Symposium held in honor of John D’Emilio

Historians in the News
tags: gay history, LGBT



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.” ...





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