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  Mary Ruth Yoe

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Gay studies at Chicago

Clothes make the man...Gay studies is a relatively young field, but homosexuality has long been a subject of academic inquiry. A Regenstein Library exhibition shows how generations of University of Chicago scholars have examined the social and cultural processes that shape sexuality and the study of it.

The word homosexuality doesn't have a long history. The earliest citation given in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1892--the year that the term homosexual was first used in print by an American physician, Dr. James G. Kiernan of Chicago. Also making its debut in 1892 was the University of Chicago. Within two decades of its founding, U of C researchers had begun to study homosexuality, in what has come to be seen as a distinctly Chicago style. Their scholarship is the subject of "Homosexuality in the City: A Century of Research at the University of Chicago," an exhibition presented by the Department of Special Collections at the Joseph Regenstein Library through December 15. The opening was timed to coincide with "The Future of the Queer Past," a September conference organized in large part by the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project and the history department.

Over the past decade, the U of C has become a center for research in lesbian, gay, and queer studies, but as the exhibition's curator, Chad Heap, AM'93, PhD'00, an assistant professor of American studies at George Washington University, points out in the accompanying catalog, "[T]he study of homosexual life and culture is hardly a new phenomenon at the University. Rather it is a field with a long and complicated history on campus-one that has been shaped as much by the social and political climate of the city and nation as by the disciplinary fields in which it has been pursued."

A Scarlet PansyShifting with society's views of homosexuality-from medical illness to social deviance to psychological disorder to a field of study in its own right-the research at Chicago dates to March 1910, when several U of C sociologists and clergymen were named to the city's Vice Commission. Asked to investigate the growth of female prostitution and recommend how this "social evil" might be cured, the commission expanded its scope when it discovered a "definite cult" of feminine men and female impersonators at the city's music halls and saloons. The commission urged lawmakers both to criminalize certain homosexual offenses and to consult with "scientific men" to learn how best to solve the problem.

By the 1920s, faculty work in social and sexual reform had helped to encourage a developing interest in sociological studies. Led by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, PhD'13, students embarked on detailed studies of urban neighborhoods and networks, an approach that came to be known as the "Chicago School." A number of the studies explored how social and sexual mores were transformed by urban spaces and institutions, with some charting the growing incidence of homosexuality in the city. Urban reformers soon realized that the students' participant-observation techniques and knowledge of the city's more marginal neighborhoods made them ideal anti-vice investigators, and many were recruited by the Juvenile Protection Agency.

Mother Camp by Esther NewtonWhile serving on a 1927-1928 commission to investigate the state's parole system, Ernest Burgess and John Landesco, PhB'24, discovered an intricate network of homosexual practices in Illinois penitentiaries and reform schools, a network that included not only those incarcerated for homosexual offenses but also men whose homosexual activities seemed confined to their prison terms. In this case, rather than analyzing the social organization of this sexual culture, the researchers used the information to determine which prisoners were the best bets for parole, concluding that the "situational" homosexuals were far more likely than those jailed for homosexual acts to commit additional crimes upon parole.

Less research was done on lesbian relations, partly because of their comparative lack of visibility and cultural conventions that permitted more same-sex intimacy among women. In 1920, however, Katherine Bement Davis, PhD 1900, began an extensive survey of the sex lives of "normal" women. Published as The Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-two Hundred Women (1929), the study found that more than 50 percent of single women (30 percent of married women) had experienced some degree of homosexual involvement.

The "pansy craze" of the early 1930s made gay life in Chicago, New York, and other cities more visible and accepted. Lesbian salons attracted sightseers to Towertown (now known as the Magnificent Mile, it was then a bohemian district), while drag entertainers were a feature at South Side clubs. The craze made its way into popular literature, and novels with gay or lesbian themes--like The Well of Loneliness (1928), Strange Brother (1931), and A Scarlet Pansy (1932)--were read by homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.

To gauge the novels' popularity, sociology students canvassed almost 100 local rental libraries, finding that hundreds of copies had been loaned out (sometimes delivered by messenger service to more timid customers) in almost every part of the city. Meanwhile, realist novelists like James T. Farrell, X'29 (who took sociology courses at Chicago), also depicted the city's gay world.

The "pansy craze" was short-lived. As the Depression deepened, a series of sex-crime panics made headlines in Chicago and elsewhere. While U of C sociologists had urged the city's leaders to see homosexuality in relation to the complex web of urban social conditions, by the end of the 1930s, as psychology gained popularity, the local authorities and the general public became convinced that homosexuality could be best explained, and dealt with, in terms of individual psychopathology.

During the periodic panics, at least two faculty members (including the well-known bisexual writer and social critic, Paul Goodman, PhD'54, then a graduate student and instructor in English) lost their jobs as a result of homosexual activities. There was no across-the-board firing of gay or lesbian employees; rather, administrators took action only against faculty members whose public behavior had generated, or was about to generate, unwanted publicity.

In that atmosphere, research in homosexuality declined sharply. No longer did students write papers documenting lesbian and gay life or the life histories of their homosexual friends, nor did the topic receive any substantive discussion in the University's sociology courses.

The one major sociological research project that examined homosexuality in any depth during the 1940s reflected psychology's growing influence. Writing his master's thesis, Earl W. Bruce, PhB'35, AM'42, mixed documentation of the city's homosexual world-nightspots, parties, and participants-with a study of the personality traits of the homosexual man, placing the results of his informants' personality tests within the context of the social problems they faced as urban homosexuals. A decade later, James M. Sacks, PhB'47, AM'52, PhD'57, wrote a dissertation based on an experiment designed to test Freud's hypothesis that delusions of persecution originated in a fear of homosexuality, but in general the psychological study of homosexuality gained little enthusiasm.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, U o f C sociologists returned to the topic of homosexuality, this time emphasizing the construction of social norms. Scholars like Howard S. Becker, PhB'46, AM'49, PhD'51, and Erving Goffman, AM'49, PhD'53, questioned the assumed pathology of homosexuals, as well as the naturalness of social norms, arguing that homosexuality received a "deviant" status because of rules and sanctions established by society. As sociological studies of "social deviance" became more influential, Chicago scholars began to reexamine urban homosexual communities as complex social structures produced in response to social stigma and regulation.

Nationally, gay studies emerged as a field of its own in the 1990s, and Chicago was no exception. In 1991, the history department became the second history department in the nation to offer a tenure-track appointment to a candidate with a gay-history dissertation: history professor George Chauncey was that candidate, and his Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1994) won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians. Since Chauncey's hiring, graduate students in a dozen departments have completed or are writing dissertations related to the field. And although some of those works are in the humanities, the research at Chicago continues to be marked by a concern with the social, cultural, and urban processes that shape sexuality.

Meanwhile, in 1992, sociologists Edward O. Laumann; Robert T. Michael; John H. Gagnon, AB'55, PhD'69; and Stuart K. Michaels, PhD'97; undertook a major quantitative survey of adult sexual behavior. Its controversial finding-that only 1.4 percent of women and 2.8 percent of men identified themselves as homo- or bi-sexual-challenged the widespread belief that lesbians and gay men composed 10 percent of the nation's population and was greeted with some skepticism, prompting a continuing debate on the study's methodology and interpretations.

The Lesbian and Gay Studies Project, an interdisciplinary group led by Chauncey and anthropology professor Elizabeth Povinelli, was established in 1997 by the Center for Gender Studies. Besides funding dissertation-year fellowships and research grants, the project sponsors conferences and seminars, and it coordinates the decade-old Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Studies Workshop, a biweekly gathering where faculty and graduate students discuss their works in progress or papers presented by visiting scholars.

The University of Chicago Press, which in the early 1980s published two landmark works in the historical study of homosexuality--John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and John D'Emilio's Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983)-has developed a list covering nearly every aspect of the field: anthropology, art, history, law, literature, politics, psychology, religion, and sociology. The list's breadth and depth make it clear that there are many veins to mine.

  OCTOBER 2000
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