Completed Dissertations

Lindsay Zafir, History (2022)

“State of Denial: AIDS Denialism, Treatment Activism, and the Fight Over Antiretrovirals”

My dissertation examines AIDS denialism—a movement that developed in the late 1980s around the idea that HIV alone could not cause AIDS and that the disease resulted from a deadly combination of promiscuous sex, poverty, and antiretrovirals. First emerging in the North American gay communities hardest hit by the epidemic, denialism took on international significance in the early 2000s when South African President Thabo Mbeki argued that poverty was the most significant cause of the disease. My dissertation traces the shifting meanings and consequences of denialism as it changed shape and transferred hands, with particular attention to the ways race, gender, and sexuality were articulated over the course of the epidemic. I also examine denialism’s relationship to international treatment activism, which developed over the same period of time but for an expressly different purpose: to expand access to antiretrovirals. In doing so, I hope to shine light on the transnational history of the epidemic, as well as what contests over the cause of AIDS can tell us about changing understandings of scientific knowledge and authority at the turn of the 21st century.

Beans Velocci, History (2021)

Binary Logic: Race, Classification, and the Unknowing of Sexual Multiplicity in the Nineteenth-Century United States

My dissertation interrogates how and why the consistent appearance of exceptions to normative sex and gender categories have failed to generate a widespread rethinking of a binary paradigm. Beginning with an analysis of zoological writings and working my way through a series of case studies rooted in the history of American slavery and colonialism, I trace the reasonings that produced a fundamental inconsistency within the American sex/gender system—that there are countless sex and gender anomalies that don’t fit the given categories, but that the system itself still works—and then explained it away. My project explores the relationship between two seemingly conflicting yet deeply entwined logics: one that defined humanity, and thus whiteness, through sexual dimorphism and framed the supposed “primitivity” of blackness and indigeneity in terms of hermaphroditism, and another that went to great lengths to subsume anomalous forms of sex and gender back into the normative categories of male and female. By looking at these two processes in tandem, I hope to demonstrate how nineteenth-century white supremacy depended on both an unshakeable sex and gender binary and the ability to exclude people from it.

Devin McGeehan Muchmore, American Studies (2018)

“The Business of Sex: A Queer History of Pornography and Commercial Culture in 1970s America” 

My research examines the business and political activities of erotic entrepreneurs and sex workers in the 1960s and 1970s United States, focusing on their efforts to revise longstanding cultural associations of sexual commodification with criminality, sexual immorality, and commercial exploitation. For most purveyors of sexual goods and services, among them adult bookstore and theater owners, prostitutes, and sex toy dealers, making decisions about how to conduct business meant negotiating questions by potential customers and regulators about the morality of exchanging money for sex. By investigating how erotic entrepreneurs and sex workers answered these questions in stores, in the media, and in city halls, I aim to illuminate how and why new frameworks for making moral distinctions between different economic exchanges emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, my dissertation maps the multiple and shifting relationships between sexual liberalism and free market liberalism in an era of political economic transformation.

Marie-Amelie George (2018)

Deviant Justice: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Rights in America

In 1960, every state in American criminalized consensual sodomy. Fifty-five years later, the Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples had a fundamental right to marry. In the span of one generation, American law underwent a dramatic transformation. During that same time period, homosexuality changed from a marker of psychopathy to a benign variation in human sexuality, at least for the majority of Americans. This dissertation examines how the law helped normalize what was once considered deviant, such that a formerly reviled group moved from the margins toward the mainstream in most of the country. The project moves chronologically and thematically to explain how same-sex sexuality became legally protected, focusing on legal contests at the state and local levels, where laws shaped conceptions of gays and lesbians as community members.

Brian J. Distelberg, History (2015)

Minority Groups, the Mass Media, and the Politics of Anti-Defamation, 1940s-1990s

My dissertation examines campaigns by African Americans, Jews, Latinos, feminists, and gays and lesbians to combat stereotypes and encourage “positive” representations in film, television, and other media between the 1940s and the 1990s.  Why have these groups taken media images so seriously, where did this interest originate, and how have different groups’ concerns overlapped, differed, and changed over time?  By answering such questions, I aim to offer a new perspective on the connections between the evolution of gay and lesbian activism and other developments in the history of the postwar United States, including the political struggles of racial and ethnic minorities and the growing power of mass culture.  Additionally, my dissertation will offer an historical account of gay and lesbian media activism in its own right that, by considering the qualities activists saw as “stereotypical” and “positive” at different moments, will make legible evolutions in gay and lesbian identities and politicized self-representation.

Emily Johnson (2014)

Activists, Authors, Apostles: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right

Issues related to gender and sexuality were at the heart of the religious right’s ascendency in the 1970s and 1980s.  Focusing on the work of nationally-prominent evangelical women, this dissertation asserts that women were not only central objects of religious right rhetoric during this period but that they were also significant agents in shaping the tone and direction of this movement. I focus on the work of Kathryn Kuhlman (a faith-healing preacher), Marabel Morgan (an evangelical author of marital and sexual advice), Anita Bryant (a singer who became better known for her anti-gay-rights campaign), Beverly LaHaye (author and founder of Concerned Women for America), and Tammy Faye Bakker (a televangelist who became an ally for gays and lesbians). Catholic activist Phyllis Schlafly offers insight into limited ecumenism of the movement. Central to this dissertation are the tensions between these women’s public roles and their support for “traditional” gender norms, between an expanding political realm and the realms of religion and family, and – finally – between forceful condemnations of sexual minorities and a developing evangelical openness to sexual exploration within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. This dissertation offers a new perspective on the history of the New Christian Right, as well as the origins of contemporary sex and gender politics in the United States.

David Minto (2014)

Special Relationships: Britain, America, and Transatlantic (Homo)Sexual Politics before AIDS

My project examines the relationship between gay activism in Britain and the United States in the decades following World War II. The Wolfenden Report, gay liberation, and anti-gay “Save our Children” campaigns all had transatlantic lives that signal common patterns in postwar (homo)sexual politics, but their particular manifestations also reveal national differences. Contextualizing within broader transatlantic currents the networks, exchanges, and influences of British and US activists who organized around gay rights and visibility, the project is part of a growing body of work exploring transnational influences in the history of sexuality. It aims to supplement local and national studies of gay politics and activism, while reframing the diplomatic action of traditional “special relationship” history.

Tim Retzloff (2014)

Suburb, City, and the Changing Bounds of Lesbian and Gay Life in Metropolitan Detroit, 1945-1985

My dissertation seeks to advance scholarly conversation within U.S. history by bringing the new suburban history together with lesbian and gay history.  I am seeking to craft a narrative of lesbian and gay life in postwar Detroit and its suburbs through an expanded metropolitan lens: first, to explain how the oppositional amalgams of urban gays and straight suburbs came into being; second, to interrogate the accuracy of such characterizations; and third, to examine how the growth of postwar suburbs and the rise of conspicuous postwar lesbian and gay communities did not merely coincide, but how both signify processes that were deeply intertwined.  Specifically, I am seeking to answer what the place of gay men and lesbians was in the new postwar suburbs and what a queer presence in suburbia tells us about the greater metropolis, in particular to what extent the spheres of suburban and urban, of heterosexual and homosexual, were dichotomous or reciprocal.

Anastasia Jones (2013)

“She’s That Way”: Female Same-Sex Intimacy and the Growth of Modern Sexual Categories in the U.S., 1920-1940

My dissertation addresses the various modes of comprehending and depicting sex and desire between women in U.S. interwar popular culture. Drawing on medical and “sexological” literature, novels, personal papers, and popular press (tabloids, magazines, and newspapers), I aim to discover how intimate relationships between women were understood before lesbian identity solidified—and why and when that solidification occurred. I’m particularly interested in addressing the ways in which sexual identities shifted according to class. In exploring the continuities and differences between popular conceptions of hedonism in urban “bawdy” cultures, sexual bohemianism within artistic avant-garde circles, and the quieter intimacy shared by middle-class college girls, professionals, and reformers, I hope to further understand the murky territory between popular pathologization and acceptance of female same-sex desire in the 1920s and 1930s.

Betty Luther Hillman (2011)

America Dresses for the Culture Wars: The Politics of Self-Presentation, 1964-1980

My research explores how self-presentation in hairstyles and dress blurred gender boundaries in popular culture and played a central role in the politics of numerous social movements, including the counterculture, Black Power, the New Left, feminism, and gay liberation.  Self-presentation provided a rich tool for activists to visually display their disagreements with American culture, but opponents of these activists interpreted their self-presentation as a challenge to norms of gender, sexuality, race and class.  My dissertation illustrates how styles of self-fashioning, and concerns of gender and sexuality that they implicated, operated as both causes and symbols of the divides in American culture—-what some have called the “culture wars”—-that have come to define American society and politics in the post-1960s era.