Bringing forgotten queer history to the forefront
Ph.D. candidate Finley Freibert takes LGBT approach to visual studies
By Charity Lindsey
Don’t let Finley Freibert’s Ph.D. in applied and industrial mathematics fool you — he’s also a scholar of queer history, media industry studies, and digital media.
Freibert, a Ph.D. candidate in the Visual Studies Program at the University of California, Irvine, has been fascinated by films his entire life, beginning as a young child, when he got in trouble for attempting to record “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” from late night TV.
In high school, he worked for a video store. In college, he took film courses, made short films, and formed a personal collection of DVDs. He started creating videos professionally while teaching math at Ohio Dominican University, where he utilized a hybrid teaching model and created interactive lecture videos.
But for someone with as many passions and areas of expertise as Freibert, it is the interconnections of studies that interest him most.
“My background is in applied mathematics and humanities. I think there are ways these fields can be in conversation and that's what I hope to do with my work,” Freibert says.
Before earning his Ph.D. from University of Louisville in 2012, Freibert earned his B.A. in mathematics from DePauw University. Going to DePauw was “eye-opening” in terms of learning about resources for queer students, Freibert says. Identifying as bisexual himself, he quickly became involved with the LGBT student group on campus.
“I wanted to continue doing something meaningful for the community like that, and I wanted to incorporate some kind of cultural and historical significance to the research, teaching, and service I was doing professionally,” he says.
As a visual studies student, he is able to explore cultural and historical inquiry in a way that a singular focus on mathematics couldn’t provide.
“UCI was my top choice … I found faculty whose work I thought was really significant and wanted to model my own after,” Freibert says. “Their visual studies scholarship incorporates art history, film, and cultural studies … in my dissertation I aim to put LGBT cultural history in dialogue with media industry studies.”
Currently his priority is finishing his dissertation, for which he is researching theater chains and distribution companies owned by women and gay men in the 1960s and 70s to examine “how commercially oriented industry practices facilitated forms of queer public visibility in California.”
Through this research, Freibert has learned that such theaters were severely policed with anti-gay laws because they were collective gathering spaces for marginalized groups. He explained that authorities often used business licensing and obscenity laws as ways to shut them down.
“Law enforcement went into these theaters to intimidate gay patrons from going to them … to a large extent, this is a forgotten moment when few nonprofit LGBT institutions existed. Instead commercial establishments provided space to not only view gay produced media but also meet and associate with other LGBT people,” Freibert says. “In talking to people (for my research), they’ve told me that it means a lot that I’m interested in them. They were the ones really fighting these censorship battles.”
Forgotten or suppressed moments of history are of particular interest to Freibert, who has also recently been writing op-eds that are retrospective commemorations of people who have been underrecognized.
The latest, which was published in the Washington Blade, the oldest LGBT newspaper in the U.S., centers on filmmaker and artist Dick Martin, who worked in the gay film industry.
Freibert has also embarked on a separate project that examines the history of bisexuality. According to Freibert, a lot of bisexual history was buried after the Stonewall riots and sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s because mainstream media spread the idea that bisexuality was a fad.
“To some extent, just the word ‘bisexual’ has been seen as both too new and too old,” he says. “Some say the history before the 1980s is insignificant and forward the view that the identity is a relatively recent development. Others assert that bisexuals should adopt a different identity term (because they believe the term is outdated), but I think doing the work of bisexual history requires seeing the continuity across generations.”
Freibert feels strongly that historical work “can be self-reflective.” He recalled, “I have often been made to feel that bisexuality doesn’t exist or has no history. Part of the work of LGBT activism is recovering histories so that we can tell future generations you have a history and you matter.”
Freibert is set to teach a class at UCI in the summer on contemporary film history from 1970 to the present. Upon earning his visual studies Ph.D., he aspires to secure a tenure-track position at a university in order to continue his research and teaching. “I hope to inspire students to follow what they are interested in, and hopefully spark interest in the areas some might not be aware of,” he says.
In the future, he also aspires to blend his mathematics background with humanities research.
“My dissertation research has drawn my interests towards industry studies, though some of that work has required brute force methods of data collecting,” Freibert says. “I think that I could use my background in data analysis and statistics in a way that makes it easier to see the big picture.”