When Vern Bullough was asked what launched him into the field of sexual history 50 years ago, he quipped, “I blame it all on my mother-in-law.”
His future wife’s mother had abandoned her family to live in a committed relationship with another woman -- a scandalous event for Salt Lake City in the mid-1940s.
Bullough, then a teenager, was “more or less goggle-eyed” when he met them, but quickly quit gawking and began educating himself. He plied the two women with questions about homosexuality, soaked up what few books he could find on the subject and got to know their lesbian and gay friends.
Bullough, 77, who died of cancer June 21 at his Westlake Village home, eventually channeled his curiosity into a career as one of the most prolific scholars of sex, who wrote, co-wrote or edited nearly 50 books on topics ranging from prostitution to transgenderism.
“We have lost the most important historian of our field,” said Eli Coleman, a past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, who directs the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota medical school.
“It would be very hard to find somebody that had so extensively studied so many areas within sexuality,” Coleman added. “Vern was all over the field -- not in a superficial way but in a very deep way.”
He literally had an encyclopedic knowledge of sexual history. With his late wife, Bonnie, a noted nursing educator and sociologist, he wrote “American Sexuality: An Encyclopedia” (1994), a standard reference work in the field.
His other major books include “Sexual Variance in Society and History” (1976), “Homosexuality: A History” (1979), and “Cross-Dressing, Sex and Gender” (1993), which is used as a textbook in gender-studies programs. His writings on homosexuality have been credited with helping to launch and sustain gay and lesbian history as a legitimate field of study.
Bullough also was a pioneering advocate of civil rights. In the early 1960s, he persuaded the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to defend gays and lesbians -- making it the first ACLU chapter in the country to do so.
“He was the one who made the entire ACLU focus on discrimination against gays and lesbians. He was far ahead of everyone,” Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said of Bullough.
Quiet, scholarly and conservative in appearance, Bullough served on the board of the ACLU for many years and was its chairman when the organization was at the forefront of high-profile battles, including the fight to desegregate Los Angeles city schools.
A native of Salt Lake City, he grew up in the Mormon Church but left it when he was a teenager, in large part because he and Bonnie, his high school sweetheart who was also Mormon, thought the church discriminated against blacks. They were married in 1947.
Meeting Bonnie’s mother and her mother’s partner left a deep impression. “Both of us became fascinated by the topic of homosexuality and lesbianism,” Bullough wrote in the 1997 book “How I Got into Sex.”
At the University of Utah, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951, and later at the University of Chicago, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees, he wanted to study homosexuality but knew that it was a verboten topic.
Instead, he studied history and became a medievalist with a dissertation on the development of medical education in the Middle Ages. He was hired to teach at Youngstown University in Ohio in 1954.
In 1959 he moved to Los Angeles to teach history at Cal State Northridge. Feeling more confident about his credentials after writing several articles and books on the early history of medicine and nursing, he shifted his academic focus to prostitution and published a book on it -- “The History of Prostitution” -- in 1964. He was officially a sex researcher.
Over the next four decades he wrote voluminously on a wide range of topics, including birth control, pornography and women’s history.
In 1976 he collaborated with Dorr Legg and others on “An Annotated Bibliography of Homosexuality,” which listed 13,000 works on the subject from around the world. “It was widely recognized as the first massive compilation of information about homosexuality,” said Richard Docter, a gender researcher and retired professor of psychology at Cal State Northridge. The landmark compendium helped to encourage serious scholarship on gay and lesbian issues, Docter said.
That same year, Bullough published “Sexual Variance in Society and History,” which he considered his most important work. It examined “nonconforming sexuality” from prehistoric times through the 10th century and included material on sexual practices in China, India and the Islamic world.
In “Science in the Bedroom” (1994), which included material on marriage manuals, sex therapy, child sexuality, the impact of birth control on sexual attitudes and free-love theorists, Bullough surveyed the history of sex research.
The book particularly highlights the contributions of women and gays who conducted groundbreaking research, such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the 19th century German researcher who investigated same-sex attraction and is considered the first gay activist, and Clelia Mosher of Stanford University, who interviewed women in the early 1900s about their sexual desires and practices.
He collaborated on two dozen books with Bonnie, his wife of 49 years, who died in 1996. Among them was “The Subordinate Sex” (1973), a history of attitudes toward women.
At the Cal State campus, Bullough was founding director of the Center for Sex Research, where he helped organize international conferences on prostitution and gender issues. He also established the Vern and Bonnie Bullough Collection on Sex and Gender, housed at the campus’ Oviatt Library, which contains hundreds of rare or unusual materials, including a nearly complete series of a pioneering magazine for cross-dressers called Transvestia.
“It’s an invaluable collection,” said Stuart Timmons, a Los Angeles gay historian.
Bullough left the college in 1980 and moved to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he served several years as dean of natural and social sciences. He retired in 1993, and the following year joined USC as an adjunct professor. He taught at USC until 2003.
Through his advocacy for gay civil rights at the ACLU, he came to know many of the pioneers of the gay rights movement, including Harry Hay, Jim Kepner and Don Slater. He had a long friendship with Virginia Prince, a pioneer of the transvestite movement.
He rode in an early gay parade in Hollywood in the mid-1960s that Slater organized to demand that gays be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. Bullough opposed the war but supported gays’ rights to serve in the military.
In 1966, when Bullough was in the Middle East on a Fulbright scholarship, one of his two children, David, was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Jerusalem. The Bulloughs subsequently adopted three children of different races, two of whom are gay.
He is survived by his second wife, Gwen Brewer, a retired English professor; three sons, Jim Bullough-Latsch, Steve Bullough and Michel Hayworth; a daughter, Sue Bullough; brothers Darwin and Duane; a sister, Karen Hyde; and a grandchild, Jamie Bullough-Latsch.
An interviewer for the online magazine Gay Today recently asked Bullough to comment on rumors that he must be a cross-dresser because of his strong interests in the transgender community.
Others assumed that he was gay and were disappointed to learn that he was an avowed heterosexual.
“If I was everything I wrote books about, I would probably be a very screwed-up person,” he said, mentioning his works on sadomasochism, pedophilia, masturbation and other forms of sexual expression.
“I consider myself a sex researcher, and I will admit to having a strong interest in the way people sexually express themselves.”