Notable Gay Activist and Historian Presents Autobiographical Memoir

John D’Emilio read passages from his memoir “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood” to Loyola students and faculty at a book talk March 14.

Loyola’s History Department hosted Professor John D’Emilio, a prominent LGBTQ+ historian and author, for a discussion of his recently published book “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties” on March 14 in Coffey Hall’s McCormick Lounge.

During the hour-long book talk, D’Emilio read three passages, provided commentary on each and answered questions from the audience. The talk was co-sponsored by the Women’s Studies and Gender Studies Program.

D’Emilio is a professor emeritus of history and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and has received numerous awards and commendations for his work. He was awarded Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 which is a selective scholarship awarded to only 175 individuals excelling in their careers a year, has been a member of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame since 2005, and has a PhD dissertation award named after him from the Organization of American Historians with the John D’Emilio LGBTQ History Dissertation Award.

The memoir spans from D’Emilio’s childhood in the 1950s through to his college years in the late 1960s before detailing his postgraduate research into the history of gay activism in the United States, according to D’Emilio. “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood” was published in October.

Out of his multiple achievements, D’Emilio said the most special was when he was nominated in 2003 for a National Book Award for his book “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” a biography of civil rights figurehead Bayard Rustin.

“One day I got a phone call while I’m sitting in my office at UIC, and I was told, ‘You’re a finalist for the National Book Award for your biography of Bayard Rustin,’” D’Emilio said. “And I couldn’t believe it. So, I didn’t win it, but it didn’t matter. That was good enough for me. It was just a great moment.”

The first two passages D’Emilio read concerned two books he said were central to his growth as a person — “Another Country” by James Baldwin and “De Profundis” by Oscar Wilde. D’Emilio read Baldwin’s work which features gay relationships while in high school, according to D’Emilio.

“It’s not as if reading this novel made me a happy gay boy,” D’Emilio said. “But what it did, which hadn’t been true before, is that I had a name for my feelings. I had words for it. And I’d just been given the understanding that even though I didn’t know any of them, I hadn’t met anyone, there were such people out there.”

D’Emilio said he first read “De Profundis” between his first and second years of college after a sexual partner and confidant gave him the book one night to console D’Emilio while he spoke about his struggles in life. He said he began reading the book later that night because lingering worry kept him from sleeping.

“I opened ‘De Profundis’ and began reading and finished it in a single sitting,” D’Emilio said. “Fifty years later, I still place it among the most profound pieces of writing I have ever encountered. Nothing else that I have read changed my life to the extent that it did. Oscar Wilde words allowed me to see my sexual desires in an entirely new light and to imagine a life with integrity.”

 The last passage from the memoir took place during D’Emilio’s sophomore and senior years of college and centered on the intersection of the start of the anti-Vietnam War movement and his family. By this time, D’Emilio had decided to become an anti-war activist and wished to register as a conscientious objector — someone opposed to serving in the military because of moral or religious principles, according to the Selective Service.

“I went home one night early in my sophomore year, and over dinner told my parents that I wanted to do this, but I needed their support,” D’Emilio said. “But I could barely get the words out before my dad — who was not the screamer in the family — my dad just started screaming at the dinner table. My mother calmed him down and so he didn’t carry through on the threats but what I realized is, ‘Okay, I can’t do this yet.’”

Later in his senior year, D’Emilio attempted to convince his parents once more with the looming risk of the draft drawing nearer as his student deferral was about to end. Instead of a similar outburst, however, his father agreed to write him a recommendation letter after telling D’Emilio the truth about him resisting fighting during WWII.

D’Emilio said his father was absent with leave after his basic training in Arkansas before being convinced to return by his family. After he returned, D’Emilio said his father was confined in a stockade for 90 days by the Army. Soon after his father received orders to go overseas a close friend committed suicide and his father refused to leave his bed, which led to him being discharged from the military.

“Fortunately, he had been able to live behind the protection that his medical discharge provided,” D’Emilio said. “Other than Mom, he had never told anyone the truth. Not until now that is, when my plea for support propelled him to reveal the story. And, you know, he and my mom both did write letters of support, and when I got their handwritten letters, and I was reading them on the subway on the way home, I just burst into tears.”

During the question and answer session near the end of the event, D’Emilio told the story of how he came out to his parents. Using his graduate school dissertation as an excuse, over a series of weeks he gradually hinted that he wanted to study either prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases or homosexuality, before his parents caught on and eventually asked D’Emilio if he was gay before telling his extended family.

“They’re going to come out for me to all my aunts, uncles, cousins. I was just so happy. And sure enough, they did. Over the next few weeks they went and told everybody and they came back and told me how they corrected their misinformation. My Mom and Dad turned out to be more Italian than Catholic, family is everything.”

Junior Chem Jackie Vu attended the book talk as a part of an extra credit opportunity for Dr. Tikia Hamilton’s American Pluralism class.

“I also attended Catholic or Jesuit school for a bit and I get the sense of not fitting there,” Vu said. “But that was cool how his parents accepted him immediately and like came out for him to his family and corrected them if there was any misinformation. It was cool that he was an activist and wrote one of the first papers on this controversial, at the time, subject.”

Hamilton declined to comment for this story.

Although he isn’t pressuring himself to reach any writing goals, D’Emilio said he is keeping the possibility of a second volume open while just writing about new ideas and memories as they come to him.

Featured image by Holden Green

Hunter Minné

Hunter Minné