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John D'Emilio talks new book, 'Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood'
by Carrie Maxwell
2022-09-01

This article shared 627 times since Thu Sep 1, 2022
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In acclaimed author, LGBTQ+ historian and University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Gender and Women's Studies Professor Emeritus John D'Emilio's new memoir, Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood, he writes about coming of age in the 1950s and '60s in New York City. This memoir—which will be released in October—is the most personal and candid of the dozen books D'Emilio has written.

D'Emilio previously taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro before his stint at UIC. He was also the National LGBTQ Task Force Policy Institute Director during 1995-97, a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow in 1997 and Guggenheim fellow in 1998, among other professional endeavors.

Among D'Emilio's numerous literary accolades are the 1984 American Library Association Stonewall Book Award in non-fiction for his book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940—1970; the 2004 Randy Shilts Award and Stonewall Book Award for Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin; the 2005 Yale University Brudner Prize and in 2013 the Publishing Triangle Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Additionally, D'Emilio and his best friend and co-author Estelle Freedman's book, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, was cited in Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's 2003 majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas that overturned every state's sodomy laws.

Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood chronicles D'Emilio's childhood in a working-class Bronx neighborhood to his time at the elite Jesuit Regis High School in Manhattan and finally his college years at Columbia University and first forays as a working adult. He writes about the political and social upheavals of the 1960s that changed his whole outlook on life, including turning away from his family's conservative political ideology and becoming a lapsed Catholic.

When asked why he decided to write his memoir in this moment, D'Emilio said this was a long time coming. He added that it all started when he had heart surgery about 20 years ago; while recuperating, he would reminisce about his past and start writing it down.

D'Emilio told Windy City Times he was able to provide such a detailed accounting of his early life because he started writing these things down closer to when they occurred. Another reason was his family spent lots of time reminiscing about the past every weekend when they would gather at what they called "Big Grandma's house." D'Emilio would hear the adults telling these stories which he soaked up like a sponge.

As for his high school and college years, D'Emilio said the letters he saved from his friends, and the stories they told each other repeatedly helped him immensely. D'Emilio spoke about the research he did including reading the Columbia University campus newspaper from his time there to get a full picture of what happened while he was at college, not just his personal experiences as a student.

"At a certain point four or five years ago, I realized I had enough of these pages to put together and create a memoir of that time in my life," said D'Emilio. "What motivated me to take the next step and get it published was my experience as a teacher. My students love memoirs. That was their favorite kind of reading in the history courses I taught because it allowed them to identify with events in a way that reading a history textbook did not."

D'Emilio said his memoir focused on this period because his early life dovetailed with the era of protest and social change for multiple civil rights issues and the anti-war movement that emerged due to the Vietnam War. He added that this was the perfect era to write about "rather than the next 40 or 50 years" of his own life.

The overarching thing that became clear to D'Emilio while writing this book was his realization that he came of age at a time when it was "the worst time to be queer because it was a period in United States history when persecution of LGBTQ people was at its height and most intense due to the overwhelming oppression of the community that existed everywhere in America. The world I grew up in there was no mention or discussion of LGBTQ people. I had no idea initially how to describe or name what I was feeling as a young gay person. It was just something I was dealing with all by myself."

Writing about his time living in the Bronx apartment complex Parkchester, D'Emilio told this publication that it was designed to be a model housing project for working families in New York City and was built by a big corporation at the end of the Great Depression. He said his parents really wanted to live there and the only way to make that happen was for his mother to get a job there which allowed them to jump ahead on the waiting list.

"It was really like a model community," said D'Emilio. "It was private housing, but it was rent controlled which helped my family afford to live there. There were playgrounds and it was a very safe place. As a child, you thought you were in heaven growing up there."

D'Emilio wrote about going from the very insular world of Parkchester and the adjacent strict, and rigid in thought, Catholic elementary school to riding the subway to Regis High School where the Jesuit male teachers opened up his world to a more intellectual and liberal way of thinking.

"We were actually being taught to think for ourselves," said D'Emilio. "There were endless school activities. I was recruited into the Speech and Debate Society which allowed me to travel the country to places like Miami, Denver and Albuquerque for our tournaments."

While in high school, D'Emilio said his English teacher suggested that he read James Baldwin's new novel, Another Country, for a writing assignment.

"Coming from my conservative, working class Italian, no one ever reads a book environment I had no idea who James Baldwin was, but I read the book," said D'Emilio. "It opens up with a Black gay character sitting in a movie theater where he is cruised by other men. There are gay characters and bad things happen. It is not a utopian novel. I thought, my God, there is a name for what I am feeling. There are people who are like this. There are places where they meet. And all of this is happening in New York City. I was not going to mention this to anybody, but suddenly I feel that I have a little window that is open into a world that might speak to what I am feeling. I still thought that this was sinful, but I could not help myself. I started searching out places where, according to James Baldwin, men who had sex with men would meet. It was tremendously influential.

"Then four years later in college, I was talking to one of the men that I met when I was cruising. He had a sense of the struggles I was going through so he said I should read Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. That book changed my life completely. It made me realize that this is who I am and I had to admit it to myself and accept it which I did and never looked back."

D'Emilio said the hardest things to write about were the "conflicts that developed with my family, specifically while I was in college [from 1966-70] over my changing political stances, relationship to the Vietnam War and religion."

"The easiest thing to write about was the family that I grew up in when I was a kid," he added. "Especially about Big Grandma and the family being together every Sunday and every day during the summer. It was amazing to recreate that world, because as a child, it seemed so wonderful to me. I felt like I was the luckiest kid in the world to have a family like this."

When asked what he would tell his younger self if he was able to go back in time, D'Emilio said "Trust yourself and your judgment. Do not be dependent on what other people are demanding of you."

In terms of the overall message he wants to convey with his memoir, D'Emilio said, "I hope it helps reveal to them what a transformative and important time the 1960s [were] for so many people of that generation—that so much was daring and innovative and just powerful."


This article shared 627 times since Thu Sep 1, 2022
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