Rainbow-colored pylons stand at attention along North Halsted, marking Lakeview as the city’s official gay neighborhood. The street’s watering holes do a booming business year-round, but that’s nothing, says University of Chicago history professor George Chauncey. “There were probably more gay bars in the 1950s than there are today,” he says. “But they closed, or were closed, with greater speed. Bartenders would move to another bar, and their fans would follow. There were a lot of floating gay bars in those days.”

If there’s anyone keyed into this country’s gay and lesbian past, it’s Chauncey, chair of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project at the U. of C. His 1994 landmark book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, was a thorough exploration of a thriving subculture. Sifting through newspaper stories, police records, diaries, and oral histories, Chauncey argued that homosexuality was far more open in prewar America than previously believed. The book also documented the crackdown by law enforcement.

These days Chauncey is busy working on his highly anticipated sequel, Making of a Modern Gay World: 1935-1975, due out next year. But right now he’s in the throes of delivering his latest baby–this weekend’s conference, “The Future of the Queer Past.”

Billed as the largest queer history conference ever held, at least 400 historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars are expected to provide a panoramic view of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender life from around the globe. Ever wonder about the evolution of Mexico’s gay liberation movement at the turn of the century? Or how the American occupation of postwar Germany and Japan affected gay circles in those countries? Chauncey says these and other topics–both well documented and obscure–will be addressed at more than 50 panels, speeches, exhibits, films, and performances.

“We want to take the pulse of this rapidly expanding field, access where it’s going and determine what its future is,” he says. “For nonhistorians it’s going to be a complete revelation.”

But does it really matter whether artists like Michelangelo or Georgia O’Keeffe may have been predominantly homosexual? Or whether a male saint from the 15th century may not have been so male after all? Does it undermine their impact on our shared culture or religious beliefs?

“Being gay has dramatic ramifications for someone’s life, their relationship to family, to the culture at large–if we ignore that we can’t really understand what shaped them,” Chauncey explains. “That is one of the great virtues of any new field of history. It doesn’t just add new stories. It changes the old stories we already thought we knew.”

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Chauncey says his father was active in the civil rights movement in the south and consequently “was regularly asked to move on.” Graduating from Yale in the late 1970s, Chauncey entered the relatively new field of gay and lesbian studies after spending a year in central Africa researching the history of the colonial copper-mining industry. When he went job hunting after earning his PhD in 1989, he was struck by the pervasive antigay sentiment among universities, which were skittish about hiring openly gay professors, especially ones whose research focused on gays. When the U. of C.’s history department hired him nine years ago, it became only the second history department in the U.S. to give a tenure-track position to someone with a gay dissertation (the first was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which hired John D’Emilio, now a professor at UIC).

“The university has a reputation as a very conservative place, but that has not been my experience at all,” Chauncey says. “There are a lot of smart people who can argue their position very forcefully, and there is a wide spectrum of positions on campus.”

Within a year of arriving Chauncey founded the school’s Lesbian and Gay Faculty and Staff Organization, created in part to lobby for domestic-partner benefits for faculty, staff, and students. In 1992 the U. of C. and Stanford became the nation’s first two institutions of higher learning to offer fully equitable domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples, a move copied by hundreds of American universities since.

He says the university’s support of the queer history conference is fully in keeping with its longtime interest in documenting the rise of American urban culture, the various movements of the progressive era, and other issues vital to understanding early 20th century history. “The university is considered the birthplace of the field of urban sociology in the 1910s and 1920s, when sociologists began studying gay life in the city as well as other aspects of urban life,” he says. “There were students in the 1920s who were writing term papers on topics like lesbian salons and their gay friends. There were exam questions in sociology courses in the 1920s on gay topics.”

When the discussion turns to recent attempts at erasing gay perspectives from public school classrooms (for example, Oregon has an initiative on this November’s ballot that would prohibit teachers from “promoting” homosexuality), Chauncey sounds determined. “When someone wants to ban talk of gay history, they want to ban gay culture from our life today,” he says. “To acknowledge that a group is part of history is to acknowledge they are a part of culture today, which is why multiculturalism is so controversial. When you’re talking about history you’re talking as much of the present as you are of the past.”

“The Future of the Queer Past: A Transnational History Conference” runs through September 17 at the University of Chicago, Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th. Registration for the entire conference costs $85 ($60 for the unemployed); daily admission is $30 ($5 for college and high school students). For more information, call 773-834-4509, or check out the conference’s Web site at humanities.uchicago.edu/cgs/queerpast.html. Individual events are also included in the movie, readings, and performance listings in Section Two.

–Erik Piepenburg

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.