On Thursday, October 27, Columbia Pride hosted queer historian and author John D’Emilio (CC ’70, GSAS ’74, ’82) for an AlumniTALK on his new memoir: Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties.
As a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and prolific author on LGBTQ history, John D’Emilio is used to telling stories of queer history. In his new memoir, however, he takes on a different subject: himself and his own journey of coming to terms with his sexuality in the context of his strict Catholic, small-town upbringing.
D’Emilio spoke to the Columbia community for their AlumniTALK series in honor of Queer History Month. The event was sponsored by Columbia Pride, with President Carlos V. Cruz (CC ’88) introducing D’Emilio with a few words about his career and the various queer history texts he has authored, including Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities and Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University. Cruz also announced that D’Emilio’s aforementioned memoir, Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties, had been published two weeks prior by Duke University Press.
D’Emilio began the talk by describing his process of beginning the memoir. He explained that following his heart surgery in 2004, during the downtown of recovery he found himself “flooded with memories.” He hadn’t set out with the intention of writing a memoir, but ultimately his memories of the incidents that he would later come to understand as crucial not only to his life but the larger context of queer history would become too powerful to simply brush aside.
D’Emilio’s experience as a professor also influenced his decision to begin writing a memoir. As he taught his students about queer history in the post-World War II era and the 1960s, he found that they connected the most with memoirs of ordinary people who lived through those periods. “Memoir made history come alive for them in a way that no other kind of reading I assigned did,” he said. As one such person who lived through these events, it felt only natural for him to commit his own experiences to the form his students so successfully connected to.
He describes quickly finding a narrative in his memories from his upbringing during the conformist period of the 1950s into his young adulthood and college years during the 1960s, an era of direct protest against the compulsory normativity of the previous decade. The memoir explores the tensions between his upbringing––in a McCarthyist and Italian-Catholic immigrant household––and his experiences at college with queerness, anti-war activism, and his own personal spirituality.
Later in the talk, D’Emilio dove deeper into the content of the memoir, particularly into his experience leaving his small neighborhood in the Bronx and exploring the greater New York City area, both as a high school student and a college student at Columbia. He describes the culture shock he encountered at Columbia and its dissonance from his experiences in the neighborhood he grew up in. Columbia during the late sixties was, as D’Emilio eloquiates, awash with radical activism and protest. D’Emilio began to join in on the protests, marching in the streets alongside Black power groups and anti-war conglomerates.
His involvement in radical politics coincided with his personal discovery of himself and his queerness. Although he had noticed these feelings in high school, he lacked the language to label them. He knew only that, in the context of his Catholic upbringing, these thoughts were impure and would have to be confessed, the threat of hell as the ultimate punishment for his sins constantly hanging over him.
It wasn’t until his experience at Columbia, when he encountered other gay men, that he began to earnestly explore his identity. He read from a section of his memoir that described how, after many encounters with anonymous sexual partners during his first year of Columbia, he finally found the opportunity to discuss his queerness and his experiences with his sexuality with one partner, Luis. Luis gave him a copy of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, and in its pages, D’Emilio found a description of queerness as morally good and righteous, in the context of the teachings of Jesus, which gave him the courage to dissect and disassemble his own feelings of Catholic self-hatred.
In the closing section of the talk, D’Emilio took questions from the audience, which were largely about his time at Columbia and his experience as a queer historian. In response to a question about a piece of media that he feels illustrates the reality of gay life in the 60s, he pointed to David Johnson’s book The Lavender Scare, as well as his own book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. In response to another question about the changing landscape of queer acceptance, he noted that while homophobia and transphobia still undoubtedly exist, he is moved by the amount of change he has seen in his lifetime, pointing to how queerness is no longer seen as a mental illness or criminalized, the presence of GSAs in middle and high schools across America, and the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. He spoke on the importance of academic institutions like Columbia providing classes for students to learn about gender and sexuality, and spaces for queer and trans students to explore their own identities. He mentioned being impressed with the leaps and bounds Columbia and other institutions across the country have made in this regard.
And, in case you were wondering as one audience member similarly was: yes, John D’Emilio did frequent the Hungarian Pastry Shop during his time at Columbia.
Image via Columbia College Alumni Association