Of all the people that gay historian, educator, and activist John D’Emilio has ever written about, he may be the most fascinating of all.
Delivering on the promise of the title of his new memoir, “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood” (Duke, 2022), D’Emilio takes us from the Parkchester housing project in the Bronx, where his religious upbringing began, to his personal transformation as a Columbia University student in the turbulent late 1960s, and his eventual coming out as gay. Told with the same thoughtful voice he utilizes when writing about others, D’Emilio makes the reader feel as if they are sharing his experiences firsthand.
John was generous enough to make time to answer a few questions in advance of the publication of “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood.”
Gregg Shapiro: John, why was now the time to write your memoir, “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood?”
John D’Emilio: Well, interestingly, I did not start the writing with the intention of creating a book-length memoir. The initial impulse came in 2004, when I had triple-bypass heart surgery. Lying in bed in the hospital, awaiting surgery the next day and wondering if I would survive it, I was just flooded with early memories of family, childhood, and neighborhood. And afterward as I recovered and returned to my normal life, I began writing up some of those memories that were especially vivid and emotionally meaningful. At some point, after I had retired, I realized I had enough of these that I could construct a full continuous narrative. I would say that the motivation to take that next step came in part from the awareness that – in this very politically conservative era with someone like Trump as president – there was a need to bring the 1960s back to life, when large numbers of young people became progressive activists, built movements, and made significant change in the world.
GS: Were you a journal keeper or did you rely on memory for the details?
JD: I didn’t start keeping a journal until after the years covered in this memoir, and so memory served as a major source. I came from an Italian family that whenever it got together, which was often, one of the major topics of conversation was reminiscing about the past and telling memorable family stories. Also, my mother kept wonderful family photo albums, and my dad, who worked in a camera store, had a video camera, and often filmed family get-togethers, on holidays and for birthdays, so these were helpful in bringing the past back to life. And then, during my college years at Columbia in the '60s, I wrote many letters to high school friends describing what was going on – the antiwar protests, my struggles with my religious faith, and my emerging gay identity – and received letters back. I have all their letters to me, and one of my friends – when I told him I was writing a memoir – sent me the letters I had written to him. All of this helped me reconstruct stories in ways that I feel confident about.
GS: What are the advantages and challenges of being a historian when writing about your own personal history?
JD: The biggest challenge has been this: When I’ve written books on historical topics, of course I hope they will be well received but, if someone doesn’t like it, it just means we have different interpretations of the past. But in the case of this memoir, I’ve lived with the feeling that, if a reader doesn’t like it, does that mean they don’t like me? I know that sounds a bit crazy, but it’s the emotional reality.
The advantages of being a historian were twofold. I’ve learned the importance of constructing readable narratives with stories compelling enough to keep the reader’s attention. And, because of all my historical work on the mid-twentieth century, I was able to ground my personal life story in the larger historical contexts in which it occurred – the family-oriented baby boom years of the 1950s; the campus-based protests of the 1960s; the movement against the war in southeast Asia; the oppression that LGBTQ faced in those years.
GS: Would it be fair to say that you were exercising different writing muscles when writing about yourself than when writing about others or history?
JD: I don’t know that I would describe it as different writing muscles, because I think the book reflects key elements of how I write – especially the emphasis on constructing narratives that are interesting at the same time, that they have something to teach. But what was certainly different about the experience of writing this is that it engaged me emotionally in a way that writing about a historical topic that was not part of my own life didn’t. Some of the memories and episodes brought joy. Others brought to life feelings of sadness, pain, and struggle. Emotions like that don’t usually surface when I’m writing history.
GS: You described your mother as storyteller. Was she an inspiration to you as a writer?
JD: Hmm. Well, actually, if my mother were still alive, I think she would be begging me not to publish this. She had a firm belief – very Sicilian in its origins – that family needed to keep its stories, its relationships, its events all within the family. She believed that if you revealed to outsiders – as all non-family members were thought of – the life of the family, it brought the possibility of attacks in some form or another. But, at the same time, the love that she had for her large extended multi-generational family was so deep, so intense, that it has made me value their lives and their experience and has helped motivate me to tell some of these stories and bring this immigrant/ethnic experience to life.
GS: How do you think your mother would feel about the way she’s portrayed in the book?
JD: I think she would appreciate the way I’ve portrayed her love for her mother and father and sisters and her loyalty to them. I think she would have gotten a chuckle out of my reference to her as “the boss,” which is how her sisters often referred to her. And, I suspect she would have reacted defensively to those moments in which I portray her and me in conflict.
GS: You wrote with great affection for some of your teachers, including Miss McGlynn, as well as several others in chapter nine. Would you consider them to be your inspiration to become a teacher?
JD: Despite having some wonderful teachers, especially at the Jesuit high school that I went to, teaching was not something that I imagined myself doing. I saw historical research and writing as a tool for making progressive social change, and I hoped that I would be able to support myself doing that kind of work with advocacy and activist organizations. When that didn’t work out, college teaching became a means to support my research and writing. But, by the end of my first year of full-time teaching, I found the interactions with students in the classroom so compelling and engaging, that I knew I would continue doing it.
The teachers whose praises I sing at various points in the memoir inspired me to value intellectual work, and, in that sense, they influenced me deeply, since research and writing have occupied me for almost 50 years now!
John D'Emilio. Courtesy Facebook.
GS: Do you know if any of the childhood friends you mentioned are aware that they’re in the book?
JD: Sadly, the childhood friends that I was closest to have all passed away. But one of them, whose mother I also describe fondly, read an early draft and was very excited and encouraging. I’m in regular touch with a lot of my high school friends – as I mentioned, one of them has provided me with letters to him – and some of them came to a pre-publication reading that I did at a class reunion. So far, the responses have been pretty positive.
GS: “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood” lives up to its title with examples such as chapter seven being the most religious chapter and chapters 16 and 17 being where you began to embrace your gay identity. Which came easier to write about, the chapters in which religion was the focus or the ones in which you wrote about coming out and living as a gay man?
JD: It was definitely easier writing the chapters about my gayness and the struggle over a few years to come to terms with it and accept myself for who I was. Writing LGBTQ history, teaching it, and engaging in activism over the years has been a central part of my adult life and so I have been living it out and feel constantly engaged by it. By contrast, my discussions of my religious upbringing and my struggles and conflicts with it put me in touch with a part of my upbringing that, although I took some very important moral lessons from it, was largely painful and has been something that I had left behind. Now, suddenly, I was reliving it in a way.
GS: The fact that you were a Columbia University student during that period of upheaval and anti-war protests in the late 1960s, as well as being a young gay man hanging out in Greenwich Village who had been to the Stonewall Inn, gives the book considerable gravitas. At a time when conservatives are once again attempting to erase LGBTQ+ folks, how do you see your book’s place in the world?
JD: Well, I am sure there will be many places where local libraries and school districts put it on their banned books list. I can imagine many of these moral conservatives saying “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood? We don’t want any of our kids coming into contact with that!” Beyond that, though, for a younger generation of LGBTQ folks, and for younger generations as a whole – Gen Z, and to some extent millennials, I hope it brings to life a history that is so different from what many experience today – a history of invisibility and silence, of isolation, of active and universal oppression. A world in which there are no GSAs or QSAs in high schools, in which there are no Netflix series about young queer lives, no web and social media through which there is access to a seemingly limitless supply of information and advice. And then, there’s my own generation of baby boomers – those who remember the sixties and can identify with the kind of experiences I describe.
GS: In early August 2022, you posted on social media that, after being encouraged by friends, you have started working on “a second volume of memoir.” What is the status of that project?
JD: I’m definitely moving forward on a second volume, but slowly, trying not to put too much pressure on myself. The second volume will also be a more complex one to write since it will cover the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, which were decades of activism for me in the LGBTQ movement. And so, I will be writing about more public events, and about my involvement with organizations and campaigns of various sorts. There’s much more of a historical, archival record to deal with than there was with the first volume, which is much of a personal coming-of-age story.
GS: Finally, if there was a movie version of “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood,” who would you want to play you?
JD: [Laughs] well, since the book covers the years from my childhood until about age 23, it would have to include both a child actor and a very young adult actor who could also reasonably pass as a teenager. Honestly, I have no idea who those might be! But I have to confess, that I would love to have it become a movie, whether in theaters or on television.