My History, Queer Histories

1 Jun

Lesbian history made me a dyke. Or at least, that’s how it felt at the time.

I grew up in a small town on the central coast of California. There was nothing like a GSA at my high school during my time there in the mid ’90s. The first openly queer person I knew was classmate during my senior year. Ellen came out just over a month before I graduated, Will & Grace had yet to air, and Willow was still a few years from meeting Tara. All of this to say, the option of being gay was scarcely on my radar. I dismissed as general curiosity any queer feelings I had and left it at that.  In college I started to figure things out but had little idea what to do about it. Not until my last year did I have any queer friends and even then I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go to the campus LGBT center.

Not long after graduation I moved to Sacramento, my first time living in a city. One of the first things I did was look up local gay bars. As luck would have it the gay district (what we would come to call “the corner of gay and gayer”) was just blocks from my apartment. There was something exciting, reassuring, knowing they were there even when I found myself too timid to enter. Then I found it – the local LGBT bookstore. I remember vividly how conspicuous I felt walking in that first time. To my mind this was my first public demonstration of a new identity I was trying to understand. I felt bold and enthusiastic and terrified all at once. With only the cashier as witness, I embraced my lesbianism as I purchased a history of lesbians in the United States.  Ultimately, it was the support of a group of queer feminists that really helped me to know myself and come out but buying that book was a pivotal first step. That history book made me gay.

I speak often of how important the relationship between history and feminism has been to the path I’ve been on since college. But I don’t know that I’ve every told anyone the story of that first trip to an LGBT bookstore. It came to mind this week when the Obama administration announced a National Parks initiative to recognize sites of gay history, beginning with the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall was by no means the first site of queer protest but it marked a shift toward radical resistance and we now celebrate June Pride Month because of those early summer riots. As with other advances in queer visibility, I was left wondering what such news would have meant to a 22 year-old Chelsea trying to figure out how to come out. Here we have the federal government saying that queer lives matter and that we deserve to have our history made visible. There is nothing to be ashamed of; we have have the right live our lives openly and honestly.

Scanning through social media sights I found many posts celebrating this step forward in preserving queer histories. But almost as quickly I came across critiques that painted this initiative as an empty gesture. The LGBT activist group Get Equal initially responded with “No More Studies–give us freedom!”  They explained that “we know our history” and publicized a demonstration at Stonewall during the announcement of the initiative. The Committee on LGBT History quickly responded, explaining that pitting history against campaigns for liberation is counterproductive and divisive. Get Equal made a change with a new tagline, “Don’t stop at our history,” thus making their position less adversarial to the study of queer pasts.

I understand the position of Get Equal and other radical groups who critique the the pace of change and question the federal government’s priorities in addressing  some queer issues over others.  There is nothing I want more than full federal equality and rights protections for the LGBTQ community and I am grateful that there are activist organizations hold the Obama administration accountable. Is same-sex marriage or open military service or a recognition of gay histories enough? Certainly not. But attacking these advancements is counterproductive.

As a queer rights activist and lesbian historian I have grown incredibly comfortable with outing myself as I discuss all manner of queer issues. It is now so natural to me that I can scarcely remember that younger self afraid to enter a bar or bookstore. The longer we are out the easier it can become to forget those days of struggle and fear. And the more radical we become the easier it can be to lose sight of what can make a difference in queer lives.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first person to speak of the importance of radical activists pushing for sweeping transformation. Such work is crucial to creating change. But perspective is crucial too.

It seems as though I have this conversation every time there is a new development in the marriage equality struggle. Inevitably, I’ll see or hear dismissive comments from friends who believe movement priorities should be focused elsewhere. I don’t disagree. We ought to be exerting much more energy ensuring the everyday safety of the LGBTQ community–on the streets, in the workplace, in classrooms, at the doctor’s office, at the borders.   But it can be easy to overlook the fact that for a large portion of the country same-sex marriage is still a radical notion. That, as much as we might want disrupt a system in which legal rights are based on this heteronormative institution, the majority of LGBTQ folk want this right.  Or that, for people of all backgrounds, same-sex marriage offers very real benefits and protections. There are a whole host of issues at play in these types of debates, such as the roles class and race play in who benefits from which rights advancements and whether gays and lesbians will actually step up to support trans* rights. Critical reflection and honest dialogue are critical. But what possible benefit can we find in dismissing or attacking one another? And what can we possibly gain from dismissing the stories of our pasts?

As a queer historian I can tell you that we are only just beginning to know our history. Consider the myth-making that exists around Stonewall and this becomes quite clear. To date, very few people have access to our histories. It is rarely taught in primary and secondary education; several states even have laws banning discussion of LGBTQ histories and issues. At the the college level it is by no means a guaranteed part of history curriculum and universities continue to face backlash for the inclusion of LGBT instruction. Scholars who take up the work often do so with little institutional support, motivated by the belief that bringing our histories to light is a critical part of the queer liberation (for a statement on the work of queer scholars, see Don Romesburg’s response to Get Equal). At a time when LGBT bookstores are all but extinct (that neighborhood bookstore that was so pivotal to my journey closed long ago), the work of researching, documenting, preserving, and making visible queer pasts is more important than ever. One only has look at the stories of mid-century gay men and lesbians trying to find any tidbit of information about homosexuality to understand how transformative it can be to have ready access to  information that provides context for one’s own experiences. And the more ways we have to empower one another, the stronger we become. Surely we can embrace and celebrate these opportunities while also pushing for full equality.

Happy Pride Month, all. I’m off to celebrate with writing about lesbian history. If only I could tell 22 year-old me what was to come, because this dyke historian life is amazing.

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2 Responses to “My History, Queer Histories”

  1. jbiro June 3, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    Chelsea – Thanks for sharing your personal story and quest for doing LGBTQ history.

    I would like to continue the conversation on the Obama’s Administration National Parks initiative to recognize sites of gay history. I think LGBTQ history is a crucial component of the current battle for equality. The federal government’s previous failure to integrate gay and lesbian history into the National Register of Historic Places, the means through which the federal government identifies properties of national historic significance, implied that the history of gays and lesbians was unworthy of recognition. Most people know very little about the historic lives of gay men and lesbians, given that this history is absent from primary and secondary education and only sometimes offered at the university level. One way Americans learn about history is through visiting historic sites. Close to three hundred million people visited national parks last year. If no sites exist that provide a window into the lives of gays and lesbians, how might Americans learn about these citizens and learn to care about these citizens’ rights?

    To date, the National Register contains over 85,000 listings, only five of which represents gay and lesbian history, the Stonewall Inn National Historic Landmark, the site of the Stonewall Riots June 27 – 29, 1969, Greenwich Village, New York, the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny Residence, Washington, D.C. the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater, Fire Island, New York; the James Merrill House, Stonington, Connecticut, and the Carrington House, Fire Island, New York. (Side note: And where are the west coast sites of commemoration?) These national landmarks signify social and political empowerment, something LGBTQ communities continue to strive for. The fight for LGBTQ equality happened in many other places, but these sites currently remain invisible on the public landscape. Now, there is finally a formal movement for the inclusion of LGBTQ properties, an important step in valuing LGBTQ history and the lives of LGBTQ individuals. Understanding how gay men and lesbians historically experienced politics, employment, and social life contributes to the success of LGBTQ activism.

    • Tom O'Donnell June 7, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

      That’s more than a side note! Is gay an east coast thing? It is interesting to me when and how the west (and, of course, by “west” I really mean California) leads the nation in progressive movements.

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