Although the University's contributions to the academic study of sexuality have been documented, we knew very little about the experiences of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning individuals and communities that have passed through the quadrangles. In order to make these visible, students affiliated with Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles: A LGBTQ History of the University of Chicago have been researching the University's queer past since 2012.
This exhibition presents some of the most significant results of the "Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles" project. All existing archival collections in the Special Collections Research Center have been carefully reviewed, and the collections have been enriched by new materials preserved and made available by LGBTQ alumni and students. We also mined local and national archives and conducted oral histories with 95 alumni, faculty, and staff, representing degrees from a 1958 JD to a 2012 AB.
In creating a new oral history archive of LGBTQ experiences at Chicago, we learned that the University's exaltation of the life of the mind has been a source of both liberation and frustration. For example, Esther Newton (AM 1966, PhD 1968) could write a dissertation about male drag queens in Chicago without being asked awkward questions because "There was never any connection between, supposedly, your personal life, whatever that was, and why you wanted to work on what you wanted. It was all floating out there, in the intellectual ether." Newton had actually struck a delicate balance between embracing her identity and tactically distancing herself from it: "I probably would have done a lesbian thesis if I hadn't been so afraid. But that was too close. And this way, it was men. And I could take on that aspect of the neutral observer and they couldn't really ask me, 'Why? Why do you want to do this?'"
Newton's story highlights the inherent tensions between intellectual aspirations and embodied experience, between tolerant liberalism and indifference to physical and emotional needs. Focusing on the experiences of LGBTQ people at the University of Chicago invites us to consider the "life of the mind" as it is lived by embodied individuals. With Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles, we hope both to make visible the people who helped transform the University and to create a history that will inspire future generations.