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Professor Reflects on Career, Human Rights

Q&A With John D. Ibson, Professor of American Studies

June 24, 2013

Human rights has been at the forefront of American studies professor John D. Ibson’s teaching and research for the more than 40 years he has taught on campus. During his tenure, he’s also championed gay rights issues and he helped create Cal State Fullerton’s queer studies minor.
For his efforts in pursuing progress and equality, Ibson recently received the inaugural Harvey Milk Day “Hope Is Never Silent Award” from The Center OC and the “Courage and Vision Award” from the Orange County Equality Coalition.

“Professor Ibson has consistently served as a guiding light for justice and equity on our campus and in our community,” said Karyl E. Ketchum, assistant professor of women and gender studies. “One need only talk to his students to see what a profound effect his thinking and pedagogy continues to have.”
Ibson, 69 of Claremont, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Davis and a master’s degree and doctorate in history of American civilization from Brandeis University. He is the author of “Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography” (University of Chicago Press, 2006), and he is completing a related book, tentatively titled “The Mourning After: Putting Space between Men in 1950s America.”

Q: What findings are you making in your latest research for your upcoming book on 1950s masculinity?

A: My evidence is diverse — thousands of snapshots of men together, as well as novels, plays, films, television shows, personal correspondence, diaries, interviews I’ve conducted, published and unpublished memoirs and other male memorabilia. Researching the book has taken me all over the country, for interviews and to consult archival material not yet online. My primary focus is the quality of men’s various relationships with each other, documenting and explaining a distinct distancing that I believe emerged in some unprecedented ways in the years after the second World War, a sense of longing and loss and a fear of intimacy that still bedevils many American males more than a half-century later.

Q: You recently received two awards for your work in the LGBT community. Why is this work important?

A: I’ve been involved in a number of activities over the past decades. Most recently, along with Karyl Ketchum and Kris Beals (psychology), I was very active in getting CSUF’s new queer studies minor established. Much longer ago, I took some prominent public stands that now seem pretty mild but, in the context of their times, took a bit of boldness. In 1978, for instance, I was a vocal opponent of Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative that if successful, would have banned any LGBT person from public school teaching in California. In fact, any person known to be a supporter of LGBT persons would be at risk.
During the 1990s, I was Cal State Fullerton’s representative to the statewide group that worked successfully at getting benefits for same-sex partners and spouses of CSU faculty members. And, for several years during the 90s, I was faculty adviser to the LGBT Student Association.
When I joined the Fullerton faculty in 1972, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Homosexual activity, even between consenting adults in private, was illegal in California. It wasn’t easy to be bold or to be without personal conflicts in those days, and I definitely wasn’t bold or without inner turmoil in my very early days on this campus. But, after I’d been here only five years, I met my husband, Steve. I became a happier person right away, and gradually became more at ease and open about being gay.

Q: What and why do you teach your students about tolerance?

A: What I teach is also why I teach: All bigotry has two victims, the target and the holder. Everyone is worse off with it, better off without it. Prejudice is an equal-opportunity malady: given a certain setting, we’re all capable of being its holder or its target. It brings misery to its target, as we know, yet inflicting it on others reflects some sort of dysfunction — some misery — in the inflictor as well. Diminishing prejudice, and recognizing and understanding its complex origins, purposes and history, takes work and honesty. I’m a teacher and a scholar, not an activist or a politician. My classroom functions primarily as a place of inquiry, not advocacy. My course, Prejudice in America, is the one class that I’d like to think has a specific “how-to” dimension to it. In that class, especially, I recall the words of the great British cultural critic Raymond Williams: “The human crisis is always a crisis of understanding. What we genuinely understand, we can do.”

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

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