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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Scott De Orio

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Scott De Orio found his passion for studying sexuality during a yearlong study abroad program in Freiburg, Germany.

“I had no idea what kind of a career I wanted for myself,” he explained, until he took a gender studies class while abroad that changed his life. “As a gay man, I was thrilled to discover a field that was relevant to a part of my life that matters so much to me.”

After a brief interlude in a Ph.D. program in Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, Scott returned to Michigan to pursue a doctorate in the joint program in History and Women’s Studies, where he now focuses on modern U.S. history.

Scott’s dissertation, titled “Deviant Subjects: Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Citizenship in Modern America,” focuses on the history of sex offender law in the United States since the 1960s. He selected the topic about two years ago while he was doing research about gay politics in California in the 1970s. “I found some really compelling newspaper articles and court cases about gay men in Los Angeles who were put on California’s sex offender registry for public displays of affection. The LAPD would send plainclothes police officers to bars to entrap unsuspecting gay men. If they were convicted of a sex offense, many had to register with the local police once a month for the rest of their lives.”

He says he hopes his research can influence policy discussions about sex offender registration today. “Sex offender registries were designed to protect women and children against sexual violence, but the way they try to solve that problem is narrow-minded. They rely too heavily on criminalizing individuals to the exclusion of providing economic assistance to victims.”

“Working on my dissertation has given me a much deeper appreciation of the libraries and archives that make my work possible,” Scott emphasized. “It’s totally thrilling to be looking for sources in an archive and feel like I’m communing with the past.” He says he has spent many hours poring over old gay newspapers and magazines in the Joseph A. Labadie Collection, a collection on the eighth floor of Michigan’s graduate library dedicated to documenting the history of social protest movements. He has also traveled to archives like Princeton University’s Mudd Manuscript Library, which curates the papers of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles.

With his dissertation research underway, Scott has turned his attention to other issues of professionalization, particularly becoming a qualified teacher. In addition to working as a Graduate Student Instructor, he took a graduate seminar about pedagogy in the history department, and he is in the process of earning a Graduate Teacher Certificate through the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. His next step is to teach a history class he designed called “Illegal Sex.”

Scott has benefitted significantly from opportunities at Michigan to do interdisciplinary work, starting with the joint doctoral program in History and Women’s Studies. “I love the joint program. History introduced me to the joys of archival research. Women’s Studies gave me a community of scholars with which to think intensively about gender and sexuality.” Rackham also funds the interdisciplinary graduate student workshop that Scott co-coordinates called Doing Queer Studies Now.

Active in Rackham programs, last summer Scott was selected to participate in the Community of Scholars, a fellowship program sponsored by Rackham and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG). The program gave participants a stipend, health insurance, and a space in which to discuss each other’s research about gender and sexuality. “The conversations we had about my work in the IRWG seminar pushed it forward in really exciting ways. And the summer funding made it possible for me to work on my dissertation full-time.”

Scott expressed his appreciation for the various kinds of financial support he has received from Rackham over the years. “Rackham gives me funding opportunities that graduate students at many other institutions don’t enjoy, both for the summer and as a student whose five-year funding package is about to expire. Overall, Michigan has provided me with a very solid financial support system.”