Randall Sell, ScD, will speak on Thursday, June 8, 2023 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Sell is a Professor at the School of Public Health and Department of Community Health and Prevention, Drexel University. Circulating Now interviewed him about his research and upcoming talk.
Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?
Randall Sell: I am a professor in the Department of Community Health and Prevention at the Drexel School of Public Health. Like most professors, my work involves a mixture of mentoring students, teaching, writing, research, and community service. Fortunately, most of this work allows me to focus on activities that hopefully help sexual and gender minorities, and their communities.
CN: What initially sparked your interest in the History of Medicine? What inspires you in your work?
RS: When I began my career over three decades ago, as a gay man at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I wanted to know more about gay men’s health. Unfortunately, little to nothing was known with confidence about gay men’s health or even the more immediate question of the prevalence of gay men. How to study the health of this population was not obvious. The methods used to investigate health fail when studying populations like gay men which can be rare, stigmatized, and hidden. I consequently began to examine how other people had attempted to overcome these obstacles looking at the works of Hirschfeld, Ellis, Symonds, Davis, Henry, and Kinsey to name a few.
I’m inspired by how far we have come in my lifetime in our understanding of gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people, but I’m also inspired to continue my work by all the questions about these populations that remain unanswered.
CN: What kinds of archival sources have you found most useful in your research and how do they differ from published works?
RS: Queer people have had a long struggle to speak for themselves and about themselves. Materials they managed to publish were often distorted by self-censorship, editors, and others, and only represented a small fraction of their overall body of work. Archival material provides a more detailed and possibly more accurate understanding of these important early voices.
CN: In your upcoming talk, ““We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It”: Struggles and Stories to Be Heard for Today and Tomorrow” you highlight the stories of two individuals, what drew your attention to these two people?
RS: I was drawn to the work of Earl Lind (Ralph Werther) because his books were some of the few works describing homosexuality and gender identity from the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States. But mostly I was drawn to these works because his first book included a “questionnaire on homosexuality” which readers were supposed to fill out and return to the publisher. I was intrigued by this early attempt at trying to study the lives of sexual and gender minorities. However, to my knowledge, the results of the survey were never published, which lead to a search for the third book in the trilogy, The Riddle of the Underworld, which I hoped would contain the results (spoiler, it didn’t).
I was drawn to Allen Bernstein’s work by a simple Google search where I was looking for early uses of the word “Queer” that weren’t derogatory. I turned up a listing for a book titled “Millions of queers, our homo American” by “BERNSTEIN, A” from 1940. The listing was in a “Current List of Medical Literature” published by the Friends of the Army Medical Library and the Medical Library Association, Inc. in 1944. I did not hold out much hope that it was a positive discussion of homosexuality, but the title was intriguing. I happened to have a student working in Washington, DC at the time who was willing to go to the National Library of Medicine to take a look at it. I could not have been more surprised about the contents of the document and the years-long investigation it began for me.
CN: What can contemporary authors learn from the work of these early writers?
RS: That sometimes, despite what everyone around you thinks, your contrarian beliefs might just be right. Also, you may face extreme hardships fighting to express these beliefs. Allen Bernstein, more than 40 years after writing his “Millions of Queers” document, wrote in 1981:
“I believe in the unlimited, miraculous capacity of mankind to advance and change things for the better through the power of reason. Nothing happens simply; there are always multiple causes and effects. Unfortunately, there are always bastards and vandals in the world, and thorns in the roses. It is my religious duty to keep hitting my head against stone walls to push them down, to keep fighting city hall. There is no inevitability about the forces of good or the forces of evil winning.”
Bernstein kept fighting for gay rights until he died at age 95 in 2008. Multiple sources told me about Bernstein’s efforts to change policies to allow gay and lesbian people to openly serve in the military in the 1970s and 80s, to allow the donation of blood by gay men in the 1990s, and his work at a phone bank in the early 2000s calling Maine residents asking them to support same-sex marriage.
Watch on YouTube
Randall Sell’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.