Leo Bersani, an academic theorist noted for writing about gay identity during the height of the AIDS crisis, has died at age 90.
Bersani died February 20 at an assisted-living facility in Peoria, Ariz., The New York Times reports. His death was confirmed by his partner, Sam Geraci. The cause has not yet been determined, but Bersani had recently been hospitalized for septicemia.
In 1987 he published the essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in which he lambasted “the tendency among some gay activists to respond to AIDS by downplaying their sexuality and emphasizing the need to replicate bourgeois heterosexuality,” the Times reports.
“Male homosexuality was not the mirror image of heterosexuality, he argued, but something radically different, lacking many of the patriarchal inequalities that he said defined straight life,” the paper explains.
“Far from apologizing for their promiscuity as a failure to maintain a loving relationship, gay men should ceaselessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relations, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women,” Bersani wrote in the essay.
In his 1995 book Homos, he critiqued queer theory, saying that by seeing gay identity as socially constructed and performative, proponents of this theory ignored and undermined the liberating qualities of being gay.
Bersani was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for most of his career. In addition to writing on gay identity, he was a scholar of literature, especially the work of gay French novelist Marcel Proust. He had an affinity for the theories of French literary critic Michel Foucault, who became a visiting professor at Berkeley at Bersani’s requesr.
Jacqueline Rose, a professor at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London, called Bersani “one of our most scandalous thinkers” in an interview with the Times. “He thought that the whole point of being a homosexual man is that you disrupted the experience of possession, ownership, fidelity, consistency, safety, and you allowed sexuality to be what it really is, which is disruptive, disorienting, shattering, limit-violating and boundary-breaking,” she said.
Bersani and Geraci had been together since 1992 and married in 2014. There are no other immediate survivors.