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AUGUST 2003
Volume 95, Issue 6
 

PRINT-FRIENDLY VERSION

Moment of Decision
WRITTEN BY RICK PERLSTEIN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN DRY

IMAGE:  As a historian Chauncey makes devastating arguments about how closely the racial prejudices of the 1950s and 1960s resemble the sexual prejudices today.
DAN DRY

The heart of Justice Anthony Kennedy's doctrine in the 6-3 decision is a virtual recapitulation of Chauncey's Historian's Brief arguments.

Begin in 1990, the year New Criterion editor Roger Kimball published Tenured Radicals, his assessment of recent trends in academia by then subsumed under the soubriquet “political correctness.” (“A swamp yawns before us, ready to devour everything...”). Newsweek’s December 24 cover article “The New McCarthyism” described the politically correct university as a place where “it would not be enough for a student to refrain from insulting homosexuals.... He or she would be expected to ‘affirm’ their presence on campus and to study their literature and culture alongside that of Plato, Shakespeare, and Locke.” It was all rather reckless, not least when you learn that conservative federal judge and Chicago law lecturer Richard Posner began researching his 1992 volume Sex and Reason after completing the quintessentially U of C act of reading Plato’s Symposium and—as he has recorded—being “surprised to discover that it was a defense, and as one can imagine a highly interesting and articulate one, of homosexual love.”

Fast forward to 1995, when the NYT Week in Review printed a piece that led, “Newly arrived in town, the lanky 28-year-old lawyer did not have money to buy bedding from the 23-year-old merchant. So the merchant made an offer. ‘I have a larger room with a double bed upstairs,which you are very welcome to share with me,’ he said. The lawyer beamed with pleasure as he accepted the kindness.”

The lawyer was Abraham Lincoln. The article—which didn’t mention that the lawyer and the merchant exchanged letters of extraordinary intimacy for many years afterward—went on to explore the rather reductionist question of whether today’s Republican Party should be more welcoming of gays because, after all, their founder was gay. Chauncey contributed a quite nonreductionist quote to the reporter: “That he could marry [a woman] and have a deep, psychologically and physically intimate friendship with Joshua Speed shows that he was operating in an emotional universe very difference from our own.” Another professor, Michael Burlingame of Connecticut College, was quoted thus: “I don’t see how the whole question of Lincoln’s gayness would explain anything other than making gay people feel better. And I don’t think the function of history is to make people feel good. Celebratory history is propaganda.” The furor that ensued, unsurprisingly, followed Burlingame’s knee-jerk logic. It inaugurated a new spell of debate over gay and lesbian scholarship’s very right to exist.

In 1997 Chauncey’s alma mater, Yale, rejected an offer from gay playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer to endow a professorship in gay and lesbian studies because, among other reasons, the field was too narrow for an endowed chair. (“I’d be happy to take the money,” Chicago provost Stone was quoted in the Times. “It is not too narrow. It is interesting and important and likely to be important for a long time.”) The Times piece also reported on “the uneven path” of new scholarly fields more generally, quoting a California state assemblyman’s comment on the University of California, Riverside’s undergraduate minor in lesbian, gay, and bisexual studies, “Gee, send somebody off to San Francisco for six months and let them learn there.” Then in the Wall Street Journal Roger Kimball denounced a women’s sexuality-studies conference at the State University of New York at New Paltz as evidence that “festivals of politicized sexual libertinage are now every day occurrences in many education and cultural institutions.” The New York Times picked up that story in an atrociously jumbled front-page piece that played closer to Kimball’s logic than to Stone’s. As did Sixty Minutes.

And so, to the general public, the situation stood: gay studies had finally been institutionalized in the academy—in the rank promotion of grotesquery and radical political advocacy. Until this year, when a powerful institution finally saw through the fog.

Now for the storybook ending.

Back at Cobb Hall this past spring, Chauncey described the amicus “Historian’s Brief” he drafted for the Lawrence v. Texas case with the assistance of many prestigious cosignatories, including Cott; Lynn Hunt of the University of Pennsylvania; Mark Jordan of Emory, author of a study of the Catholic Church’s remarkably belated theological proscription of homosexuality; and Chicago’s Thomas Holt.

The piece proclaimed modest ambitions: “Amici, as historians, do not propose to offer the Court a legal doctrine to justify a holding that the Texas law violates the U.S. Constitution. Rather, amici believe they can best serve the Court by elaborating on two historical propositions important to the legal analysis: (1) no consistent historical practice singles out same-sex behavior as ‘sodomy’ subject to proscription, and (2) the governmental policy of classifying and discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their homosexual status is an unprecedented project of the twentieth century, which is already being dismantled.” The Historian’s Brief for Case No. 02-102 John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Gardner v. State of Texas is by no means modest in its accomplishments. It provides the sharpest and most sweeping 30-page summary imaginable of the history of homosexuals and society’s response to them. But Chauncey is a modest man. He closed at Cobb—to a loud ovation and students asking him to autograph copies of Gay New York—optimistically predicting a victory for his side from the Supreme Court, though he mumbled doubt at the prospect the Court would pay any mind to his brief.

Chauncey was wrong. The heart of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s new legal doctrine in the 6–3 decision, ranging over some dozen paragraphs, is a virtual recapitulation of the Historian’s Brief arguments. In Justice Kennedy’s paraphrase, “[f]ar from possessing ‘ancient roots...American laws targeting same sex-couples did not develop until the last third of the Twentieth Century.” He went on to cite Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and several works that shared its (and Gay New York’s) social-constructionist paradigm, such as Jonathan Ned Katz’s The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995). In doing so, the majority vindicated a key abstraction of the new historiography: that homosexuality could not have been outlawed as such before the 20th century because “homosexual” as a category did not exist. And they did so not out of any imaginable political agenda—what would the agenda be?—but simply because it seemed to them true.

So taken was the Court, in fact, by the spirit of the historians’ approach to exposing the soft underbelly of received notions of what is “timeless” about sex and gender that it conducted some original research of its own—buttressing its endorsement by unearthing and analyzing primary documents not mentioned in the brief.

Back in 1997 Roger Kimball told the New York Times that gay studies is “profoundly dehumanizing.” Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, in an infamous “parental warning” before the broadcast, compared it to a dirty movie (“some of what is being taught on college campuses today is for mature audiences only”). The point is not that there is no work within the field of sexuality studies for which those criticisms may not apply. The problem is that those criticisms were part of a time, perhaps now past, when vast tracts of scholarship could be dismissed out of hand as so much postmodern, politically correct tribal cheerleading, simply because of their subject matter. And that, at bottom, is why the Lawrence decision, and Chauncey’s role in it, are important to those who care about scholarship and its relationship to society. The highest judicial body in the United States says that, in its historical incarnation at least, gay studies is sound scholarship. Bedrock, in fact, in combination with the relevant court precedents, for changing the law of the land. Chauncey couldn’t be happier. “I’m thrilled with the decision”—and that “the Court took the findings of recent historical scholarship seriously.”

Asked for a preview of his next piece of historical scholarship, The Strange Career of the Closet, Chauncey is purposefully vague—except to confirm that his title is a homage to Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, whose Strange Career of Jim Crow showed that civil-rights history is far more ironic than the customary, Whiggish narrative of inevitable progress allows. Though this he will reveal: “The next book will be more controversial, because of some of the arguments that I’ll make.” Controversial, he means, for other gay people. “I think also that we’re at a point in the development of gay culture and politics where it’s possible and really salutary to rethink some of our founding assumptions.”

George Chauncey is beyond question an advocate. But he is also, beyond question, a historian’s historian.


Rick Perlstein, AB’92, is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang, 2001), the winner of the Los Angles Book Prize for History. He is working on a book about Richard Nixon and the 1960s.

 

 


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