“Think about what happens when gay means white. It makes gay a form of wealth and privilege.”
John D’Emilio, in his latest book, In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics, and Community Life, is more critical, reflective, provocative, and personal than his previous work. He passionately points to the limitations and unintended consequences of the LGBT movement – as illustrated in the above quote. The claims of rights and the fight for acceptance has consolidated the whiteness of being LGBT by ignoring the profound inequalities based on social class and race and neglecting the diversity of expression of same sex love and desire within and outside LGBT communities.
In one of the best executed and most passionate essays in this collection, he makes a solid argument against same-sex marriage. “Marriage simply confirms and extends [middle and upper classes] already privileged status,” D’Emilio concludes. He brings history, demography, politics, and economics to make his case. His voice is deeply personal, scholarly, and persuasive. I, a married and a father gay man, am on this side of the argument. Marriage does not open up possibilities for all of us to pursue justice, happiness, and well-being, rather, it reduces them. To be clear, I married the love of my life, but the institution of marriage has little or nothing to do with our love.
D’Emilio also critically reflects on the history and story we, LGBT scholars, have created and told. The work we have produced around the lives of LGBT folks, he proposes, has remained outside the large history of the US. While perhaps that was needed in the 1960s and 1970s, we now need to bring in the national (and, I would argue, transnational) forces that have shaped the LGBT movement: “If we embed queer stories in a larger political economy, a larger national political history, they will become lees separated and less self-ghettoized, and instead become seen as integral to, more connected to, and more essential for understanding broader narratives of US history.”
In A New Century, I discovered D’Emilio’s trajectory as a scholar and as a gay person-- both of which are entangled. His writing is personal and insightful. As an academic and gay person myself, I found in this book an inspiring colleague, mentor, and leader. Students of history will see the inner and behind-the-scenes work of a historian.
I was surprised to read much of what D’Emilio writes about as “history.” The moments that once were beyond my imagination and those in which I was living have become history: AIDS and same-sex marriage. I was reminded of the marvelous potential meaning of our present. Our daily lives, work and queerness in the world and in our communities, in the center and in the margins, all becomes part of history, our history.