Packing the room for Esther Newton

Amber Hollibaugh, Esther Newton, and Jean Carlomusto
Amber Hollibaugh, Esther Newton, and Jean Carlomusto participate in a panel discussion as part of a screening of “Esther Newton Made Me Gay.”
Donna Aceto

A multi-generational crowd packed the screening room at The Center October 21 for the NewFest screening of “Esther Newton Made Me Gay” (2022), Jean Carlomusto’s documentary about the life and times of Esther Newton, the lesbian anthropologist who pioneered the field of queer studies when the subject didn’t exist.

Academics, literary lesbians, artists, activists, friends, and fans filled the room until it overflowed, many wearing “Esther Newton Made Me Gay” T-shirts; more chairs were brought in to accommodate everyone at the sold-out event, which was followed by a talk from Newton herself, along with director Carlomusto, Amber Hollibaugh (lesbian writer, filmmaker and activist, and Newton’s former partner, who is featured in the film) and producer Shanti Avirgan.

Carlomusto’s film recounts Newton’s life and work, from her birth in New York City in the 1940s, through her California adolescence, to her studies at the University of Michigan and later the University of Chicago, where her graduate work in anthropology led to a dissertation on drag queens, eventually published as “Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America” (1972).

Newton’s work brought anthropology home, literally, and expanded the field’s area of study from faraway places to people and cultures that are the ones we live in and that are around us. LGBTQ Studies and Queer Studies didn’t exist until Newton and other pioneering social scientists named and began to work in them. Newton’s longtime colleagues and former students had a major presence at the screening.

Afterwards, the panelists talked about the film and Newton’s work, and took questions from the audience.

“What did you learn about yourself from the film?” one viewer asked Newton.

“That’s a hard question,” she replied. “I think it confirms my profound belief in the importance of our history, and how important it is to convey to younger generations what those of us who have lived through experienced earlier. I think we should be responsible for starting intergenerational communication and spaces.”

“What I love about you, Esther,” added Carlomusto, “is that I see this kind of open conversation of ideas wherever you are. I’ve been listening to you make this happen for years.”

“Who is the ‘me’ in ‘Esther Newton Made Me Gay’?” another person asked.

“That’s a variation on Esther’s book, ‘Margaret Mead Made Me Gay,” Carlomusto replied. “’Me’ is not fixed. Hopefully she made YOU queer.”

Newton’s students first made her the T-shirt years ago. Lesbian activist and writer Laurie Arbeiter made the T-shirts for the film, and people rushed to her table at the back of the room to buy them.

A young woman stood up to both thank Newton and to ask her: “How did you stay so strong and even and loving?”

“Well, it’s a selective narrative,” Newton replied to a gale of laughter. “I have been dejected and pissed off and sulking,” and she thanked colleagues and partners she’s worked with for helping her along the way.

“Esther has been strategic,” Hollibaugh said. “And she has partners who help her in finding support ad love to be who she is. It wasn’t easy, and I think of the things Esther is good at is listening to the people who love her.”

Esther Newton Made Me Gay,” a film by Jean Carlomusto | Produced and directed by Jean Carlomusto; produced by Shanti Avirgan

Amber Hollibaugh and Esther Newton reminisce.
Amber Hollibaugh and Esther Newton reminisce.Donna Aceto
Jackie Rudin shows off her Laurie Arbeiter shirt.Donna Aceto
Julie DeLaurier, Jill Kirchen, Kim Miller, and Alexandra Woods.
Julie DeLaurier, Jill Kirchen, Kim Miller, and Alexandra Woods.Donna Aceto
Another activist, Valarie Walker, shares a moment with Esther Newton.
Another activist, Valarie Walker, shares a moment with Esther Newton.Donna Aceto
Alexis Danzig is all smiles for the screening.Donna Aceto
Barbara Schulman and Cynthia Rothschild.
Barbara Schulman and Cynthia Rothschild.Donna Aceto
Filmmaker and director Jean Carlomusto delivers remarks.Donna Aceto