Martin Meeker, associate academic specialist with the oral history library at the University of California at Berkeley, spoke about networking in the mid-20th century gay community last night as part of the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities.
His talk, which focused on his research for his book, entitled “The Lesbian and Gay Politics of Communication: Activism, Journalism, and Publishing, 1940s-1970s,” attracted about 40 people, including some undergraduates. Students who attended the talk said they found aspects of his approach to gay and lesbian studies interesting, but some questioned the methodology of oral history.
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Meeker said he was happy with the turnout.
“I like to see undergrads engaged in the study of social sciences of sexuality,” he said. “I’m pleased to see interest in the topic by the students.”
Meeker spoke about the “politics of communication” within the gay community, including social networking among gay men and lesbians from the 1940s to the 1970s that contributed to the emergence of a homosexual community in the United States.
Meeker identified a number of small networks in the 1940s — mostly centered around bars or household gatherings — which gradually evolved into the “homophile movement,” including both gay people and those sympathetic to them, of the following decade. Meeker’s research focused on the media used by gay men and lesbians for these networking purposes — including local and national magazines as well as small, home-made pamphlets — in a time when it was socially unacceptable, if not dangerous, to be a gay man or lesbian.
Meeker said he sought to show the ways in which historians use oral resources in their research. His study of the homophile movement was largely based on verbal interviews he conducted and informal written sources, such as letters, he said.
After his speech, Meeker drew a parallel between the anonymous authors of gay magazines and pamphlets in the 1960s and 1970s and modern Internet users with online pseudonyms. He said the Internet has now become a valuable networking tool for gays and lesbians.
“The Internet is a breeding ground for sexual identity,” he said. “What I tried to offer today is a history of that process.”
In his most recent work, Meeker examined the role human rights organizations in promoting the recognition of minority identities. He said these organizations worked to secure rights for Asians, homosexuals and other groups by determining which could be considered a minority population.
Students said they found a number of facets of Meeker’s research intriguing.
Madison Moore GRD ’12 said the parallel Meeker drew between mid-20th-century gay media and the Internet was an insightful observation.
“His discussion of anonymity and the mask of anonymity was an interesting repetition of history,” he said.
Jennie Row ’07 said she appreciated Meeker’s approach to studying social networking in a historical context, but she did not fully agree with his methods.
“I wish I could have seen a more rigorous literary basis [for his research],” she said.
Meeker’s was the last of four lecturers sponsored by the Yale Research Initiative before its major symposium in April, which will focus on transnational sexuality studies.