- In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics, and Community Life by John D’Emilio
In this new collection, John D’Emilio chronicles the passions, people, and places that have shaped his life and times, and he displays an acute awareness of the rewards and burdens of history. He also charts his own queer history, politics, and community life through the first decades of the twenty-first century—a period that he aptly summarizes as a conjunction of the “post-Ellen world of queer visibility and this post-9/11 world of heightened conservatism” (34). D’Emilio was the first author of a dissertation on gay history to be hired in a tenure-track position by a US history department. Pursuing his research interests with great courage in the 1980s, he unearthed the stories of the US homophile activists of the 1950s and 1960s—women and men who asserted the then-radical idea that lesbians and gay men were members of a minority group deserving equal rights. His forward-thinking approach to creating a useable past highlights the contradictions that inform not just the queer movement today but also the majority of American social movements that operate within an equality framework and are thus bound by the parameters of legal notions of equal rights and their attendant flaws.
The twenty-six essays contained within In a New Century are divided into four sections: “Strategizing Change” leads to “Doing History,” and “Local Stories” introduces “History’s Lessons.” What is wonderful about D’Emilio’s writing is its accessibility, a radical act in and of itself in the academy. Weaving his experiences as activist and academic throughout, he explains why, as “an enthusiastic graduate student caught up in the fever of gay liberation,” he fell in love with history. “History was our confirmation that the worlds we were constructing in the present were not our momentary hallucinations but had roots and connections; our lives had strong ties to something that stretched way back in time” (4–5). History provided D’Emilio with examples of both the power and limitations of collective mobilization for change. He embodies the revolutionary idea that teaching is a potent tool for progressive social change and for mounting challenges to hate and its subsidiaries. Countering the current emphasis on skills building and job-readiness on many university campuses, D’Emilio advocates creating a conducive learning environment that encourages engagement. He also critiques the growing conservatism of the gay movement, with which he has been actively involved his entire adult life. From helping to found the Gay Academic Union while a student at Columbia in the 1970s to building the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Task Force) in the 1990s, D’Emilio not only studied history but also helped change it. Particularly poignant are his essays reflecting on his biography of Bayard Rustin. They make the point that the passionate politics of one’s life may [End Page 526] collide with the stolid structures of American reaction. The dominance of neoliberalism in the last four decades can dim hopes for a radical future, a reality that Rustin also confronted.
In his final essay, D’Emilio argues that the mainstream LGBT movement’s single-minded emphasis on marriage at the turn of the twenty-first century has led to the demise of its investment in radical reinterpretations of sexuality and family and a failure to investigate relationships to the state. A top-down approach among some national organizations, dominated by lawyers and fueled by wealthy donors, led to a marriage-equality strategy that swamped other pressing concerns. For the majority of LGBTQ people, rising rates of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, youth suicide, and HIV infection have been far more important to their daily lives than walking down the aisle. D’Emilio’s argument against the movement’s singular focus on marriage is powerful and provocative, but he does not...