Following the May 2014 retirement of renowned and accomplished LGBTQ educator, historian, author and activist John D'Emilio from a 15-year position as the professor of history and women's and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ), his former department convened a two-day public symposium to study his impact on LGBTQ histories, lives and futures.
The second day of the event was held Sept. 12 at the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on the campus of UIC. Representatives from colleges and universities from across the country gathered to form panels engaging in topics that included D'Emilio's influence through a distinguished career of academia and activism that has spanned over half a century along with the state of the fields in which D'Emilio performed much of his groundbreaking work affecting generations of students and scholars of LGBT history and the history of sexuality.
Arguably, D'Emilio's classes, essays and books have already affected dynamic changes in the future of LGBT History and Queer studies. The final panel of the day examined that future and included D'Emilio himself alongside University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Associate Professor of English, Gender & Women's and African-American studies Siobhan Somerville, University of Massachusetts Assistant Professor of History Amherst Julio Capo Jr. and University of Kansas Assistant Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Katie Batza. UIC Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies and History Jennifer Brier moderated.
"There's a theme here about moving beyond the study of LGBT as an identity and more towards it as a method of inquiry into understanding how institutions and structures come into being," Brier told Windy City Times in reviewing the outcomes of the discussion. "We are thinking about the future of the field as owning and recognizing what it means to study community and how that infuses and defines our understanding of institutions such as the penal and legal systems."
In summarizing his views on the future of the field, D'Emilio looked back on the tapestry of his life and admitted, "There are times when I long for marginality. We are contesting the policy and the power bases of institutions all the time," he said. "But we are also members of those institutions. The work that's most important is the work in which we speak to each other."
D'Emilio viewed the May 30, 2014 announcement of a National Parks Service study to identify United States landmarks in the struggle for LGBT civil rights as a unique opportunity for community grounded initiatives to grain traction and visibility that will shape how LGBT history is taught on a daily basis. "What the National Parks Service is committed to is identifying LGBT historic sites and reinterpreting existing historic sites to be LGBT inclusive," he said adding that it will give LGBT history a very public presence that could reshape the consciousness of future generations. "On the one hand, the possibilities are limitless. On the other hand, historians write about the past and not the future so we don't know what's going to happen."
Looking back on the symposium, D'Emilio told Windy City Times that he has been reminded of just how much has changed over the past 30 years. "The work of activists and writers and researchers has made a difference," he said. "Maybe not the one we fully wanted it to make but I would be rather facing what we are facing now than turn back the clock."
"John is a leader who has done the kind of work that no one else has done," Brier said. "What has made his reach so wide has been his support of people doing a range of work that is nothing like his own."
D'Emilio acknowledged there is still a great deal of that work yet to be done, in particular in the attainment of transgender rights and an end to the ongoing discrimination and marginalization of that community. "Once upon a time, say 40 years ago, all of us felt excluded from the resources or the legitimacy of doing this kind of work," he said. "Now the doors have been opened to some of us, but other people are still excluded. How do we succeed in overcoming the barriers and the boundaries that inclusion and exclusion create so that the resources that are now available get distributed where it's needed? I want to live to be very old so I get to see what happens."
See related story at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/DEmilios-work-honored-at-UIC-symposium/49032.html .