Larry Kramer Questions Gay Studies
Larry Kramer returned to Yale University -- the alma mater with which the gay activist and author has had a stormy relationship -- and offered a harsh critique of the university's commitment to gay studies and of the idea that the discipline should be linked to gender and sexuality studies. Because ties of the sort that exist at Yale between gay studies and gender studies are in fact common in academe, the speech -- posted online by The Daily Beast -- is attracting discussion.
Kramer spoke at a reunion of gay alumni who were honoring him with a lifetime achievement award. He accused Yale of misusing a $1 million gift it received in his honor by relegating gay studies to the area of gender studies, instead of within history, where Kramer says the field belongs. And he attacked the literary and gender theorists who have played a key role in gay studies, saying that they were focused on the wrong issues.
Study of history -- of people who were gay and how society treated them -- would do more to advance the rights of gay people than any theory. His speech mixed discussion of prominent people he argues were gay (including one of Yale's greatest donors of past generations, and several U.S. presidents), provocative language (some of which will follow) that isn't standard for alumni dinners, and a critique of literary criticism that might warm the hearts of neoconservatives.
"[T]he plague of AIDS was allowed to happen because much of the world hates us and most of the world knows nothing about us. ... I needed no queer theories, no gender studies, to figure all this out," Kramer said. "Why can’t we accept that homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history, whether it was called homosexuality, sodomy, buggery, hushmarkedry, or hundreds of other things, or had no name at all? What we do now they pretty much did then. Period. Men have always had cocks and men have pretty much always known what to do with them. It is just stupidity and elite presumption of the highest and most preposterous order to theorize, in these regards, that then was different from now."
He said that Yale was "afraid" to teach about all the people who are gay. And he asked "why is the history department allowing history to be hijacked by the queer theorists just as the English department allowed Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida to hijack literature for the deconstructionists? That travesty found safe haven here at Yale, too."
He said that when Yale shut down the program his brother created in Kramer's honor and when the university refused to support gay history, as opposed to gender studies, "I thought my heart would break. I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else’s history." (Kramer also claimed in the speech that all references to the institute were "expunged" from Web sites, although in fact the gay studies program at Yale acknowledges and describes the program.)
Kramer's history with Yale and gay studies is complicated. He tried to endow a program in gay studies in 1997, but the university rebuffed him, a move he said was homophobic. Kramer's writing and activism -- on modern gay life and especially on AIDS -- have offended many (gay and straight), but he is also seen as someone who was in many cases right on key issues long before anyone realized it (on AIDS, for example).
Experts on gay studies and gay history had mixed reactions to Kramer's talk at Yale. Although there was little support for his views in their entirety (or even close), several said that Kramer was raising important issues about how gay people should be studied, and about the place of gay history.
With regard to Yale, the speech caused a bit of confusion because that university's history department has two big-name gay studies scholars who write gay history: George Chauncey and Joanne Meyerowitz. So the idea that literary theorists control gay studies at Yale in a way that diminishes gay history bothers people there and elsewhere. Via e-mail, Chauncey said that the program named for Kramer did end after five years, but that it ended "as planned, when the funding did," and that it left gay studies "much stronger than it had been before."
Added Chauncey: "I teach courses at Yale every year on lesbian and gay history, and I share Larry Kramer's belief in the importance of gay history, even though we often disagree in our interpretation of that history. But LGBT studies is an interdisciplinary field which includes much more than history, and I am proud that the program at Yale offers courses in anthropology, sociology, film, literature, musicology, and other disciplines." Of the link between gay studies and gender studies, Chauncey said that "this is a common pattern across the country, and it seems to me a very good one, since as a curricular matter there are so many links between LGBT studies and gender studies."
John G. Younger, a gay studies scholar who is professor of classics and director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Kansas, called Kramer's talk "rambling" and "shrill," and said he disagreed with it. Kramer's list of famous dead gay people is "not history, that's wish fulfillment," said Younger. He said that Kramer takes "such an essentialist view," when "since we're dealing with people, there's always nuance."
Defining people as gay doesn't make sense, Younger said, without some understanding of their cultures and identities and values.
Younger said his gay studies courses take "a constructionist view, that people are not set in stone but differ over time and space, through history."
Jonathan Ned Katz, director of OutHistory.org, a Web site on gay history run through the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and someone who has been publishing gay history for decades, said that he thought the speech pointed to some essential truths, although the fault is with history, not gender studies or literary theory.
"I agree with Larry. I wish there was more history," Katz said. "It's a very complicated and interesting question and I wish it was more openly talked about, so I'm glad that Larry, with his very vocal mouth, is opening up debates about this."
But while Kramer criticized Yale for putting gay studies with gender studies, Katz said that the situation at Yale and elsewhere wasn't just about the choices of university leaders. "I think a lot of that has to do with the conservatism of history departments in the United States [as scholars started to work on gay issues], while gender studies, which came out of the women's movement, and English departments tended to be more open to queer studies, so a lot of important work was done there."
"I expected there to be much more work in gay history" by now, said Katz, but he said that he felt "excitement and a major kinship" in women's and gender studies before many history departments were receptive.
Ian Lekus, chair of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History (affiliated with the American Historical Association), said that Kramer was "certainly right that we need much more gay history" and that the talk continued Kramer's tradition "of speaking truth to power." But Lekus also called the talk "breathtakingly male centered" and said that Kramer took an either/or approach to theory and history that was not appropriate.
"I think where he missteps is not quite grasping how theory can inform history," said Lekus, a lecturer at Harvard University. "I agree with him that theory is no substitute for history. But good theory informs the questions we ask about history."
Lekus also said that the problem Kramer cited -- lack of a sufficient home for study of gay and lesbian history within history departments -- is real, although the situation is better than it used to be. Lekus noted a 2001 report by Committee on Lesbian and Gay History that found that many new Ph.D.'s in the field had difficulty landing jobs in history departments, and that many of them ended up teaching in gender studies programs.
Many young historians today, Lekus said, are doing the kind of history that was overlooked previously, applying traditional history methods but exploring issues related to the treatment of gay people. He noted colleagues who are studying gay people at the GI bill or gay people in the McCarthy era. Lekus is doing research on homophobia and masculinity in the anti-war and other protest movements of the 60s. Lekus noted that the AHA has endorsed his committee's work to promote such research and to study obstacles to advancement for those who study gay topics.
"It's a generational battle, but we are making progress," Lekus said.