Last edited: February 14, 2005

UIC Professor’s Work Gets a Supreme Compliment

Chicago Tribune, July 17, 2003
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At Random On Academia

By Julia Keller, Tribune cultural critic

John D’Emilio recently found himself enjoying an unusual feeling—unusual, that is, for a history professor. It’s a familiar feeling, no doubt, for captains of industry or influential politicians, but not for an academic.

The feeling: Clout.

And not just the kind of clout that garners a good restaurant table or last-minute Cubs tickets. This power was at once less tangible, but more lasting and profound.

The book D’Emilio co-wrote with Estelle B. Freedman, “Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America” (University of Chicago Press, 446 pages, $17), was cited by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy when, writing for a majority of court on July 26, he and his colleagues struck down a Texas law criminalizing sodomy.

The decision was widely hailed as a victory for gay rights—and it derived in part, according to Kennedy’s written comments, from the information he gleaned from D’Emilio’s book, which traces the history of American perspectives on sexual relationships from the nation’s founding through the present day. The justice mentioned “Intimate Matters” specifically in the court’s decision.

“People are very excited for me,” said D’Emilio, a professor of history and of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s been very gratifying to hear from colleagues, but I’m also enjoying the media recognition.”

Making a difference

D’Emilio, who has taught at UIC since 1999, said he has been interviewed by reporters from, among others, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and ABC’s “Nightline.”

“The history that many of us have been writing these past 20 years actually penetrated how the court thinks,” he added. “Those of us who spend years and years working in archives—well, we love what we do. But you never know if it makes a difference.”

Now, D’Emilio said, he knows. “This was the big time.”

In his remarks, Kennedy wrote that “Intimate Matters” had revealed to him and his colleagues that “the concept of the homosexual as a distinct category of person did not emerge until the late 19th Century. . . . Thus early American sodomy laws were not directed at homosexuals as such but instead sought to prohibit nonprocreative sexual activity more generally. . . . It does tend to show that this particular form of conduct was not thought of as a particular category [different] from like conduct between heterosexual persons.”

D’Emilio’s book recounts that sodomy laws were devised to prohibit behavior by either same-sex partners or partners of opposite sexes, not to punish a certain kind of person. Kennedy’s point, D’Emilio said, is that the current use of sodomy laws—the few that remain—is to punish a group, not a behavior. And punishing a group, even if its behavior is repugnant to some, presumably is not OK in America.

“It’s not as if we’re saying there haven’t been sodomy statutes,” D’Emilio said. “There have been. But sodomy statutes were part of a whole set of laws that prohibited a lot of sex that wasn’t procreative. Most of those prohibitions have been discarded. Why is this one still around?

“The other thing he [Kennedy] seemed to get is that, 300 years ago, if you punished someone for sodomy, you were punishing someone who did this thing. Now, you’re punishing someone for who they are.”

An argument from history

D’Emilio said he had joined other historians in submitting books for the court’s review as the case was being considered. But he had no idea that “Intimate Matters” would be cited in the decision.

“You never know if an argument from history will influence the court,” he said. “It was so amazing to be sitting at my computer terminal as the decision was coming and scrolling down on the page [reading Kennedy’s words] and realizing, ‘Oh, my God, he’s made a decision from history!’ It was so rewarding.”

D’Emilio, whose undergraduate and graduate history degrees were earned at Columbia University, has written extensively about the history of gender and sexuality in the United States in books such as “The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics and Culture” (Duke University Press, 328 pages, $18.95) and “Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States 1940-1970” (University of Chicago Press, 258 pages, $14). A reviewer for the Boston Globe termed the latter book “a milestone in the history of the American gay movement.”

As director of UIC’s gender and women’s studies program, he has seen the growth of such programs at colleges nationwide, D’Emilio reported.

“It’s become very well integrated in the life of the university. Gender studies is starting to become as normal in the university as English or philosophy or anthropology. It’s way beyond just a fashion or a radical impulse,” he said. “Students who take these courses have their eyes opened to different ways of looking at things.”

Critics have charged that programs such as women’s studies, gender studies and African-American studies are more ideological than scholarly, aimed at promoting a political agenda rather than disseminating knowledge.

D’Emilio stoutly rejects the charge.

“As a citizen, I have opinions, as we all do. But as a scholar, I’m really trying to understand the world as best I can.” That requires serious research into the historical foundations of present laws and attitudes, D’Emilio said. “In all sorts of spheres, a deeper understanding of history has a lot to tell us about contemporary challenges.”

Moreover, the book that helped the Supreme Court make its decision was hardly a polemic, D’Emilio said. “We didn’t write an advocacy book. We didn’t write a book that started out from the assumption that sex is bad, that gay people are immoral. We started from the assumption of, ‘Let’s look at what this history has to tell us.’

“And it helped the Supreme Court justices to look at sodomy statutes in a different way.”

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