Book cover: University of California Press

Marc Stein is Professor of History at San Francisco State University, where he teaches U.S. law, politics, sexuality, gender, race, and social movements. He’s also an old friend: we met when Marc was in graduate school and I was starting my career as a visiting professor at The University of Pennsylvania. The author of two monographs and multiple other volumes, Stein has recently issued a collection of previously published work as Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism (University of California Press, 2022). We sat down to talk about history, activism, and making a career as a queer academic.

Claire Potter: Tell me about that young graduate student who came to the field of history already an activist.

Marc Stein: I was a history major in college, but I certainly was not ready for graduate school when I finished at Wesleyan University in 1985. So, I went to work in the peace movement at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies in Boston. Then I became the coordinating editor of Gay Community News, a national leftist gay and lesbian weekly newspaper. I was also coming out and getting involved in gay and AIDS activism. Boston had a thriving, radical proto-queer politics in the second half of the 1980s.

Then, after four years, I was burning out. Movement jobs were absorbing, utterly wonderful, but also unsustainable. But my activist years in Boston and at Wesleyan enriched, enabled, and empowered me to become the historian I am.

CP: One of your first influences was historian Jonathan Ned Katz: the opening essay in the book describes how he saved your life.

MS: I was struggling with my sexuality in college. I had several long-term relationships with women but was also attracted to men. So, I began reading gay history in college. One of my professors, Henry Abelove, recommended Katz’s Gay American History (1976). I secretly read it in my dorm room: I struggled with a crush on a fellow student and was quite depressed. So yeah, Katz’s book really did save my life. Some of it was just the sense that I wasn’t alone, that there were hundreds of years of history of people who were sexually different and had activist sensibilities.

But there was also something about how Katz wrote the book that made me realize that he was part of a network and a community of gay intellectuals. They were not based in colleges and universities, which were still quite hostile to queer studies, but community-based, which was my orientation as an activist.

CP: You ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, where you worked with Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, a leading feminist historian and a lesbian who wrote the first article about women’s erotic lives. Was women’s history a gateway to queer history?

MS: It was. At Wesleyan, I took a women’s history course from Rosalind Rosenberg, one of a few men in a large course. So, I knew that women’s history was growing as a field, and that essay by Smith-Rosenberg was reprinted in a book we read.

When it came time to think about graduate programs, I turned to Henry Abelove again. He said that there were almost no gay men doing this work in PhD-granting programs and that my best bet would be to look for women’s historians who worked on sexuality. Although I knew I wanted to work on gay and lesbian history, I masked that in my applications. I knew enough about academic politics to know that just because Carroll Smith-Rosenberg was in the Penn History Department did not mean she was surrounded by historians open to queer history.

But I was fortunate since there was a cluster of us: my graduate cohort included another person who had worked at Gay Community News. In the one ahead of me, there was a lesbian studying the history of sexuality. Then as it turned out, there were about five LGBT professors in the history department, and we also had visiting professors like you, who helped me understand that it was possible to make a go of this, even though it was not going to be easy.

CP: How did change happen, Marc? In the long arc of your career, queer history has been institutionalized, and you now occupy a prestigious chair at San Francisco State University.

MS: Almost no one doing LGBT history in my generation ended up getting tenure track jobs in the United States. Then, more and more US history departments proved willing to do that. But interestingly, few of us were hired as LGBT historians. My position at San Francisco State is in constitutional law. My previous position at York University in Toronto was in political history.

While I’m quite happy to be seen as a historian of constitutional law and politics, it’s also troubling that US history departments don’t often define queer history as a field they want to recruit and hire in. Yet, it’s immensely popular with students, readers, and community-based audiences.

So that was one of the things I wanted to explore in the book. How can we think about the gap between what was, for many years, a closed door in higher education and a field of significant interest to the public?

CP: I want to take you back to your job search, which you write about in a chapter with which young people on the job market today will identify.

MS: I was on the job market for five years in the 1990s; I always got great jobs but not on the tenure track. Penn offered me three courses during my final year there. I won a postdoctoral fellowship at Bryn Mawr with one senior seminar each semester. Then Colby College hired me for a one-year visiting assistant professor position that became two years. Just as I was giving up on a tenure track job, I was hired at York.

It felt like a roller coaster every year: I spent countless hours in the fall on job applications, which pulled me away from research and scholarship. There were the highs of conference and campus interviews, and then the lows: another year of not moving forward.

In some respects, I think queer historians were the canaries in the coal mine since nearly everybody experiences this now. It worked out for me, but peers at other universities who were every bit as smart, if not smarter, every bit as accomplished, if not more accomplished, ended up leaving academia.

CP: You have done activist work with professional associations over time, studying the conditions of employment for LGBT scholars.

MS: Yes: I think there’s some truth to the notion that academics are especially open to high-quality research that presents convincing evidence and arguments. So, as I then grappled with the struggles of queer historians in higher education, this was the activist strategy I chose. Two of those essays in Queer Public History are essentially paired. One is autobiographical, about my five years on the job market. But the other is a quantitative study about the job market experiences of several dozen people like me who had done LGBT history dissertations. I did it while chairing the Committee on LGBT History ((at the time, the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History), an affiliated society of the American Historical Association with several hundred members. And I thought quantitative evidence and arguments might carry greater weight.

There’s also an essay about my experience with a National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship: I was unanimously recommended for funding with the highest possible scores. But, then, my application was vetoed by the Bush-appointed chair of the NEH.

We are discouraged from going public about those kinds of academic defeats. But I presented a paper about it at the American Historical Association annual meeting. I placed it in the context of broader allegations about “flagging” since the conservative leadership of the NEH seemed to be vetoing or limiting applications for projects dealing with race, gender, and sexuality.

CP: Some of this speaks to why younger people, not just in queer history, are so discouraged today: the lack of transparency, the sense that they’re doing the best they can but can’t catch a break.

MS: And as I say in the book, queer historians have a toe hold now, but there’s the more significant problem of ghettoization of the field. Many history departments are happy to have somebody teaching queer history or the history of sexuality, publishing in the field, and working with a few graduate students.

But we’ve seen the least progress in how queer history affects the big intro survey course or textbooks. The way many departments organize curriculum, students spend two years taking big survey courses, and many are out of the door by the time they get to upper division courses, where queer history might get attention and respect. I think the discipline is doing itself a disservice by not working on this. It might be one way to address history’s enrollment crisis.

Queer history is also very well represented in the AHA and OAH programs. But having a series of segregated, ghettoized sessions is not the same as having our work integrated into other panels. For example, I remember a session about the 1960s at one of the big conferences: there were three men and one woman who did not work on gender history. The session was about the African American Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the student movement. There wasn’t a word about feminism. Not a word about queer history. I was sitting in a row of historians who were frustrated and outraged.

Now, I almost feel a little complicit in this respect since initially, Queer Public History included another ten or so essays that didn’t focus on queer history. The outside readers and editors thought that would make the book too long, and it should concentrate on queer history. I understand that. But in taking those essays out, I diminished interests of mine that may not foreground queer history at all.

CP: I’m thinking of your interest in the law, which helped you answer questions that queer history couldn’t.

MS: Constitutional law is a longstanding interest of mine. I was much more connected to feminist and reproductive justice struggles in college than I was to LGBT politics, making me interested in the courts as a vehicle for social change. In graduate school, I took a great legal history seminar by Mary Frances Berry, later chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. I wrote about Boutilier v. Immigration and Naturalization Service (1967), an all-but-forgotten Supreme Court decision that upheld the deportation of a Canadian gay man because immigrants with “psychopathic personalities” were excludable and deportable.

I was lucky to happen upon the case because it was funded by some of the Philadelphia activists who I studied for my Ph.D. dissertation. Most of us thought that the anti-gay history of the Supreme Court began in 1986 with Bowers v. Hardwick, the sodomy case. We associated the Court’s sexual conservatism with the Reagan Revolution and the rise of the New Right. But Boutilier showed us that it first emerged during the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

When I moved to Canada to start my job at York University, I was thinking about second projects. I knew that legal history was probably the quickest field to pivot to the digital revolution. But then, I realized that in Boutilier, there was a rich connection between constitutional law and queer history.

CP: Marc, I don’t want to neglect your first book, a community study of Philadelphia with the great title, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves (2000).

MS: I was part of a generation that turned to the community study to do queer history. Like George Chauncey, Nan Boyd, and John Howard, I was influenced by John D’Emilio’s national study. We all wanted to test that narrative to see if it worked at a local level and if local and community-based histories might modify it.

Chauncey moved the clock back well before World War II. So I stayed in the post-World War II era when queer communities became more visible. But by moving the study to Philadelphia, an understudied city for queer history, I could show that D’Emilio’s national narrative worked in some respects but didn’t work in others.

There was no archive to speak of, so I had to create one. I got involved in the gay and lesbian (as it was called then) archives in Philadelphia and was processing collections so I could use them.  Again, I think my community-based sensibilities came from working in the gay movement in the 1980s and editing Gay Community News. I reached out to people at the local community center who I could interview: all those community connections proved incredibly valuable as I lined up 40-plus oral histories.

I also received great tips about stories in newspapers, magazines, organizational newsletters, and other sources. For example, I was at a cocktail party with my then-girlfriend, and an English professor asked me what I was working on for my dissertation. And she said, “Oh, you might want to check out the Walt Whitman papers at the Van Pelt Library.” I responded, “Maybe you misheard me. I didn’t say the 1850s and 1860s. I said the 1950s and the 1960s.” And she said, ” I know. But the Walt Whitman Bridge was named for Walt Whitman in the 1950s: the Delaware River Port Authority papers are on the sixth floor of Van Pelt.”

That became a chapter of my dissertation, then my book.

CP: I want to bring you back to the present and the wave of laws across the country rolling back the contributions that queer historians and historians of race have made to secondary school curricula. What should academics be doing right now to combat this?

MS: I think one of the “lessons of the past” is that there are moments when we experience sweeping national change and others where we see heightened local variability, regional variability, and polarization. We’re obviously in one of the latter moments. So, for example, we could celebrate that now, multiple states mandate the teaching of LGBT history in K-12 public schools: California is one of them. And maybe that progress has produced a backlash, like “Don’t say gay” in Florida and other laws restricting teaching gender, race, and sexuality in K-12 public schools.

It’s important and effective to refer to the Florida law as “Don’t say gay,” but homophobia is only one argument against it because they can’t legally target LGBT topics. That would violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the sex discrimination provisions of civil rights laws. So, a few commentators have noted that limiting the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation also means not teaching K-12 students about heterosexuality. And Florida apparently does not want those students to be taught that historically, mostly men went off to war and mostly women took care of children because that would teach gender identities, right?

To return to your bigger question, we should be more conscious of this moment of polarization and local variability. What should we be doing if we’re based in one of those polarized progressive states? For example, I’ve been a voice against California’s ban on state-funded travel to states with anti-gay laws. Although developments in Florida and Texas are giving me pause, to the extent that my own state laws ban someone like me from going and doing gay affirmative research or gay-affirmative public presentations on the state’s dime, I think they’re counterproductive and damaging.

CP: If you look at the “Don’t say gay” bill, the homophobia is the leading edge of a larger plan to strip speech rights from teachers and students: that’s an old story.

MS: Right. We saw it in the effort to tarnish Ketanji Jackson with allegations that she supported pedophilia by not giving maximum sentences to adults interested in child pornography. It was a page pulled out of the fiasco when Abe Fortas was nominated to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1968, and Strom Thurmond went after him because of his votes on obscenity cases.

But it’s also an illustration of what LGBT historians have always known: that damaging sexual stereotypes affect more than just queer people.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.

Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University.