Queer History at Yale: John Boswell–Not a Tame Lion

Four panelists engaged in discussion at the front of the Humanities Quadrangle lecture hall. From left to right the panelists are Dean Kathryn Lofton (Yale), George Chauncey (Columbia University), director Craig Bettendorf, and Hussein Fancy (Yale).
Mikhail Moosa

Filmmaker Craig Bettendorf first heard of John Boswell, an openly gay Yale professor and a pioneer of LGBTQ studies, from an unlikely source: an evangelical Christian talk show. A historian of medieval Christianity, much to the chagrin of the host, had published a book claiming that for centuries the church had tolerated, accepted, and even celebrated gay men. The book was John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), a revolutionary study of the church’s shifting attitudes towards same-sex relationships from the dawn of the Christian Era to the fourteenth century.

Now, forty years later, Bettendorf has brought Boswell’s story back to Yale.

Family, friends, and colleagues of Boswell—along with a new generation of students—gathered last week for a screening of Not a Tame Lion (2023), Bettendorf’s documentary on the life and legacy of Boswell. Hosted by the Whitney Humanities Center, the film and post-screening discussion commemorated a remarkable Yale scholar.

Boswell was undoubtedly brilliant: a full professor at Yale by thirty-five, a polymath who spoke and read more than a dozen languages, winner of teaching and National Book awards, and a scholar whose work uncovered the long history of queer tolerance and acceptance within Christianity.

But John Boswell—Jeb, to those who knew him well—was above all a man of faith, one who embraced his homosexuality in an era of outright bigotry in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet testament to his levity, perhaps the achievement that he was most proud of, more than any of his numerous accolades, was a Valentine’s Day Award from the Yale Daily News declaring him the professor with the greatest sex appeal. A wildly popular teacher, chair of the History department, and A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History, Boswell died in 1994, aged forty-seven, due to AIDS-related complications.

Beyond his time at Yale, Boswell has ascended into something of a saintly figure in queer history, inspiring a generation of queer people to stake a claim for their place in society. Although Boswell was a popular figure on campus, bringing queer history to the heart of Medieval studies, the screening intended to raise awareness of his personal and professional legacies at Yale to a new generation of students.

In the panel discussion, Bettendorf said that the idea for the documentary had been with him for decades: it was not a question of whether Boswell would feature in one of his documentaries, but a question of when and how.

For George Chauncey, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University and one of Boswell’s former students, Boswell’s scholarship spoke to a generation of queer activists campaigning for equal rights and to queer Christians staking a claim to their place in the church. His work showed that the church’s position had changed over time and, importantly, that it could change again in future.

But Boswell’s position was not unassailable. Kathryn Lofton, Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies and FAS Dean of the Humanities at Yale, spoke to the most common critique of his work: that he was a gay man who was devoutly Catholic. At a time when many queer activists perceived the Catholic Church as antithetical to their cause, Boswell occupied the status of an insider and outsider. His legacy, Lofton suggests, lies in showing how one’s faith could be commensurate with one’s sexuality.

Boswell’s scholarship is deeply enmeshed in the religious history of the early Middle Ages, but, like all accomplished historians, his work spoke to fundamental issues of who we think we are and what we think we know. He never lived to see the extension of equal marriage rights in the US, the growing acceptance of queer people in the church, or the flourishing of queer history that he helped to inaugurate.

But he believed profoundly that all these victories, however partial and tenuous, were eminently possible. Not a Tame Lion is both a reminder of the tremendous intellect we have lost and a celebration of a marvelous scholar and friend to many.

Not a Tame Lion (2023), directed by Craig Bettendorf, is now available on YouTube.

Mikhail Moosa is a Ph.D. student in History focused on social, intellectual, and environmental histories of Africa. His research explores the social history of energy and urbanization in twentieth-century Johannesburg.