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November 6, 2003

Chauncey outlines work in gay history

Upon taking the podium, George Chauncey apologized to the packed room. He explained that he had recently caught a bug and might "fade in and out" during his "Lawrence vs. Texas: Sexual Identity/Politics in the Twentieth Century" lecture.

However, throughout the course of the evening Chauncey adroitly guided his audience through the historical changes involving sexual identity, emotional intimacy, and sexual politics in America, devoting attention to the immediate post-WWII period.

Each year the Center for Gender Studies organizes The Distinguished Faculty Lecture, where a faculty member affiliated with gender studies speaks about his current work. This year the Center selected George Chauncey, history professor and co-founder of Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Studies Project.

Chauncey's selection came as no surprise given his groundbreaking work on gay history and his small but crucially enlightening role in the Lawrence vs. Texas decision.

June 26 marked a judicial and civil rights milestone for gay people when the Supreme Court rendered its 6-3 decision, stating that state anti-sodomy laws act in direct violation of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: "The state cannot demean [homosexuals'] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual behavior a crime." Furthermore, Kennedy overruled the 1986 ruling of Bowers vs. Hardwick, saying it was clear the Supreme Court had made a mistake in its decision.

In the Bowers ruling, the majority decision claimed that the Due Process clause did not protect homosexual sodomy, and that to protect it "would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching." The decision not only criminalized sexual behavior exclusively between same-sex partners, but also used the premise that the lifestyle was criminal to justify anti-gay discrimination, denying housing, job protection, child custody, and adoption rights to gays.

Keeping in mind that the Court would refer to the Bowers decision during its deliberation, Chauncey sought to prove that the historical premise on which Bowers was based was incorrect. With the assistance of his colleagues, Chauncey submitted a historian's amicus brief to the Court delineating society's ever-changing understanding of "homosexuals" throughout history.

The brief argued that Colonial American anti-sodomy laws were not intended to proscribe same-sex behavior, but all forms of non-procreative sex—heterosexual and homosexual. It also contended that laws discriminating against same-sex couples were a relatively recent 20th-century phenomenon, with no historic roots.

Not only did the brief prove to be instrumental in persuading the Court that Bowers was founded on a dubious argument, but it also demonstrated that the social climate of 17 years ago is not that of today.

Specifically, Chauncey relied on the post-WWII period to analyze and explain the changes in cultural landscape. The anti-gay laws arising during the last half of the 20th-Century did not stem from a fundamental moral posture but were in response to the anxiety society felt over the reconfiguration of "homosexual" and "heterosexual" categories.

U.S. involvement in WWII had an incredible effect on the social organization of society; as men who fought in the war found themselves in a homo-social environment. Many of those men who stayed behind relocated to industrial centers to meet the labor demand of the war effort, escaping the watchful eyes of their families and communities. These new environments opened up potential life courses that could have otherwise remained unnoticed or unexplored.

Drastic precautions were taken to "maintain" this moral and social order. To illustrate the magnitude of discrimination felt by homosexuals, Chauncey listed what was happening 50 years ago: President Eisenhower banned homosexuals from government employment, the State Department fired more homosexuals than communists, and several populous states passed legislation that allowed for the institutionalization of homosexuals.

These events stand in sharp contrast to what Chauncey called the "Queer Summer of 2003"—a summer where gay television programming dominated popular culture, same-sex marriage made a splash in public discourse, and religious authorities dealt with the scenario of an openly gay man joining their ranks.

That the "queer," the "homosexual," and the "gay" have been dealt with differently by society at various times in history demonstrates neither a progression nor a regression in societal morals, Chauncey said. Rather, it shows the mutability of sexual identities and society's understanding of them.

"I don't think there is any endpoint to the process of historical change we've witnessed in the last generation," Chauncey said after the lecture.

Many scholars believe there is a lesson to be learned from Chauncey's inquiry into the perpetual renegotiation of sexual identities and reinterpretation of history.

"Chauncey's work provides a model of how scholars can inform progressive social change in the world outside the academy," said Gina Olson, assistant director of the Center for Gender Studies.

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