Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

De Cecco papers go to historical society


John De Cecco. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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The work of respected psychologist and scholar John De Cecco will be honored next week at the Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Transgender Historical Society.

Entitled the "John Paul De Cecco Papers," the extensive collection, donated by De Cecco in June 2001, chronicles decades of LGBT-related research, which he and his colleagues conducted at San Francisco State University, where he was hired as a psychology professor in 1960; his involvement with the Center for Homosexual Education, Evaluation and Research; the Center for Research and Education in Sexuality, which he launched in the 1970s; and his work with the Journal of Homosexuality , which he has headed since 1977.

These historical artifacts, which contain hundreds of sex-related surveys, interviews, and in-depth research files from the late 1970s and early 1980s, offer comprehensive data on a broad range of topics from homosexual couples and lesbians over 60 to gay discrimination and male-male sexual assault from an era when mainstream psychiatric literature still described homosexuality as deviant behavior or mental illness.

"There really wasn't a sense of gay community or identity until the last half of the century," De Cecco said. "These papers are part of that story and give a record of what gay identity meant in the period collected."

Inspired by the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s, De Cecco's work also documents many of his professional milestones, such as co-founding and directing SFSU's program in human sexual studies in 1981, his groundbreaking Variations in Human Sexuality course, and numerous awards.

But the work also sheds light on the many obstacles De Cecco faced as he attempted to redefine societal norms.

In 1990 the administration at San Francisco State tried to shut down a section of his Variations in Human Sexuality course dealing with male-male rape. That same year he was blasted by religious fundamentalists and right-wing political groups for publishing a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality on male inter-generational intimacy. There were also those who took issue with the generous funding De Cecco received from the federal government for his research projects.

"It was the first time that the federal government had funded a project where gay people were being studied as gay people and not as pathological beings," he said.  "Getting money, we became a target for people who didn't accept the fact that we were studying gay people as people without presuming they were ill and with the presumption that it was because society was unwilling to change their beliefs."

Even today at 80, De Cecco, who continues as editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, remains a magnet for controversy, recently criticized for publishing an essay, contributed by psychologist Bruce Rind, about inter-generational sexual relationships. "Religious lobbies don't want this published or even investigated," he said.  "People are in denial of the less acceptable."

Terence Kissack, the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society who welcomes De Cecco's studies of sexuality, feels differently.

"It's important to treat sex as a serious subject of critical inquiry – that we give it some scrutiny," he said. "It is an issue we all grapple with on a personal, epidemiological, social, and cultural level. We need to get beyond the assumptions and clichés. We have to respect what we find and use it thoughtfully."

Kissack also hopes that researchers treat this information as a foundation for future investigation. "For scholars who want to understand, they are well served to refer to the materials not only for continued scholarship, but also for an understanding of self and belonging to a time and place."

Kissack is excited to honor De Cecco and his work, along with notable sexpert Carol Queen and many of the psychologist's former colleagues.

"His work has influenced thousands. He's a real San Franciscan who's helped make the city what it is today," Kissack said.

Times have sure changed since De Cecco began researching gay sexuality in the 1970s, most notably, with gay marriage bills and films like Brokeback Mountain, which the psychologist regards as evidence of a new, more expansive redefinition of the way gender is related to sexuality.

"People are much more accepting of how sexuality fits into people's lives. The collection of papers show at least a part of that transition, occurring from the 1970s until today," De Cecco said. "Although most of the papers documented the end of the 20th century, they certainly lay the foundation for what's happening today. By creating a gay identity, we've shown the importance of coming to our own understanding. We don't just come out of the atmosphere."

"De Cecco: A Lifetime of Sexuality Research" opening reception, followed by guided tours of the archives, takes place at the GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission Street, Suite 300, Thursday, February 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. There is no charge for the event.

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