Introduction by John D'Emilio
When I saw the obituary of Father John McNeill in the print edition of The New York Times, it immediately caught my attention. Though I had neither encountered McNeill in decades nor read the books he published in the 1980s and 1990s, I instantly remembered the first time I met him and the speech he gave.
It was the day after Thanksgiving, 1973, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Manhattan’s west side. More than three hundred of us were gathered there for the opening of the Gay Academic Union’s inaugural national conference, “The Universities and the Gay Experience.” McNeill was on a panel that everyone there attended, “Scholarship and the Gay Experience,” a session that had been interrupted by a bomb threat called in to 911 and that forced all of us temporarily to evacuate the building. Father McNeill’s topic was “Religion and Homosexuality.”
I had been one of the founders of the GAU earlier that year in New York. At that point, in 1973, I was several years into the process of accepting my gayness, and I was doing more and more “coming out” in my personal life and my life as a graduate student. Part of the journey of self-acceptance that went along with coming out was dealing with my religious upbringing as a Catholic, the deep faith that I had embraced as a child and adolescent and that almost brought me into the Jesuits, the very order of priests from which Father McNeill came. I had left the Church because I could not reconcile its teachings with the identity I was choosing to take on. Now, several years later, I was listening to a speech that was revelatory, indeed shocking. For the first time I was hearing a thoughtful and informed challenge to the standard teachings of Catholicism about homosexuality. McNeill was parsing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis and arguing, in unmistakable and convincing terms, that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, but inhospitality. He went even farther by asserting that there were no condemnations of homosexuality in the Scripture that Catholics as well as other Christians revere. McNeill’s talk was not enough to make me switch the direction of my life in regard to religion. But it was momentous to hear, and it brought home to me the importance of doing research that could dispute conventional wisdom.
Seeing Father McNeill’s obituary and recalling that first meeting brought me back to the event itself. The proceedings of the conference were released the following year through a small alternative press. I edited the volume and wrote an introduction, my very first publication. Reading the proceedings today, four decades later, I realize it holds more than nostalgic value for me and other participants. It has become a document from the past that readers and historians can now use to recapture a time and a place, a mood and an atmosphere. The conference witnessed a constituency coming together, and its published proceedings capture something of those early years after the Stonewall uprising in New York and the birth of a gay liberation movement.
As someone who participated in the planning and execution of the event, who then chronicled it through the introduction, and who has since written about this era, I was struck by certain themes as I reread the contents. Participants had a strong sense that we were making history by coming together. Though gay and lesbian issues were surfacing in some professional associations, like those of anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists, this was the first large and free-standing multi-disciplinary gathering of queer academics. Coming out surfaced repeatedly as a clarion call to participants. Speakers described it as a necessary step that was both personally liberating and a pathway to greater change. By coming out, it was asserted, we did not just end invisibility. We began to build a collective constituency, an essential element in the construction of a liberation movement. Speaker after speaker seized upon the language of liberation. There was a strong sense of being part of a system that oppresses most people and of a need to challenge that system from top to bottom. Panelists rejected the impulse toward integration into the system as it is. The goal was the celebration and embrace of difference and the assertion of a radical anti-assimilation perspective.
The conference was not all joy and celebration, as the proceedings indicate. Most immediately, we were all reminded of the dangers of visibility when we were forced to evacuate the building because of a bomb threat that someone called in. For another, even though coming out was a message delivered by virtually all speakers, it was not a risk-free action. Dr. Howard Brown, a panelist whose coming out just a few weeks earlier had made the front page of The New York Times, could speak of how wonderful it was to tell the truth about himself and how much support he got from everyone. But the stories that Janet Cooper and “Leah Parman” offered were much more sobering. Coming out might be something that we all needed to do, but it did not always spin out happily and smoothly. It certainly was no accident that the two testimonials that offered the most horrific experiences of oppression came from women.
Sexism was very much on the minds of the women at the conference and of at least some of the men as well. As I described in the Introduction, many elements combined to make the pre-conference meetings of this inchoate organization overwhelmingly male in composition. The tell-your-friends method of recruiting new faces to meetings smacked right into the gender separation that existed in the social circles and commercial institutions available to lesbians and gay men.To make it personal, in seven years of participation in New York’s gay life, I had never knowingly met a lesbian until I began going to GAU meetings. Add to this the extremely marginal status of women in academic life in the early 1970s. For instance, though I had had some women teachers in college, they were few and far between. And none of those few were from my years of graduate education.
As the Introduction and the report of the Women’s Caucus recount, there was explicit, intentional discussion of sexism within the GAU before the conference. One outcome of those discussions was the decision to have as the first goal in the GAU’s Statement of Purpose the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in academia. As you will see in reading the proceedings, the Women’s Caucus elaborated additional proposals, including the creation of a Men’s Caucus as well as a Women’s Caucus. Over the next couple of years, the Men’s Caucus provided a vehicle for at least some men in the GAU to examine self-critically our own sexism and the impact of masculine norms on our lives.
By contrast, reading both my introduction and the presentations, I am struck by how utterly absent racial matters are. This was before the wisdom of the Combahee River Collective and its groundbreaking “Statement,” before what later came to be called intersectional analysis deeply wove itself into a big chunk of the scholarly writing on race, gender, and sexuality. None of the speakers at this first conference were people of color. Achebe Betty Powell came to one of the early meetings of the GAU and remained an active participant, including in the Women’s Caucus. But, at this distance in time, she is the only person of color I can recall from this period of the GAU. To make it personal once again, in four years of college and two years of graduate school at Columbia, I had never had a professor who was African American, Latino, or Asian. “Marginal” barely describes the presence of academics of color in higher education, apart from historically black colleges and universities. On the other hand, my social circle at the time the GAU got started included more gay men of color than not, but they were almost all working-class men for whom the GAU had no relevance. One of the unplanned outcomes of my deepening involvement in the GAU over the next two years is that my world became increasingly white. Not until I entered a world of local community organizers in New York later in the decade would that begin to change yet again.
I am very pleased that we are able to make these proceedings available here on Outhistory. They bring to light a different world. They can alert us to how much has changed and how much has not. On one hand, there is now an abundance of LGBT research across the spectrum of scholarly disciplines and covering a broad range of topics. And much of that research has been used to support institutional and policy change. Historical research, for instance, helped to provide the rationale for the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision that brought an end to state sodomy laws that criminalized homosexual behavior. Psychological research played a key role in the defense of the rights of lesbian mothers to retain custody of their children after their heterosexual marriages ended. At the same time, especially in view of the anti-assimilationist rhetoric of so many of the speakers at this 1973 conference, research and scholarship can also be used to sustain the most obvious forms of assimilation: the achievement of the right to marry by same-sex couples. Questions that were not deeply explored in 1973, because we were at the beginning of a long journey, take on more urgency and require more complex analysis now than they might have then. In some cases, inclusion seems like progress. For instance, having LGBT history integrated into middle-school and high-school curricula seems like an important and essential step. But what are the overall values and worldview that those curricula embrace? I hope that reading “The Universities and the Gay Experience” not only provides an absorbing dip into a moment in LGBT history, but provokes your thinking about this question and many more.