George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89 teaches the always-popular “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History” lecture and has testified in 25 gay rights court cases, including five that reached the Supreme Court. Ronald Gregg is a beloved Film & Media Studies and American Studies professor and the programming director for the Whitney Humanities Center. They have been together for nearly 20 years, and have taught at Yale for 10. WKND joined them in their residential fellows’ apartment in Berkeley — a bright, cozy space decked with travel memorabilia and modern furnishings — to talk about married life and adventures, Yale’s campus climate and their respective academic fields.
Q: Given that you both are professors here, how does your respective academic work influence each other, and have there ever been any huge debates over specific issues?
Gregg: No, I think we’re both separate enough. I’m in film, and George is a 20th-century historian. We overlap sometimes, when we’re talking about film and theater culture.
But I think most of the time we’re helping each other out with particular lacks. But, [for a film’s] historical context, I really depend upon George to give me a depth to that history.
Chauncey: He said it all. It’s actually very fun when we see an old film together. He knows much more about the cinematic context, and I’m always reading it through a cultural-history lens and its moment in history. It’s led to many great conversations.
Q: But you haven’t really gotten into a fight over a certain issue?
Gregg: I’d say no, actually. We go to a lot of theater, but we’re always interested in theater of a certain historical period, the 1950s. So no, I think it’s more of a conversation in which we’re trying to grow in our understanding or response to something. I’m serious; I can’t think of a single film or theater production that we’ve argued about.
Chauncey: No, we’ve often had good conversations about it. But I feel like I’ve had a 22-year tutorial in film studies (laughter). And you with social history.
Q: If you were to throw a dinner party here, who is one ideal historical guest you would invite?
Gregg: Hmm, I guess it would be different people. Maybe we could agree on Judy Garland.
Chauncey: Oh, I guess I would say James Baldwin …
Gregg: See, I told you we wouldn’t agree (laughter). And it wouldn’t be Judy Garland, for me. All the people I’m thinking of wouldn’t be good dinner guests: like Alfred Hitchcock.
Q: How often do you see each other here, and what is a normal day like for the both of you?
Gregg: Well, one of the wonderful things about living in a residential fellows’ apartment, in Berkeley, the center of campus, means everything we do on campus is so close, which both means that it’s a lot easier to get to class when you’re teaching and your office for a meeting. We definitely see more theater productions.
Gregg: We have breakfast together in the mornings; we don’t go to the dining hall.
Chauncey: And every lunch I have with a student in the dining hall. So we see each other on and off, and a lot of the time, we have dinner here.
Q: What would an ideal Sunday be for the both of you in New Haven?
Gregg: Sleep late, make breakfast, read the paper, take a walk, go to a theater or musical production in the evening?
Chauncey: Take a walk, go to the art gallery and go to some special event. But in the end, we’d probably mostly stay home and do work. And we’d spend hours answering emails (laughter).
Gregg: That’s the harsh truth!
Q: I know you both led the Yale GALA trip to Cuba. Could you talk about that experience and what it was like traveling together?
Chauncey: Well, of course, we travel together all the time. It’s something we really enjoy doing. So the alumni association arranges these trips where there are faculties that accompany the trip, and they lecture about where they are.
So this is the first trip organized by the Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association, and it was to Cuba. Neither of us is a specialist about Cuba, but as a historian, I knew a fair amount about [the country], and I also had many Cuban and Cuban-American friends over the years, who put me in touch with all sorts of activists there. It was a fantastic trip.
Gregg: I knew a little bit more about Cuban film and some Cuban filmmakers, so I was able to build upon those contacts. So I was able to invite them to come speak to the class … It really was a fantastic trip. We were in Havana the whole time except for one day.
Q: You [Chauncey] played a huge role in spearheading LGBTQ activism when you were an undergraduate here. What do you think of the current state of things today at Yale?
Chauncey: Well things have changed a lot since I was an undergraduate here in the ’70s and graduate student in the ’80s. So, I was here when the gay movement was really just beginning on campus. … There was sort of everything to do in terms of setting up infrastructure, organizations and support groups, pushing for anti-discrimination clauses in the rules and creating more visibility on campus.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there were very few students that were out on campus, and quite a bit of everyday hostility. Those days, when we had events on campus, most of the posters were torn down within a day. So we’d have a poster every day to keep them up. So, it was just a different world in the ’70s, and it really only significantly opened up in the 1980s, when many more students became politically active, and there were a lot more conversations about it.
It was just a different era.
Q: [To Gregg] And when did you start incorporating many of the queer aspects of film into your lectures, or was that something you had always done?
Gregg: It started in the 1980s. My first teaching gig was at Duke, and the course was an introduction to queer cinema. So right from the very beginning when I actually started teaching and designing my own syllabi.
Q: How many students were in your class then?
Gregg: Eight. So it was a very small class.
At that point, if the student took the class, they were gay or lesbian, and they were out, because no student would have wanted that on their academic record. So it was a very intimate, safe space. It was quite rich to start off with those types of seminars.
Chauncey: That’s something that’s really striking to me, just the shifts in [the] demographic of students who take my lesbian and gay history course. When I started teaching at [the University of Chicago], 20 years ago, it was all lesbian and gay students, and then a few straight students, but they were mostly women, and all of the men were gay. Then when I came to Yale, a smaller number of straight men started taking it. And now more than half of the students aren’t queer or identified in any way. It’s just a sign to me of how the world has changed. They would’ve been afraid to take it 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, and it’s a wonderful thing.
Q: What is the best gift either of you has gotten the other?
Gregg: It’s funny, it’s really like so many small gifts that it kind of adds up.
Chauncey: Building a home together.
Gregg: I like that. In fact, if you look around here, many of the things in here we bought together. So the conversation is the gift we’re giving together when we’re deciding what to buy. (Points out several paintings and artifacts from their travels.) Really, that is the moment.
Q: As one of the major testifiers in court around gay marriage, and 20 years of dating each other and living together, what finally encouraged you to solidify your bond in marriage a couple of years ago, after it had been legal in Connecticut since 2008?
Chauncey: Right, so I did testify in a lot of the courts around gay marriage and anti-discrimination, but I wasn’t really thinking that we would get married at that point. But then I think our 20th anniversary was around the horizon, and we thought, why not? And I think it’s seriously also about getting older. There are so many legal protections built into marriage for two people who live together. So, I realized that, if I were hit by a truck tomorrow, I would want there to be no question that Ron would have everything that we built together. And if we weren’t married, there would be all sorts of financial and legal consequences.
That’s why winning the right to get married is so important. It’s not just the symbolic thing, though that is certainly important. It has profound legal and social consequences for people.
And by 20 years, we thought, OK, we’re probably going to stay together.
Q: Do you have any other academic goals for the future, maybe beyond lecturing?
Gregg: Beyond retirement (laughter)? I think we’re both on spring break next year … no … sorry, spring sabbatical. You can tell, I’m so ready for spring break (laughter). So, I mean, George will continue to work on his book, and I have a project. I’ve been teaching “Postwar Queer Avant-Garde Film,” a film course, and I’ve been thinking of pulling together the material that I’ve been collecting, the lectures that I’ve developed [and] the films that I’ve been screening, and putting together a proposal and maybe turning that into a book.
Q: Have you done a joint project together?
Chauncey: We once taught a course together.
Q: When was that?
Gregg: That was two years ago.
Chauncey: No, more like three or four. Time flies.
Gregg: OK, trusting his memory (laughter). And then you know this screening series. We’ve been working with a couple of graduate and undergraduate students here, but the lesbian filmmaker series — we did that. We also did a couple screening series in Chicago, when we were back at the University of Chicago, so we curated things together.
Chauncey: Yeah, we’ve done film screenings and have organized conferences together. Mostly in film, actually.
Q: Is there a difference working at Yale in contrast to the University of Chicago?
Chauncey: Well, I guess, in Chicago, the film series drew a lot more people from across the city. There were some people that came from New Haven, but it’s mostly Yale oriented. Chicago is just a larger city with a lot more universities and major art programs and museums, so it just drew a different audience.
Gregg: I find we’re teaching a lot more creative students at Yale. Maybe it shows in the number of theater productions that we go to or watching students’ films, having more artistic students in my courses and actually moving my courses to have a more creative component. I mean, there were creative students in Chicago, but not the number here: in music, art, film. That life wasn’t there in Chicago, and I love that about being here.