Skip to main content

John D'Emilio: Renowned Professor, Historian Retires

John D'Emilio loves history—a story of change passed from one to another and replete with critical lessons, fledgling ideologies and the nucleus of identity. He not only lived episodes of the cyclic poem of the LGBTQ community and its multi-faceted, impassioned social movements, he became the inspired rhapsodist who taught it to a new generation.

In his essay "A Defense of Poetry," Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that history was composed of "the episodes of that cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of men. The past, like an inspired rhapsodist, fills the theatre of everlasting generations with their harmony."

John D'Emilio loves history—a story of change passed from one to another and replete with critical lessons, fledgling ideologies and the nucleus of identity. He not only lived episodes of the cyclic poem of the LGBTQ community and its multi-faceted, impassioned social movements, he became the inspired rhapsodist who taught it to a new generation.

D'Emilio recently retired from a 15-year position as a professor of history and women's and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ). A May 15 dinner held at RoSals Italian Kitchen near the UIC campus made the moment all too real for him. "My feelings right now are complex," he told Windy City Times. "I've often thought of being an academic as my day job. As my career has progressed and my stature in academic life has grown, the day job has taken over. I need to get back to a combination of intellectual work with activism, advocacy and community organizing because that's where I came from."

D'Emilio was born in 1948—the same year Harry Hay was planting the first seeds of what was to become an organized gay community and Alfred Kinsey published his essay "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" that challenged psychological pigeonholing of homosexuality as deviant behavior. D'Emilio grew up in New York City's Bronx neighborhood attending St. John Francis Regis— a Jesuit high school located close to the Metropolitan Museum. It was an experience he recalls as the most amazing of his young life. He had innumerable friends and a singular talent for history that was consistently illustrated in his grades. His eyes were opening to a world beyond the borders of the Hudson River and one much larger and more complex than his little family in the Bronx.

As a college student at Columbia in the 1960s, D'Emilio discovered his roots and so studied 19th- and 20th-century Italian history. As he learned about the many battles that formed the tapestry of that nation—from the first insurrections in Italian unification to the struggle against fascism—D'Emilio's Catholic upbringing and his own sexuality were coming into similar conflict. "I had very strong feelings for boys and I was going to confession as frequently as I could," he said. "No one in the world—except the priest in the confessional—ever knew. I mean how can you be openly gay, if you think that every time you have a gay thought or engage in gay sex, you take the road towards hell and eternal damnation? I really believed all those things."

Halfway through his freshman year at Columbia and during internal debates with the philosophers who wrote during the Enlightenment period of human history, D'Emilio stopped believing in God. "Giving up the church was—for me in those years—a necessary precondition to be able to come to terms with my being gay," he recalled. "It created the space to embrace and accept the fact that this was who I was."

D'Emilio was graduating college at the same time four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and recalled that he felt like the world was coming apart and taking him along for the ride. He was offered a job in the periodical division of Long Island University library—a position that opened up the doors to a new kind of history recognizing that many of the moments celebrated as America's march towards progress were actually designed to strengthen capitalism and an associated inequality. "The guy I worked for was a sympathetic radical," D'Emilio said. "I had never studied American history in college and suddenly I'm reading all these radical interpretations of it and I'm thinking 'America will never change unless people know this history.'"

At the time, D'Emilio had no appetite for academia. Instead, his first forays into activism revolved around protesting the Vietnam War. He marched on Washington, protested draft boards and provided draft counseling.

However—as part of a community that included celebrated historian and playwright Jonathon Ned Katz—D'Emilio was constantly thinking about the palpable differences new perspectives on history could make. "So much of the rhetoric of the gay liberation movement in those days was that we were invisible, isolated and unable to speak out," he said. "I mean if that's the case, what kind of history was there ever going to be?"

Meetings with a small gay movement in New York along with Katz's mentorship convinced D'Emilio that there was a need for intellectual work and literature alongside an acknowledgement and understanding of gay history.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

As a 26-year-old graduate student in 1973, D'Emilio became part of a loose-knit group called the Gay Academic Union that planned conferences—and exponentially grew in annual attendance. "It provided a support setting for thinking the unthinkable, which was to write my dissertation on a gay topic," D'Emilio recalled. That work focused on the gay movement in the US before the Stonewall riots and would form the basis of his first book "Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970."

It was also the catalyst for D'Emilio's "coming-out evening" to his family.

"I was at that point that I knew I had to tell my parents," he said. "I'm sitting there with my mom while she's preparing dinner and she looks at me and she says 'are you a gay person?' and I said 'yes' and she immediately ended the conversation and went back to chopping vegetables. Over dinner, my dad puts his knife and fork down and asks 'are you a gay person?' and I said 'yes'. Well, we were off and running with a very long back and forth conversation." Memories of that conversation and the question "are you a gay person" have led D'Emilio to recommend people do not come out to someone until they are also ready to counsel them.

In 1975, alongside lesbians who were offended at the group's sexist mentality, D'Emilio left the Gay Academic Union. He and Katz instead became a part of a "gay man's Marxist study group" called "The Gay Socialist Action Project" —a time that transformed D'Emilio's understanding of the world. He read books such as British gay historian and activist Jeffrey Week's "Coming Out" along with Harry Braverman's groundbreaking examination of the workplace "Labor and Monopoly Capital".

They formed the foundations of D'Emilio's study on "Capitalism and the Gay Identity," a 10-page essay with the thesis that gay men and lesbians have not always existed but are the product of history. "I often joke that I could have stopped right there," D'Emilio said with a laugh. "Because it's been read more than anything else I've written and it's assigned in a lot of courses. A lot of people try to ignore it, a lot of people are upset by it. But—for some—it's a transformative moment.

Being immersed in gay and lesbian history was rewarding and D'Emilio's lectures were well-attended but they weren't paying the bills. At the same time, he was learning about community organization through a couple of friends and mentors—even becoming the assistant director of a successful statewide campaign that defeated a ballot initiative for more prisons. "It was completely exciting," D'Emilio said. "But I couldn't figure out how to make a living as a writer. So I gave in and tried to get an academic job. But no one who had ever written about gay and lesbian history had been hired for an academic job."

By the end of the 1970s, D'Emilio felt that gay activism had declined. All of that changed in June of 1981, when the CDC began describing cases of a rare lung infection. "Suddenly it was everywhere," D'Emilio remembered. "By 1983 in New York City, you couldn't be in a group of three gay men and not have a conversation about AIDS. I could see how it was beginning to cause a revival of activism. We remember Stonewall as this moment of birth, but—more than anything—AIDS built a large public movement that became more visibly diverse. It was around AIDS that L,G,B and T started to coalesce."

Meanwhile, D'Emilio left New York to take a job teaching U.S .history at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. It was a position that included a history of sexuality course and one he received via a few degrees of separation from Jim Oleson—a man he had met in 1980 and who would become his lifelong partner. D'Emilio recalled that a right-wing journalist welcomed the couple to the city by writing a piece about the "fag doctor from New York who has been hired to teach in North Carolina."

Despite living in this entirely different world, D'Emilio remained involved in activism. In 1987, he joined the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce eventually becoming Board Co-Chair of an organization that was oriented around community organization.

Eight years later, he moved to Washington, D.C., in order to help build a Policy Institute for the taskforce. "I was right there during the years when marriage was starting to explode in terms of the first round of ballot initiatives and state constitutional amendments," he said. "One of the things we tried to do was to make it clear that gay issues were also about welfare reform, immigration law and affirmative action."

In 1990—as Nancy Katz became the first openly-lesbian judge in Illinois and Nevada banned sexual orientation discrimination in the private sector—D'Emilio and Oleson moved to the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. "UIC had brought in the renowned public intellectual Stanley Fish as Dean of the College [of Liberal Arts and Sciences]," D'Emilio said. "Stanley liked to ruffle the feathers of the establishment. Because of his willingness to do that, I was offered a job as the person who would teach LGBT studies within the gender and women's studies program."

The Chicago Sun Times welcomed D'Emilio to the city with a piece about the arrival of a well-regarded scholar. D'Emilio's smile recalled the article written in Greensboro. "Something had changed since then," he said. "I always think of it as the post-Ellen [DeGeneres] era. Her coming out in 1997 was the right time with the right personality. We had more visibility in pop culture than ever before. I remember seeing those rainbow towers on Halsted and realizing just how much cities and times keep changing."

During his tenure at UIC, D'Emilio witnessed that change grow at a geometric rate with the increased number of faculty members who were both out and active in the community, the growth of the Gender and Sexuality Center and the success of Lavender graduation ceremonies. "When I first started, most of my students were heterosexual," he said. "The gay students either didn't come out or did so tentatively as the semester went on. Now, everybody knows somebody who is gay. Family members have come out. Students have been in a GSA in high school. It's a different world but the one thing that has not changed is that they know nothing about LGBT history. They go to the Pride parade but they have no idea that it is held because—on that weekend in 1969—there was something called Stonewall. This history is still not out there as part of the public culture of education in the US."

D'Emilio believes that the acknowledgement of LGBTQ history is a piece of the puzzle that will propel the community forward. "It's a piece of normalizing LGBT as part of the world we live in," he said. "Then we're free to be whatever we want to be."

However he added that one of the lessons of history is that the benefits of identity-based movements tend to be unequally distributed. "What we've seen in the U.S. is that some members of the community make more progress than others," he noted. "I'm a tenured professor of history with a good salary, and there are homeless LGBT youth in Chicago. We have worked collectively to help make change happen since Stonewall, but large numbers of people who share LGBT identities are still deeply oppressed, suffering and marginalized. So what are we going to do about that?"

After enjoying his retirement for a short while, D'Emilio intends to make a start—by revolutionizing sex education in the United States. He's already ordered a substantial number of books on the history and politics of the subject. He is also continually adding information to an LGBT history website: . "We need to work with school teachers as to what will make it possible to include that history in their lesson plans," he said. "I absolutely think that the teaching of LGBT history needs to happen and will happen."

Through his work and activism, D'Emilio has helped opened up the possibility of making LGBTQ history a part of U.S. culture. Although modest about that achievement, he looks back on the memories of his own life and career proud of the friendships he formed and their unity—a rhapsody in the tumultuous days that helped to make the world a better place.