Alum Recalls Experience “in the Closet” in the ’60s

Esther Newton wrote the first ethnography of gay people in anthropology while hiding her own sexuality.

By Peyton Alie

On Wednesday evening, Esther Newton, Ph.D. ’68, returned to the University to read part of her forthcoming memoir for the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality’s 2016 Distinguished Alumni Lecture.

Newton, who studied anthropology at UChicago, is known for her groundbreaking ethnographies of American gay and lesbian communities.

She read from a chapter from her memoir, My Butch Career: A Queer Life in Anthropology, that focuses on her years as a graduate student.

“This chapter foregrounds the career part of the title, so I wanted to remind you of the butch part from the start because overall, the manuscript describes how these two nouns were fighting each other in my body and in my life,” Newton said.

As a woman in a department comprised solely of white male professors, Newton encountered both sexism and homophobia. Newton received criticism from professors for wearing pants instead of dressing in the “attractive and feminine” style they believed would allow her to succeed professionally. Throughout her time at UChicago, she hid her relationships with women from her colleagues and friends to protect her career, and considered marrying men multiple times.

Newton became involved in Chicago’s queer scene through a gay male friend, the only person in her department who she told she was gay. Fascinated by the drag shows she attended, Newton decided to do her dissertation on drag, an extremely risky topic at the time. Her dissertation became her first book, Mother Camp, regarded as the first ethnography of gay people in anthropology.

“Gay people were then looked upon within social science as the object solely of psychological, medical, or even criminological study. Our supposedly bizarre behavior was presumed to arise from physical and/or psychological abnormalities,” Newton read.

Newton praised David Schneider, a famed cultural anthropology professor at UChicago who often mentored female or queer students, for his support of her work.

“What he imparted to me…was that ‘female impersonators,’ about whom he knew nothing more than what I told him, were a group of human beings and so necessarily had a culture worth studying. The insight that gays were not just a category of sick, isolated, but a group, and so had culture, was a breathtakingly new idea whose daring is hard to recapture now, when the term ‘gay community’ is so familiar,” Newton read.

Newton is Term Professor of American Culture and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, as well as Professor of Anthropology and Kempner Distinguished Professor Emerita at Purchase College, SUNY. She was a founder of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Program at Purchase College.