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A literate Gay History Month
A literate Gay History Month
by Paul Varnell - SGN Contributing Writer

In case you hadn't noticed, we are in the middle of October's annual observance of Gay History Month. Nor would anyone's failure to notice be surprising; Gay History Month has been institutionally homeless in recent years, so no organization is really publicizing it. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was once eager to host it, but quickly lost interest. A few Gay websites, e-mail lists, Gay community centers and Gay newspapers have continued to promote Gay history, but too few and too little.

I suppose the question arises: why should anyone bother with Gay history? After all, the past is only prologue to our own time. It's over. The important point is to move on from here. So learning about Gay history is a merely antiquarian enterprise.

True enough, you can live a reasonably happy and satisfying life without knowing any Gay history. But I don't see it as quite so irrelevant to our own time. I think knowing Gay history has some continuing value. For one thing, we can be encouraged and energized by learning about the lives and pioneering activist efforts of many Gays in the past.

I admire the courage and self-confidence of the Gay men and women who came out in the 1950s and 1960s - before the "Stonewall" street theater of late June 1969 gave a populist boost to the Gay movement. And I admire the continuous struggle - sometimes successful, sometimes not - to find an audience for Gay-affirming arguments among politicians and the media in order to confront the culture's homophobia at a time when it was much more pervasive than now.

No one can fail to be moved by the story of San Francisco city supervisor (i.e., city councilman) and pioneering activist Harvey Milk who was assassinated on November 27, 1970s. Milk had a premonition that he might at some point be assassinated, and in a tape of his "political will" he made the now famous statement, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

Randy Shilts' book The Mayor of Castro Street (1982) tells the story. It also contains Milk's speeches, including one called "The Hope Speech," in which he said our goal as Gay activists is to provide hope for isolated young Gays in such places as Altoona, Pa., and Richmond, Minn. Longtime Chicago activist Tim Drake once told me he re-reads that speech at least once a year.

Another reason to learn some Gay history is that we can find out from the experiences of Gays in the past what survival techniques and what activist measures worked better and worse and what ones didn't work at all, all the more important since so much of the world (and the U.S.!) is still not very enlightened about Gays.

Most people find it helpful to think of themselves as part of a community. And that community extends not only to other Gays in the neighborhood and the city but back in time. From there it is but a short step to realizing that each of us is the latest but not last element in that community. There are young Gays just being born and there are Gays yet to be born who will continue our struggle for legal equality and social acceptance. They will build on whatever we are able to achieve culturally and politically and whatever institutional structures we are able to create.

At present, learning Gay history is a "do it yourself" project. Fortunately, there are several good books covering different phases of Gay history. If they aren't available to bookstores, public libraries probably have them. The earliest good one is John D'Emilio's Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983) which covers the period 1940 to 1970. The more recent Out for Good (1999) by Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney covers the period from 1969 to the late 1980s.

Three collections of accounts of Gay activists provide valuable historical perspective: Before Stonewall (2002), begun by Wayne Dynes and completed by Vern Bullough, contains brief biographies of nearly 50 early Gay figures. The others are Eric Marcus's two overlapping but enjoyable collections of interview material, Making History (1992) and Making Gay History (2002).

And there are plenty of books on specialized topics - the history of the AIDS epidemic, homosexuality in 17th-century England, Gay activism internationally, Gays in the military, homosexuality in ancient Greece and homosexuality in New York City from the late 1890s to the 1930s. Perhaps the most comprehensive book of all is Louis Crompton's beautifully illustrated Homosexuality and Civilization (2003). Do not deprive yourself of the pleasures of these books.

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