Prominent LGBTQ+ Historian John D’Emilio Publishes Memoir on Catholic Upbringing

John D’Emilio

A prominent queer historian has recently published a new memoir entitled Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties, combining his journey of coming out and LGBTQ+ activism with his Catholic upbringing. 

The Bay Area Reporter’s Brian Bromberger described John D’Emilio’s book as one of several in the last few years that have emerged as Baby Boomers who matured during the time of the Stonewall Riots  to share their own experiences and pieces of that history.

D’Emilio, a professor emeritus of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, helped shape LGBTQ+ history himself. His works include a biography of Bayard Rustin, the gay Black civil rights leader who organized Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 March on Washington, and the 1984 book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, considered a seminal work in the field. Additionally, his research was cited by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned state sodomy laws. D’Emilio is credited with helping establish Gay and Lesbian Studies as an academic discipline for study.

Memories of a Catholic Boyhood chronicles D’Emilio’s coming of age and Catholic upbringing through the beginning of his graduate school studies, which happened soon after Stonewall. In the preface, he describes the questions he attempted to answer through his writing:

“How did so many young people move from the quiet of their family backgrounds to social and political upheavals of this seemingly un-orthodox era? What kinds of experiences provoked their shift in outlook? How did they become agents of change? And how did their lives change because of this?”

Bromberger considers that D’Emilio achieved his goal, writing:

“He largely succeeds in showing how Baby Boomers moved from the status quo life of the fifties into a new world of activism, dissent, and nonconformity, which in his case consisted primarily of political radicalism by protesting the Vietnam War and participating in the emerging gay sexual revolution.”

D’Emilio’s Catholic values, garnered from growing up in an Italian Catholic family and Catholic elementary and high school,  are the primary focus of the book. 

Bromberger notes:

“. . . D’Emilio’s Catholicism compelled him to confess his ‘sins’ and resolve to abstain from any further sexual activity. He even contemplated in his senior year becoming a priest and applied to a Jesuit seminary, but later decided he had to deal first with accepting his gayness, otherwise he’d be fooling himself and his superiors.”

When he started graduate school, he split with institutional Catholicism.  Reading Oscar Wilde emboldened him to begin coming out to friends and family, with Wilde’s assertion that, “To aspire to a Christlike life, one must be entirely and absolutely oneself.” Wilde, himself a convert to Catholicism helped D’Emilio reconcile his sexuality and the Catholic values to which he still clugn.

Bromberger’s ultimate assessment of D’Emilio’s book:

“What is so refreshing about the book is D’Emilio’s non-judgmentalism. Even though he ultimately rejects institutional Catholicism, he understands how it has formed his values and made him a better person. He learns to trust his own instincts and not be dependent on others’ demands upon him. This account of his coming-of-age journey is warm, affectionate, insightful, and compulsively readable, as one feels transported into a more carefree, less ambiguous time.”

Angela Howard McParland (she/her), New Ways Ministry, November 12, 2022

2 replies
  1. Isabel Hill
    Isabel Hill says:

    The quote “To aspire to a Christlike life, one must be entirely and absolutely oneself” is amazing! Can anybody help with details of where it comes from?


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