When more than 300 Yale alumni and their guests arrived at Yale for the University’s first-ever lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender alumni reunion this weekend, they found not only camaraderie, but also controversy.
The first-ever recipient of the GALA Lifetime Achievement Award, gay activist Larry Kramer ’57, harshly rebuked the University for its treatment of gay history as an academic field during the three-day reunion, which was jointly organized by the LGBT alumni association Yale GALA and the Association of Yale Alumni. At a dinner ceremony Saturday, Kramer said the University has wrongly relegated the study of gay history to LGBT studies, arguing that there is a significant semantic difference between gay “history” and gay “studies.”
Declaring that queer and gender theories are “relatively useless,” Kramer — who was among the first to call for action against the AIDS crisis — said gay history has been “hijacked” by queer theorists.
Kramer and Yale have clashed before; in the mid-nineties, Yale rejected a sizable gift from Kramer to create either an endowed chair in gay and lesbian studies or a student center for gay students. In 2001, Kramer’s brother, Arthur Kramer ’49, gave a $1 million gift in Larry’s name to found the Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies, which was closed after five years when the gift was spent.
In order to demonstrate the importance of gay history, Kramer declared that he believes many prominent American historical figures were gay, including George Washington, the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.
The study of gay history is therefore important as a means of promoting acceptance for LGBT individuals, Kramer said.
“The plague of AIDS was allowed to happen because most of the world hates us,” he said. “They don’t know we’re related to Washington and Lincoln.”
While alumni sat attentively throughout the speech and gave Kramer a standing ovation, some said afterwards that they were standing not necessarily out of agreement with Kramer, but rather out of respect for his activism in the wake of AIDS.
“He’s been a provocateur all of his career, since the AIDS crisis,” said Ken Demario ’64. “I don’t know if this was an appropriate forum for as nasty a broadside as his was against the University.”
In a brief interview after the speech, Provost Peter Salovey said he agreed that the study of LGBT history is important.
“I think among the many points that Larry Kramer made, he emphasized the importance of gay and lesbian history, and he’s absolutely right that this is a serious area for study,” Salovey said.
Salovey said he is proud Yale has very prominent professors such as George Chauncey and Joanne Meyeroweitz, who both specialize in the field of LGBT history.
Independent of their opinions of Kramer’s comments, alumni agreed that the LGBT reunion was itself an important opportunity to reconnect and interact in a way they never could have as students, when few individuals were open about being LGBT.
“I came hoping this would be one more step in healing the feelings of belonging and alienation I felt as an undergraduate,” said David Kincaid ’74 LAW ’77. “I think this is going to help me.”
The GALA weekend is one of 12 similar events for members of shared interest groups that have been coordinated by the AYA since the launch of its new strategic plan in 2007. On the weekend of April 3, for example, more than 200 alumni gathered at Yale for the University’s first-ever Latino alumni reunion. Other reunions have been organized for a cappella groups and the Yale Debate Association, among others.
While GALA has existed since 1984, this was its first reunion, and AYA Director Mark Dollhopf said the partnership with the AYA made more resources available for the event.
In addition to Kramer, alumni honored at the reunion included Bruce Cohen ’83, producer of Milk and American Beauty, and Eliza Byard ’90, the director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The Yale GALA weekend concluded with a remembrance gathering Sunday morning.