About 30 people attended "Memories of the (Ongoing) Revolution: Butch Careers and Femme Follies" featuring longtime couple Esther Newton and Holly Hughes at the University of Chicago May 23.
The event was sponsored by the LGBTQ Studies Project at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
The LGBTQ Studies Project, according to its website, "organizes research projects and conferences and provides fellowships to graduate students. It provides an interdisciplinary locus for Chicago faculty and graduate students who study the historical, cultural, and textual construction of LGBTQ identities, cultures, and politics; analyze those formations or the dominant culture and social theory from the perspective of queer theory."
A graduate of the University of Chicago (UChicago), Newton is an author and lecturer in Women's Studies and American Culture at the University of Michigan. Hughes is a writer, performer and associate professor at the University of Michigan in art and design, theater and drama, and women's studies.
Lauren Berlant, director of the LGBTQ Studies Project, introduced both Newton and Hughes.
Prior to reading from her autobiography My Butch Career, Newton shared stories about her mother, Virginia, who left UChicago three credits shy of graduating in the 1930s; her father took her out of school after she was outed as a member of the Communist Party. Newton's mom was also very active in the emerging civil-rights movement.
Newton shared photos of her mother and herself with their respective dogs and noted that they shared a love of purebred dogs and dog shows. Reading from her memoir, Newton described her childhood spent around purebred dogs. "The contradiction [of loving purebred dogs] doesn't escape me and is as much a part of me as my mixed-up heritage [she is part Northern European by way of her mother and Jewish by way of her father]. Whether or not this should be true, it is certainly not something I would've conscientiously chosen. Purebred dogs give me more pleasure than mixed-breed ones," said Newton.
"I married into dogs," said Hughes about her life with Newton. Then Hughes performed a spoken word piece "Too Much Sky" that she previously performed at the Moth Mainstage. The piece chronicles her role in the NEA 4 (National Endowment for the Arts) case and her story as an emerging artist in 1980s New York City. Hughes spoke of attending the New York Feminist Art Institute which was just a series of empty rooms that they furnished by way of dumpster diving for discarded furniture and other objects. "I think this was an important moment in my life, my artwork and my political philosophy of taking this stuff [out of the dumpsters] and making artwork out of it," said Hughes.
Hughes said she realized she could not keep asking her friends to help her for free. This is what led to her apply for an emerging artist grant through the NEA. At the same time, Hughes explained, the impact of AIDS was causing dramatic changes in the gay community, and conservatives were going after queer culture.
The AIDS crisis "makes queer, marginalized people visible," said Hughes. As a result of this visibility the government "decides to go after art … and passes a law banning the NEA from funding what they call gay or homoerotic art," said Hughes. Hughes recounted that although she and the rest of the NEA 4 (Karen Finley, Tim Miller and John Fleck) were eventually awarded NEA funding through lower court rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling. Meanwhile, the NEA stopped funding individual artists due to pressure from Congress.
During the Q&A session, an audience member asked whether LGBTQ people in previous generations were more united across other classification boundaries. Hughes said there were race and class divisions among LGBTQ people in the past, however there was a sense of being a part of an outlaw world among all LGBTQ people. Newton added that she didn't come out to any straight people when she was in college, preferring a separate world where she was out.
See www.hollyhughesperformance.com and gendersexuality.uchicago.edu/projects/lgsp .
Holly Hughes PART 2: www.youtube.com/watch .
Holly Hughes to Part 1: www.youtube.com/watch .