John D’Emilio (right) and Claire Potter at The New School. Image credit: Daniel Fermín / Public Seminar
Last week, John D’Emilio, a pioneering figure in the field of LGBTQIA+ history, visited Public Seminar for an in-person author talk celebrating his new memoir, Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties (Duke University Press, October 2022). After his reading, John chatted with Public Seminar co-executive editor Claire Potter about his Jesuit education and his political and sexual awakenings in the 1960s. This transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Claire Potter [CP]: Since we have actually a lot of people in the audience who were your age when these events took place, talk to us a little bit about what you wrote from. What were the documents you were able to gather together to jog your memory to write a memoir?
John D’Emilio [JD]: One of the things about my family is that they get together all the time. And whenever they get together, from my earliest childhood, what they talk about are the things that happened in the family. It’s sort of like a continuing oral history that’s happening over the dinner table every Sunday and on the Fourth of July and Labor Day, et cetera. Stories of my childhood were very much imprinted in my brain, so I didn’t really have to do a lot of research about that. My mother also compulsively put together photo albums of the family and of any event that ever happened. And I have those. My dad, who worked for a camera company, had access to a little movie camera and a projector. So he did lots of family movies and I was able to watch those.
I’m still in touch with a lot of my high school friends—and in college, before phones and tweeting and all of that, I would write enough letters to my friends to constitute a whole book. When one of my good friends, Vinny, learned that I was writing this, he had saved all my letters to him and sent them to me. Meanwhile, being the historian that I am, I had saved all the letters that I had received from friends, and they gave me a sense of what I had been writing to them about. The one piece of formal research that I did is I went back to Columbia and read the campus newspaper from the four years that I was there, to make sure that my memories of the campus activism weren’t crazy, but were related to what was actually happening at that time.
CP: You and I run into this all the time when we’re in the archives and doing oral histories with people: sometimes people’s memories don’t jive with the documents. Did you find that there were moments you remembered very vividly, and then talked to someone and it turned out to be different?
JD: No, actually. Friends from high school and college have been reading the manuscript and writing their responses. They’ve found errors and say to me, “You spelled Mr. Cook’s name wrong.” They weren’t challenging my narrative and what I was claiming, but they were finding tiny details.
CP: One of the things that I came away with after reading is the strength of your friendships. Can you talk a little bit about how those friendships shaped you intellectually and politically, and how those friendships supported you even when your friends didn’t know, yet, that you were gay?
JD: Regis High School draws its student body from the entire New York City metropolitan area, and some of the kids were commuting an hour and a half each way. We were basically living with each other for four years of high school. So we were creating a world among ourselves, and on campus there was this shared sense of community—not with all students, but with those students who were also being radicalized. I felt I wasn’t living my life alone. I always felt like my life was part of a group project and shared experience.
That being the case, it’s part of what made the gay aspect of my life feel so traumatic at times, because here was this one piece of my life that, for several years, I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about. So there is a way in which the gay theme of my life is kind of at odds with my intellectual development and my political activism, because it pushed me away from other people. It allowed me to feel like other people didn’t really know me, or like I was not telling them the truth, but eventually that changed.
CP: Not to insert any spoilers in, but there’s a moment when you are considering becoming a priest and this secret life of yours rears its head. Can you talk to us a little about that? It’s an extraordinary moment in the book.
JD: My three best friends in high school all went into the Jesuits after graduation. When I say they are my three best friends, the four of us ate at the same table every day for three years at school. So I had the sense that I wanted to apply to be a Jesuit as well, because I so respected them. They stood for so much that I valued, so I applied. But I thought, “Well, John, you have to be honest.” So I explained to a priest advisor at the school about these feelings that I was having, and that sometimes I had acted on these feelings. And he said, “You know, that can happen at your age. We will send you to a psychologist who will interview you and make some judgments.” So they sent me to a Jesuit shrink out in Brooklyn.
He did a long interview with me and, this is a little embarrassing, but at a certain point after he asked me all these questions, he said, “Well, I’m going to administer a test.” It was a Rorschach test, and for each picture he showed I was supposed to tell him what I saw. And I swear to God, in every one that he showed me I saw an erect penis. But I couldn’t tell him that, so I said, “Oh, here’s the Empire State Building,” or, “Oh, this looks like a map of Florida.” At the end of it he said “You can go into the Jesuits, you’re fine.” But I just knew that I was pulling one over on him—and one over on myself. And so, although I was accepted into the Jesuits, I didn’t go.
CP: What really struck me about your education at Regis too was the kindness of these men.
JD: Oh my God, they were.
CP: And they were clearly navigating what was a social class transition for many of the boys. Were you aware of that at the time?
JD: No. Growing up, class didn’t mean anything to me. It was just that people work and earn a living. I lived in a basically working-class, lower-middle class environment. Now at Regis, as I learned more about my fellow students, I learned that some had fathers who were lawyers, some had fathers who were financial executives on Wall Street. But we were together and completely removed from our family context, so those things meant nothing. I wasn’t really aware of the class differences that existed in the school itself. It was only when I got to Columbia that I noticed class, because there were all these kids who had gone to private school and they had all this money to spend on campus, whereas I had two part-time jobs and was counting my pennies. Suddenly class became very real.
CP: How did it feel to write a memoir? Was it painful? Was it fun?
JD: It definitely wasn’t painful. Maybe there are a couple of places where I’m writing about something that was sort of difficult to recall. One example is when my grandmother died, who was the central figure in the family. That was a major event. These memories were providing me relief from the experience of physical danger I was in, health-wise. I mostly enjoyed it. The worry was if my readers don’t like my book about Bayard Rustin, then, okay, they have a different political view of the world. But if you don’t like my memoir, does that mean you don’t like me? So—don’t tell me.
Read an excerpt from Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties, courtesy of John D’Emilio and Duke University Press.
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.
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).