In her 2020 memoir My Butch Career, groundbreaking anthropologist Esther Newton describes herself as “a quintessential 20th century American, the offspring of a Mayflower WASP mother and three Jewish immigrant men,” which tells you up front that 1) she’s no respecter of pieties about identity, 2) she has a wicked sense of humor, and 3) she’s not content to call a spade a spade, but will go on to call it a god-damned shovel. Newton put those talents to good use in a long and successful career as an anthropologist, much of which was spent studying and writing about the gay community.
Jean Carlomusto’s documentary Esther Newton Made Me Gay provides an ideal introduction to Newton’s life and work—it’s suffused with the spirit and vitality of its subject, who had plenty to overcome in making a career in a field that didn’t want her, and a life in a world that considered her very being a threat. Spoiler alert: she not only succeeded on both scores but kept her sense of humor and joy through it all. Matching the spirit of a documentary to that of its subject is a real accomplishment, and doing so distinguishes this film from any number of worthy but boring documentaries that remind you of high school social studies class.
Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s was not easy for a gender-nonconforming woman, nor was it easy for the daughter of a single mother who, by her daughter’s account, “had a thing” for Jews and Communists. Newton’s biological father was a “hunk” who refused to marry her mother because she was not Jewish; in response to the pregnancy, Newton’s grandfather disinherited his daughter. Newton’s surname comes from her mother’s husband psychotherapist Saul B. Newton, who was both “scary and attractive” and was also an unfaithful husband who deserted the family shortly after adopting Newton.
She found her professional direction at the University of Chicago, where she studied with the David Schneider and received her PhD in 1968 for a dissertation on drag queens (this research formed the basis of her 1972 book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, which garnered almost no attention at the time, but has been since recognized as a foundational text in GLBTQ studies). Newton was keenly aware of her outsider status, not only due to her nonconforming identity, but also because even gender-role-conforming women were considered less-than in the academic and intellectual circles of the day. She took Gertrude Stein as a role model, not only because she established a successful domestic life with another woman, but because she was “accepted as an equal by men within a very small, select circle.”
Newton stayed true to herself, but was no fool regarding the politics of academia, so was discreet until being granted tenure. Even so, her persona and manner of dress attracted prejudice, a pattern that dated back to her graduate career when a faculty member wrote, in an end-of-year evaluation, that she wasn’t serious about her academic work because she wore trousers.
Not surprisingly, Newton was active in the lesbian feminist movement, and she has a lot to say about 1970s feminism, not all of it positive. The slogan “the personal is political,” for instance, originally expressed an important insight, but later morphed into restrictive, prescriptive set of proclamations about acceptable ways to live, have sex, and express one’s identity. Newton wasn’t having it: she defended drag queens and, at a time when many argued that butch/femme roles were passé, stayed true to her butch identity. It all worked out for her: today Newton is a Professor Emerita and Distinguished Research Professor at SUNY-Purchase and a Lecturer in Women’s Studies and American Culture at the University of Michigan, is married to the performance artist Holly Hughes, and is a champion dog trainer, an interest also shared by her mother and adoptive father. | Sarah Boslaugh
Esther Newton Made Me Gay will be screened on Oct. 21 at 7:00 pm at the LGBT Center and is available for remote streaming during the 34th Annual NewFest, Oct. 23-25. More information about film programs, special events, and passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.