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Gay historian unveils research [17 February, 2010]

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John D’Emilio, professor of gay history and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) , presented his latest research on Chicago’s gay history February 9 at the university’s Institute for the Humanities, where he currently holds a yearlong fellowship.  Speaking to a packed room, D’Emilio gave a speech provocatively titled “Rethinking Queer History.  Or, Richard Nixon, Gay Liberationist.”

D’Emilio has written a wide range of books covering a wide range of various aspects of gay history in this country.  In 1983, he published Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970.  Among other things, that book established a particular view of how gay history was made: over and over, gays and lesbians confronted head-on the conditions of invisibility and adversity that confronted them and set about dismantling heteronormative and patriarchal power structures until they achieved visibility and greater access to power.

But did gay history always work this way?  Was change in the material conditions of gays and lesbians always due to their overt acts of resistance and organizing or were there, perhaps, sometimes political and institutional forces beyond their control that inadvertently determined changes in their political and cultural lives?  According to D’Emilio, his project began as an attempt to construct an accessible but informative guide to gay history of the 60s and 70s for his undergraduate students.  He decided to research Chicago history because “Chicago is often the representative city,” as its issues are so often symptomatic of issues across the United States.  The more he dug around, the more he found that his “were not fitting into the interpretative patterns” established by gay histories of the past, including his own.  D’Emilio discussed Stonewall as an example of a classic moment of gay history that reaffirms a popular idea about the days-long event: that it sparked a “collective rebellion against established authority.”  Stonewall became a potent symbol in this cosmology of gay history, and has been read as paving the way for the more “rowdy and disruptive” actions of the Gay Liberation inflected politics of the 1970s.

Also in the 1970s, the recording of gay history became a potent political project for numbers of gays and lesbians, who were determined to “help break the silence by uncovering a hidden history of same sex love and gender transgression not written before.”  Work like Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, helped further the notion of gay and lesbian history as a series of self-conscious acts of resistance that would pave the way for the greater visibility of the future.

In their book, Kennedy and Davis looked at the working-class lesbian community of Buffalo, N.Y., and the way that lesbians there aggressively sought to assert their identity and community, going so far as to physically defend their bars and social spaces from heterosexual male intruders.  Such work established a long-standing paradigm of community self-affirmation and resistance that would endure in gay history.  D’Emilio’s work and that of Alan Berube, among others, also echoed this particular narrative of gay history.

But looking at the period of the 1970s in Chicago, D’Emilio found historical material that contradicted such ideas of gays and lesbians deliberately and successfully effecting change in their world.  He recounted the history of gay and lesbian bars in Chicago, which, from the 1930s on, flourished in both the predominantly African- American spaces of the South Side as well as the largely white areas of the North Side.  But gays and lesbians in these spaces were also routinely harassed and subject to arbitrary laws that policed supposed gender transgression in clothing: lesbians could be arrested for wearing trousers with flies in the front.  Through the years, the infamous level of corruption in Chicago, especially in the administration of Richard J. Daley, combined with newspapers that continually exposed—and effectively ruined—the lives of gay men and women arrested in gay bars.  Then, in the 1970s, “police harassment in Chicago plummets.”  This allowed for the development of Lakeview, including the establishment of a gay business corridor, resulting in the eventual creation of “Boystown.”

All of this seems in line with classic gay histories.  Given the rise of the Gay Liberation Front in Chicago, along with the sweeping changes in social and sexual mores of the era, it seems logical to think that the subsiding of police harassment of gay bars in the 1970s came about because of the radical militancy and demands of a louder and stronger gay community.

And yet, said D’Emilio, the “lesbians and gay men had practically nothing to do” with the end of police harassment.  Instead, there was “a much larger story of corruption, bribery, organized crime and the political machinery of Mayor Daley.”  Police officers in the districts with entertainment centers and gay bars could easily expect payoffs.  In light of the force of rampant corruption, “a few hundred ragtag hippie gay liberationists had no capacity to modify police practices.”

So what did bring about a near-cessation of police harassment?  According to D’Emilio, the election of Nixon in 1968 brought about the change.  Nixon came to office determined to strike a forceful blow against Daley, then described as the second most powerful Democrat in the country.  The U.S Attorney General (AG), emboldened by the Nixon administration, “opened an investigation into the killings of Black Panthers in 1969” and issued a “scathing report on Daley’s birthday” that resulted in the indictment of 13 police officers.  As D’Emilio pointed out, the AG was hardly likely to have done this out of sympathy for the Panthers; the motivation for the investigation was clearly to embarrass Daley.  The entire case was extensively covered in the local and national press.

Considering the implications for gay history in this research, D’Emilio asked, “Does this mean that the earlier work with lesbians and gays at the center of history is no longer true?” Not really.  D’Emilio went on to state that seeing “queer stories in a larger political economy makes these stories less ghettoized” and more understandable “in the larger context of U.S history.”  Returning to Stonewall, he pointed out that the incident did not happen in a vacuum inhabited only by gay and trans people of color.  In fact, in the months preceding the event, Black and Puerto Rican students (the ethnic minorities who were among the majority of the transgressors in Stonewall) had been agitating for changing admission rules in the City University of New York: “In that story, on that island, this group of people is already fighting the city.”

A videorecording of the talk can be found on the Web site of the Institute for the Humanities (

Originally published in Windy City Times, 17 February, 2010

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