President’s Diversity Lecture offers unlikely insight into gay, lesbian history

On April 7, John D'Emilio, professor of gender and women studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, visited Geneseo to deliver "Rethinking Gay History. Or Richard Nixon: Gay Liberationist?" a lecture exploring gay and lesbian history.

The lecture focused extensively on his research in the Chicago area where he focused on the bribery and corruption present there throughout the mid-20th century. He highlighted the 1950s as the "worst time to be queer" and discussed the "witch hunts" carried out by police.

He started his research with the intent of writing a textbook about gay history from the 1960s to the present. After beginning his research, however, he found that much of what was typically thought about gay and lesbian history did not match his findings.

Discussing the struggles of gays and lesbians and their resistance to oppression, D'Emilio highlighted Richard Nixon's role in the protection of these people. When in office, Nixon began to investigate police corruption in Chicago. In the early 1970s, corruption charges were brought up against the city's police prohibiting raids and harassment of bar patrons.

D'Emilio stressed the importance of making gay history visible.

"My policy is that by taking queer stories and by assembling them in a larger history, it becomes less contained and can be seen as a part of a larger narrative of gay history," he said.

A pioneer in the developing field of gay and lesbian studies, D'Emilio has written many books, including most significantly Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America and Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States.

His writings have even been considered legally significant, as U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy quoted his book Intimate Matters in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, which declared state sodomy statutes unconstitutional.

D'Emilio has won numerous awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Humanities. He was also a finalist for the National Book Award and he received the Brudner Prize from Yale for lifetime contributions to gay and lesbian studies. He is  the former co-chair of the board of directors of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the founding director of its policy institute. D'Emilio's lecture was part of the President's Diversity Lecture Series.