Brace Student Fellow Anna Du ’ 24 Presents “It Was a Pleasure to Watch You Burn: The Development of Queer Censorship in the United States”

Anna Du presents on queer identity through her Brace Student Fellowship.

Delving into the queer identity and experience throughout the twentieth century and into the current world, Anna Du ’24 delivered her Brace Student Fellow Presentation titled “It Was a Pleasure to Burn: The Development of Queer Censorship in the United States” in the School Room of Abbot Hall on January 29. Every year the Brace Center for Gender Studies selects students to conduct research and write a paper on topics associated with gender and sexuality.

Describing the perseverance of queer individuals in the early 1900s, Du spoke on the ways in which the queer community has embraced and celebrated their culture despite prevalent oppression by the government at the time.

“The 1920s was a period that created extreme persecution during the daytime, but also a lot of queer celebrations during the nighttime… the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] (FBI) would frequently call overly queer people social agitators and would look for any excuse to silence, arrest, and even deport LGBTQIA+ individuals. But in spite of this persecution during the daytime, all across cities in the United States were masquerades and drag balls, and dozens of people in Greenwich, New York alone celebrated every single day,” said Du. 

Du continued, narrating how later on, platforms supporting queer culture began to circulate throughout American society. She used queer magazines as an example that spread awareness about the queer community and gave queer people a basis to speak about their rights and beliefs. 

“These magazines provided the members of these organizations as well as their queer audiences

a space where their voices could be heard and where queer stories could be told, amplified, and celebrated. It also served as a platform where non-queer individuals could learn about this community while still hearing them as people. These magazines were the target of assembly laws many times with one notable case reaching the Supreme Court. But in spite of this persecution, they persevered,” said Du.

Cristina Donovan ’24 highlighted Du’s attention to a large span of time and detailed use of primary sources in her research. Donovan also pointed to Du’s organization and speaking as elements that helped make the presentation expressive and fluent. 

“Anna was so wonderful and such an eloquent speaker, and she also did a huge dive of a wide time range on such a complicated topic. [She] beautifully summed it up in the end, introducing the relevance to current events. I really liked how she used videos as primary sources, as that was highly impactful to me and certainly felt to me as a moment of learning,” said Donovan.

During her presentation, Du utilized examples of historical queer rights activists like Sylvia Rivera in connection to current events. Jaylen Daley ’25 noted how hearing the stories of past activists helped emphasize the power of advocacy.

“[Sylvia Rivera’s speech] was very powerful, and it showed an essence that I’ve thought a lot about because there are many people who are here and certainly aren’t willing to give up a lot of the standings or beliefs that have come to them… It gives me hope that this isn’t new, it gives me hope that we have overcome challenges like this before, but it also gives me hope that we have created an environment to… get our word out and have that ability to make a more positive and healthy influence on our culture,” said Daley.

Du’s History 300 teacher, Kit Leckerling, Dean of West Quad North Cluster and Instructor in History, also expressed his respect for Du and her work. Leckerling underscored Du’s dedication to creating a presentation that investigated the past and inspired future efforts.

“Anna did a great job with the entire project, and the strong turnout tonight attests to the urgency of this topic. Anna’s presentation was polished and engaging, documenting the impacts of censorship on [LGBTQIA+] people from the early twentieth century to the present. Anna makes the important point that where you find censorship, you also find resistance and joy, which sustains this and other movements for justice, equity, and human rights,” said Leckerling. 

Commending Du’s initiative in advocating for silenced voices through her paper and presentation, Comfort Halsey, Instructor in Spanish and Du’s Faculty Advisor, commented on the experience of working with Du to help her develop her research and paper.

“It was a pleasure to work with Anna this summer as she shaped her research into a thorough and comprehensive paper. It was clear that Anna wanted to understand contemporary versions of queer censorship within a longer history of LGBTQ[IA]+ activism in the face of campaigns to silence and erase queer voices. It was fitting that Anna ended her excellent presentation with suggestions for what we can do, including reading banned books,” said Halsey. 

Du concluded her presentation with a call for hope, emphasizing that despite the examples of heavy oppression against the queer community, there will always be advocates for change supporting the rights of all people. 

“[With] the issue of censorship going on and with all of the laws that are being put into place, it can feel very hopeless at times, but I really want to make it clear that this is not a hopeless situation… There are always going to be countless examples of resistance. People [will] come together to create a better future, there’s always going to be hope, just as there have been countless situations and countless examples of the oppression and the suppression of queer people, there have also been just as many countless examples of queer joy and resistance,” said Du.