||In 1972, Esther Newton published her now-classic ethnography of Midwestern drag queens, Mother Camp. It was a slender volume, written in unpretentious, clear prose, much of which drew on the then-pervasive framework of “deviance” to approach the lives of both professional drag performers and the more marginal “street fairies” whose drag performances occurred in less sanctioned public places. Newton’s ethnography revealed the ways in which drag generated a cultural performance that served both performers and audiences, and how the symbolism of drag defined identities on competing, sometimes colliding, levels. In particular, drag intersected with elusive struggles for dignity and respectability, enabling a moral economy in which some forms of drag achieved higher status than others. Based on the dissertation research she completed in the 1960s, Newton’s book was a courageous one, published at a time when even mentioning homosexuality unleashed suspicion and professional rejection. Despite her training at the prestigious University of Chicago, Newton was shunned by elite anthropology, and spent her career teaching at a small public college near New York City.
But Mother Camp started something: the now vigorous and complex field of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) or queer anthropology. In the almost four decades since its publication, Mother Camp has inspired generations of anthropologists to demand the right to examine LGBT topics in all of their complexity. We have debated and will probably never reach full agreement on what we should call this field of inquiry. We have drawn on countless theoretical approaches, have turned our focus on many different populations that might be embraced by the terms LGBT and queer, and have inspired scholars from other disciplines to take up some of the questions we have raised. While all of this has been going on, Esther Newton has continued her own intellectual journey, publishing another significant ethnographic work, Cherry Grove, Fire Island, and a collection of essays, Margaret Mead Made Me Gay. She is now at work on a memoir, My Butch Career.
This session will pay homage to Esther Newton’s work, and trace its influence on the varied intellectual journeys of the participants and on the formation of a field unimaginable only 40 years ago.