While he was at Yale in 1864, John Sterling, namesake of Sterling Memorial Library and the Sterling professorship, wrote in his diary “I slept with Jim Mitchell last night and –” The “and” was crossed out and the sentence never finished. Visiting Women’s and Gender Studies professor Jonathan Ned Katz said the sentence was probably incomplete because Sterling was unwilling to write the truth: he was gay.
Katz talked about Sterling’s sexuality as part of his Brudner Prize lecture Wednesday in William Harkness Hall. The Brudner Prize, established by deceased AIDS activist James Brudner ’83, recognizes a scholar of the history and culture of gays and lesbians. About 50 people attended the talk.
Katz explained the importance of finding historical examples of homosexuality. He mentioned Herman Melville and Susan B. Anthony as examples of historical figures who may have been gay.
“Evidence of our past existence worked against the feelings of inferiority of a people told directly or indirectly that they had no history,” Katz said. “I’m still thinking how to document that shadow world.”
Katz said he picked Sterling as the topic for his talk because he thought Sterling’s connection to Yale would be effective.
“You’re talking about history, not in general, but for this place,” Katz said. “It comes home.”
Katz said a Yale classbook from 1895 complains that, “Sterling has never married.” After graduating from Yale, Katz said, Sterling met James Bloss, a man he subsequently lived with for nearly 50 years. Sterling’s biographer refers to Bloss as Sterling’s “chum” — a title of affection he uses for no one else in the book. The biographer also says Sterling was “indifferent to the charms of women.”
Katz also talked about Sterling’s secrecy. He had an iron door placed in his bedroom and was constantly concerned that someone was hiding in his room. In his will, now kept in Sterling Memorial Library, Sterling instructed executors to burn many of his papers and give many others to Bloss.
“Sterling perceived himself as a man with something to hide,” Katz said.
Katz showed slides of Sterling at Yale and after graduating. Other slides showed the Whiffenpoofs dressed in drag and Yale men cross-dressing for a play in the 1930s.
Katz said he was reluctant to say definitively that Sterling was gay. During the questioning period, Larry Kramer ’57, a playwright and gay activist, suggested Katz was too timid in not taking a strong position on Sterling’s sexuality, especially considering the long relationship with Bloss.
“We shouldn’t be so afraid that they’ll say we didn’t have the evidence,” Kramer said. “Forty-two years is evidence.”
After the lecture, Kramer praised the talk and said the disagreement with Katz is based on their different careers.
“That’s the perennial debate between historians and activists,” Kramer said. “Activists are in a hurry and historians are more restrained.”
Audience members said they were impressed with the talk and with Katz’s reputation as a gay historian.
“It’s quite amazing that he’s been able to find this preliminary history of Sterling, reading him with a queer identity,” Eric Stryker GRD ’06 said.