My Path to Queer Remembering (3 of 3)

The most recent leg of my path to queer remembering involved my training as a professional historian.  Age 42, fresh from finishing my B.A. at the University of Michigan, I landed at Yale to pursue a Ph.D.

My leap of faith into grad school was kind of an all-or-nothing proposition, swim or sink and all that.

The sacrifices were never far from mind: being 756 miles away from my partner Rick at home, leaving my job and a decent enough salary, the weight of not wanting to let down family and friends.

Upon arrival, I immediately experienced several shocks to my system.  My rent doubled and my pay was half what I’d been earning.  I went back to wearing eyeglasses after years with contacts.  And I experienced major culture clash.  Growing up gay in Michigan, I’d always felt an outcast because of my sexuality.  At Yale, known as the “Gay Ivy,” being a queerboy was no big deal.

Instead, on campus and around town, I constantly confronted issues of social class.  I was an outsider because I didn’t come from a wealthy or even comfortable middle-class background.  I found myself constantly checking to be sure I had my ID in case someone asked if I had permission to be there.

I wanted to belong in this new place.  At the same time, I feared forgetting or betraying where I came from.  Truth be told, though, I had been running away from my working-class roots all my life, even if, as I now realized, I could never entirely escape my family background or the shame of its imprint.

Did I ever feel out of my depth at Yale!  Competition, mostly unspoken, was fierce.  All around me I saw people of ambition.  These were world-class grad students taught by world-class historians in a world-class institution.  I felt aspiration, sure, but distrusted the intensity and the perceived arrogance of ambition.

More than once I thought about packing up and conceding defeat.  Yet I knew that if I quit I’d be a hypocrite.

Back in 2001, when I worked at U of M’s Hatcher Graduate Library, my friend and colleague Anthony Davis talked all summer about wanting to see the Picasso Erotique exhibit in Montreal.  It was the only showing in North America but a ten-hour drive from Ann Arbor.  Even so, he planned to go on the last weekend.  Leaving work that Friday, I asked about the pending trip.  He said he’d decided not to go.

“What?!?” I said.  “You have to go.”  I am usually one to hold my anger, but I had a bit of rage in my voice.  We shared similar backgrounds of not coming from material privilege.  Although he was African American and I was white, we both had to actively pursue lives of knowledge and culture.

“Why do I have to go?” he asked.

I was almost spitting the words.  “Because you’re from Jackson and you’re not supposed to.”  People from Michigan understand what being from Jackson means.  It’s like being from Flint.

Anthony ended up driving much of the night to see the Picasso exhibit and later thanked me.  I’m glad for my outburst at him, proud in fact.

Five years later, there I was in New Haven, feeling that I was not supposed to be there, and realizing that that was precisely why I had to succeed.  Class defiance as gut reflex.

Yeah, attending graduate school in my 40s seemed an especially tall task, the classic old dog new tricks quandary.  The travails were sometimes traumatic, often mystical, and tricky to convey to someone who hasn’t gone that route.  There was a marathon two years of coursework, including cramming enough French in my brainpan to pass the accelerated French for Reading summer class and fulfill my language requirement.  Then I pushed on through two years of teaching in the midst of studying for orals and writing a prospectus.

My professors—all brilliant, inspiring, and intellectually demanding—included Hazel Carby, John Mack Faragher, Beverly Gage, Glenda Gilmore, Dolores Hayden, Jonathan Holloway, Jennifer Klein, and Stephen Pitti.  A readings course and a subsequent research seminar, both co-taught by George Chauncey and Joanne Meyerowitz, steeped me in the history of sexuality like never before.

I was teaching assistant for David Blight’s jam-packed Civil War lecture class and for Joanne Meyerowitz’s U.S. Women’s History course.  I served as a T.A. twice for George Chauncey’s celebrated U.S. Gay and Lesbian History class.  All were incredible models I wish to emulate in the classroom.

And I had the amazing fortune to have the brilliant and esteemed Professor Chauncey as my dissertation adviser.  I owe tremendous thanks to him for the opportunity.  My gratitude for the high bar he set is beyond words.

For the eight years it took me to finish, I carried the weight of not wanting to disappoint him.  I still feel that weight.

This is a good thing.

My Yale peeps helped get me through.  Ryan Brasseaux, Zane Curtis-Olson, Brian Distelberg, Joe Fronczak, Betty Luther Hillman, Simeon Man, Monica Martinez, Ana Raquel Minian, Katherine Mooney, Robin Morris, Taylor Spence, Jennifer Wellington, and others remain friends for life.  For our own personal sustenance, my partner Rick and I made sure to talk every day on the phone; once a month either he came to Connecticut or I returned to Michigan.  I was home over the summer.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam
With my friend Joe (right) at our commencement in New Haven, May 19, 2014.

There’s something to be said about having to prove yourself.  I felt repeatedly knocked down.  The true test was getting up again. and again, and again, and again, charging forward each time.  Because I needed to believe I deserved an Ivy League doctorate, my dissertation ran 680 pages, probably overkill.  The process forced me to be a better scholar.

Graduate school pressed me to think beyond my gee-whiz, “looky what I found” exuberance of uncovering stories from the past.  Simple show-and-tell was not something pros do.  True analysis required constructing historical arguments, interrogating sources, probing ideas, and developing new understandings.  I attained knowledge, skills, and a new outlook.  Completing my Ph.D. at age 50 in 2014 instilled in me a sense of confidence and, it turns out, a great measure of responsibility.

So here I am, all credentialed, teaching, working on revising my dissertation into a book, and continuing to dig into the LGBTQ past.  Thanks to the journey thus far, I have a firmer sense than ever before of the many ways we have, the many ways we must have, of queer remembering.

Tim Retzloff

3 thoughts on “My Path to Queer Remembering (3 of 3)”

  1. Scholarship is all this: methodology and tough arguments, deep reading and connections among sources, clarity of writing and growth long after the Ph.D. The diss evolves into a book that has its own evident shape. But always hold on to that exuberance in your research and teaching: Look what I found is what got you to this point. Students and readers to come will thank your for those gifts.

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  2. The hard work of excavation and refinement of your treasures, the great dialogues that have influenced your analysis and that your own insights have transformed, the huge diss that you are shaping into an inviting and powerful voyage: Yes, look what you found. Your readers and students will dive into your work to find their own paths and that enthusiasm is the first spark.

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