Pioneering Queer History at FAU - An Interview with Fred Fejes

  • This story is for OutFAU, our student publication covering Florida Atlantic University. To see more from OutFAU click here.

Fred Fejes. Photo credit. Carina Mask.

Fred Fejes has seen it all before. The longtime FAU queer studies professor sat down with OutFAU for an in depth interview about his career, time in academia and how the past has become the present again in terms of LGBTQ+ rights.

Fejes, 73, is a well known queer historian in Florida. He’s the author of several books, including “Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America's Debate on Homosexuality” published in 2008. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Roy F. Aarons Award for contributions to education and research on issues affecting the LGBTQ community. He also directed the oral history project "Generations: An Oral History of the South Florida Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community.”

“He just is a storehouse of knowledge. Just incredible. And I've learned so much from him, working with him,” said Rick Karlin, who is working on a book with Fejes about the history of gay bars in South Florida. “He's kind of like your quintessential college professor, where he's so focused on his history stuff, human rights. He's like the Indiana Jones of queer history.”

Fejes may not carry a whip or wear a fedora, but in the realm of queer history, he’s just as adventurous and captivating.

One former student Derek Vaughn fondly remembers taking Fejes’ class.

“I felt like Fejes worked hard to make our classroom feel like a learning community. He was really great with using pop culture and hitting LGBTQ studies from different angles to cover as much ground as possible,” he said.

Fejes is no longer teaching classes but remains a part of the faculty as a professor emeritus.

He describes his childhood growing up in the late 60s and early 70s as shaping his approach to education and activism.

“A lot of it about the War and Vietnam and a lot of it about civil rights and, and I got involved in a lot of stuff,” he said. “And I wanted to sort of carry through that kind of activism into being a professor. In fact, one of the reasons why I chose being a professor was that, that was a venue, I thought that I could carry force. You know, this kind of political activism.”

Fejes didn’t start out wanting to specialize in queer history. Fejes was working on his PhD in Communications Research at the University of Illinois, with his dissertation focusing on Latin America.

“It was at a time when the whole field of communication research was just being developed, and it was very interdisciplinary,” Fejes said. “What I did was cultural studies, but that has a very heavy sociological kind of component and also has a very strong historical component, and it also has a very strong literary component. I would say I got an incredibly good interdisciplinary education.”

His first book was about the use of shortwave radio broadcasting in American foreign policy.

“My interest was looking at the United States acting as an imperial power, sort of like shaping the communications media in Latin America,” he said.

But then he came out as a gay man in 1982.

“I began to change my focus. And it was really at a time when there was a lot more interest in queer stuff, but really, the early 1980s was a period when gay studies first became a kind of area of interest and activity. Because prior to that, if you were openly gay, and you taught at a university, you would have gotten fired.”

Fejes reminisces on when he first began teaching about queer studies at FAU. He offered his first class in queer studies called “Sexuality in the Media” in 1987.

“It was an interesting class. I had maybe about seven, eight people taking the class. And all the people were people who were lesbian and gay themselves, or who were just coming out,” Fejes said.

Fejes said that due to the climate of LGBTQ+ acceptance in the eighties, his students took steps to keep their participation in the class under the radar.

“And some of the people said that they wanted to take the class, but they wanted to take it as an independent study, because they didn't want that class listed in their transcript. They wanted to stay in the closet, and that was a common experience for many of the students who took my classes in the mid '80s.”

His FAU colleagues describe him as a trailblazer.

Barclay Barrios, a Professor of English and the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies for the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, worked in the same department as Fejes.

“For FAU he was really a trailblazer,” Barrios said. “Fred was one of the first queer faculty members I met or one of the first I realized was queer. His outness made a difference. He was an important figure for queerness at FAU from as far back as I can remember.”

But Barrios’ admiration for Fejes goes deeper than just professional.

“Fred was personally inspirational and aspirational,” he said, “He showed me the kind of career I could have.”

Nicole Morse, an assistant professor of multimedia studies and the former Director of the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, echoed those sentiments.

“He’s wonderful! Fred is an incredible trailblazer at FAU and really made it possible for scholarship and teaching in LGBTQ studies to be taken seriously,” Morse said. “Students describe him as transformative.”

Later, after Fejes stopped teaching the class, Vaughn actually taught it as a teacher’s assistant.

“I didn’t realize I would be teaching that same class later in graduate school,” he said.

Vaughn, who has a masters in women, gender, and sexuality studies, is now working towards becoming a psychotherapist.

“We certainly covered a lot of ground in class. And while I’m now taking the route of becoming a psychotherapist, that systemic foundation I learned started to cultivate in his class will only help me better address LGBTQ persons with different life experiences than my own,” he said. “Having that systems background is starting to become in vogue in the therapy world and it’s certainly given me an edge in my program."

The push for LGBTQ+ equality may have famously started with the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 but Fejes noted one of the first major battles occurred in South Florida in 1977.

That battle started when Miami-Dade County passed an ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Anita Bryant, a singer and spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission at the time, opposed the ordinance and launched a campaign, "Save Our Children," to repeal it – and won.

“That was really the first major national debate we had in this country about gay rights,” he said. “This was the first kind of debate that appeared in newspapers and on television across the country, about gay rights.”

That visibility, he said, helped other cities pass LGBTQ rights laws.

While some people in Florida today may be shocked at Gov. Ron DeSantis’s culture wars and attack on the queer community, Fejes explained the state has a long history of LGBTQ+ discrimination.

Decades before the Bryant campaign, Fejes said, Miami attempted to close down gay bars in 1954.

“It was just a really classic kind of moral panic where they got everybody really upset,” he said. “There was a lot of publicity. The end result is they didn't close down the bars because those bars just kept on opening up. But it was an important event in terms of South Florida gay history.”

Fejes says that he moved to Florida from Illinois to begin teaching at FAU when he was 35.

“And so I came down here and okay, I'll teach and do research, but also go to the bars and live my life as a gay man down here,” Fejes said.

Fejes said as a man in his early 70s, he’s dealt with growing older and the ways that society treats him differently in both positive and negative ways.

“As an older man, I'd really like to sort of explore the whole notion of how our sense of sexuality and gender changes as we get older, and to understand how our position as a sexual person and as a gendered person changes as we get older, and how that fits into society,” Fejes said.

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This story originally appeared in the March edition of OutFAU. Derek Vaughn’s name was misspelled in the print version, but was corrected for the online version. We regret the error.


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