Joel Dorius's Papers & Memoirs
Dr. Joel Dorius
given by Joel Dorius via videotape at Smith College
on civil rights, "Homeland Insecurity," January
From the days of my earliest
part-time teaching at the University of Utah in
1939, I have long known that I was a man born to teach. I loved
the reciprocity of the experience, the perpetual give and take.
Without this profession, I have long felt that I couldnt have
validated or given meaning to my life. After having taught young
men at Harvard and Yale in the Forties and Fifties, however, I feared
even after two years at Smith that I was less effective in teaching
young women. They were then far quieter and spoke much less in class.
But after talking with several students and taking a walk along
Paradise Pond with Jane Yolen - one of your best and most prolific
writers, I began to see how responsive and deeply involved the young
women were. Their subtle and well-written term essays confirmed
this impression. And it has been further confirmed by the extraordinary
letters - with remembered quotations from me - Ive since received
from women now distinguished in their professions, including Janet
Adelman and Lynn Hecht Schafran. Before the beginning of my third
year at Smith, I gave a party to celebrate my feeling at last that
this college was my home. But as classes were about to begin, I
was made a horrendous example: I was tried and fired.
Although I have always been a very private person,
in early September of 1960, I was caught in the center of a moral
hurricane. While vacationing on the Cape, I read in The New York
Times that my colleagues, Newton Arvin and Ned Spofford, had
been arrested for possessing so-called "pornographic
photos. I soon heard on the radio that there was a warrant out for
my arrest. Fearing the worst, I immediately left for Cambridge,
where a friend had already arranged for an excellent lawyer to meet
me. William Homans then told me about Sergeant John Regan, a ruthless
and publicity-seeking officer who led the Pornography Squad. A police
unit with unlimited powers, this posse had recently been established
by the state legislature in response to an alert triggered by the
countrys Postmaster General. Regan vowed in the media and
in public speeches to cleanse the Commonwealth of what he considered
"filth. Like his fellow crusaders, Regan of course couldnt
define "pornography, but, as he said, he knew it when
he saw it. The Post Office in Springfield had somehow spotted suspicious
photos in a package addressed to Arvin. Very soon, the spirit of
old Salem was resurrected in Northampton and the righteous were
once again out to get sinners.
Within three weeks, I was tried twice before two judges
in the county courthouse. At the first trial, I was astonished to
see my colleague, Arvin, testifying against me. Arvin, terrified
when the police had confronted him in his apartment, then "ratted,
as Lillian Hellman said, betraying several of his friends by giving
their names to the Squad. He testified that, not long before, four
colleagues shared with him some photos of male nudes one night in
his apartment. This sharing was our dastardly deed, the unspeakable
act from which all else followed. Our names had now become associated
with what were, for many, two of the most odious words of the day
- "homosexuality and "pornography. Thus convicted
of possessing questionable photos (photos that today would seem
tame indeed), I was designated a felon (akin to manslaughter), and
given a fine with a suspended jail sentence. "Possession and
distribution was the charge against us. "Distribution,
according to the legal definition at the time, could mean simply
one mans sharing a photo with another.
Shortly after they had heard of our arrests, the Smith
faculty, led by Helen Bacon and a few other brave liberals, voted
to keep Ned and me. But their decision was flatly overruled by the
Board of Trustees. Prominent on the Smith board were influential
members of the "moral majority - a term then used to
describe severely moralistic conservatives.
Having known Smiths President, Tom Mendenhall,
at Yale, I suspected that he too would acquiesce in the Boards
decision. Indeed, my lawyer told me that when the Trustees were
determining our fates, Mendenhall, to Homans total dismay,
didnt speak a word in our defense. Meanwhile, a tireless group
of friends from both Smith and Yale, led by Robert Petersson and
Martin Price, raised the funds that enabled us to pay our ever-increasing
I think that our scandal was among the lowest points
in Smiths history. I did not then know that the Smith case
was one of the last spasms of the McCarthy period, in which men
and women of good will were blacklisted as Communists or left-leaning
citizens, almost as bad. Pornography and homosexuality were considered
by some to be graver threats to the republic than Communism.
This purging of deviants in Northampton - reported
with wild exaggerations from coast to coast - may now seem incredible
to you. But as the press and TV remind us daily, America is periodically
overwhelmed by waves of righteousness, in which the self-styled
"good and "patriotic declare war on what they
regard as "evil, "alien or "un-American.
Now, as Cheney, Ashcroft, and Bush try to discipline the country
through threats of terrorism and war, I fear the loss of our liberties
on a much larger scale.
When I was at Smith in the late Fifties, the concept
of civil rights for lesbians and gays was inconceivable. These undesirables
had no civil rights. The college, like the rest of the country,
was still frightened into silence by the echoing thunder of the
McCarthy-like attacks. Even some liberals at Smith didnt think
that a case like ours could possibly be won. Overwhelmed by the
tabloid accounts, I too at times wondered whether our "crimes,
as publicized, had been too offensive and outrageous to be tolerated,
much less defended, by reasonable citizens.
* * *
The lives of those of us who are outside what is considered
to be the sexual "norm have often since childhood been
deeply troubled. If we are later confronted by other major challenges
to our sexual identities, as I was, we can be rocked to our foundations.
Having been labeled a felon by the courts, I felt after my trials
that I was persona non grata, rejected in my profession as
a teacher and declared a criminal before the law. Indeed, I felt
like an outlaw in my own country. For years following my arrest,
I often felt (and possibly behaved) like an escaped convict. Only
my dearest friends knew what had really happened. Everyone else
only knew of the absurdly inaccurate reports in the media. Pornographic
Profs made for a juicy story, and for a while this tale was even
reported in Europe.
In December 1960, feeling dazed and disoriented, I
left Smith and the old Victorian on Crescent Street, an elegant
apartment the police described as being filled with "obscene
art. Actually, they were referring to several reproductions
of ancient Etruscan frescoes. Afterward, I hid at the "safe
houses of friends in Cambridge and New Haven, staying just
blocks from where I had once lived. Although I had lived in both
cities as student and teacher for a total of sixteen years, I now
probably acted as though I truly were a menace to society. Furthermore,
having had a weak back since childhood, I now began to stoop markedly,
and I wore a large hat that didnt quite conceal my dour face.
The few former students I ran into seemed embarrassed to see me.
I realized the oddity of my behavior, but it was demeaning either
to explain or apologize. The gulf between the man and public image
was too great.
For the next few months, I worked at the Grolier Publishing
Company in New York, where I found that everyone had heard my story.
During this time, my personal life became yet more precarious. My
partner of four years suffered several nearly fatal attacks of epilepsy,
doubtless exacerbated by my own plight. Helpless before the prospect
of the death of my closest friend, I collapsed. The next day, I
was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where I endured three weeks
of stern psychotherapy. One Freudian therapist told me that I had
suffered "social death, and I felt that he was right.
Soon after my discharge, a poet friend offered me his apartment
near the Met. Even though I was now surrounded by the art and music
I had always loved, I could do nothing but wander through the city,
especially Central Park, and read The Times. I had apparently
lost the self that had once loved Bach and Shakespeare. My senses
were deadened. As a gay man, I had long lived with guilt - inevitable
for someone with my strict Mormon background. Now, after all these
years, though deeply closeted, I had finally been exposed.
With the help of my Harvard mentor, Harry Levin, I
was then offered a position for two years as a guest professor at
the University of Hamburg, Germany. Within three months I was on
a plane for Europe. It was a tremendous relief to be out of the
country in which I might have gone to jail. Although they too had
heard the Smith story, my German colleagues only laughed at American
After almost four years, in 1964, the Massachusetts
Supreme Court finally acquitted me. The warrant used to break into
my apartment was proved to be invalid, and thus I won on a technicality.
But no court in the land would then acquit anyone associated with
pornography (however innocuous) or homosexuality (however discreet).
Under the law, penises in books or magazines had to be concealed
by fig leaves or "draped, as the euphemistic expression
was. My release by the court was never reported in the media and
never acknowledged by Smith. The college had at once buried the
case, and now it offered no reparations and no apology.
While I was still teaching in Hamburg, Smiths
Elizabeth Drew wrote Caroline Shrodes at San Francisco State University,
among other schools, detailing my situation. Almost immediately,
I was telephoned and then hired by this gallant lesbian, sight unseen.
She and I became lifelong friends. Since my acquittal, this was
the only job offer I had received in the U.S. My position in San
Francisco, where I subsequently taught for the next seventeen years,
proved to be a lifesaver. And with the invigorating experience of
several trips to my beloved Italy, where I could pursue my hobbies
in Renaissance Art and Architecture, I could now for extended periods
forget the cloud I had been living under - a cloud that I could
never fully dispel. I continued to feel that even my acquittal could
not erase my blackened reputation. For years after my arrest, I
was haunted by the fallen Cassios speech in Othello: "I
have lost my reputation! ...I have lost the immortal part of myself
and what remains is bestial.
* * *
As early as 1948, Alfred Kinsey, in his landmark
studies, had made us aware of the actual sexual behavior of men
and women in America. The most famous of his findings, which shocked
the nation, documented the extraordinary number of males and females
who had engaged in repeated same-sex experiences. And yet, during
most of my life, moralizers spoke as though Kinsey and other responsible
researchers had never written. Fundamentalists have never permitted
facts to alter their convictions. Those of us who occupy varying
positions on Kinseys sexual scale - lesbians, gays, bisexuals,
transsexuals, and so on - are still confronted in much of America
by heterosexual denigration and scorn.
Why should the prohibitions against sexual behavior
today be dictated by the cruel Deuteronomic laws of a small desert
culture that lived hundreds of years BCE? Most of the extreme prohibitions
in the Old Testaments Deuteronomy we now reject or
laugh at, regarding them as uninformed prejudices of early peoples.
But fundamentalists continue to employ archaic sexual laws to justify
their fears, even though these man-made strictures contradict everything
we have learned about the natural world. The variety and richness
of sexual activity in the animal kingdom, of which we are a part,
seem inexhaustible. My favorite example is the bonobo monkey, whose
motto seems to be "Make love, not war. No so-called "missionary
positions are prescribed by the laws of nature. We know, of course,
that the basic family unit - man, woman and child - is central to
human culture and has guaranteed the survival of the species. But
in the eyes of gays and lesbians, this secular trinity has become
a "tyranny of the family. All other human relationships
have been officially forbidden. Many of us have suffered under this
church- or state-sanctioned interpretation of "family values
and the assumption of its believers that they are morally superior.
Why cannot enduring same-sex relationships be protected under religious
and civil law? Sound out your representatives in Congress for their
* * *
In recent years, gays and lesbians - for the first
time in centuries - have been able to make themselves seen and heard.
Since the Seventies, I have rejoiced in the opportunity to view
and review many of the best gay films as they have become available
on TV and videotape. Unfortunately, however, the long history of
our minority on film has been grim. The demeaning cinematic stereotypes
applied to gays since the silent era are made painfully clear in
The Celluloid Closet, narrated by the versatile Lily Tomlin
and illustrated by powerful film clips. This documentary groups
negative gay characters into several categories - among them, the
sissy, the comic, the victim, and the criminal. I recently studied
again this superb documentary and I urge everyone to watch it carefully
to see how far weve come, and also how far we have yet to
I am saddened by the hostility and contempt with which
gay characters - both men and women - have for decades been labeled
and vilified. Because of censorship, gay characters in fiction when
adapted to the screen are usually transformed into alcoholics, misfits
or other doomed eccentrics. In the early days, there were exceptions:
the glamorous Marlene Dietrich in Morocco and the luminous
Greta Garbo in Queen Christina offered us superb examples
of bisexual behavior. Frequently, a characters sexual identity
was completely ignored. Shirley MacLaine admitted that during the
filming of The Childrens Hour, she, Audrey Hepburn
and the director never once discussed the lesbianism of the characters
they were tragically portraying.
Fortunately, since the Seventies, many films have
transcended these stereotypes. A recent docudrama of the Nineties,
Serving in Silence, tells the true-life story of Colonel
Margarethe Cammermayer, the highest-ranking military officer ever
to be court-marshaled because she admitted that she was a lesbian.
Played by the handsome Glenn Close, Cammermayer chooses to remain
with her artist lover, Judy Davis, instead of continuing her service
in the military, in which she had vainly sought further advancement.
Although her fellow officers view her sexuality as "worse than
murder, she insists that her lesbianism is not what she does
but who she is. Glenn Closes brave public defense of her sexuality
in this film and Peter Finchs modest defense of his own in
Sunday Bloody Sunday are two of the most eloquent assertions
of self by gay characters that I know.
Toward the end of The Celluloid Closet, the
bold and articulate Susan Sarandon talks about films which she saved
from banality and hypocrisy by insisting on including scenes of
physical intimacy between women that would otherwise have been cut,
as in The Hunger and Thelma and Louise. Finally, among
several other sophisticated movies, Desert Hearts - based
on the novel by the gay icon, Jane Rule - explores a growing lesbian
relationship movingly and candidly.
Ironically, the plague of AIDS has enabled audiences
to see gay men, women and their friends and lovers not only as victims
but also as heroes. Finally, I have greatly admired The Vagina
Monologues, recently shown on HBO. Early in the film, Eve Ensler
points out that many women dont like their vaginas. But they
should know that many men also dont like their penises - at
least in repose. Indeed, men are so self-conscious about their genitals
that, even when dressed, they feel obliged to cover them with a
hand or other object. But with this observation, I have come full
circle. In 1960, I was punished and made notorious for daring to
look at mere pictures of this forbidden part of the body, thus breaking
an ancient taboo.
* * *
Although long subservient to dominating and aggressive
males, women of all persuasions in recent decades - far more than
men - seem willing to stand up for the powerless and dispossessed.
In considering the make-up of our Congress, Im immensely proud
of California's two female Senators. As women have entered the major
professions in ever-greater numbers, we have seen that they have
given voice to millions of marginal human beings who have had no
one else to speak for them. Indeed, women today outnumber men in
admission to graduate schools in most major professions.
I have been astonished to learn in recent years more
about the inventive lifestyles of the citizens of your Pioneer Valley.
They have given new meaning to the word, "pioneer - new
freedoms that the patriarchal pioneers of the nineteenth century
could never have imagined. What other college in the land would
publicly acknowledge an outrageous miscarriage of justice that took
place nearly half a century ago?
* * *
I would like to thank everyone responsible for this
remarkable occasion. Barry Werths book on Newton Arvin, The
Scarlet Professor, - and his subsequent plea at Smith for recognition
of those fired - sparked this event. A devoted group of civil libertarians
on the Smith faculty - Dan Horowitz, Marilyn Schuster, John Davis
and others whose names I don't know - joined by the Northampton
Human Rights Commission and the Daily Gazette, have collaborated
in an attempt to awaken the present Trustees to action. Our firing
doubtless resulted from the Trustees desire in 1961 to maintain
Smiths reputation as a "bastion of moral integrity,
as they interpreted these words in that dark time. But with their
sexual prejudices, what on earth would they have thought of this
conference today? The present Trustees, in a guarded mood - acknowledging
no responsibility for the decisions of the earlier Board - granted
at least enough money to the faculty for the subsidizing of this
meeting. Of course, we must not expect the impossible. Trustees
never apologize nor make reparations. But the dedication of the
current faculty has transcended their cautiousness.
Having lived in the shadow of my disgrace for decades,
I can scarcely believe that my name is at last being officially
"cleared. Not long ago, I was, as a gay man, considered
a member of a criminal minority, punished savagely for an event
that today seems trivial. Smiths public gesture this week
has had both psychological and physical ramifications for me. My
mental state and the severity of my spinal infirmity were both undoubtedly
worsened by my tragedy at Smith. But thanks to this conference,
I feel that my burden is now somewhat lighter.
I am grateful that Smiths faculty and students
have created this superb forum. At 84 - more than twice
the age of the teacher who was publicly shamed
- I salute all of those here today who had the courage to set
rights a long-buried wrong. Despite the fearsome challenges to
personal liberties in the nation today, I hope that all of you
may live to
see greater freedoms ahead.
For a more detailed discussion
of the Smith scandal,
9: Crisis in my memoir.