Off the Cuff with Esther Newton, Anthropology Professor

Esther Newton, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at SUNY Purchase, is a pioneer in the ethnography of gay and lesbian studies. She spoke in West Lecture Hall on Tuesday evening as part of the Year of the Queer lecture series at Oberlin. After her talk, she sat down with the Review to discuss the changing culture of drag, the importance of inclusion within the queer community and her upcoming autobiography.


Esther Newton, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at SUNY Purchase, who spoke Tuesday on her career studying gay and lesbian ethnography

Matt Benenson

Can you talk about how you became interested in your field of study?

Well, I do identify as queer, so the interest was there from a personal standpoint right off the bat. Wanting to study [the LGBTQ] community was always something that interested me. In terms of anthropology, reading Margaret Mead was big for me. You know, after Coming of Age in Samoa, I was hooked. As a person who identifies as queer, I realized after reading her work that the white suburb where I was living was not necessarily the normal lifestyle and that I could be different. My self identity and my interest in anthro[pology] and ethnography were intertwined from the beginning.

Your book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America was one of the first, if not the first, ethnographic studies of the drag community in America. How have TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race influenced the perception of the drag community in this country, and where do you see these perceptions going now?

One big thing is that it has opened up work for drag queens. That’s a good thing. Especially in films. In the past these parts tend to be taken by straight guys. It’s become a much more mainstream form of entertainment. When I was studying it, it was much more underground, with one foot in prostitution and the other foot in theater. I am happy [RuPaul] has exposed this community more. One of the ways drag has changed is that it’s been elaborated more by people in the performance world than people in the art world. I love that kind of drag more. The RuPaul drag is really the traditional lip-syncing kind of drag, and I like that, but what I like more is more inventive, like Peggy Shaw with Menopausal Gentleman and [drag cabaret duo] Kiki and Herb. They’ve all done amazing work, and they’ve taken drag to new places, in my opinion. John Cameron Mitchell with Hedwig and the Angry Inch is another great example. So yes, I absolutely appreciate what people like RuPaul are doing, but also [I appreciate] the work of many others to show the world this very legitimate form of art.

How can younger people help convince the older generations that marriage equality is a truly important issue? We saw good results in this past election cycle, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

I think that it’s already happening. You know that gay marriage was legalized in Maine, and yesterday there was a picture of a guy from Maine, really working class and gruff, with his daughter. It was a story in the New York Times that talked about how she talked him into supporting marriage equality. He was very honest and said something like, “I still am kind of uncomfortable with the whole [thing], but I went to my gay nephew’s wedding, and that was very nice. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to be happy?” More and more straight people, even of the older [generation] will realize that we’re human beings. It becomes much harder when you realize they are really different. Right now the movement is trying to convince straight people that we’re the same, which is good, but people also need to realize that we’re very different. I fear what’s going to happen is that the gay people who act more mainstream and closer to straight people will be accepted, and those who are truly different, you know, the drag community, leathers, the butch lesbians, those [who] symbolize the difference, will be marginalized more. We’ll be left behind and pushed out even by the more straight-oriented gays. Now that’s the worst possible outcome. It can be avoided, but those of us who are more different have to speak up and insist that we’re here, and we’re queer, [so] get used to it. We can’t afford for anyone in this big community to be left behind.

You have a new book coming out sometime in the near future. Can you tell us about this book? Is it meant to be an autobiography? Why did you decide to write it?

Yes, it is meant to be an autobiography. I wrote it because I wanted to be the heroine of my own life. I want to insist that I’ve had a very interesting and meaningful life, and I’m confident enough to share that with people. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Part of why I went into academia was so people would pay me to write. My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all writers. I’ve always kept journals and, actually, they are now serving as the basis for a lot of this upcoming book. In some periods, the journals were more fieldwork, other times more personal, but I kept a pretty intensive journal from about 1970–1989 when I started using computers and e-mail a lot more. This book might go up to 1980, and then I’ll write a second one.