Wayne R. Dynes on gay studies

From William A. Percy
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Here are my reflections on gay studies. In looking over this piece it occurred to me that I do not venture an opinion as to what gay studies actually should consist of. I should think it axiomatic that it would be interdisciplinary. In my Homosexuality: A Research Guide I list some thirty fields. W. Dorr Legg, who first offered courses in the subject (albeit at a private institution, ONE, Inc.) thought that nine would be enough, See his book "Homophile Studies in Theory and in Practice" (1994), available cheaply at Amazon. If you google “gay studies syllabus” you will get a number of working examples.

Now here is the main part:


In the US the turbulent Seventies were the embodiment of both hope and danger. The hope lay in the sense that the existing machinery of social control, which had borne down heavily on gay people and other “shafted” groups, was breaking down. A window of opportunity was opening so that we had, if we could manage it, a world to win. Yet two dangers loomed: 1) that the social fabric would simply disintegrate (as the disorders of Watts, Newark and other places suggested); and 2) possibly as a consequence of no. 1, we would see the rise of an even more oppressive order, the Soviet Republic of the United States. Gradually, to my relief at least, the New Left ebbed, and evolution instead of revolution prevailed.

When several of us came up with the idea of gay studies as an academic discipline (in the mid seventies) we were not looking for any sort of epistemic rupture. We thought that gay studies would become a department in most universities, not unlike the departments of, say, Spanish and Chemistry. Of course, there were the problems encountered in setting up black-studies and women’s-studies departments. Our “assimilationism” was not widely shared. Others, of an antinomian stripe, sought to break with the existing edifice of knowledge. Some of these dissidents left academia, while others stayed behind to snipe from within.

When I say, “we came up with the idea of gay studies,” what is the “we”? Initially, it was a small group of NYC librarians and academics that I knew. (To be fair, ONE, Inc. in LA had been offering lectures for some years; however, this activity was outside of the formal bounds of academia, and could be discounted as a coterie or crank effort). In the fall of 1973 I was one of the organizers of the first annual conference (at John Jay College in Manhattan) of the Gay Academic Union (GAU). The quality of the presentations varied, with some scholarly, others just pep talks. But in talking to some of the better people I could see a convergence towards the idea of gay studies. We saw, of course, that there would be problems getting the proposals through the appropriate college committees. But we were on our way--or so we thought. A few years later we GAUers started a periodical to this end: Gay Saber. It lasted only three issues, but was succeeded, for several more years, by Gay Books Bulletin (which morphed into The Cabirion).

Actually I got started a couple of years before this, when I joined (in 1971, I think) a group working under the auspices of the American Library Association. My best friend Jack Stafford, a librarian, was active in the group, so he dragooned me. (Oddly enough, there weren’t enough gay librarians in those days to staff a whole group.) Jack and I undertook, rather naively as it turned out, to produce a bibliography of gay and lesbian topics that would eschew, by and large, the old negative psychiatric junk. Jack was murdered in 1973, and work halted. A year or so later I learned that a much bigger project (duly published in 1976 by Garland) was under way at ONE, Inc. in Los Angeles. Its deficiencies soon became apparent, and I set out to work with W. Dorr Legg, head of ONE, to produce something better. After falling out with Dorr, I produced my Homosexuality: Å Research Guide, still the most substantial bibliography (available online at http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/BIB/ResGde/main.htm; this large site also has the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality; and my Homolexis Glossary; they may also be found at Williamapercy.com).

My mentor in these studies was the late polymath Warren Johannson, who impressed on me the need to read and ponder the enormous contribution of gay scholarship produced in Germany prior to 1933. Our friends John Lauritsen and David Thorstad had produced a little manual about this achievement, but there was no substitute for tackling the original.

In order to avoid reinventing the wheel, Warren and I thought that one should begin the new chapter of gay studies (which is what it was) on the foundations of the old, the German one. Alas, we did not have the resources to publish the major works in translation (later some of this was done by the industrious Michael Nash-Lombardi). Under the leadership of Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin, the German effort (actually dating from Ulrichs’ first work in 1864) was guided by the motto: Per scientiam ad justitiam. That is to say, cumulatively the assemblage of objective knowledge would persuade society to eliminate laws and discriminatory policies regarding homosexuality. This was a continuation of the Enlightenment project of Sapere Aude. Much of the German work was conditioned by evidence from ancient Greece and Rome, as one might expect from scholars with a thorough gymnasium training.

Warren and I resigned ourselves to the fact that most people were going to ignore the German contribution, but we drew heavily upon it in our own work. We assembled a small group of ten or so people meeting at regular intervals in my Morningside Drive apartment. Out of this collaboration came the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (see appendix). It is fair to say, I think, that EoH was the first and last of its kind, since succeeding print works have not challenged it in terms of quality. There is an excellent online successor called GLBTQ (http://www.glbtq.com/), but in its medium this too seems destined to be unique.

In the larger world of gay scholarship, various problems arose. During the seventies there was a great hullaballoo about the need to give full representation to lesbians and lesbianism. In vain we pointed out that historically there was much less data about gay women than gay men. We were tarred with the label of misogynist. In 1981 AIDS was first detected, and many diverted their research to that subject, perhaps understandably. Then there was the tsunami of Social Construction, which had the practical effect of limiting its adherents to the (to my mind) parochial arena of Western Europe and North America in the last 150 years or so. This was followed by the appalling rise of Queer Theory. All this volatility made it hard to come up with any definition of gay studies that would compel general agreement.

To the best of my knowledge John Boswell was the first (at Yale) to get tenure as an out gay scholar. Later some Queer Theorists did. It is fair to say, though, that our penetration into academia has proved tenuous.

In retrospect the blight of “Theory” has done tremendous harm, not simply through the obfuscation spread by its rhetoric, but more importantly by encouraging young researchers in the illusion that they need not attempt any new empirical research: all that is required is to filter the existing data through their screen of concepts.

Another problem is caused by old-line scholars seeking to “shanghai” historical figures and make them play on our team. A classic example is “Jonathan to Gide” by Noel I. Garde (Edgar Leoni). More recently we have my late friend C.A. Tripp’s effort to conscript Abraham Lincoln. This last has generally fallen flat (to say the least) among Lincoln scholars. But it is now fervently believed by many gays. Charlie Shively has been trying to induct George Washington into our sodality. I contend that there is more substantial evidence that GW was a lesbian (argued in several London papers in the 1790s). So far I have refrained from executing my threat to write a book showing that e v e r y American president has been gay.

The ultimate danger inherent this shanghaiing is the emergence of the notion of Two Truths (which I am told goes back to Siger of Brabant). Lincoln both was, and was not gay. Cleopatra was, and was not black. And so forth.

More massively we see this problem in the bifurcated response to the biblical “clobber passages,” where one interpretation is maintained by traditional biblical scholars, an opposing one by gay Christians (see the Queer Bible Commentary for many examples).

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