October 10, 1997
Visiting Professor Speaks on Homophile Era
By Maria Franco
UW-RF News Bureau
Just in time for the Gay History month of October, Jim Sears visited the UW-RF campus as the 1997 Visiting Professor. During his week-long visit, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3, Sears gave a number of talks on various topics dealing with the gay movement, including a public presentation on the History of Gays during the Homophile Era (1948-1968).
Sears' public presentation was based on his latest book, "Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968," which has been described in the Kirkus Reviews as "a groundbreaking history of post-World War II, pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian life in the American South."
The purpose of his book is to portray the lives of gay southerners against the background of Southern cultures and discrimination: to show what it was like to be not only gay in the South, but black and gay in the South, or Jewish and gay, or a lesbian woman in the South.
Sears set up a background for understanding the movement against a time of rising social expectations, increased conservatism and a strong fear of the unknown.
Up until the Stonewall riots in 1969, it was typical for gays to be harassed, arrested and have their names sprawled in the newspaper, for simply patronizing a bar. When they fought back, during these three infamous days of riots, it was deemed the beginning of the gay movement. But Sears explained that the movement began long before that. He discussed the enormous impact of World War II and stressed the importance of the Kinsey Studies, which gained national attention in the 1940's when it reported that there were over 20 million gay men and women living in the United States.
The first organized homosexual group was actually formed as early as 1950, when seven people secretly began what was known as the "Mettachine Society." In the mid-50's another group of gay men were more open and published their own magazine of stories, letters and book reviews. Their actions landed them in the U.S. Supreme Court, however, when certain postmasters refused to carry the magazine.
He noted the differences in the movement, from a time when gay life meant the dangers of harsh jail sentences and commitment in mental institutions to police entrapment and murderous assaults. There were confining divisions based on social class and race while those arguing that homosexuality was an illness, not a crime, were considered liberal.
According to Sears, while we might like to view the past as a history of unalterable progress, there is nothing necessarily unalterable or progressive about history. "Progress depends on individuals; ordinary people do make a difference," he said. "History is lessens for future generations to build up and learn from. Members of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual community have made enormous contributions in the arts, sciences, politics and sports; they are everywhere, but their stories are nowhere to be found." He finds this especially important for teachers who will encounter lesbian, gay or bisexual students in the coming years. Those teachers must be prepared with the stories and the history because, "They have a right to know about their 'ancestors,' "
Sears spent the entire week visiting selected classrooms, giving presentations on such topics as politics and philosophy of the gay movement, overcoming heterosexism and homophobia, gay issues in the workplace, constructing sexual identity and more.
As a professor of curriculum and higher education in the doctoral program of the department of educational leadership and policies at the University of South Carolina, Sears has written over 100 book chapters, articles, essays and scholarly papers, as well as five books.
He graduated summa cum laude from Southern Illinois University with a bachelor's degree in history and got his master's from the UW-Madison in political science. He earned his doctorate in sociology and education from Indiana University.
Sears has served as a visiting instructor at Trinity University in Texas, the National College of Education in Illinois, and the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California, as well as a research fellow at ONE Institute. His overseas teaching and research experience includes work in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
His teaching and research have attracted national attention, as well as its share of criticism. But Sears responds to the criticism by saying, "We are quickly becoming a tribal nation, but in the coming 'culture wars' there will be no victors, only victims. If we've learned any lessen from history, it is that victory comes at a price; the vanquished will rise again."