another 10 or 20 years, let alone 50 years. And to show that things that seem as natural and intimate to ourselves as our sexual identities and gender identities are actually products of history and have changed over time, is, I think, a very powerful lesson.

B&W: The LesGay syllabus includes a pretty uncommon sort of assignment. At the very least, it caused a bit of a stir when you announced it. I’m referring to the intergenerational interview. Why such a project?

GC: I assign that final paper—in which I ask students to interview a parent and a grandparent or people from those generations about their memories of LGBTQ+ people and what their attitudes were when they were young—in part, because, as I said, I want students to learn how to think about themselves as a part of history, and to realize that their families, no matter how weird and idiosyncratic they may seem, are actually shaped by the history and, of course, multiple histories. There are multiple trajectories represented in that class—lots of immigrants and children of immigrants, and people who grew up in New York and people who grew up in small towns in Tennessee.

I began a version of that assignment back at the University of Chicago when the course I taught every year was on postwar American history. In those days, the parents were basically the Vietnam generation and the grandparents were the World War II generation. As much as some students are worried about [this assignment] at the beginning, overwhelmingly my sense is that students value it by the end because it means they have conversations with their parents and grandparents that they’ve often never had before.

I’m also aware that some students just can’t talk with their relatives about these issues, so I make it clear at every stage of the course that if you can't, don’t worry about it, no questions asked. We will find other people for you to interview of those generations.

I get notes from people who took the class years before who talk about that assignment’s significance. One of the most touching notes I ever received was from a child of Vietnamese refugees … who had a terrible struggle growing up in California. And this person said that this was really the first time his father opened up to him and that his father died a few years later. He just was so grateful for that moment. That was so very moving and powerful [to hear].

This brings [the history] home for people—how the world changes. And it doesn’t just change out there, it changes in the everyday. It’s one reason I talk about Columbia and Barnard a lot, just to show that these are not big historical processes happening out there in some abstract past time, that they shaped people’s everyday lives even at the institutions where we are now.

B&W: I think about one moment in class a lot—when we were talking about the AIDS epidemic, about death and loss, and we were mourning those that were lost. As we ended class that day, you really beckoned us to take care of one another. What considerations went into designing a class on the AIDS epidemic as part of your syllabus?

GC: The AIDS lecture is, without doubt, the most emotionally compelling lecture. I knew from the beginning I had to include AIDS. It was such a signal historical development for so many reasons. Frankly, I was startled the first few times I taught this course to realize how little my students knew about the history of AIDS. Even when I started teaching this course, they were born after the worst effects of it in the United States had passed and the new protease inhibitors were available, and it had turned into a manageable disease instead of a deadly disease very quickly in the mid-’90s. Some of my students didn’t even realize that AIDS had once been associated with gay men. Almost none of them realized what a profound impact it had, both in the sense of just how many leaders and writers and artists and ordinary people got killed, how it wiped out a good part of the generation of activists who really set in motion so many of the changes that we all live with today; but also what a turning point it was in the history of the movement and the place of LGBTQ people in American society because it led a generation to become much more activist, much more militant, led literally millions of people to come out of the closet because they felt, as that ACT UP slogan said, that silence equals death. I realized that I needed to do something to convey that. And that’s why I talked for about 20 minutes early in that lecture about individuals who died from many, many different backgrounds, just to give people a sense of the scale of death and its legacy.

B&W: Do you think that your class has a kind of activist charge to it? Is that something that you want to cultivate in your classroom? And if so, do you incorporate any lessons from the field—in organizing against oppression, which is so central to LGBTQ+ history—in the lessons you give?

GC: Certainly I’m always interested in showing the genealogy of various political tactics, and particularly the profound impact of the African American civil rights movement on the gay movement and the conceptual tools it gave it, and the tactics that it advanced that many gay activists picked up on and indeed Asian American and Mexican American and other feminist activists picked up on.

I’m definitely not pushing a particular political perspective for the class, but I do believe deeply that people’s activism, their engagement with the world, changes the world, and that we would not be where we are today on LGBTQ issues if literally hundreds of thousands of people hadn’t taken enormous risks in the past to change social conditions that they found insufferable, intolerable. There’s just a lot you can take for granted about the way the world is without realizing how that world was created. It’s also very important to study anti-gay activists and not to caricature them or attack them, but to try to understand the sources of their hostility towards queer life, queer people. That’s part of what I think teaching and being in college lets us do—suspend for a while some of our basic political instincts and judgments and really step back and try to think analytically: How did the gay movement develop, how did the anti-gay movement develop? Where were they coming from? What were the sources of their ideology and their tactics? I think it’s useful for us to have a space where we can do that.

B&W: I called you a pioneer of your field before. What do you make of the current state and direction of LGBTQ studies?

GC: I feel more competent to describe where LGBTQ history is going. It’s an exciting moment. So many more people are doing this work. It’s hard to believe, but back in the 1980s when I was a graduate student, there were literally two of us doing PhDs in gay and lesbian history, as it was called those days, in the entire country for the entire decade.

B&W: Oh! I thought you were gonna say “in our university,” but no—the entire country.

GC: We all knew each other! And now there are just so many more people doing this work, which is exciting. Still, it’s still a very young field. It’s a very underdeveloped field. It’s still a field that does not get much institutional support. I’m still struck by all the absences and the work that still has to be done. One exciting development in the last decade has been the growth of transgender studies generally. Now we’re beginning to see more really interesting, sophisticated histories of wrestling with what we even make of this category. ‘Transgender’ in historical context—how do we map that out? How do we see its embodiment in everyday lives?

It’s still overwhelmingly a history of white people. There’s more done on African Americans; there’s still stunningly little historical work done on Asian Americans or Latinx people. There’s much more done in the broader field of LGBTQ studies, of theoretical work, work in performance studies, even some sociology and anthropology. But the historical work is really lagging behind there. One of the reasons that my next book on postwar gay New York has taken so long is that I’ve been committed to making it a genuinely multiracial history. It has separate chapters on the very different kinds of queer worlds that developed in white, Black, Puerto Rican neighborhoods.

But the research is very tricky there. It’s very hard to do. I’ve spent so much time on it. I’ve found a lot and I’m excited to finally get this book out. But I’ve come to realize that in so many ways, the story that we’ve told ourselves, the big narrative of LGBTQ+ history, is really a white narrative that looks really different when you look at people of color, which is something I try to convey.

B&W: My last question is about this kind of absence. How do we go about filling those gaps?

GC: Well, we start by getting you to write your senior thesis!

B&W: I'm workin’ on it!

GC: I think providing support to people who are committed to doing this work. As more work of this sort comes out, it will serve as a model for new, younger historians about places where you can look. There are huge methodological issues here. Where do you look for historical documentation of a group of people who have tried very hard to hide their lives? I literally read 10,000 reports submitted on a daily basis by investigators sent out into the city by an anti-vice society. About 200 of them included some queer reference, but I read 10,000 to find those 200, which was a fantastic thing to do because it gave me this map of underground sexual life in New York in the early 20th century that I never could have developed otherwise.

They actually only ever hired one African American investigator. And so a lot of what I talk about in Harlem in my book is about 1927 and 1928, because that’s when that one investigator was there looking for things. They never hired a Chinese investigator and the Chinese community was determined to keep people out for their own protection, so it’s even harder to get into that history.

I’ve interviewed about 50 African American gay men and most of them have passed on since I interviewed them. In the end, maybe a dozen of them provided really rich accounts [of the period I’m writing about] that I could use. Without their stories, I would know so much less than I do now about postwar Harlem’s history. This is part of what's very sobering to realize: that we have irretrievably lost some of this evidence because it’s too late to do a lot of these interviews. I’m glad I started doing interviews in the 1980s and the early ’90s because I was able to catch a lot of people who’ve passed on since and whose stories would have died with them.


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