Beloved history professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89, who will be leaving Yale for Columbia University at the end of this academic year, reflected on four decades of LGBTQ life at Yale amid tears, hugs and a standing ovation in a full auditorium Thursday afternoon.
Chauncey, who has been a central figure in the nationwide gay rights movement, recalled his struggles as a homosexual student at Yale in the 1970s and commended the progress the campus gay community has achieved. The attendees, a significant percentage of whom have taken his popular lecture “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” affectionately known as “LesGay,” expressed the regret of the loss of a mentor and a public LGBTQ figure on campus.
“It’s truly been one of the greatest experiences in my life to teach here, to teach LesGay,” Chauncey addressed the audience at the end of the talk. “You embody what we dreamed of. It’s incredible to see you. And I love you for that.”
As pictures of historic rallies and gay society events posters rotated on the screen behind him, Chauncey reflected on his experience teaching one of the most popular classes at Yale and spoke of the shifting attitudes towards the gay community at Yale and beyond in the past 40 years. The talk ended in a Q&A session and a photo shoot of Chauncey with the audience.
In a period with no openly gay faculty and little administrative support, Chauncey recalled the cold looks he received dancing with same-sex partners and the resistance he fought through when trying to establish the first gay society as a Yale undergraduate in the 1970s. He spoke of what he called a “fundamental moral code” among students of that period, in which they did not expose the sexual orientation of any gay student to a straight classmate. He said it took him by surprise and delight to see gay students nowadays trust their straight friends when they decide to come out.
Chauncey wrote his dissertation on lesbian and gay history as a graduate at Yale in the 1980s to a mixed reception. Some faculty were hostile, declaring they “never wanted to see anything like that again,” while others — especially the late Yale history professor John Boswell, who Chauncey described as the public gay figure at the time — were immensely supportive.
“I felt responsibilities to do that. I’m surprised at how few students knew who all the gay faculties are,” Chauncey said, explaining his thought in taking upon Boswell’s role.
In his speech, Chauncey emphasized that although Yale was unequivocal in wanting his husband and him to stay when the offer from Columbia materialized, the University falls behind its peer institutions in its efforts to recruit and retain queer faculty and faculty specializing in queer studies. Chauncey noted the significant departures of faculty of color last year, many of whom he said had pedagogical interests in queer studies but felt unsupported in their respective departments.
Yale LGBTQ studies has seen several widely respected professors depart in recent months, including Jafari Allen and Karen Nakamura GRD ’01.
“I feel a deep connection to the students more than to the University as such,” Chauncey told the News.
Having spent more than a decade at Yale with his husband, film studies professor Ronald Gregg, Chauncey has attracted a large following of students.
Joan Gomez-Aguilar ’20, who took LesGay last fall, said the class might be his favorite at Yale thus far, recalling moments when Chauncey stopped lecturing and veered off to talk about his own life, sharing his experiences in the LGBTQ movements about which he was teaching.
Event facilitator Thomas Gould ’19 said that, coming from a conservative background, LesGay was his first exposure to queer history. Gould added that because queer students often come from straight families, they could hardly learn about the history of their identities from their parents.
“We couldn’t let him go without having him giving some final thoughts after almost 40 years,” Gould, a Spectrum fellow with the Office of LGBTQ Resources, told the News.
And Liam Riley ’19 said Chauncey helped “correct the misguided notion that queerness is a notion of the 21st century.”
Contact Jingyi Cui at firstname.lastname@example.org .