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Q&A with Patrick Dilley

Author of Gay Liberation to Campus Assimilation: Early Non-Heterosexual Student Organizing at Midwestern Universities (March 2019) and The Transformation of Women’s Collegiate Education: The Legacy of Virginia Gildersleeve (2017)

Can you give us an overview of your work in academia thus far? What led to your pursuing the years of research that culminated in this book project?

When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, I wanted to know more about the history of gay and lesbian cultures in the United States. There were very, very few scholars looking into the topic. Some of my professors in graduate school in the 1990s were skeptical of gay and lesbian issues as topics of study — or even a point of analysis that was discretely non-heterosexual. Nonetheless, a few important pieces of scholarship were published by a growing number of students of history, literature, anthropology, sociology and psychology; for me, the most influential were the works of George Chauncey and John D’Emilio.

For my master’s project, I interviewed undergraduate gay college students, in order to postulate a theory of gay male identity development. The existing (and still influential) models were flawed in design, poorly adaptable to general gay male identity development, let alone gay collegiate development. In doing that project, I realized that the premise behind identity development theories was false: there was no one developmental path, no one stable identity. The more I read memoirs and biographies, the more I spoke with non-heterosexual men of different generations, the more I realized that the very ideation of “non-heterosexual” was not static but rather changed over time and in relation to other ideations in play in the culture and at the time.

For my doctoral dissertation, I historicized those identities, mapping out those changes over the last half of the Twentieth Century. That work resulted in my first book, Queer Man on Campus: A History of Non-Heterosexual Men in College 1945-2000, but the focus of the project did not allow a full examination of the particular influence of campus activism upon (some) of those collegiate ideations of non-heterosexual identity. Indeed, the history of gay activism, which had gained scholarly attention since the 1980s, had not included what appeared to be very important to the lives of the men and women who formed and created gay and lesbian organizations and cultures on college campuses. Consequently, from roughly 2000 to the 2018, I tried to understand, and then to convey, the history of those organizers and their actions.

What are some of the triumphs and trials you experienced as you conducted this research and wrote this book?

Being able to speak with men and women who had been influential in the stories coming from specific campuses was a real joy. Contemporaneous journalism conveys only so much of any story; years later, some folks were willing and able to be forthcoming in the “behind the scenes” factors that made sense of the story in a fuller sense. I’m thinking specifically of Jim Toy at Michigan, who spoke to me (and whose records include accounts) about the establishment of the first student services office on a campus in the U.S; of Jerry De Griek, who defied the University of Michigan’s ban on gay and lesbian organizing on campus and in the process began his own coming out process; of Krista Berger at the University of Illinois, who worked publicly and privately with trustees to force the University to extend protection based on sexual orientation. Being able to tell the true story, on the record, behind the “Fagbusters” drama—with blackmail, death threats, and violence—at the University of Kansas, that provided me a real sense of accomplishment. And, certainly, tracking down the second elected openly gay student body president—Dan Jones at Michigan State in 1978—was something that seemed unattainable when I began the project; the internet—and an obsessive/compulsive tendency—is a great thing.

The most interesting “trial,” perhaps, was how to handle the response of most people—most straight people—to my work. At conferences, at parties, at family dinners, when I told people who asked me what I was working on about the project, they would say, in hushed, serious tones, “But it’s better now, right? Isn’t it better now?” And “it” is better, now, but in other ways, non-heterosexual students face the same issues, the same pressures, the same discriminatory attitudes. “Better” does not equate to “best,” or even necessarily “acceptable,” and it seems to let well-intentioned people off of the hook for personal responsibility for social change, able to just walk away.

On the other hand, perhaps folks were just trying to find a way to exit my company!

Why, in your view, does the origin story of non-heterosexual student organizing, in the Midwest specifically, need to be told?

Although the sites of the first collegiate gay and lesbian organizations are not in the Midwest, the organizing there provides a clear picture of what I contend was more reflective of most of the lived experiences of non-heterosexual college students in the last third of the 20th Century. Most of these campuses were not located in large metropolitan areas; consequently, there were fewer pockets or circles of non-heterosexual culture or friendship, and fewer numbers of other minority students on campus. Midwestern campus provided often the only “safe space” for meeting and communicating with others whose sexual orientation was not heterosexual.

Sometimes the changes sought by non-heterosexual student organizers required legal action; at other times, interpersonal politics between students, institutional officers, lawmakers, and private citizens were instrumental in effecting policies allowing gay and lesbian students to participate fully on campus. The protections—and, later, inclusion into the larger culture of campus—were great gifts these early organizers gave, often at the expense of their own time, energy, and happiness.

These early student organizers experienced direct discrimination, both from the institutions and from the other students, in areas that were drastically more conservative than often found in the larger universities in metropolitan areas. The rights and inclusion they strove for allowed other postsecondary institutions—those which were less liberal, less progressive and would never follow the lead of a Berkeley or a Columbia—to have an example of a university that was not “radical” or coastal providing services, opportunities, protections, and inclusions—for non-heterosexual students.

The activism was not limited to the gay and lesbian organizations; many non-heterosexual students, often undergoing their own processes of “coming out,” were elected to positions in campus student government. The first—and second—openly gay student body presidents were elected by students at two Midwest universities. These are events and accounts of interpersonal interactions that are not well known, that need to be understood in a larger context of cultural changes leading toward the “imagined communities” (to appropriate Benedict Anderson’s concept) of today’s non-heterosexual youth. I felt increasing pressure to try to capture these lives from those who lived them, before those folks were no longer able to tell their stories.

Most broadly, those individuals reflected (and reshaped) the cultural values of their times, philosophies which changed very quickly and very decisively over the last 30 years of the 20th Century. On the university campuses I studied, such conversions included the shifting political focuses, away from liberation from the repressive structures of higher education and toward inclusion and eventual assimilation into those structures; the changes on these campuses—and the people, conversations, and philosophies behind them – demonstrate on a small scale the larger social changes.

You mentioned that you are currently developing a course at Southern Illinois University Carbondale on gay and lesbian life in 20th Century America… what is that looking like?

It is an undergraduate honors course, and the readings are a balance of traditional historical and social science scholarship alongside contemporaneous journalism and criticism. By the 1960s, there is an “imagined community” for non-heterosexuals—and sometimes “in real life” communities—in which gays and lesbians shared lives, literature, art, language, and meanings. I’m drawing from my own collection of Christopher Street Magazine, After Dark, the Advocate, the Gay and Lesbian Review, and other non-traditional (and not widely available or accessible) scholarship and commentary. I hope this blending of sources, of voices, will allow students to understand more deeply many of the aspects of gay and lesbian life and sensibilities that wrought today’s cultural acceptances (such as they are) and philosophical standpoints about what being “gay” or “lesbian” means.

Why, in your view, does social science research matter?

Understanding people—their beliefs, their goals, their prior activities and their desired societies—is more important now, globally, than ever. What causes people to distrust or to trust? What influences personal philosophies, and how do those in turn shape personal practices and political policies? How do all the parts of the world fit together, and how can we understand that fit? Such questions are not new, but neither are the issues facing the world (globalism, trade, identity, the political state, extreme reactions, the relationship between men and between man and religion).

The world needs to ask those questions—and pay heed to the answers. Social science research provides data, and social science researchers provide context for that data, in order for the world to understand itself.


Patrick Dilley is Professor of Higher Education and Qualitative Research, and Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, USA.