May 18, 2013

Spring 1988: Don't Say Gay: My Committee Nixes My Dissertation Topic

When I moved to West Hollywood in 1985, I enrolled in the doctoral program in Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.  We had to select two historical periods to concentrate on, so I chose the Renaissance and the 19th century symbolist movement.

I was also teaching at Loyola Marymount University, editing for Joe Weider's Muscle and Fitness, and living in West Hollywood (which takes a lot of time), so it took three years to finish my coursework, language exams, and comprehensive exams.  But in May of 1988, I was ready to write my prospectus, a 30-page paper that would be developed into my doctoral dissertation.

In May 1988, I gave my committee a prospectus on "Same-Sex Desire in Renaissance Drama." I concentrated on Il Marescalco, by Pietro Aretino, about a gay man who is required to get married, but finds that his friends have arranged for the "bride" to be a boy (it was not included in the 1972 Italian film I Raconti Romani di Pietro Aretino). 

No, no, no!  They cried.  You must not write about "homosexuals"!  Too controversial!  No one will hire you!

Back to the drawing board.  Maybe if I "hid" the gay people among other outsiders, such as Jews, Turks, and witches.

Whenever I was upset, I watched television.  It brought back soothing memories of my childhood, when I went to bed but my parents were still watching tv in the next room, and I felt warm and safe knowing that they were nearby.  So in between analyzing Renaissance plays, I watched The Simpsons, Married with Children, It's Gary Shandling's Show, 21 Jump Street, Alien Nation, Designing Women, Newhart, Who's the Boss, Roseanne, Head of the Class, Night Court, Wiseguy (with Ken Wahl, left), Twin Peaks, and The Golden Girls.

Juvenile programs were especially good at evoking that warm, safe feeling, so I watched  The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Hey Dude (with David Lascher, top photo)Pee Wee's Playhouse, Saved by the Bell, You Can't Do That on Television, Degrassi High, Out of this World,  Katts and Dogand Tiny Toon Adventures, thus beginning a life-long interest in heterosexism and same-sex bonds in children's media. 

In September 1988, I gave my committee a new prospectus on "The Image of the Other in Renaissance Drama," comparing the image of the Jew, the Turk, the witch, and the "homosexual" in Aretino, Christopher Marlowe, and Calderon de la Barca.

No, no, no!  They cried. You compare the image of the Jew with the image of the "homosexual'!  Too controversial! No one will hire you!

 I was sick to death of my dissertation committee -- and the Renaissance.  So I got a new committee, and changed to the Symbolist Movement.  I had to "pick up a new language," so I  went to Turkey and Israel for six months, and returned in May 1989 with a prospectus for a new dissertation, "The Pastoral Ideal in Late 19th Century Fiction."  I compared The Wind in the Willows, Death in Venice, and Andre Gide's Pastoral Symphony, with a little Wilhelm von Gloeden thrown in.

No, no, no! They cried.  You claim that Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, and  Kenneth Grahame were gay!  Too controversial!  No one will hire you!

Without another word, I walked out of the committee chambers, got into my car, and drove away from USC.  I never went back. (Instead I got the Worst Job in the World.)

In 1997, I tried again, enrolling in a doctoral program in sociology on Long Island.  This time my committee let me write on a gay topic, as long as the word "gay" wasn't in the title of my dissertation.