- Professor of History, Gender Studies, and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago
- Founded the first gay think-tank and legislative lobbying group, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
- Wrote an amicus brief in the Lawrence v. Texas case, which was then used by Justice Anthony Kennedy to rule that there was sufficient historical evidence to prove that “antisodomy laws are unconstitutional”
John D’Emilio is a Professor of History, Gender Studies, and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has also been a trailblazer in the gay-rights, social-justice movement in academia. As a result of his efforts, gay and lesbian studies have been added to many college curriculums.
“As a boy growing up in the early 1960s, I found myself drawn irresistibly to history,” he writes about his “fairly ordinary life” in the Bronx. “In those days, history was about kings and presidents, diplomacy and wars, the rise and fall of empires. . . . No matter what the particular story, there seemed to be at least one steady lesson: things change, nothing remains the same. Today’s certainties (‘The Earth is flat’) become tomorrow’s foolishness. This was a lesson I needed to hear because, you see, I was a gay adolescent. . . . History offered me the ray of hope I needed. Not, mind you, because it said anything about being gay but because it told me ‘things change.’”
Since D’Emilio “grew up with a very strong sense that there is injustice in the world and part of what our lives need to be about is changing things and making things better,” he became involved with other gay and lesbian students and began his lifelong campus activism. His ultimate goal was to infuse an air of legitimacy into gay and lesbian studies programs at American universities.
“We were trying to figure out how to be gay liberationists and use the university and our lives as a way of making change,” says D’Emilio. “So we formed an organization in 1973 called the Gay Academic Union. The idea was to overturn misinformation and stereotypes by doing real research about our lives. Writing books and trying to get gay and lesbian studies institutionalized at universities were some of the ways we could make change and improve the lives of the next generation.”
As part of this effort, D’Emilio’s dissertation was one of the first to focus solely on a topic from gay history. His topic of choice: the Mattachine Society, an activist “homophile” organization founded by communist and radical gay men in Los Angeles in 1950. The group, named for a medieval troupe of men who went from village to village advocating social justice, created a grassroots movement to portray homosexuality as something positive, and also strove to create a societal perception of homosexuals as members of a downtrodden minority group. To accomplish this, the Mattachines launched a three-pronged attack: They began challenging law-enforcement efforts to arrest gay men for breaking sodomy laws; they held consciousness-raising sessions with the medical establishment in order to remove “gayness” from the list of mental disorders; and they began polling political candidates on gay rights issues. In 1953 the group was shaken to its core when it came to light that many of its members had ties to communism.
Since gay history was not considered a serious line of academic inquiry at the time, D’Emilio had difficulty finding a teaching position. This was due, in part, to the paucity of historical sources for gay historians. According to D’Emilio, he and others are forced to rewrite the historical record. “We [are] trying to reconstruct something that, until the 1970s, was characterized by silence and invisibility,” D’Emilio told The Chronicle for Higher Education.
Taking his cue from the Mattachines, D’Emilio’s early work focused on the struggle of minorities to gain recognition. In 1974 he published his first book, The Universities and the Gay Experience: Proceedings of a Conference Sponsored by the Women and Men of the Gay Academic Union. He wrote a series of feature articles for the Toronto gay paper, The Body Politic, which ran excerpts from his dissertation from 1978-79. He also published the book, The Civil Rights Struggle: Leaders in Profile (1979). That was later followed by “Gay Politics, Gay Community: San Francisco’s Experience” in the Socialist Review (1981), and “Capitalism and Gay Identity” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (1983).
D’Emilio finally landed a tenure-track position at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro in 1983. That same year, the University of Chicago Press published a revised version of his “groundbreaking” dissertation as Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, which was one of the first works to provide an analysis of the changes that took place in the U.S. leading to the emergence of a gay political movement.
Secure in academia, D’Emilio began to publish works promoting homosexuality and attacking “homophobia.” For example, he writes in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (1988), “In a free society, everyone will be gay.” Some of his other publications include: “Making and Unmaking Minorities: The Tension between Gay History and Politics” (1986); “The Issue of Sexual Preference on College Campuses: Retrospect and Prospect” (1987); “The Homosexual Menace: The Politics of Sexuality in Cold War America” (1989); “Foreword to Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation” (1992); “Homophobia and the Trajectory of Postwar American Radicalism: The Case of Bayard Rustin” (1995); “Power at the Polls: The Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Vote” (1996); “Here to Stay: A Working Paper on Gay and Lesbian Family Issues” (1996); and “The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture” (2002).
As a result of his work as a scholar-activist, D’Emilio has helped propel the gay rights agenda forward in America. For example, he is a staunch proponent of pushing the “popular struggles” of the gay community both inside and outside the university. “Education must occur outside educational institutions,” he said. “Statewide organizations need to ask what they can do about teaching LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer] history. Bars need to ask what they can display on their walls.” He also has had a hand in shaping college curriculums, ensuring that gay history gets its due.
During a sabbatical, D’Emilio founded the first gay think-tank and legislative lobbying group, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. While serving as its director (1989-91), he regularly attacked the “voices of hate” on the right, which included the “aggressive antigay politics” of the Republican Party and religious conservatives who “rail against sin,” for wanting to deprive gays of a “democracy accepting of all.”
D’Emilio even shaped the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on gay sex. During a 2003 summer fellowship at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, he wrote an amicus brief in the Lawrence v. Texas case, which was then used by Justice Anthony Kennedy to rule that there was sufficient historical evidence to prove that “antisodomy laws are unconstitutional.”
In 2002, D’Emilio was lured away from UNC by Stanley Fish, dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). “There aren’t many jobs like this in the country,” D’Emilio told The Chronicle. “I turned down a position in history at UC-San Diego to come here. I was being hired by UIC to teach gay-and-lesbian studies and to build something. At UC [San Diego], gay-and-lesbian studies would have been an extracurricular thing.”
D’Emilio earned his Bachelor’s (1970), Master’s (1972), and Doctoral degrees (1982) at Columbia University. His research interests include gay and lesbian studies; the history of sexuality; social movements; and U.S. history after 1945. His books are required reading at many schools, and he is often a keynote speaker at various academic gatherings. Among these was Smith College’s “Homeland Insecurity: Civil Liberties, Repression and Citizenship in the 1950s” event, where he warned that civil liberties are under assault in post-9/11 America.