Queer histories in the making | Lit Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Queer histories in the making 

Anthropologist Esther Newton turns the focus on herself; performance artist Holly Hughes looks at censorship with a unique familiarity.

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Esther Newton

Esther Newton

Robert Giard

Esther Newton is a pioneering scholar of gay and lesbian history, but she and her partner, Holly Hughes, also lived it. Newton trained as an anthropologist and made her name with ethnographic studies of drag queens and of Cherry Grove, the village on Fire Island that became America's first queer town. Now she's teaching at the University of Michigan and working on a memoir, My Butch Career, which begins with her early realization that she and her father dressed exactly alike and continues through her adventures in Chicago (she got her doctorate at U. of C.) and New York, both pre- and post-Stonewall. She previews the book at this talk.

Hughes, meanwhile, is an academic and a performance artist. She is also "a lesbian," as former National Endowment for the Arts chair John Frohnmeyer once observed, "and her work is very heavily of that genre." That was the reason that, in 1990, Frohnmeyer denied Hughes an NEA grant, though her work had unanimously passed a peer-review process. She and several other artists who received the same treatment, including Karen Finley, sued to get their funding; the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court. Hughes's performance piece Too Much Sky concerns issues of censorship, both personal and political. Or maybe both, since we know now they're one and the same.

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