Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 1, 2009


From History News Network

Twelve years after Yale rejected a $7 million endowment for a gay student center, the school's Gay and Lesbian Association invited legendary playwright and gay-rights activist Larry Kramer back to campus to receive its first Lifetime Achievement Award. The following is his speech.

I have come here to apologize to you.

It took a long time for Yale to accept Kramer money. After a number of years of trying to get Yale to accept mine for gay professorships or to let me raise funds for a gay student center, (both offers declined), my extraordinary straight brother Arthur offered Yale $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Yale accepted it. My good friend and a member of the Yale Corporation, Calvin Trillin, managed to convince President Levin that I was a pussycat. The year was 2001.

Five years later, in 2006, Yale closed down LKI, as it had come to be called. Yale removed its director, Jonathan David Katz. All references to LKI were expunged from Web sites and answering machines and directories and syllabuses. . .

When this happened I thought my heart would break. I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else's history. By chance, just as we opened for business, Jonathan Ned Katz, our first visiting scholar, and Jonathan David Katz discovered that John William Sterling, Yale's first really major benefactor, who died in 1918, had been gay and lived with one man only, James O. Bloss, all their adult lives.

We released this information to the world, with great pride and excitement. What a way to launch ourselves. In no time flat I received a phone call from a classmate who is a partner in Shearman & Sterling, the giant law firm John Sterling founded, telling me that this information had not gone down well there and indicating that Yale would hear about it. Jonathan David Katz, who is an art historian, put on an exhibition of the relationship of Robert Rauschenberg and his gay lover and how it affected his art. This, too, did not sit well. Jonathan David Katz's courses were taken away from him. He was told he could no longer teach.

When I set LKI up I didn't know that gay studies included all kinds of other things and these other things ruled the roost: gender studies, queer studies, queer theory. And that then-Provost Alison Richard, who immediately left to run Cambridge University, my attorney, Bill Zabel, and I were ignorant of the great semantic differences lurking in the words "studies" and "history." Thus I was not able as I might have been when initial negotiations were transpiring, to insist that my brother's money be funneled via the history department rather than leave it up to Yale, which plunked LKI just where it should not have been, in the women's and gender studies department.

The various queer and gender theories I came to quickly realize as relatively useless for a people looking to learn about our real history drowned us out completely. Month after month, over these five years, as I was sent constant email announcements of lectures and courses and activities that reflected as much about real history as a comic book, I slowly began to go nuts. . .

I brought letters to Provosts Long and Bakemeier from George Chauncey, then at Chicago and now, in no small part because of me, here at Yale, and from Martin Duberman, whom I had put on LKI's advisory board, two of our most distinguished gay historians. Martin stated in no uncertain terms, and George concurred with him, then: "Yale is doing it wrong. You do not teach gay history via gender studies, via queer theory. You are making the same mistake every other gay program makes."

Yes, I came to see this and this big deal activist came to see that he was powerless. I apologize to you. I bore witness to all this. I bore witness to the fact that the university was ridding itself of a teacher, Jonathan David Katz, who was exceptionally loved and admired. The kids stood up and cheered him nonstop with tears in their eyes. "He is the best teacher I have ever had for anything, period," is a direct quote from one young man.

On his last day at Yale, Jonathan somehow managed to get the Yale Art Gallery to remove from storage, for this one day, work by the following artists: Homer, Eakins, Sargent, Bellows, Demuth, Hartley, O'Keefe, Rauschenberg, Johns, Twombley, Nevelson, Martin, Indiana, Morris, and Warhol. Jonathan lectured in the Art Gallery to a packed house about why he considers each of these great American artists gay and how this is reflected in their work. I had brought one of the heads of the Phillips Collection in Washington. "What a brilliant piece of scholarship," she said. This event, also, did not go down well somewhere in the murky invisible inner sanctums of Yale's Soviet-style bureaucracy. Yale was getting rid of the only faculty member teaching the kind of gay history that I longed for and I was powerless to help rectify this great mistake. . .

There were and are 22 courses offered in the Pink Book of LGBT studies for this year. Only one of them, the course George Chauncey teaches entitled U.S. Lesbian and Gay History, is a gay history course. . .

The word "queer" also embellishes most of the activities and lectures and fellowships and appointments announced in those various emails. It seems as if everything is queer this and queer that. Just as a point of information, I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer. And neither are you. When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world. . .

For those of you here celebrating Yale's acceptance of us, I am here to tell you that there is not quite so much to celebrate yet. Yes, it is a long way from my freshman year in 1953 when I tried to kill myself. But like so much that continues to happen to us, there is still too much invisible shit blocking the acceptance that we need and we are due.

So I receive GALA's award with a certain bittersweet acceptance. As I hope I have made clear, I feel very alienated from this university which took my brother's money and my dream and slammed the door in both our faces.


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