Vern Bullough: 77; Prolific Author Was Scholar of Sex History

Historians in the News

When Vern Bullough was asked what launched him into the field of sexual history 50 years ago, he quipped, "I blame it all on my mother-in-law."

His future wife's mother had abandoned her family to live in a committed relationship with another woman — a scandalous event for Salt Lake City in the mid-1940s.

Bullough, then a teenager, was "more or less goggle-eyed" when he met them, but quickly quit gawking and began educating himself. He plied the two women with questions about homosexuality, soaked up what few books he could find on the subject and got to know their lesbian and gay friends.

Bullough, 77, who died of cancer June 21 at his Westlake Village home, eventually channeled his curiosity into a career as one of the most prolific scholars of sex, who wrote, co-wrote or edited nearly 50 books on topics ranging from prostitution to transgenderism.

"We have lost the most important historian of our field," said Eli Coleman, a past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, who directs the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota medical school.

"It would be very hard to find somebody that had so extensively studied so many areas within sexuality," Coleman added. "Vern was all over the field — not in a superficial way but in a very deep way."

He literally had an encyclopedic knowledge of sexual history. With his late wife, Bonnie, a noted nursing educator and sociologist, he wrote "American Sexuality: An Encyclopedia" (1994), a standard reference work in the field.

His other major books include "Sexual Variance in Society and History" (1976), "Homosexuality: A History" (1979), and "Cross-Dressing, Sex and Gender" (1993), which is used as a textbook in gender-studies programs. His writings on homosexuality have been credited with helping to launch and sustain gay and lesbian history as a legitimate field of study.

Bullough also was a pioneering advocate of civil rights. In the early 1960s, he persuaded the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to defend gays and lesbians — making it the first ACLU chapter in the country to do so.

"He was the one who made the entire ACLU focus on discrimination against gays and lesbians. He was far ahead of everyone," Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said of Bullough.

Quiet, scholarly and conservative in appearance, Bullough served on the board of the ACLU for many years and was its chairman when the organization was at the forefront of high-profile battles, including the fight to desegregate Los Angeles city schools....

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  • Vern Leroy Bullough, 77, Noted Medical Historian, Dies (NYT)

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