August 17, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 20

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    ‘Future of the Queer Past’ conference will examine history of gay life worldwide

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    Why did three strikingly different political regimes in the 1930s–fascist Germany, Stalinist Russia and New Deal America–all launch attacks on gay life? Why were more homosexuals than communists purged from the State Department in the McCarthy era?

    Those will be among the myriad questions explored when 200 historians gather Thursday, Sept. 14 to Sunday, Sept. 17 at the University for the largest gay history conference ever held.

    “The Future of the Queer Past: A Transnational History Conference” is being organized by the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project and the History Department, with the assistance of an external advisory committee.

    Leading scholars in the emerging field of gay studies and graduate students will gather on 50 panels to present research on gay issues throughout the world and across history. Performance artists, archivists and filmmakers whose work explores gay history also will be featured, including a special exhibit on gay life in Chicago that will highlight extensive research by University researchers during the last century.
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    “This conference will help us understand the historical background of one of the most profound social changes of our time–the growing visibility and acceptance of gay people,” said George Chauncey, Professor in History and the main organizer of the conference.

    “It will showcase scholars in lesbian, gay and transgender history who are recovering a hidden history most people don’t even know exists. At the same time, the scholars will have a rare opportunity to meet one another and to chart the development of the field, assess its strengths and weaknesses and explore new directions for its future,” he continued.

    Exploring the history of gay and lesbian life in the United States and around the world, speakers at the conference will examine numerous historical topics. Among the topics to be discussed are the changing meanings of male friendship since the 11th century; black gay life on Chicago’s South Side; homosexual scandals in the postwar media; the impact of the American military occupation on gay life in postwar Germany and Japan; the politics of homosexuality in Mexico, Argentina, Ireland, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Germany, China, and Taiwan; transgender saints and sinners in the colonial Spanish Empire; rural women’s relationships in 1950s Finland; modern Israeli masculinity, nationalism and queer male identity; the formation of queer Latino communities in San Francisco; the gay rights movement in Australia, Canada, and the United States; the “pansy craze” in Prohibition-era Chicago and New York; homosexual victims in the memory of the Holocaust; sodomy regulation in colonial Massachusetts and modern Sweden; black nationalists’ attitudes toward homosexuality; the campaign for same-sex marriage rights; the creation of an officially designated gay neighborhood in Chicago; the role of women’s softball and women’s music festivals in lesbian culture and politics; Asian-American gay male organizing before AIDS; the Navy’s regulation of homosexuality in the early 20th century; and the emergence of gay and lesbian families.

    “As almost everyone who has been working in gay studies for more than a decade would agree, the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a sudden, unprecedented and extraordinary growth in the field,” said Chauncey.

    “We have begun to reconstruct some of the social and cultural histories that have been systematically erased from the historical record and to reassess established historical narratives in light of those new discoveries. This conference will give us a chance to assess what we’ve learned about queer history and where future research should be headed. The field is so new that we still have vast unexplored terrain to chart.”

    “Homosexuality in the City: A Century of Research at the University of Chicago,” presented by the Department of Special Collections at the University’s Joseph Regenstein Library, will feature the extensive research on gay life in Chicago conducted by University researchers–especially in the sociology department–in the last century. The exhibition will be open from Thursday, Sept. 14 to Friday, Dec. 15.

    On Thursday, Sept. 14, performance artist Holly Hughes will stage “Preaching to the Perverted,” her new performance piece exploring her experience of censorship as a member of the “NEA Four,” four lesbian, gay and feminist performance artists, whose funding was discontinued by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s.

    Brian Freeman, founder of Pomo Afro Homos, will perform on Friday, Sept. 15, his new play “Civil Sex: The Life of Bayard Rustin.” The play explores the politics of race and sexuality in the life of Rustin, a black gay man who was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a key aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Sarah Waters, a Lambda Literary Award-winning novelist, will read from her novels “Fingersmith” and “Affinity.” A program of recent foreign and American gay history documentaries also will be shown.
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    Conference panelists will include leading scholars in gay studies such as Julie Abraham, Emory University; Henning Bech, University of Copenhagen; Alan Bray, University of London; Anna Clark, University of Minnesota; John Emilio, University of Illinois, Chicago; Lisa Duggan, New York University; James Green, California State University, Long Beach; Ramon Gutierrez, University of California, San Diego; Judith Halberstam, University of California, San Diego; David Halperin, University of Michigan; Alice Hom, Claremont Graduate University; Jonathan Ned Katz, the author of Gay American History; Elizabeth Kennedy, University of Arizona; Martin Manalansan, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Joanne Meyerowitz, Indiana University and editor of the Journal of American History; Esther Newton, State University of New York, Purchase; Greg Pflugfelder, Columbia University; Nayan Shah, University of California, San Diego; Alan Sinfield, Sussex University (England); Siobhan Somerville, Purdue University; James Steakley, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Marc Stein, York University (Canada); Susan Stryker, GLBT Historical Society of Northern California; Valerie Traub, University of Michigan; Randolph Trumbach, City University of New York Graduate Center; and Martha Vicinus, University of Michigan.

    For more information on “The Future of the Queer Past: A Transnational History Conference,” visit the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center Web site at http://humanities.uchicago.edu/cgs/queerpast.html or call (773) 834-4509.