Larry Kramer and the folly of "gender studies"
Rising vigorously to the occasion, Larry Kramer cofounded the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which has become the largest private organization working to assist people living with AIDS in the world. GMHC ousted Kramer from the organization in 1983, as his preferred method of "in-your-face" communication was deemed too militant for the group. Undaunted, Kramer expressed his frustration with bureaucratic paralysis and the apathy of gay men to the AIDS crisis by writing a play “The Normal Heart“ in 1985. His political activism extended to the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987.
He had enrolled at Yale University in 1953, but did not adjust well. Kramer was lonely and his grades were poorer than he was accustomed. He tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin because he thought he was the "only gay student on campus.” The experience left him determined to explore his sexuality and set him on the path to fighting "for gay people's worth.” The following semester, he blossomed in an affair with his German professor—his first requited romantic relationship with a man. Yale had been a family tradition: his father, older brother Arthur, and two uncles were alumni.
Over time, Kramer’s attitude to his alma mater mellowed. In 1997 he approached Yale to help realize a dream: he wanted to give them several million dollars to endow a permanent, tenured professorship in gay studies, and to build a gay and lesbian student center. At that time, academics were wary about gender, ethnic, and race-related studies. The then-Yale provost, Alison Richard, maintained that gay and lesbian studies were too narrow a specialty for a program that was to last in perpetuity. Kramer's rejected proposal read: "Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale. . . ."
In 2001 both sides agreed to a five-year trial with seed money of $1 million, a sum Arthur Kramer (Larry’s lawyer brother) generously allocated to Yale to finance the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. The money would pay visiting professors and a program coordinator for conferences, guest speakers, and other events. Larry Kramer agreed to leave his literary papers and those chronicling the AIDS movement and his founding of GMHC and ACT-UP to Yale's famed Beinecke Library. (Arthur Kramer retired from the law firm in 1996 and died of a stroke in 2008.)
In the sequel Yale University has behaved badly. Unfortunately, this outcome is not unique. Major universities, including Cornell and Harvard, have a sorry record of receiving large bequests for gay studies, only to commandeer ruthlessly the money for other purposes. I will let Larry Kramer, one of the great humanitarians and activists of our times, explain the matter himself--as he did just a few days ago when Yale’s Gay and Lesbian Association invited him back to campus to receive its first Lifetime Achievement Award. The following are his remarks, slightly shortened, from the full publication at www.thedailybeast.com.
“I have come here to apologize to you.
“It took a long time for Yale to accept Kramer money. After a number of years of trying to get Yale to accept mine for gay professorships or to let me raise funds for a gay student center, (both offers declined), my extraordinary straight brother Arthur offered Yale $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Yale accepted it. My good friend and a member of the Yale Corporation, Calvin Trillin, managed to convince President Levin that I was a pussycat. The year was 2001.
“Five years later, in 2006, Yale closed down LKI, as it had come to be called. Yale removed its director, Jonathan David Katz. All references to LKI were expunged from Web sites and answering machines and directories and syllabuses. One day LKI was just no longer here.
“When this happened I thought my heart would break.
“I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else’s history.
“By chance, just as we opened for business, Jonathan Ned Katz, our first visiting scholar, and Jonathan David Katz discovered that John William Sterling, Yale’s first really major benefactor, who died in 1918, had been gay and lived with one man only, James O. Bloss, all their adult lives. We released this information to the world, with great pride and excitement. What a way to launch ourselves! In no time flat I received a phone call from a classmate who is a partner in Shearman & Sterling, the giant law firm John Sterling founded, telling me that this information had not gone down well there and indicating that Yale would hear about it.
“Jonathan David Katz, who is an art historian, put on an exhibition of the relationship of Robert Rauschenberg and his gay lover and how it affected his art. This, too, did not sit well. Jonathan David Katz’s courses were taken away from him. He was told he could no longer teach.
“When I set LKI up I didn’t know that gay studies included all kinds of other things and these other things ruled the roost: gender studies, queer studies, queer theory. And that then-Provost Alison Richard, who immediately left to run Cambridge University, my attorney, Bill Zabel, and I were ignorant of the great semantic differences lurking in the words “studies” and “history.” Thus I was not able as I might have been when initial negotiations were transpiring, to insist that my brother’s money be funneled via the history department rather than leave it up to Yale, which plunked LKI just where it should not have been, in the women’s and gender studies department. The various queer and gender theories I came to quickly realize [are] relatively useless for a people looking to learn about our real history; [they] drowned us out completely. Month after month, over these five years, as I was sent constant email announcements of lectures and courses and activities that reflected as much about real history as a comic book, I slowly began to go nuts. I made pleas everywhere I could, in the Yale Daily News, to then-Dean Peter Salovey and then history chair, Paul Freedman. Please put us in the History Department, I begged. I made a public plea to another provost, Emily Bakemeier, at a Berkeley Master’s Tea. I brought letters to Provosts Long and Bakemeier; from George Chauncey, then at Chicago and now, in no small part because of me, here at Yale; and from Martin Duberman, whom I had put on LKI’s advisory board, two of our most distinguished gay historians. Martin stated in no uncertain terms, and George concurred with him, then: “Yale is doing it wrong. You do not teach gay history via gender studies, via queer theory. You are making the same mistake every other gay program makes.”
“Yes, I came to see this and this big deal activist came to see that he was powerless. I apologize to you. I bore witness to all this. I bore witness to the fact that the university was ridding itself of a teacher, Jonathan David Katz, who was exceptionally loved and admired. The kids stood up and cheered him nonstop with tears in their eyes. “He is the best teacher I have ever had for anything, period,” is a direct quote from one young man. On his last day at Yale, Jonathan somehow managed to get the Yale Art Gallery to remove from storage, for this one day, work by the following artists: Homer, Eakins, Sargent, Bellows, Demuth, Hartley, O’Keefe, Rauschenberg, Johns, Twombley, Nevelson, Martin, Indiana, Morris, and Warhol. Jonathan lectured in the Art Gallery to a packed house about why he considers each of these great American artists gay and how this is reflected in their work. I had brought one of the heads of the Phillips Collection in Washington. “What a brilliant piece of scholarship,” she said. This event, also, did not go down well somewhere in the murky invisible inner sanctums of Yale’s Soviet-style bureaucracy. Yale was getting rid of the only faculty member teaching the kind of gay history that I longed for and I was powerless to help rectify this great mistake. Yes, this famous big deal loudmouth activist apologizes to you, and to Jonathan. My lover, David, says I did not sit on the nest enough. I did not become enough of the Larry Kramer they were afraid of.
“There were and are 22 courses offered in the Pink Book of LGBT studies for this year. Only one of them, the course George Chauncey teaches entitled “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” is a gay history course. Here are the others:
•Gender and Sexuality in Popular Music •Critical Ethnography: Methods, Ethics, Poetics •Cross-Cultural Narratives of Desire •Gender Transgression •Sex and Romance in Adolescence •Biology of Gender and Sexuality •Anthropology of Sex and Sexualities •Beauty, Fashion, and Self-styling •Gendering Musical Performance •Gender Images: A Psychological Perspective •Gender, Nation, and Sexuality in Modern Latin America •Queer Ethnographies •Music and Queer Identities
“The word “queer” also embellishes [sic] most of the activities and lectures and fellowships and appointments announced in those various emails. It seems as if everything is queer this and queer that.
“Just as a point of information, I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you. When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world.
“Why can’t we accept that homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history, whether it was called homosexuality, sodomy, buggery, hushmarkedry [what’s that?--WRD], or hundreds of other things, or had no name at all? What we do now they pretty much did then. Period. Men have always had cocks and men have pretty much always known what to do with them. It is just stupidity and elite presumption of the highest and most preposterous order to theorize, in these regards, that then was different from now.
“Do you know that men loving men does not require the sexual act to qualify them as homosexuals? My American Heritage unabridged dictionary lists two definitions for homosexuality: the first: “sexual orientation to persons of the same sex; and the second: “sexual activity with another of the same sex.” In other words, it is not necessary, nor should it be, to have had sex with another of the same sex, to maintain that a person is homosexual. Why, then, do academics, indeed everyone, insist on this second definition over the first? This theory makes it all but impossible in many cases to claim a person as one of us.
“Is Yale actually afraid to teach any of this? To actually name names out loud from Abe Lincoln to John Sterling to Robert Rauschenberg? And why is the History Department allowing history to be hijacked by the queer theorists just as the English Department allowed Paul DeMan [a Nazi sympathizer during World War II] and Jacques Derrida to highjack literature for the deconstructionists? That travesty found safe haven here at Yale too.
“History is about people events more than it is about theory. We need to know specifically who our brothers and sisters, our ancestors, our own people, are and were!
“Gays must have this! We must. We must if we are to endure.
“I asked Peter Salovey recently why he thought LKI was closed down. Who was behind it? What was behind it? His answer was: “We’ll never know.”
"In a recent Yale Daily News article, a gay staff reporter, sophomore Raymond Carlson, wrote that The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students lists Yale as among the bottom of the heap in terms of institutional support and administrative services for its gay students and gay studies.
“For those of you here celebrating Yale’s acceptance of us, I am here to tell you that there is not quite so much to celebrate yet. Yes, it is a long way from my freshman year in 1953 when I tried to kill myself. But like so much that continues to happen to us, there is still too much invisible shit blocking the acceptance that we need and we are due.
“So I receive GALA’s award with a certain bittersweet acceptance. As I hope I have made clear, I feel very alienated from this university which took my brother’s money and my dream and slammed the door in both our faces.
“In closing, once again I apologize to you for failing you. And for failing my brother, who died last year. And for failing myself. I wanted so very very much for the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay History at Yale to succeed for you and for all our people.
“But, yes, thank you. We are all fellow warriors and I salute you.”
CONCLUSION. On reflection it seems to me that Larry Kramer's remarks appropriately address two main issues. The first is the arbitrary mishandling of funds intended for the teaching and study of gay history. The second has to do with the viability--or not--of the gender-studies approach to the study of same-sex love, and sexual orientation more generally.
Both topics deserve separate postings; and I hope to do this in due time.
Let me turn to the first, very briefly. A wealthy man named David Goodstein was the publisher of The Advocate, a popular gay magazine that is still thriving in Los Angeles. Foreseeing his early death, Goodstein left behind a considerable sum (a million dollars, as I recall) to establish a gay studies center at Cornell. Bruce Voeller, who was supposed to raise another million in matching funds, failed to do so. Nonetheless, Cornell went ahead with the center, except that is was now "pansexual," with very little gay content. This misdirection of the funds amounts to fraud.
Here is another instance. Doug Roby was a friend of mine, who for a time was active in the Gay Academic Union. On his demise, Doug left two million dollars to his alma mater Harvard University to buy gay books. For the most part the books that are being bought with the proceeds of this grant are not gay. Harvard has simply commadeered the money. Sadly, Doug, who died in 2000, is not around to object. Thank goodness Larry Kramer is still with us.
A more complex situation has occurred at USC in Los Angeles, where a promising center, originally known as ONE-IGLA, had been established thanks to the heroic efforts of another friend, Professor Walter Williams. There has been some hanky panky here also, but the matter is too complex to go into at this point. I will have more to say on this matter later.
As to the second issue, there have been a number of funny things that have happened on the way to the supposed Valhalla of Gender Studies--perhaps more aptly named, with a bow to Aristophanes, as Cloudcuculand. This unfortunate errand into the wilderness started in the 1980s, with the Social Construction fad, which alleged that, without exception, the historical formations of gender and sexual orientation were radically different and incommensurable. "Modern homosexuality," which ostensibly debuted in 1869. has nothing to do with earlier forms of same-sex love. Larry Kramer has rightly hightlighted the absurdity of this claim. Eventually, this fashion melded with postmodernism.
The more specific term was "queer theory," a barbarous concoction that found shelter under the umbrella of "gender studies." Decked out in pretentious and often incomprehensible academic jargon, this pseudodiscipline was championed by the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michael Warner, and others. As Larry Kramer suggests, queer theoty has had its day, and now must be called to account. It will be found wanting. Mene mene, tekel tekel.
Some have registered their displeasure at Kramer's insightful designation of "queer" as adolescent. It will take a while for this fad too to disappear. The queer fetish is primarily an aberration of academia, eliciting the scorn and indifference it deserves from most gay and lesbian people.