The Historian George Chauncey Wins the Kluge Humanities Prize

The Library of Congress has named the historian George Chauncey this year’s winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity, making him the first scholar in L.G.B.T.Q. studies to be honored with the award.

Chauncey, a professor of American history at Columbia University, where he is the director of the school’s Research Institute on the Global History of Sexualities, is known for his exploration of the lives of 20th-century gay and lesbian people and the harsh discrimination that plagued them. His books include “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” (1994) and “Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality” (2004).

The Kluge Prize, which is awarded every two years and now comes with a $500,000 award, is given to those whose scholarship has resonated both inside and outside academia. Chauncey said he intends to collaborate with the library’s historians and curators on its AIDS Memorial Quilt archive collection.

“There was a lot of opposition to doing it,” he said, referring to the study of gay history. “Which is one reason it’s so meaningful to me that the Library of Congress has recognized the importance of this work.”

Previous Kluge winners include the political theorist Danielle Allen, the former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the historians Drew Gilpin Faust and John Hope Franklin.

Faust said she has admired Chauncey’s work from a distance, whether his efforts in helping overturn the Defense of Marriage Act or pushing to establish marriage equality. (Chauncey has provided testimony or acted as an expert witness in more than 30 court cases tied to L.G.B.T.Q. rights.)

“At a time when the question of inclusion in American life is so front and center in people’s minds, and differences between us are being underscored and exacerbated by so many other events in public life, to make a statement in support of inclusion that George’s work represents is significant and welcome,” Faust said.

Mary L. Bonauto, a top civil rights leader, worked with Chauncey when she was one of the lead attorneys in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that guaranteed a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. She lauded Chauncey for being the driving force behind friend of the court briefs and helping to sketch the history of discrimination faced by the L.G.B.T.Q. people who were often portrayed as predatory and damaged.

“What his work does is show the creation and maintenance of how you create discriminatory systems and views and how you maintain them,” she said. “And then how they get recycled over time.”

Chauncey, 67, received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Yale University, and served as the Samuel Knight Professor of History and American Studies there from 2006 to 2017. During his time there, he introduced the first lecture course on U.S. lesbian and gay history, for which he was awarded Yale’s teaching prize in 2012.

When Chauncey began researching gay history as a graduate student, he was warned it could be “professional suicide.” It was a very small field, he said, challenged by people like the American singer Anita Bryant, known for her anti-gay activism, and others who said the exposure to L.G.B.T.Q. people would threaten children.

Through his teachings, Chauncey said he has had to “convey both the almost unimaginable degree of repression that people face” as well as their “extraordinary resiliency.”

Chauncey said he was inspired to do this work through the research of other suppressed groups.

“Debates over who should be included in history are really often about who do we think should be included in American society today? Who should be respected in American society today?” he said. “And to establish Black history or women’s history or L.G.B.T.Q. history as a vibrant and respected field of historical scholarship is to lay a claim on the present as well as the past.”

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