Image credit: Duke University Press
The following excerpt offers a preview of John D’Emilio’s new book, Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties (Duke University Press, October 2022).
D’Emilio, a pioneering figure in the field of LGBTQIA+ history, will join Public Seminar Co-Executive Editor Claire Potter in a discussion of Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood on November 1 at The New School. The in-person and live-streamed event is free and open to the public. Click here to register for the event.
Alcohol was the least of what Columbia placed in front of me. My faith, my intellect, my sense of who I was in the world: all were in constant turmoil almost from the moment I set foot on campus.
I remember a conversation from the previous spring with Father McGuire, when I explained why I was deciding not to enter seminary. I couldn’t admit how agitated I still was over my sexual desires. Instead, I told him what I was telling myself and what certainly had more than a trace of truth: like the saints I most admired, I needed to test my Catholicism among a world of nonbelievers.
At Columbia the tests came steadily. For orientation week, freshmen were divided into groups based on common interest. Led by an appropriate faculty member, they met throughout the week. In my application essay, I had written about my religious faith, and so I found myself in a group led by the Protestant campus minister. I sat there stunned as he informed us that “God is dead.” He had us read and discuss Life against Death by Norman O. Brown, whose goal was to reinterpret Freud for the contemporary world. Mom would have scoffed at the notion of an unconscious mental life. Nor did the Catholicism I’d imbibed have much use for this way of thinking. But here I was being told that it was time to look deep inside and face my repressed desires. This was exactly what I was trying not to do!
These discussions were barely over when the incoming class assembled in the auditorium of Ferris Booth Hall, the new student center. There, a history professor, James Shenton, was introduced to us. Shenton, I learned later, was one of the most popular professors on campus. He had a reputation for delivering lectures that often led the class to applaud wildly when the session ended. This night, from where I was sitting, he seemed to be lecturing without a prepared text. He set up a debate between two opponents, one defending a war in the most chauvinistic nationalist rhetoric and the other criticizing the war with reasoning that drew on the loftiest American ideals. It seemed evident that Shenton was talking about Vietnam, a subject that, except for an occasional ex-temp speech, I had given little thought to, but that my patriotic, conservative parents supported unconditionally. The drama intensified as the two sides squared off, yet the actual language remained strangely vague. And then, as Shenton’s booming voice reached a crescendo, the mystery unraveled as we learned that the antiwar orator was Abraham Lincoln, challenging on the floor of Congress the decision to go to war with Mexico. They’re teaching me that God is dead and war is wrong, and I haven’t even started classes yet!
I approached my fall courses with all the cockiness of a successful Regis double major who had been inducted into the Homeric Academy. What challenges could Columbia hold for me, beyond the excitement of learning more?
It didn’t take long to discover. Columbia had a math and science requirement, not my talent, and my adviser encouraged me to take a course nicknamed “Poet’s Math.” It was designed for students for whom math was not their strength and who didn’t need to learn any for career purposes. And it was true. We learned no math skills at all. Instead, the professor spent the semester lecturing on theoretical conundrums, such as squaring the circle. I couldn’t make any sense of his lectures and had to beg the graduate teaching assistant for help. Then there was the language requirement, which I was sure, after my Regis experience, would be easy. I found myself in class with a teacher who, from the first meeting, spoke only French to us and expected us to understand and respond in kind, which most of my peers did. Finally, there were the horrors of Professor Landow’s English class. My high school record allowed me to place out of freshman composition and register for a literature course designed for “advanced” students. Jack and I both signed on for a section where we spent the entire semester reading a single book, Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I could not understand why our professor had us go through each chapter at the same pace I might have translated Virgil’s Aeneid. Apparently, few of my classmates grasped it either, and Landow’s response to our difficulties was to throw harsh insults in our direction.
If I found any intellectual comfort that first semester, at least early on, it came through the required humanities and contemporary civilization courses. Columbia was famous for its core curriculum. It immersed students in a survey of the literature, philosophy, and culture of the West from the ancients to the early twentieth century. The two-semester humanities sequence was very familiar. I had already read Homer and Virgil in the original as well as the great Greek tragedies in translation. Wallace Gray, the kind-faced professor who taught my section, always looked benevolently in my direction as it became apparent that I loved our readings and the issues they raised.
A companion course, Contemporary Civilization (or cc as we dubbed it), took us through the great thinkers from Plato to Nietzsche. At first, it no more challenged my intellectual cockiness than did the humanities course. Plato’s sensibility seemed Catholic in everything but name. The Old Testament and the early Christian philosophers were old hat. When we read Augustine, I patiently explained to my classmates the difference between predestination and foreknowledge. Protestants believed in the former, I announced, and it stripped man of free will. But Catholics simultaneously recognized the omniscience of the Creator and the freedom He bestowed on us to choose between good and evil. In the midst of my disquisition, our instructor, Mr. Connor, thrust an arm out-ward, shook a finger in my direction, and proclaimed in mock horror: “Young man, you must have been educated by Jesuits!” I felt caught and exposed, but after class Connor explained that he, too, had gone to a Jesuit school. Only the Jesuits, he said, could train an adolescent boy’s mind to argue like that.
The course continued along familiar paths for a while longer. Aquinas’s proofs of God’s existence comforted me immensely. I dismissed the dictum of Thomas Hobbes, that life was nasty, brutish, and short, as the rants of a crabby old man. But by spring semester, as I encountered Enlightenment philosophers, my moral foundation was shaken to its roots. After David Hume offered his five proofs that God did not exist, I became a confused Catholic soul. My inability to counter his arguments so agitated me that for the rest of the semester, as the class marched through Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, I wandered lost, unable to make sense of what they had written.
Jack and Periconi had enrolled in different sections of cc, and we were all reading the same pages each week. Late at night, after we had prepared for the next day’s class, we gathered in a campus coffeehouse and earnestly debated the content of the course. Now and then on weekends, Regis friends who were attending supposedly safe Catholic schools like Georgetown or Boston College would meet us on Morningside Heights. They, too, were experiencing intellectual crises. Together we huddled, struggling over questions about God, the purpose of life, and the content of ethical living.
More often than not, no matter how lofty the subject of these conversations when we started, by the end it came around to sex. Ours was not, however, the banter of adolescent boys. We may have been horny, but as serious Catholics, we needed a moral justification to act on our yearnings for sex before marriage. Was love a good enough reason? How could one know that the feelings were love? Short of intercourse, what was permissible? All of us, even those attending Catholic schools, were tasting the freedom that leaving home had given us. We were dating with much less supervision than in high school, and we had stories to share about our moral struggles, whether of the flesh or of the intellect.
But the fact is I was out of my Catholic cocoon. Every one of those Saturday nights ended, my Regis buddies headed back to their new lives, and I was left in my single dorm room having to navigate a world I’d never experienced. At Regis, by senior year, we were all pretty cocky. Our Jesuit teachers stretched our minds every day and made us think we were young men of consequence who would do great things as soldiers for Christ. At Columbia I was no big deal. Forget about the upperclassmen, who seemed so mature and sophisticated. Even many freshmen were several notches up on me. We had students from forty states and a dozen countries, and their worlds seemed not only different, but also bigger, than mine. Take Sam and Eden. Both of them were private school kids. They were outgoing and easy to be with, and I enjoyed their company over meals. But they occupied a different mental universe. For one thing, they already identified in some sense as “radical.” I wasn’t sure I even grasped what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t me. Then there was religion. I nearly fell off my chair the time Sam casually mentioned that he didn’t believe in God.
“What do you mean you don’t believe in God?” I asked.
“I don’t believe in God, that’s all. We never went to synagogue, and it’s never been a big deal,” he said.
“But how can you not believe in God? Where do you think we came from? How do you decide what’s right and wrong?”
“Evolution,” he responded. “And you still have to make ethical decisions whether you believe in God or not.”
I was flabbergasted. The idea that someone not only didn’t believe in God but also had grown up without God was something I couldn’t take in. All I could think was, “Wow. Without God, he’d never have to worry about whether he was going to hell, whether he’d make it to confession in time, whether his Act of Contrition was sincere. He’d never even have to go to confession.” It wasn’t as if I began conjuring up a life of blissful dissolution. But the idea of even a day without the dread of damnation? I touched it for maybe an instant before it was sucked out of reach.
These guys talked about sex, too, but they weren’t anguished about it and weren’t engaged in passionate debate. Their relationships with girlfriends were matter-of-fact. I was having sex, too, of course—with men—but I knew it was wrong, I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it at lunch, and I definitely was anguished.
Excerpted from Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties, by John D’Emilio. Copyright Duke University Press 2022.
John D’Emilio is Emeritus Professor of History and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. D’Emilio was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2005 and was named Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune in 2004.
Click here to attend John D’Emilio’s author reading and conversation with Claire Potter on November 1 at The New School.