John D'Emilio


1) Birthdate:


2) Birthplace:

Bronx, New York

3) Date you first mark as getting together with your partner:

My partner [Jim Oleson] and I mark the beginning of our relationship as December 8, 1980, the day we met (and had sex!). I’m not including him in this questionnaire since he hasn’t been a gay activist of any sort.

4) City/state where you live currently:

Chicago, Illinois

5) Education:

Columbia University, BA (1970), PhD (1982)

6) Career:

Academic (history and LGBT studies). I have also done a good bit of public policy work, both on LGBT issues and other social justice issues, in various advocacy organizations.

7) Did you serve in the U.S. military?


8) How do you describe your sexuality/gender?


9) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?


10) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew”:

By my sophomore year of high school.

11) Who did you first “come out” to and when?

I started having sex and “cruising” in NYC in my junior year of high school. I “came out” (in the sense of telling other people) during freshman and sophomore years of college, 1966-68, to a group of friends, one by one. The first three were my closest friends in high school, all of whom had gone to seminary, and I came out to them in letters, followed by visits. The other three were my three closest friends in college, and I came out to them one at a time – one of them came out to me at the same time!

For the next few years, I was increasingly “open” in my social worlds, but not to family, professors, etc., except that my boss at a job (1970-71) was gay and we were open in that pre-gay lib sort of way. In 1973 I got involved in the gay liberation movement, and then began coming out in a whole other more public way over the next two years, including to my dissertation adviser and my parents. I never used a pseudonym.

12) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?

You know, this seems hard to believe, but I haven’t really experienced “troubles” in the sense of “incidents.” I was almost arrested by police in a subway rest room in New York, but wasn’t. I had a very, very, very hard time getting my first academic job – but that’s one of those things where you can’t point to something particular and, besides, lots of PhDs never succeed at getting academic jobs. Then, until I was hired by Stanley Fish at UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] in ’99, my academic career was totally stalled, to the point that I gave up tenure and quit the academic job I had in Greensboro, North Carolina.

But my story, you could say, has had, at least as of now, a very happy outcome. My partner on the other hand, has had real incidents – expelled from college, fired from jobs, robbed and beaten by a trick he met at a bar, etc.

13) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?

I wasn’t in Chicago at that stage of my life but, really, I never had gay mentors, just peers who were all figuring things out together as we went along. The two mentors I did have were in the field of community organizing/movements for social justice. One was a gay man, the other a straight woman, both friends with each other, and both among my very closest friends in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They changed my life profoundly with their mentoring.

14) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):

Gay Academic Union: I was part of the group of folks in NYC who founded this organization in 1973 and helped build it into a national organization (volunteer, not staffed) over the next three years.

Gay & Lesbian History Researcher Network/Committee on Lesbian & Gay History: I was very actively involved in efforts to build gay and lesbian history as a cultural force in the community and a presence in the academy. Most active in terms of groups, meetings, conferences, and presentations from about 1978 through 1985.

Committee on Lesbian and Gay History of the American Historical Association: chair in 1983 and 1984.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF): I worked with staff like Jeff Levi, Sue Hyde, and Urvashi Vaid on forums and events starting around 1986; joined the board in 1988 and stayed until ‘93; was male co-chair of the board from 1989-91; joined the staff in 1995 as first director and founder of its Policy Institute and stayed for two years; then continued to work with Urvashi, my successor, on the national policy roundtable which the Policy Institute convened.

Leadership Retreats: From about 1985 through end of the decade, I helped plan and lead with Ken Dawson and Tim Sweeney a series of weekend retreats for gay/lesbian activists and community leaders in communities around the country.

Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS): I have been on advisory board, am a donor, and have done events with/for them over the last ten to twelve years.

Gerber/Hart Library: I was on the board for four years (term-limits), still volunteer, help plan events and programming, advocate for the organization, and am a donor. Feel great loyalty and kinship and hope to go back on the board. When I imagine my retirement, I see myself working for GHL almost as a job-without-pay.

15) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars in Chicago?

I didn’t come out in Chicago, and bars have never been my place of choice – always felt tense and awkward in them and, frankly, the noise level and high level of alcohol consumption made them not great places for me socially. The baths on the other hand – I was a regular “back in the day” as my students would say!

16) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?

Building a public and visible LGBT community that was reasonably safe from police harassment, and building organizations strong and stable enough to make change. Coming out and thriving.

17) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?

First of all, youth. I think if we can create the conditions that allow young people to be, sexually and in terms of gender, who they want to be, almost every other form of LGBT oppression will shift. To make the world safe for youth involves not just creating programs and institutions, but a whole cultural and educational environment that doesn’t automatically endorse heterosexuality as superior.

Secondly (although I feel as strongly about this as about youth), for all the gains we’ve made and the changes that have occurred in the last thirty-five to forty years (and it’s been HUGE!), the gains have been distributed wildly unequally – well-educated white men have benefited the most; well-educated white women from privileged backgrounds aren’t far behind. I’m not bashing here (I’m a white guy, though from a very working-class family) – just speaking truthfully. I wish our organizations would shape their agendas and priorities by always asking “what does a young/working-class/poor LGBT of color need in order to thrive in every possible way?” If we then acted accordingly, boy-oh-boy would homophobia – and many other isms as well – be on the run!

Thirdly, I think my biggest disappointment after almost 35 years of activism and community involvement has been the obsession with marriage that has developed in the last few years. I actually think it has set us back, not moved us forward.

18) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?

Oy, the hard question. I was still living in New York in 1981 and remember AIDS from the beginning. Larry K. was a friend, and I knew about the organizing of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMH ). Friends and acquaintances started dying in 1982. My very best gay friend and closest movement comrade, Ken Dawson, died in 1992, and I still feel the effects of that. Three other guys who were part of my inner circle of friends died in the late ‘80s.

Moving to North Carolina in 1983 didn’t insulate me – someone I met there right away died in 1984, etc. etc. Getting involved with national organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) meant in part that I was forming new relationships and friendships with men who were either HIV positive or became HIV positive.

Someone who became a good friend in the 1990s died about four years ago. And, one of my very oldest friends has been HIV positive since 1981 and his health is touch and go. At the same time, for reasons that I can’t articulate even to myself, I have never had a period as an “AIDS activist.”

19) How would you describe the “diversity” within the Chicago GLBT community?

I don’t really know how to answer this question for Chicago since, even after eight years, I don’t feel myself rooted in the LGBT community here or Chicago generally. I think anything I said here would come out sounding like political rhetoric rather than grounded in real experience and understanding. But I will say one just thing: I find it interesting that “maps” of LGBT Chicago (both those in contemporary publications and those in the older newspapers I’ve been reading at Gerber/Hart) are flagrantly North Side maps, as if the vast African American South Side doesn’t exist or has no queer spaces in it. Such things become self-fulfilling prophecies, so that gay comes to mean white in every one’s mind.

20) If you consider yourself a "political" activist, how do you define this?

A complicated question. I certainly considered myself a political activist for a long time. To me an activist is someone who works with others, deliberately and intentionally, to achieve goals that will advance social justice in the world.

I became one of the many antiwar activists in the 1960s. Going to my first gay meeting in 1973 instantly made me a gay activist - we were trying to figure out how to create new gay and lesbian knowledge that would change how the society and culture thought about same-sex love and relationships and treated queer folks.

My work with the Gay Academic Union, with various gay and lesbian history projects, with NGLTF, and with various court challenges, has all been about "activism." Over the years, I have also worked on issues involving the criminal justice system, publicly funded educational and social services, and youth employment.

I don't think of "political" activism as only being involved with elections, legislatures, courts, and political parties. I think culture and community building is also a big part of what activism has to contain, but culture, community, and politics have to work together and be connected.

These last few years? I often feel as if I am sinking, or have sunk, into what a community organizer friend of mine describes as "the abyss of professionalism." My "success" as a historian and writer has made the responsibilities of my job as an academic take over more and more of my life. I feel that, at best and unfortunately, I exist on the very edges of activism.

I will say one more thing: activists are my favorite people. Passion and commitment to a better world make them the greatest people to be around.

21) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.

I've been here for nine years, but I don't yet feel I have a legacy to the Chicago LGBT community. What I hope it will be, should I still be around and kicking in another 20 years: that I've helped make LGBT history a living part not only of the life and culture of the LGBT community here in Chicago, but a living part of all of Chicago and how Chicagoans understand the history and life of the city.

22) This project is also about "defining moments." Please discuss some of those in your life.

A number of defining moments:

As a teenager, reading James Baldwin's novel, Another Country, and thinking "that's what I am."

Deciding as a senior in high school that, as much as I wanted to become a Jesuit priest, my sexual desires weren't going to make that possible. I was accepted into seminary, but didn't go.

Reading Oscar Wilde's De Profundis in college and deciding gay can be good.

An antiwar demonstration in NYC in 1967 when the police came charging into the crowd on horses, waving their nightsticks wildly. I ran. It forever changed my view of "law and order."

Going to my first "gay lib" meeting in 1973.

Meeting my partner, Jim Oleson - that meeting became a defining moment only later, however, when we both realized "wow, we're in this for life."

Finally taking an HIV test in 1991 and learning that I was negative. Because of my sex life in the '70s in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, I had assumed throughout the '80s that I was positive but asymptomatic. I cried and cried and cried when I got the test results.

In 2004, suddenly having heart pains so great that I thought I would die on the spot, and having triple bypass cardiac surgery. Mortality came to seem suddenly real for me. Every day now feels like a gift in a way that wasn't true before.

Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, the book is edited by Tracy Baim and features the contributions of more than 20 prominent historians and journalists. It is published by Surrey Books, an Agate imprint, and is hard cover, 224 pages, 4-color, with nearly 400 photos.
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