Vern Bullough Obituary

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This is a draft. Additions and suggestions are welcomed!

America Loses Its Greatest Sexologist

The GLBTQ community has lost its best friend and most effective advocate. Sexologist, activist, nurse, and historian, Vern Bullough died on June 21st at 77 from cancer.

As perhaps you know, both Jack Nichols and John Money] also died recently, and Louis Crompton has cancer of the tongue and is being tube-fed. Barbara Gittings has metastasized cancer, for which she is under both radiation and chemotherapy. So far she is bearing well. As more of our great thinkers and daring pioneers leave us, it becomes ever more crucial that their memories and their great work be kept alive, even though all of them, being human, made mistakes.

Almost all of the major early heroes and heroines of the pre-Stonewall movement are celebrated in Before Stonewall (Harrington Park Press, 2003), the editing completed by Vern, though begun by Wayne R. Dynes at the suggestion of John De Cecco, a long-time scholar and activist who himself wrote a bio of Vern for that text. In that book everyone knew the pioneer whom they wrote about, except for John Lauritsen’s life of Prime Stevenson, who had died in 1942. Thus it is a source book of infinite historical value, which somewhat diminishes the myth of Stonewall by extolling the long, hard, brave, dangerous labor of those who at great cost, sacrifice, and damage to themselves prepared the way for the rioters, the regular academicians, and mass participation. One of them, Billy Glover, is compiling a list of those not included in Before Stonewall. We have ever fewer witnesses to what it was like to be in the front lines, in the trenches of our struggle for liberation before Stonewall, i.e.. when it was really dangerous: a time for heroes and heroines.

I first heard about Vern from my friend and colleague at LSU, Jody Carrigan, who had become the lover of Kitty. Kitty herself had been the lover of Reed Erickson before Reed had his sex changed not long after her/his father’s death, and in 1963 was living in the guest house behind Reed’s. Reed, one of the first females to become a male, was raking in tons of money from successful speculation in oil wells and was beginning to finance GLBTQ scholarship and research. Among others, he financed John Money at Hopkins, bought a country club in Los Angeles for Dorr Legg’s gay university, and, as Vern told me years later, gave Vern himself $70,000 – then worth ten years of professor’s pay – to research and write about GLBTQ history.

Vern, “born in the bosom of the Mormon Church, which he left in his teens,” in Salt Lake City in 1928, received an introduction to homosexuality and its study through his wife Bonnie. Bonnie’s mother, living in Las Vegas, had come out in the 1940s as a lesbian and entered a lifelong relationship with Berry Berryman. Reed, whom some believe learned about Vern from Dorr Legg, certainly checked Vern out through the old girl’s network, i.e. Bonnie's mother, so to speak. Taking the young couple to parties where they met other gay and lesbian folks and giving them books to read on the subject, Berry and Bonnie’s mother quickly introduced Vern and Bonnie to a whole section of life heretofore closed off to them. Thus by the time they reached college, the young couple were already publishing works about homosexuality. Reed, who had good judgment about people as well as oil fields, made a smart pick with Vern, a medieval European historian like me, though trained by Cate at Chicago rather than at Princeton, where Strayer trained me. Vern quickly broadened his scope out of that specialty. He wrote, co-authored, and edited or co-edited almost sixty books, some with Bonnie, who was primarily a nurse, though she later gained a doctorate in sociology. To bring himself up to par about medicine, Vern got a nurse’s degree for himself from California State University in 1980, and the two wrote prolifically together on nursing as well as sexology.

With a BA from the University of Utah in 1951 and a doctorate in the history of medicine and science from the University of Chicago in 1954, Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1959 to begin teaching at California State University at Northridge, where he remained until 1980. He became a board member of the ACLU’s Southern California chapter, having already been involved with that organization and other radical causes as a graduate student in the Midwest. Intrepid, unflappable, capable, intelligent and open-minded – Vern only agreed to join the board if that trend-setting chapter, the oldest in the nation, would acknowledge homosexuality as a civil liberties issue. They agreed after a two year campaign, on which he worked closely with Dorr Legg and Don Slater from ONE, the main gay publication. Taking a more active role in ONE in 1962, Vern became the vice president of the Institute for the Study of Human Resources, a foundation set up and chaired by Erickson, whose near total-absenteeism left Vern virtually in charge, running all the meetings and in charge of dispensing funding. Along with Slater and Legg, his work for the Insitute put him in contact with other daring Los Angeles pioneers: Jim Kepner, Harry Hay, Dale Jennings, with all of whom he managed to stay friendly through their own personal vendettas and splits. He modestly attributed his success in staying friendly with all those factions to the fact that he left L.A. in 1980. Also in L.A., Dr. Evelyn Hooker – another straight (we could call them Righteous among the heteros) whose later work for the NIMH homosexuality task force would lead to Vern writing Sexual Variance, supported the movement by proving that the Rorschach tests couldn’t distinguish heteros from homos. When the first gay parade, a horn-blaring car caravan through Hollywood organized by Slater, rolled through Los Angeles, Vern and Bonnie sat in the front seat of the lead convertible.

In 1974 Vern contributed two articles to the very first issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, which John DeCecco was shortly afterwards to take over and make the “place of record” for gay studies. One article by Vern, “Homosexuality and the Medical Model,” discussed the trend of viewing homosexuality in a medical rather than moral light and how the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness was a reversal of that trend, a view which preceded Foucault and Jeffrey Weeks by two years. In 1976 Vern put out An Annotated Bibliography of Homosexuality, Transvestism, and Transsexualism, published by Garland Press. Mostly compiled by Vern, it also included contributions from Dorr Legg and Jim Kepner. Wayne Dynes with the help of Warren Johansson later improved and updated the non-fiction items in it in Homosexuality: A Research Guide (Garland, 1987).

As he himself recognized, Vern’s most important book; however, was Sexual Variance in Society and History, first published in 1976, a most diligently researched and enduring work. Vern classified societies as sex positive, neutral, or negative, and showed that most homophobia stemmed from Leviticus, the Sodom story, and the Pauline epistles, and that Jews, Christians, and Moslems on the whole almost always condemned and usually persecuted sodomites, and that other societies did not. Sexual Variance was temporarily and unfairly eclipsed for a while by the wishful but erroneous theories in John Boswell’s Christianity and Social Tolerance (University of Chicago Press, 1980), which asserted to the joy of gay Christians that the Catholic Church only became vehemently homophobic in the 13th century. Vern’s view was recently defended and updated by Louis Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization (Belknap Press, 2003), published by the most elite part of Harvard University Press – i.e. the most prestigious, scholarly press in America. Crompton masterfully updated and expanded Bullough’s pioneering work, ignoring not only the misrepresentation of Boswell and the Boswellians – those Christians who refuse to see the persistent homophobia in the Church, dominated as it has been by its second founder, St. Paul – but also the extreme social constructionists – namely American or Anglophone disciples of Foucault, led by David Halperin in his One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (Routledge, 1989). Ignoring biological determinants, social constructionists claim that true homosexuals – types of people rather than anybody guilty of sodomy – only appeared when the word was anglicized in 1894, or coined in German in 1868 or ’69 – a fallacy Boswell himself labeled “nominalism.” Alternately, other social constructionists, Randy Trumbach, et. al., believe that homosexuals first evolved in the “Molly Houses” of early 19th century London and similar sites in Amsterdam, in those metropolises before the word was coined, but still deny that we existed since the beginning of time. Social Constructionists just can’t make up their minds when we “homosexuals” first appeared.

Working extensively with Bonnie, who became dean of nursing at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Vern edited and wrote texts and reference books about nursing from the 1960s until her death in 1996, including The Care of the Sick: The Emergence of Modern Nursing(Prodist, 1978), covering from Florence Nightingale to the emergence of the American nursing profession in 1873. The three volume work American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary (Garland, 1988,1992, 2000), covering topics like the history of licensing and the entry of men into nursing, is still an unsurpassed and influential reference work. Oddly enough, the New York Times obituary mainly focused on this part of Vern’s career – a not insignificant body of work, but hardly one of his primary achievements: in fact the most mundane and bland, though without a doubt very useful.

In Vern’s Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (Garland, 1996), Warren Johansson and I were proud to have the largest article, “Homosexuality.” Therein we refuted Boswell’s arguments, to Vern’s delight. Because of his own specialization in medieval history, Vern had never been taken in by Boswell and resented his arrogance.

Vern’s other work includes major studies of prostitution, contraception, and all the “trans”: transvestites, transgendered, transsexuals, work which led him to a long friendship with “Virginia” Price, who publicly always appeared dressed as a female and pioneered and organized the straight male transvestite movement. He also edited a sex series for Prometheus Press, where he facilitated and subsidized the immense, painstaking English translations by Michael Lombardi-Nash of Ulrichs and Hirschfeld. But beyond all this, Vern fought for better recognition of homosexuals in history books and correctly maintained that pederasty , or intergenerational sex, was as important or more important and more common historically than that of the modern “gay couple” – equal age, education, status, etc. He always strongly supported the work of Bruce Rind, even when Rind and the American Psychological Association, which had published his synthesis that crunched objectively and skillfully all previous studies, was unanimously condemned by both houses of Congress for publishing it. Like Harry Hay, Vern also never denounced NAMBLA, though like me he favored an age of consent of fourteen, rather than NAMBLA's impracticable and I think unreasonable demand for children's right to sex.

Vern's astonishing list of affiliations and accomplishments impresses even the jaded likes of an old-time professor like me: board member on the ACLU, member of the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry, CSICOP, distinguished professor emeritus and later dean of natural and social sciences at SUNY Buffalo, Outstanding Professor at Cal State Northridge and a founder of its Center for Sex Research, president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, a founder of the American Association for the History of Nursing, recipient of the Distinguished Humanist Award, vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, a charter member of the Los Angeles chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and he helped start the LBGT caucuses of the American Historical Association.

Vern indefatigably supported so many of his fellow academics. He always generously shared his erudition with other scholars and gave away a large portion of his valuable personal library to Cal State’s Center for Sex Research, which he founded in the 1970s. The Center for Sex Research was investigated by the state auditor in 1999-2000 after he held spectacular international conferences on prostitution and pornography, in both of which I proudly participated. We were a bit nonplussed when some African-American and Hispanic female prostitutes from L.A. protested that because they were poor they hadn’t been given enough attention at the convention.

Vern’s Human Sexuality Encyclopedia, co-edited with Bonnie, forms part of Erwin Haberle’s online Archive for Sexology and will live on there along with some other of his contributions. A few weeks ago, sensing his approaching end, he conferred the editorship of that encyclopedia of his over to Haeberle, asking him to update and expand it, a request I’m sure Erwin will carry out with all his accustomed diligence and excellence. In the next few months, Erwin will be soliciting new articles for the encyclopedia, which he believes has the potential of becoming the standard reference work in the field. Edwin’s website is not only in English, but also in Mandarin, Spanish and Magyar and gets nearly 7,000,000 hits a month, of which 400,000 stay on for more than forty minutes. His five courses on sex education are excellent and free and when supplemented by five more he is preparing will offer a complete degree curriculum suitable for a degree-granting institution. In helping it grow, we will help to keep alive one of Vern’s most important legacies.

Because Vern asked me to review his last book, Crossing Sexual Boundaries: Transgender Journeys, Uncharted Paths (co-ed. with Ari Kane-DeMaios, Prometheus, 2006), I am currently doing so and shall soon ask his widow Gwen whether someone should try to bring out other of his works posthumously.

For Vern’s unparalleled scholarly contributions to the emerging field of sexology as well as his relentless and effective fight for the rights of GLBTQ folk, I twice nominated him for honorary degrees at U. Mass Boston, where I am the senior professor of history. From this homophobic institution I merely received curt, one line refusals each time. The administration and the Board of Trustees have preferred to give such honors to ignorant pop-stars and athletes, unseemly politicians, or greedy businessmen, rarely ever honoring true scholarship – their rejection of Vern is but one charge in my own long complaint against them, now before the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination.

Unlike his flamboyant role models Alfred Kinsey, to whom he gave pride of place in Before Stonewall, and Magnus Hirschfeld, Vern was modest and retiring. His writing and speaking styles were as unsparkling as his wardrobe. He looked and sounded like a mid-western square: a Rotarian or a member of the Kiwannis Club. In fact he joked that although he frequented the most bizarre and often even the most promiscuous circles, he was a bit disappointed that no one ever propositioned him, doubtless thinking of Voltaire’s quip “Une fois un philosoph, deux fois un pédé.”

But behind the bland exterior was a genius: brilliant, indefatigable, self-sacrificing, generous, sincere, loyal, and inspiring. Charged with pedophilia because he served on the editorial board of Paidike, he was undeterred in supporting research into intergenerational sex, refusing to demonize and insisting upon studying every type of sexuality – just as Hirschfeld and Kinsey had done. Driven like Kinsey and Hirschfeld, and subject to similar threats, ridicule and, more aggravatingly, the possibility of going ignored, Vern was surefooted and unflappable. Like them, but with degrees in history and nursing, he neglected no aspect, from the sciences and the humanities, to the fine arts, through genetics, medicine, sociology, psychology, to quantitative surveys. In all, he pressed successfully for legal reform and political action. Unlike them, however, he never collected much raw data himself, but he thoughtfully understood statistics and knew how to analyze and interpret such surveys.

“Vern’s scholarly achievements and respectability, combined with his open-mindedness, have over the years provided a crucial link between gay and straight communities.” Facts are facts, and science is science, and no amount of wishing them away, no amount of pressure or calumny ever deflected Vern from his mission – to learn the truth and make sure that it was published and distributed. His life stands as “an extraordinary example of how scholarship can be used without being compromised to further political freedom and equality.” What more can one ask of a scholar and a hero? He was a righteous man among the straights. May his memory live forever with that of Kinsey and Magnus Hirschfeld!

Vern is survived by his widow Gwen W. Brewer, an emeritus professor of English literature at Cal State. His daugher Susan, his three sons, James Bullough-Latsch, Steven Bullough and Michael Hayworth, and a grandchild also survive him. But most of all, his greater family is us – the GLBTQ’s of this planet!


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