April 29, 2009
Gay History vs. Queer Studies
It took a long time for Yale to accept Kramer money. After a number of years of trying to get Yale to accept mine for gay professorships or to let me raise funds for a gay student center, (both offers declined), my extraordinary straight brother Arthur offered Yale $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Yale accepted it. My good friend and a member of the Yale Corporation, Calvin Trillin, managed to convince President Levin that I was a pussycat. The year was 2001.
Five years later, in 2006, Yale closed down LKI, as it had come to be called. Yale removed its director, Jonathan David Katz. All references to LKI were expunged from Web sites and answering machines and directories and syllabuses. One day LKI was just no longer here.
When this happened I thought my heart would break.
I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else’s history.
This is a great speech, even though it’s peppered with the occasional, um, surprising claims (“George Washington was gay, and that his relationships with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were homosexual… his feelings for Hamilton led to a government and a country that became Hamiltonian rather than Jeffersonian”) and a tirade against queer studies that feels misplaced and, at times, childish:
It seems as if everything is queer this and queer that… Just as a point of information, I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you. When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world.
Just like dressing “in drag,” “acting” transgendered, or not wanting to let other people define your identities for you guarantee that you won’t be taken seriously in the world. Oh, it matters so much to be taken seriously.
In particular, it seems foolish to blame scholars of literature and anthropology or communication for doing what they do with anything rather than history or politics departments who refuse to give gay history a foothold.
Folks care about the words they use, and are chilly towards “homosexual,” not because they refuse to grant that same-sex desire/partnering/sex have always been around, but because 1) lots of people’s sense of their gender/sexuality doesn’t fall under what we’d just call “gay” or “homosexual,” not least because 2) to pick of an example, if you were born an anatomical woman but think of yourself as a man attracted to women, you wouldn’t think of your attraction as “same-sex,” and 3) people finally get to define the words for themselves! “Homosexuality” is a medical word; “sodomy” is religious; “queer” is social. They all have different valences, but the last offers a flexibility that for many, many people, is highly desirable.
Now, I absolutely agree that Eve K Sedgwick doesn’t do what George Chauncey does, and that we need about a hundred more Chaunceys a hundred times more than we need a hundred more Sedgwicks. But gosh, Larry, don’t bash folks for not being serious because you don’t like the name. Bash the institution for taking your money and not supporting what you wanted to do.
Also, pick up Epistemology of the Closet sometime and give it a read. I think you’d find that this marvelous turn of phrase you use (wait for the end) echoed nicely there:
Franklin Pierce, who became one of America’s worst presidents, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became one of our greatest writers, as roommates at Bowdoin College had interactions that changed them both forever and, indeed, served as the wellspring for what Hawthorne came to write about. Pierce was gay. And Hawthorne? Herman Melville certainly wanted him to be.