Distinguished Service Award Recipient: Gilbert Herdt, MA ’72 (Anthropology)
hen it comes to scholars and experts in anthropology, few can match the accomplishments of Gilbert Herdt, MA ’72 (Anthropology).
The world renowned clinical and cultural anthropologist specializes in human sexuality—ranging from sexual identity and orientation in children and adolescents to aging in LGBT adults. He’s published more than 30 books and edited more than 100 scientific peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters, encyclopedia articles and scholarly reports.
That’s not all.
Herdt received a Fulbright scholarship to Australia where he enrolled as a doctoral student at the Australian National University, the leading center of Melanesian studies. He spent two years conducting fieldwork in Papua New Guinea for his thesis on males’ experiences of manhood rituals, The Individual in Sambia Initiation, 1978.
“Gil’s work revolutionized gender and sexuality studies. Undergraduate anthropology textbooks invariably cite his pioneering work as evidence of the richly variegated and tenacious force of gender in social life,” says Terri Castaneda, professor in the Department of Anthropology. “Yet this is only a fraction of his contribution to the field.”
His fieldwork on the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea beginning in 1974 has spanned nearly 40 years and is among the first major foundational anthropological works on sexual identity. He returned more than 14 times and in 2010 to research the changing conditions of sexuality, gender, HIV and modernity among the Sambia people. He is currently writing The Singers are Gone, which reports on how the culture changed over three decades.
“My professional life has been devoted to the advancement of anthropology. In particular, the anthropology and professionalization of sexuality as a field of study in the U.S. and abroad,” says Herdt, a recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Sacramento State Alumni Association and the University.
The relationship between gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens and their families was among the reasons why he established of the Department of Sexuality Studies and the National Sexuality Resource Center at San Francisco State University. He says the Center was dedicated to making sexual literacy a reality in the U.S.
“My dream was to merge or apply the highest level of research with changing and improving public laws and policies,” Herdt says.
Herdt also took an interest in treating mental health issues as a professor and chair of the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago. The National Institute of Health awarded him a grant to open the Center for Culture and Human Health. It was a training ground for two cohorts of pre-and postdoctoral students to research mental health issues.
“I could’ve never imagined I’d become a professor,” Herdt admits. “But I love teaching. Education is about self-actualization and every great teacher has the ability to draw that out of their students.”
In a way, his alma mater was a vehicle for his own self-discovery. “I’ve been in many universities in my life and what I really liked about Sacramento State is that I got a very good education and felt grounded here,” says Herdt, who’s now retired and lives in Bali, Indonesia. “I felt embraced by Sac State, through my own transformation as a professional and as a person.”