BY Stephen Vider ON March 13, 2017
When We Rise, ABC’s ambitious miniseries on the history of the LGBT rights movement, is nothing if not self-conscious. Originally aired over four nights (interrupted only by Trump’s address to Congress), the eight-hour docudrama winds from gay liberation to marriage equality, with lesbian feminism, military discrimination, religious oppression, and AIDS activism along the way. The series was conceived and largely written by Dustin Lance Black, best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 2008 film Milk, and it repeatedly nods to key moments of LGBT visibility as media forebears. Early in the first episode, the three young protagonists, divided across continents, all discover gay liberation in the pages of Life magazine’s 1970 year-in-review issue—much as Black might hope young LGBT viewers today will discover the miniseries and with it, a history they did not know was theirs to claim. Yet as Black explained to Slate‘s June Thomas, he also developed the series with a broader audience in mind: “I wrote this show for my family. Most of my family lives in the South, from Texas to Arkansas to Louisiana. They’re mostly conservative, religious, and I grew up in a military home. I thought doing this kind of show on ABC, was an opportunity to finally introduce my LGBT family to my birth family, and to speak that common language.” The result can feel old-fashioned, especially in the era of HBO and Amazon Prime: the series never shakes a certain network TV staginess. When We Rise is, in the end, a heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama—often moving, frequently manipulative, and decidedly earnest.
Yet the series has its surprises, too. Each episode interweaves the stories of its three main characters, an unlikely trio of San Francisco activists played by pairs of younger and older actors—Harvey Milk disciple Cleve Jones (Austin McKenzie and Guy Pearce), feminist activist Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs and Mary Louise Parker), and African-American veteran Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams). There are many more famous figures who might have been chosen—and indeed, many other historical figures, both well and under-known, make appearances along way: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, José Sarria, Sylvester, Sally Gearheart, Charles and Richard Socarides, Larry Kramer, among many others. The conspicuously careful choice of Cleve, Roma, and Ken, however, opens up the story to unexpected intersections: in the final episode, while Cleve works alongside lawyers to defeat Prop 8 in court, Roma works towards universal health care in San Francisco, reminding those around her that 1980s AIDS activism was not only an LGBT fight, but a fight for medical access. And while Cleve Jones quickly emerges as a professional gay activist, both Roma and Ken engage in LGBT activism and community somewhat reluctantly. The history of LGBT rights, the series suggests, is not only about organized politics and protests but also the smaller moments of awakening, injustice, loss, and sometimes ambivalence that turn ordinary individuals into activists.
Outhistory asked four scholars to share their reflections on the series—how it frames (and distorts) the history of the LGBT movement, and what it means for academics, activists, and other TV watchers and creators today.
Wrestling with San Francisco’s Past
All things considered, I have to give When We Rise a thumbs-up, and think it did a serviceable job of presenting a complex queer history to a straight mass audience. I had bones to pick, but many of the things that stuck in my craw were things that I noticed because of my closeness to and intimate familiarity with some of the events and people being represented. In spite of my specialist nitpicking, in spite of the mini-series getting only a fair-to-middling grade on my perpetual personal litmus test for all mass media—“How did it do on trans issues?”—by the time the last episode of When We Rise concluded, I actually felt moved, and proud to have played my own little role in the sprawling tale it told.
Of course there are compressions and conflations and little white lies that script-writers find necessary for creating character-driven story lines from a messy tangle of the past. Of course stereotypes make it easier to telegraph complicated histories whose careful exposition would bog down the story-telling. Of course little details that shatter the willingness to suspend disbelief for someone who is in the know will pass unnoticed by those less attuned to the specificities and actualities of how a particular event transpired in a particular place.
Many things of this nature for me revolved around the scenes where the Ken Jones character was in North Beach, first at the African-American church, and then at the Black Cat Café. North Beach was not a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and the kind of storefront church being represented would have been more typical of the Fillmore, Western Addition, Mission, or Bayview neighborhoods. And by the early 1970s, North Beach was not a predominantly gay neighborhood either. By that time, a new wave of straight-oriented topless bars and soft-core sex shows had pushed out most of the gay nightlight that had been a characteristic of the entertainment district for decades. The Black Cat was indeed a famous bohemian bar with a noticeable gay presence, but it really wasn’t strictly speaking a gay bar, and it could be considered a North Beach establishment only if we grant that neighborhood very large and loose boundaries. Besides, it had closed in the mid-1960s.
More substantive, less antiquarian gripes pertained to how the Black Cat scenes represented the relationship of trans issues to lesbian and gay life and the city’s bohemian subculture. When Jones walks out of the church and sees a regal black queen in a beaded and sequined ankle length gown strutting down the sidewalk and entering the Black Cat, I wanted to scream “No, girl, no! That is not what you would be wearing on the street relatively early in the evening on your way to a bar—that’s what you’d wear to the big once-a-year drag ball where you planned to walk the Glamor Queen category.” Once Jones is in the bar, he encounters José Sarria, who did famously hold court at the Black Cat during Sunday brunches at which he staged mock operas in drag, but in real life José was a gay man who did cross-dressed theatrical performance, and who developed a fascinating and historically significant drag persona known as the Widow Norton. But he was never the “Mama José” we see in When We Rise, legendary mother of the oppressed trans women who rose up at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin in 1966 (which gets a welcome shout-out as an uprising that predated the better-known Stonewall). The folks who fought back against police violence at Compton’s would not have been allowed to walk through the door of the Black Cat, and José had nothing to do with them. The Black Cat, along with other members of the Tavern Guild—an important early gay-business association—had policies against admitting “drags” out of fear that such overt displays of “deviance” would bring down the wrath of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. What José did was risqué entertainment with a political twist, confined to a performance space; what street queens did, which was walk in the world 24/7 as the persons they knew themselves to be, was disallowed in gay-friendly bars (which is why they congregated in cafeterias and coffee shops that had no liquor licenses to lose).
Watching how trans people were represented in the show left me feeling like I was observing a distant galaxy, in which vast numbers of entire solar systems appear as a single small point of light. The complexity and variety of various trans and drag communities and subcultures was boiled down to a jumbled grab-bag of clichés. It made me feel weary to think how much work remains to be done to give the trans dimensions of the sexual liberation, gay liberation, and feminist movements their due, and to give full attention to struggles that were waged specifically by trans people, about trans-specific issues. That is a story that intersects with but is not contained by the history of cisgender gay and lesbian life.
What made When We Rise enjoyable—I’d even say uplifting—for me is that being trans, and being an historian of trans and queer culture in San Francisco, do not define the totality of my life. I am part of broader communities. I have personal connections to many of the people profiled in the film, and was glad to see them get their moment in the spotlight (special shout-out to the amazing vocal talent of Prado Gomez!). I, along with partners past and present, have had significant involvement in the lesbian parenting movement that formed a significant narrative thread in the series. I have held in my own hands the bloodstained, bullet-riddled clothes taken from the body of the murdered Harvey Milk, for an exhibit I curated at the GLBT Historical Society. I knew people whose names are now panels on the AIDS quilt, and early in my career did work to collect and preserve the history of the epidemic in California. My world might be trans-centric, but it is not not exclusively trans. And I saw much of that larger world being held up in instructive ways and celebratory (if sometimes didactic) ways for a mass audience that was previously unfamiliar with it.
I had the privilege of seeing the entirety of When We Rise at a special invitation-only screening at the Castro Theater, and it was powerful indeed to be in an iconic building, in an historically queer neighborhood, packed to the rafters with thousands of people who had made the history being represented on screen. There was a palpable sense of pride in the collective accomplishments being semi-fictionalized for our infotainment, as well as a sense of defiance and resistance to the current national political nightmare we are all now living through. It felt like a moment of reckoning: Yes, we have accomplished many things. Yes, we have lost much and persisted through much, against the odds. Yes, we know what it’s like to suffer devastating setbacks, as well as to win. Yes, this historical consciousness is a needed resource in the precarious present. Yes, we have indeed risen—and we will continue to rise, over and over again, like the Phoenix that is the symbol of the still-remarkable city of San Francisco we all still call our home, until we can rise no more.
Susan Stryker is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, and former Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society. She co-directed the Emmy-winning film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.
I happened to give a talk at San Francisco’s GLBT History Museum on the first night of When We Rise. Many of those attending were activists I had interviewed for my book on the 1970s and 1980s gay and lesbian left, and when I opened my talk, I thanked everyone for being present rather than staying home to watch LGBTQ history on screen. At that point, my audience knew little other than that the series was based on Cleve Jones’ memoir – but with only that to go on, they grumbled, booed, and hissed at the mention of When We Rise
Antipathy towards Cleve Jones is widespread among many LGBTQ activists of his generation and in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I did not research Jones or his work, my interviewees occasionally brought him up, citing political differences or criticizing what they termed a self-aggrandizing activist style. Since I heard more than a few personal beefs in my interviews, I tried to take criticisms of Jones with a grain of salt. I was glad to read his memoir, also titled When We Rise – and really appreciated the first half of the book, which depicts his coming of age in radical 1970s San Francisco. But I couldn’t help but notice that, after about 1978, the memoir loses nuance and increasingly represents Jones’s contributions in outsize terms.
Dustin Lance Black, ABC, and the other miniseries creators package their show as more than one person’s memoir – they define it as the story of the LGBT movement, period. In the first nights of the series (Parts I and II), I found myself moved by the ground the show attempted to cover, even though I noticed a number of gaps and missteps. But I was shocked by the markedly limited scope of Parts III and IV, which are framed decisively through Jones’s perspective. In this latter half of the series, the show’s harsh dismissal of ACT UP in favor of Jones’s AIDS Memorial Quilt; the screen time given to Jones berating younger activists; and the last episode’s myopic focus on marriage equality all combine to misrepresent Jones as both a gay everyman and a defining source of LGBT political strategy.
Reading the show carefully, especially in combination with Jones’s book, shows how the logic of Cleve-as-hero structures the series’ account of the LGBT movement even from early on. On screen, the series’ other protagonists represent distinct themes: lesbian feminism and parenting for Roma Guy and Diane Jones, and military service, religious faith, racial identity, addiction and recovery for Ken Jones. But these characters, already burdened with representing blackness (Ken Jones) and womanhood (Roma and Diane), are woven together principally through their friendships with Cleve. (Likewise, other characters are either Cleve’s close friends, such as Marvin Feldman, or well-known figures encountered through hubs linked to Cleve: Sylvester and Jose Sarría; Cecilia Chung and Bobbi Jean Baker; Sally Gearhart and Tom Ammiano).
The focus on Roma, Diane, and Ken also represent a break from the book, since while Cleve mentions Roma Guy and Ken Jones in his memoir, he does not discuss them at any length. It’s also notable that the miniseries backdates Cleve and Ken’s friendship in ways that serve Cleve’s character development as Harvey Milk’s successor. In his memoir Cleve states that he first met Ken “in 1979 when we worked with the Gay Freedom Day Committee. He was a few years older and had traveled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, which impressed me” (201). He adds that by the mid-1980s the two briefly collaborated in AIDS prevention outreach. But on screen (Part I), Cleve and Ken meet around 1976 in the Black Cat bar, in a scene where anti-war Cleve grudgingly accepts Ken’s veteran status and Roma asks Jose Sarría for advice on challenging the police. Though I appreciated this conscious, if clunky, effort to trace genealogies of queer resistance, I was struck by how the first scene functioned to set up another fictive encounter in 1978. In a scene from Part II, Cleve tells Ken about an idea from Harvey Milk: for people to carry signs with their names and hometowns at protests against Prop 6. Ken initially resists the idea, but on Gay Freedom Day, he repeats Cleve’s arguments and holds up a sign reading “I am Ken Jones from New Jersey.” The problem here is not that it’s unlikely Ken could have held such a sign, but that the exchange inverts Ken’s possible mentorship (“He was a few years older and… impressed me”) in favor of Cleve’s influence as a transmitter of vision from Milk.
Cleve Jones’s guiding role in the narrative, if not always in history, is also apparent through Part I’s portrayal of the Inez Garcia campaign. Cleve is shown taking part in a protest for Inez Garcia that occurred in San Francisco in February 1975 and in which a small number of radical gay men did participate. Having researched the Garcia campaign extensively, I have found no evidence that Cleve was there; I also did not find any mention of the case in his memoir. So while I was delighted to see the case mentioned, I again had to wonder why history was bent to include him. To a degree – in spirit if not in truth – his presence suggests alliances that were then emerging between lesbian feminists and radical gay men. Yet the series does not portray such relationships as existing beyond Cleve Jones. While he consistently asks lesbians to accept him as a supporter, lesbian feminists themselves embrace a cartoonish version of separatism, and that portrait affirms Cleve as the problem-solver who teaches others the necessity of coalition. Notably, this problem also becomes interwoven with the series’ weak representation of Latinx activists: among other gaps, the many queer Latina women who led the San Francisco Women’s Building are nowhere to be seen.
Ultimately, the miniseries When We Rise underscored my interviewees’ criticisms of Jones – criticisms I had earlier sought to be cautious about, even to set aside. When one person becomes the lens through which the entire story of LGBT activism is told, we are left with disturbing misrepresentations of queer politics, culture, and life. Jones’s memoir appears to have been far too easily bent to a universalist purpose, leaving the miniseries a sadly narrow account of when Cleve rose.
My thanks to Felicia T. Perez for her input, including the hashtag #WhenCleveRose.
Emily K. Hobson is an Assistant Professor of History and of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her first book is Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (University of California Press, 2016).
“Write Their Names”
While watching When We Rise I was surprised by the appearance of Bobbi Campbell, the first person to come out publically as a Person with AIDS shortly after his diagnosis in 1981. He’s first seen in Episode 2 standing outside the iconic Castro Theatre, which is screening the film Fame. He’s looking up at the marquee while Joy Division’s song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays in the background. He is introduced without context. Moments later, Cleve Jones appears and the two begin to talk about queer representation in Hollywood. They also talk about sex. At this point, I had no idea who this figure was meant to represent other than as Cleve’s “friend from Seattle.” Initially he seemed to be only another young gay man in San Francisco. I knew he would need to be someone significant since the actor Kevin McHale, a Glee alumni, was cast in the role. The figure next appears in a scene with Cleve and a group of friends at a bathhouse, naked except for the towels covering their waists. He’s the person who notices a spot on another man’s body. He says nothing in this scene, or in the following scenes, but, if you know your history of early AIDS activism, it becomes clear by the end of the episode that he is Bobbi Campbell.
When Bobbi Campbell was first diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, he chose to go public with his diagnosis and advocate for people with AIDS. He was the first AIDS activist in history. His interventions were various and ongoing. When We Rise honors some of these actions, mainly those performed through visual means. In one of his first actions, Bobbi Campbell posted photographs of his KS lesions on the window of the Star Pharmacy (now a Walgreens) in the heart of the Castro. These were the first AIDS posters ever. Campbell wanted to alert other gay men about KS and used his own lesions to illustrate the problem. Bobbi’s poster helped publicize the emerging health crisis in San Francisco and began a process of (what he called) “demystifying” “GRID” (Gay Related Immune Deficiency, as AIDS was then known).
Campbell also began identifying himself as the “KS Poster Boy” and later “AIDS Poster Boy” refusing the stigma of AIDS and offering his own body as a means to educate others about KS and AIDS. With the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (he was Sister Florence Nightmare, RN) he helped draft San Francisco’s first safe sex pamphlet, “Play Fair.” He was the most visible person with AIDS in San Francisco and was among the city’s most effective advocates for AIDS awareness. He refused the status of AIDS victim and promoted the idea of surviving AIDS. In 1983, with twelve other gay men with AIDS, he founded the National Association of People with AIDS at a National Lesbian and Gay health conference in Denver. One of their main achievements was the “Denver Principles,” a manifesto for the rights for People with AIDS.
I mention this brief history of Bobbi Campbell to flesh out his representation in the series. He appears only in the second episode. I was thrilled to see him introduced in the sequence that represented the early AIDS years. His presence serves two main points. First, he provides an alternative image to the then dominant representations of a person with AIDS (or AIDS “victim”) incapacitated in a hospital bed and without individual agency. In fact, the episode includes these actual representations, as it should since it was often the case. But it wasn’t the only case. Bobbi Campbell is always seen in community and always standing up.
When we do see his lesions–in a second bathhouse scene—it’s because the management rips off his robe to expose his diagnosis. The moment displays the overt harassment and discrimination of people with AIDS. His friends are horrified of his treatment and while not necessarily “rising up” in demonstration, voice their disapproval. Second, Bobbi Campbell’s presence in the series also counters the narrative associated with Cleve Jones and the Names Project, which by design is experienced as a massive community-based memorialization of those lost to AIDS. Bobbi Campbell’s presence affirms that already in the very early 1980s, there were direct and deliberate public actions advocating for more AIDS research and visibility. It’s important to see a person with AIDS actively in community in the shared public sphere. Bobbi Campbell’s representation serves that point. Moreover, his presence begins to account for the emergent People with AIDS self-empowerment movement, how gay men with AIDS in the earliest days of the AIDS crisis fought for their rights and dignity.
The final moment we see Bobbi Campbell is during the episode’s conclusion. Night 2 of When We Rise culminates at the November 1985 Harvey Milk/George Moscone Memorial March. At the public memorial, Cleve Jones invites participants to write on placards the names of loved ones lost to the growing AIDS epidemic. At the march’s end, organizers tape the placards to the San Francisco Federal Building. (A little over a year later, Jones launched the Names Project, or what is more generally known as the AIDS Quilt.) Campbell, fully visible in his “AIDS Poster Boy” T-shirt, stands in an embrace with one of his many friends. Bobbi Campbell died in 1984, a year before the actual event took place. I didn’t really care that it was impossible for Campbell to attend the 1985 rally given he had died the year before. I was moved by the choice made by Dustin Lance Black, the creative head of the series, to include Campbell in this huge public outpouring of San Francisco’s AIDS community, a community he helped build in the final years of his short life. (Campbell was 34 when he died.) Black’s strategy to include ancillary historical figures in When We Rise helped open up the limited representational politics of Cleve Jones’s memoir, the source material for the series. Of course, this strategy had its limits. But for Episode 2, the inclusion of Bobbi Campbell’s story, however short its duration, made a significant impact. The episode ends with Cleve Jones encouraging the crowd at the Federal Building to “write their names, we must make their names known.” Bobbi Campbell. 1952-1984. KS Poster Boy. Sister Florence Nightmare, RN. Early AIDS Activist.
David Román is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California. He has been writing about AIDS and the arts since the early 1990s.
Finding a “Home” in the Bay
Growing up, I adored watching historical dramatic mini-series on network television. Back when the networks held a monopoly over the distribution of political news and cultural phenomenon, they would occasionally take on the tasks of high school social studies teacher and edutain the public about American Slavery (via Roots) or Camelot (via The Kennedys). My favorite of these was The Jacksons: An American Dream, which featured Angela Bassett’s version of Katherine Jackson in a portrayal whose high camp moments (go to bed, Joseph!) still managed to feel earned.
On one level then, I appreciated When We Rise as a nostalgia piece about nostalgia for a more radical queer history. To the credit of Dustin Lance Black and Cleve Jones, this is the first real effort to tell this story on screen (let’s forget that 2015’s Stonewall ever happened) and it would have been impossible to appease all possible LGBTQIA audiences, let alone the more skeptical portions of the public. My own nostalgia for sweeping historical TV drama had me tickled pink to see Whoopi Goldberg, Michael K. Williams, Rosie O’Donnell and David Hyde Pierce play off image as much as character. And many of the series’ best moments came in its first two episodes, when Gus Van Sant and Dee Rees allowed their actors to dance across the thin border between the righteous passion and silliness of 1970s Bay Area radicalism.
And about that. More than I realized going in, When We Rise is less about “the Movement,” (and thank heavens since none of the historical actors then or now can offer a clear elucidation of what that phrase means) and much more about “The Bay;” or more specifically, about the idea of “The Bay” as home-base for Carl Wittman’s gay refugees. And in that sense, the films best moments emerge when it reveals that “The Bay” and “the Castro” were and remain racially and economically uneven queer imaginaries. We see those inequities play out in the divergent lives of the primary protagonists, Roma Guy, Cleve Jones and Ken Jones. Even in the form of homophobic police officers, “The Bay” recognizes Roma as “a dyke” before she can; and offers her access to a building that makes it possible for her to engage other lesbian feminists over what kind of “a space for women” they would create.
By contrast, Ken Jones’ arc is a long meditation on queer urban life on the verge of displacement. In early episodes, Jonathan Majors plays Jones as constantly expectant of rejection; whether from Castro gay bar patrons who can only imagine him as “Tenderloin” and are baffled at his entry into their territory, or by “the black community” in its recurring role as the nation’s homophobic nadir. We almost never see Jones at rest. And when his long term lover’s family kicks him out of the home that Richard owned, but they shared, When We Rise reveals that even his most serene moments were premises made possible by white property ownership. Michael K. Williams’ heartbreaking portrayal of Jones’ futility in the face of capital is a stark reminder that despite the HIV-AIDS epidemic, inner city land retained its investment potential in the 1980s; with family members and speculators alike finding it possible to hold space they once deemed “depraved” if they benefited from the windfall of untimely death.
Indeed, Jones’ initial reticence to resist the homophobia of white nuns who want to displace the black queer congregants at City of Refuge stems from his own very recent acquisition of a bed to sleep on, and a secure roof. From what we can tell, these are not concerns that trouble either Cleve Jones or Roma, even as their politics (as portrayed by the script) continually reference the salience of safety, territory, and “home” to gay liberation.
If the series is at its worst during the final moments of episode 1, where Ken, Cleve, and Roma manage to stumble into Jose Sarria’s Black Cat and join forces as an in-person Sylvester wails in the background—as if to say The Movement was a kind of queer Captain Planet (by our identities combined)—then it is at its best in a small moment towards the end of episode 4 when Cleve reminds Roma about Ken. “Roma, do you remember Ken?” he asks, and then proceeds to fold Jones’ narrative of displacement into an argument for a gay civil rights agenda that exceeds marriage and includes housing and employment protection. By that point, When We Rise has left “The Bay” behind, moving “the action” to the Supreme Court building, and the Oval Office; clean—starkly white—spaces of rational political strategizing. Maybe it was the time limits imposed by the movie-of-the-week format, but in making Ken a useful anecdote, a floating ephemera no less resonant than a tattered rainbow flag, When We Rise gets closest to depicting “The Bay” as the structurally uneven home of modern gay politics.
Kwame Holmes is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado-Boulder. His work has been published in Radical History Review, No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, and Occasion.
BY John D'Emilio ON March 13, 2017
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I taught for fifteen years, there is a Gender & Sexuality Center that provides services, meeting places, and programming for LGBT students; a Chancellor’s Committee on LGBTQ Concerns, which has access to upper-level administrators and makes recommendations about LGBT-related issues; many “out” faculty who do research on LGBT topics; a Gender and Women’s Studies program with courses related to LGBT history, culture, and experience; and an annual Lavender Graduation which is a joyous celebration of student success. UIC admittedly has a reputation as an especially LGBT-friendly campus. But its situation is not unique. LGBT people, issues, and research are very visible on college and university campuses across the United States.
Needless to say, this has not always been the case. A full history of how scholarly research, writing, and teaching developed and how a visible LGBT presence became institutionalized in U.S. higher education has not yet been written. But when that does finally happen, an important early piece of the history will be the story of the Gay Academic Union and the work it did in the 1970s and 1980s.
I was part of the small but steadily growing group that began meeting in New York early in 1973 and eventually formed the GAU. It served as an invaluable networking and support function at a time when most university faculty, graduate students, and staff were still in the closet and very little non-homophobic research was being done. I helped plan the first three national conferences, held in New York over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, ’74, and ’75. Roughly three hundred people came to the first; by 1975, almost a thousand attended. (The proceedings of that first conference, and an account of how the GAU was formed, can be found here on the Outhistory site.
The Gerber/Hart Library and Archives has a number of collections related to the GAU in its Chicago incarnation – the papers of Randy Grisham, Stan Huntington, and James Manahan. They provide insight into the local workings of the organization and its national structure and activities as well. Reading through them, and especially the Grisham collection which has the most material, I came away with a clearer picture of both the extent of the national network that GAU sustained and the local workings of the Chicago chapter.
Above all, in the context of the 1970s when most LGBT individuals were not open about their identities, the national Gay Academic Union allowed local chapters to feel themselves part of a bigger network. A list of GAU chapters in 1979 included not just obvious places, like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but also cities like St. Louis, Dallas, and Greensboro, North Carolina. The national GAU, which by the end of the 1970s was based in Los Angeles, maintained a mailing list of 6000, quite impressive for those times. It held national conferences that drew hundreds and allowed attendees to connect with people beyond their own city of residence.
The Chicago chapter formed in 1978. It held its first conference the following year, in May 1979. Only 50 people attended. But, when it organized a second conference in 1980, attendance jumped to 250. The conferences, as well as public lectures that it sponsored, allowed it to bring some of the authors of the first books on LGBT history, culture, and politics to Chicago. Speakers included James Steakley, who did pioneering research on the early gay movement in Germany; Lillian Faderman, whose Surpassing the Love of Men covered several hundred years of women’s intimate relationships with each other; and John Boswell, whose Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality was a publishing sensation when it appeared in 1980. These events gave visibility to the intellectual and cultural work being done as well as helped to build community locally.
Besides functioning as something of a network node, GAU in Chicago also served as incubator for other projects. One of its members, Gregory Sprague, used GAU as a base from which to launch a Chicago Gay and Lesbian History Project. Sprague went on to do extensive research on Chicago’s pre-Stonewall LGBT history, going back to the early 20th century. He put together an illustrated slide lecture [this was before the days of PowerPoint presentations!] that he not only gave many times to audiences in Chicago, but that he also traveled with. Sprague was also a key player helping to organize historians within the American Historical Association.
Another project that GAU helped launch was a community-based library. It began collecting a wide range of books, both fiction and non-fiction, on LGBT topics. By November 1981 when the library opened as an independent organization at 3245 Sheffield Road, it was named – you guessed it – the Gerber/Hart Library and had a collection of over a thousand books.
Grisham’s papers also reveal the increasing difficulties GAU faced as a national organization. The national seemed to be in trouble as early as 1981, and by 1985 it dissolved, taking many of its local chapters down with it. The material at Gerber/Hart, including in the Huntington and Manahan collections, do not make it absolutely clear why this happened. But my sense, as I read through the materials, is that it was undone by its own successes. As GAU created a safe environment for LGBT faculty in higher education to meet and discuss issues, it made it more likely that these individuals would begin networking and organizing within their own professional associations – with other historians, anthropologists, sociologists, literary scholars, etc.
As a closing note: I’ve suggested in some of the earlier blog posts that one of the great joys of doing archival research is coming upon the unexpected pleasure – not so much something that changes my interpretation of the past, but that brings a big smile to my face. Well, there was one in Grisham’s papers. At the national GAU conference in 1982 that the Chicago chapter hosted at the Conrad Hilton Hotel, the high-profile gay journalist Randy Shilts was one of the plenary session speakers. He was described as delivering a “rambling” address, during which he happened to mention that he had just smoked a marijuana joint.
BY Chris Howard-Woods ON February 28, 2017
From Open Cultural Studies, a New Peer-Reviewed Journal by De Gruyter Open:
Andrew Ross, in his now classic text “Uses of Camp,” points to Prince and Michael Jackson and their polysexual identities as emblematic of camp aesthetics yet completely neglects the significance of the race factor in their campiness. In turn, he fails to consider the connection between camp and race. According to Pamela Robertson, one of the very few authors who have explored this fascinating intersection, this is characteristic for discourse on camp in general. Critics tend to compare camp to black culture or to blackface, but they do not explore race as inherent in or significant for camp aesthetics. This glaring gap in critical discourse is largely connected with the regime of authenticity that limited many studies of black culture and has been recently challenged by works such as G. A. Jarret’s Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature (2006) or Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature (2011). The focus on racial authenticity in black culture has led to the privileging of texts explicitly embedded in historical discourses, such as slave narratives, and to the marginalization of, especially nineteenth-century, fiction, and particularly texts parading non-black, white-looking, or racially indefinite characters (cf. Maria Giulia Fabi, Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel, 2001). This exclusion of a vast body of largely women-authored texts, frequently featuring mulatta protagonists, has been problematized in numerous, mostly feminist studies since 1987, when Hazel Carby published the canonical Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. These feminist explorations, however, have mostly focused on the mulatta figure and the phenomenon of passing in literature and have never used camp as an analytical tool. On Uses of Black Camp, a 2017 special issue of Open Cultural Studies, aims to fill in this lack in critical discourses of both camp and black cultures, to help us better understand the reasons for such scarcity of texts on blackness and campiness, and to discuss the effectiveness of camp as a political tool.
The call for papers encourages essays that address but are not limited to the following topics:
- Performances of racial passing and excesses of mulatta melodramas;
- Blues and the politics of non-normativity, or “The race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley,” to misquote Langston;
- Black English and “the will to adorn,” to quote from Zora;
- Superflies and Foxy Browns, or Blaxploitation (and anti-Blaxploitation);
- Black dandies, sweetbacks, and processes of citification;
- Diva gangstas – to paraphrase A. Ross – and swagger queens, or the glamorous campiness of hip-hop culture;
- From Sun Ra to the Electric Lady, or black to the extraterrestrial funkadelic Afrofuture, to signify on Mark Dery;
- Signifyin’ and “camping the dirty dozens,” to borrow from M.B. Ross;
- Symbolic gayness of camp and symbolic whiteness of homosexuality;
- Race perfomativity and race plasticity;
- Gender performativity, Wilde sexuality, and black camp;
- Posthumanism and alleged postraciality.
Only original and unpublished submissions will be considered.
Manuscripts should be between 5000-7000 words and should adhere to the latest MLA style.
Please, send complete papers to Anna Pochmara, email@example.com, or Justyna Wierzchowska, firstname.lastname@example.org by May, 31 2017.
BY John D'Emilio ON February 7, 2017
Besides the papers of individuals and organizations, an archive like the Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago also contains LGBT periodicals. This can be especially important when the periodicals are the newsletters of local organizations. Most of these did not have massive circulation or long runs. Yet they do often provide thorough and detailed reports on local events and the work of the organization. They also frequently contain opinion pieces and commentary written by local activists that give a vivid sense of the times.
Two such periodical collections are the newsletters of Chicago Gay Liberation and the Chicago Gay Alliance. These were two of the very earliest post-Stonewall organizations to form in Chicago, and the newsletters at Gerber/Hart stretch from 1970 to 1972. They report on the broad range of activities that the groups engaged in, the demonstrations they organized, and the tensions and challenges they each confronted.
At first glance, the story that unfolds in Chicago seems to parallel the narrative that historians have constructed of early post-Stonewall activism in New York. In the wake of Stonewall, a group calling itself the Gay Liberation Front quickly formed in New York. Self-declared militant revolutionaries, they conducted sassy public actions, urged people to come out, declared solidarity with other radical movements of the day, and displayed that solidarity by participating as openly queer contingents in marches against the Vietnam War and at rallies in support of the Black Panther Party. Within months, a group of white gay men split from the GLF and formed the Gay Activists Alliance. It, too, was committed to militant public action, but it broke with the multi-issue coalition politics of the Gay Liberation Front and declared itself solely focused on gay issues.
Reading the Chicago Gay Liberation Newsletter, one immediately encounters its multi-issue orientation. Besides organizing a Pride March and Rally in June 1970, and conducting demonstrations at restaurants that refused to serve gay customers, it also sent a contingent to participate in the march commemorating those who died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and it organized support for the Venceremos Brigade, a group of young radicals who were supporting the Cuban revolution and defying the U.S. boycott of the island nation. One of its issues contained a report on the Revolutionary People’s Party Convention, held in Philadelphia in September 1970 and organized by the Black Panther Party. Chicago Gay Liberation included both a women’s caucus and a black caucus, which worked to keep issues of sexism and racism in the vision of the organization while also remaining active in the organization as a whole.
The October 1970 issue of the newsletter reports that Chicago Gay Liberation is experiencing a “schism.” A large group of white gay men decided to secede from the organization because it was “too political, too radical” and was “allying itself too closely to Movement groups.” They formed a new group, Chicago Gay Activists. The first issue of its newsletter, published in November 1970, announced that “our politics are that of homosexuality.” Another article declared that “the most important part of liberation is personal.” CGA definitely remained a militant organization. It planned and conducted public demonstrations that could be rowdy and disruptive. But it continued to proclaim that CGA “is devoted solely [emphasis in original] to the politics of homosexuality.”
Although this seems to mirror what had happened a few months earlier in New York, a closer reading of the newsletters leads to a more complicated and nuanced analysis. Chicago Gay Liberation, for instance, might declare itself a revolutionary organization, but a surprisingly large number of its demonstrations were focused on obtaining the right to dance. The famous retort by Emma Goldman notwithstanding (“If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”), one could reasonably argue that the right to dance was not the cutting edge of revolutionary change for LGBT people. Meanwhile, though CGA stated that its only focus was on homosexuality, its newsletter reported on gay contingents at antiwar marches, provided its readers with information about the Hiroshima Day rally, and joined in a broad coalition action to protest President Richard Nixon’s appearance in Chicago. At least in Chicago, the divide between revolutionary and reformist, between multi-issue and single-issue politics, was a good deal hazier than it might seem upon first analysis.
What I found most exciting about reading these newsletters was encountering the intensity and extent of activism in this three-year period. Especially when one considers that both organizations were run entirely on volunteer labor and had almost no budget to consider, the amount of work they did in the three years covered by these newsletters was huge. Between them, they organized protests against police harassment and violence. They demonstrated against gay bars that discriminated to keep women and people of color out, and against other commercial establishments that discriminated against LGBT people. They appeared on radio and TV shows, at a time when a visible queer presence was still extremely rare. They maintained a speakers bureau and sent speakers to high schools in the greater Chicago area. They polled candidates for Chicago’s city council, and they testified at city council hearings about the need to enact laws banning discrimination. They helped organize student groups on campuses around the state. CGA opened Chicago’s first community center for LGBT people, located in a house at 171 Elm Street. CGA maintained a mailing list of 1300, at a time when doing a hard-copy mailing was the main way to communicate to people en masse, and that involved a lot of work. CGA likewise produced 3,000 copies of its newsletter, and distributed it in many venues in the city.
Today, when so many LGBT organizations have paid staff, when many elected officials seek out LGBT endorsements, and when there is so much cultural visibility and attention by news media, it can be hard to appreciate just how cutting edge the work of these two early post-Stonewall organizations in Chicago was. It made a difference. It created a beginning foundation upon which later organizations and activists built. And the work of Chicago Gay Liberation and Chicago Gay Alliance comes down to us today in part because an archive like the Gerber/Hart Library contains precious copies of many of the newsletters of these organizations.
BY Chris Howard-Woods ON January 23, 2017
At the AHA in Denver the Committee on LGBT History awarded two prizes: the John Boswell Prize for the best book in LGBT history published in the prior two years; and the Joan Nestle Prize for the best undergraduate paper or project in the same period. We thank prize committee members Phil Tiemeyer (chair, Kansas State University), Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard University) and Carson Morris (University of New Mexico) for their hard work in selecting the winners, which are below:
John Boswell Prize
CO-WINNER: Clare Sears, Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press).
Grounded in substantial and dynamic archival work, Arresting Dress historicizes the very production of normativity and marginality within the changing political and social climate of 19th century San Francisco and the broader United States. Sears effectively demonstrates how cross-dressing laws constructed nationhood in terms of race, sexuality, and gender and laid the groundwork for the 20th century policing of gender and sexuality. Using a methodology she terms “trans-ing analysis” to focus on the production of normative and non-normative dress practices, Sears highlights the fluidity of such practices rather than the fixed identities of individuals. This monograph is analytical intersectionality at its best, building on and contributing to studies of race, immigration, citizenship, gender, sexuality, and urban history.
CO-WINNER: Timothy Stewart-Winter, Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Especially admirable is Stewart-Winter’s attention to how queer activism in Chicago was always coalitional, involving work across races, genders, and sexual identities. Stewart-Winter deftly examines how the defining moments of queer political ascendancy in Chicago—protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the 1983 electoral victory of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first African American mayor—were collaborative operations built on shared commitments to end police brutality and to overcome political exclusion. Such focus allows Stewart-Winter to rework the somewhat familiar narrative of queer urban history, opening up fresh opportunities for future scholars to examine how the rise of queer political power was a collaborative venture.
Joan Nestle Prize
WINNER: Ben Eshelman, “Trans Rochester Speaks”
Conducted under the guidance of Professor Tamar Carroll, Eshelman’s website boasts an engaging and insightful collection of oral histories with members of Rochester’s trans community. Eshelman has divided his project to cover various facets of trans life–activism, work, parenting, healthcare, community, and visibility–allowing a rich coverage of how trans identity shapes one’s relationship with the world. The committee is deeply impressed with Eshelman’s exemplary engagement with primary sources (especially oral histories) and his impressive synthesis of these narratives into a cogent and highly accessible rendering of trans life in his community.
The CLGBTH website will be updated shortly to reflect the prize recipients.
BY Chris Howard-Woods ON January 11, 2017
This post, which inaugurates the DigitalArchives stream on this blog, was written by Eric Marcus, Editorial Director of Making Gay History.
I’m not a religious person, not even vaguely spiritual. But the explanation that makes the most sense to me for how I wound up producing a weekly podcast drawing on recordings I made almost thirty years ago is this: the people I interviewed wanted to tell their stories in their own voices and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
In 1988 I was a young journalist starting work on an oral history book about the LGBT civil rights movement. I don’t remember why, but I asked Jay Kernis, my colleague at CBS News who was one of the creators of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition,” what kind of equipment the reporters at NPR used. I can only guess that I thought my interviews could have value one day and that I might as well use broadcast quality equipment to record them.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2015. I’d just been forced out my job at a suicide prevention non-profit and I did what you do when you’re trying to get back on your feet. You review your assets, have lots of conversations, and figure out what you’re going to do next. And that’s when it occurred to me that it was time to revisit the 300 hours of interviews I’d conducted for my 1992 book, Making Gay History, an oral history of the LGBT civil rights movement. There was my asset. Next question: What can I do with it? The first thing I had to do was listen. And when I did I was transported back in time and the voices of these extraordinary people who changed the course of history urged me to tell their stories again.
Then following a series of introductions I met two incredibly smart women who were developing LGBT-inclusive K-12 curricula through their non-profit organization History UnErased. I mentioned my audio archive and they suggested using short excerpts from some of the interviews to anchor middle- and high-school lesson plans. Next I asked my neighbor, Sara Burningham (who happens to be an independent audio producer) if she could cut some tape. She could. But as we started work, it became clear that the voices wanted more time. And we wanted more people to hear them.
Another moment put us in a room with Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of podcast production house Pineapple Street Media (Women of The Hour, Still Processing, With Her). Jenna has been an ardent supporter and mentor for the project. So with financial support from the Arcus Foundation and the help of our friends at the New York Public Library we launched the Making Gay History podcast this past October in time for LGBT History month.
One of my favorite episodes from our first season features life partners Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, leading voices in the early LGBT civil rights movement and a pair of the most cheerful revolutionaries you’ll ever hear. They were self-described gay rights fanatics, who challenged the status quo with passion, determination, and an indestructible sense of humor. Listening to their voices again after all these years, I’m instantly back in their cozy living room in Philadelphia. There’s a kettle on the stove and Barbara is calling to Kay for a desperately needed cup of coffee. I hope you’ll join us and have a listen, because they have stories to tell and they want you to hear them—in their voices.
Eric Marcus is the author of a dozen books, including Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights and is co-author with Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis of the #1 New York Times bestselling Breaking the Surface. His collection resides at the New York Public Library in the Archives and Manuscripts Division. The NYPL also houses the collection of Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen.
BY John D'Emilio ON January 9, 2017
To research and write about Chicago’s LGBT history is to engage in a form of what’s often described as “local” history, writing about a particular place within a larger nation. Yet local history also reaches beyond the place it describes. The “local” can be used to illustrate broader historical patterns and to make generalizations about an era or a topic. And, sometimes, a place like Chicago can be the setting for events that might be considered national in their reach and consequence.
Such was the case in April 1987 when Chicago hosted a conference on “Sexual Orientation and the Law.” Held at the University of Chicago, it was organized by the Gay and Lesbian Law Students Association at the University. Twenty years later, Irwin Keller, who was one of the key organizers of the Conference and a student in the Law School, donated the papers related to the conference to the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. The Keller Papers provide great insight into the state of the law in the mid-1980s and the strategic thinking of key LGBT legal activists.
Think about the moment. It was several years into the AIDS epidemic, with caseloads and deaths growing in number exponentially. The Reagan presidency was unrelentingly hostile to anything gay, completely ignored the AIDS crisis, and welcomed the religious right into the center of the Republican Party. And, as all this was going on, in June 1986 a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision in the Bowers v. Hardwick case upheld the constitutionality of state sodomy laws. Bad as the decision waBowers v. Hardwick cases, the language used by the justices in the majority was hostile and derogatory. It described the claims made by those challenging the constitutionality of sodomy statutes as “facetious.” The laws, it said, were rooted in “millennia of moral teaching.” The Constitution offered “no such thing as a fundamental right to commit homosexual sodomy.”
But sometimes defeats can have benefits. Hardwick was a spur to action. It helped to create the demand for a national March on Washington, scheduled for October 1987, a march that would prove to be a demonstration of staggeringly large numbers. And it provided the impetus for members of the Gay and Lesbian Law Students Association at the University of Chicago to propose and organize the first national conference on “Sexual Orientation and the Law,” scheduled for April 11, 1987.
Organizers of the conference cast a wide net. They sent mailings announcing the conference to every law school in the country, hoping not only to reach law students everywhere but also, perhaps, to spur LGBT law students to organize. Estimates of the number who attended the conference that day ranged from five to six hundred. The conference planners also sent invitations to participate to a broad range of legal activists and constitutional lawyers.
The list of those who spoke at the conference reads like a roll call of the pioneers in LGBT legal activism: Thomas Stoddard, Executive Director of Lambda Legal Defense, the first national LGBT legal organization, and Abby Rubenfeld, who was Lambda’s legal director; Nan Hunter, the founding director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project; Mary Dunlap, a lawyer who just a few weeks before had argued the “Gay Olympics” case before the Supreme Court and was awaiting the Court’s decision in the case; Roberta Achtenberg, the chief attorney for the National Lesbian Rights Project; and Nancy Polikoff, who had been an attorney for the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and helped cut a path for feminist and LGBT family law.
At times the tone of the sessions was somber. On the opening panel, Tom Stoddard commented on the impact of Hardwick. Looking back on some earlier lower court victories, he said that Hardwick “erases that progress in the federal courts to a very strong degree . . . [and] makes it harder to win on state issues as well.” Evaluating the state of immigration law as it related to lesbians and gays, another panelist frankly said “it is a mess.” Panelists debated whether it made more sense in the future to argue cases on the basis of equal protection principles or from the perspective of the right to privacy. A theme that surfaced repeatedly was the impact that the AIDS epidemic was having. It was stoking deeply irrational fear and prejudice, encouraging more overt discrimination, and justifying that discrimination because of the threat to public health.
Yet there was also a fighting tone to many of the presentations and discussions. Despite the loss in Hardwick, speakers agreed that it was “a risk we had to take.” The loss in the Supreme Court would encourage activists to work for state repeal and lawyers to explore whether some state constitutions might provide grounds for court challenges. Discussions of family law seemed to produce a great deal of energy. In 1987, no state sanctioned same-sex intimate relationships, and state cases about child custody for lesbian mothers were mixed in their outcome. Anticipating the intensifying focus that the 1990s and beyond would bring to marriage and other forms of family law, Abby Rubenfeld stated unambiguously that “we need the sanction of the state” and Nan Hunter declared “we should have it all.” Hunter explained her support of a fight for access to marriage in terms of “the power of marriage as a symbol.”
Most of all, perhaps, the conference was valuable because of the power of bringing so many legal activists together to discuss what the future might bring. As Keller described it in a letter he wrote when he donated the papers to Gerber/Hart, “it was a hugely exciting event – the air was alive with crisis and possibility.”
BY Eric Gonzaba ON January 2, 2017
I like to think of OutHistory as a sort of historical queer think tank, allowing scholars and the wider public alike to engage with LGBTQ studies and to ponder difficult questions about sexuality and gender. The OutHistory team graciously lets me muse about various topics from time to time, and America’s fractured political atmosphere seemed an obvious angle on which to write. However, with a Trump presidency just on the horizon, collaboration with various colleagues seemed more fitting a means of contemplation.
Below, I’ve invited a group of emerging LGBTQ scholars to reflect on the era of Trump, curious of what they think led to this man’s ascendency to the highest political office in the land, how they believe his administration will affect current LGBTQ movements, and in what way their own work in LGBTQ studies reflects the current political atmosphere. These individuals represent the future of LGBTQ scholarship. If their words indicate anything, it’s that the vigorous study of the queer past and present appears in good hands.
Eric Nolan Gonzaba
Harrison Apple, Our Situation is White Supremacy and Mass Incarceration
Rachel Gelfand, Surveillance Constancy: Trump on the Threshold
Eric Nolan Gonzaba, The Queer Arc of Justice
Daniel Manuel, Complexity Can Give Us Hope
Sarah Montoya, We Stand On the Backs of Many
Chris Parkes, Reflecting From Across the Pond
Kristyn Scorsone, Oral Histories Speak Truth to Power
Terrance Wooten, Against the Romance of Futurity
Our Situation is White Supremacy and Mass Incarceration
PhD Student, Gender & Women’s Studies, University of Arizona
Co-Director, Pittsburgh Queer History Project
In the summer of 2016, I was interviewing a woman as a part of my research on working class LGBT history in Pittsburgh, PA. Speaking about her feelings of contradiction she said, “for being gay, I have liberal policies on some things, but very conservative on others…” She then asked me, “Who do you like for President?” I had never been asked that question in an interview before, and I quickly began to ramble before settling on, “I just don’t know.” Mirroring her, I asked who she liked and she said, “I’m leaning towards Trump.”
I reflect on that conversation often, and the way she phrased it. “Who do you like?” sounded as much like a bet as a preference. Perhaps interpreting it as a bet was a form of disavowal. Rather than believe someone when they tell you that their imagined future is anchored in your own oppression, I pretended she was making due with her options, in the same ways he described her distaste for political correctness and our waning ability to take a joke.
Moments like these – of which there are plenty, believe me – demonstrate what I believe Teresa de Lauretis meant when she said, “the time for theory is always now.” Regardless of who is elected, in the next four years we are all going to be asked to make decisions that we will want to believe are unmotivated, objective, or neutral when they are not. We will be asked to preserve our own sense of security-futurity through the punishment-death of others.
This is by no means a new phenomenon. For many, the reality of a Trump presidency may mean little substantial shift in their everyday lives. The white supremacy that was eluded to by the woman I spoke with, saying that political correctness has hindered out ability to effectively enact racially profiling and support homeland security, is only one manifestation of anti-blackness that subtends LGBT U.S. history as a frequently deracialized field of study.
Rejecting the reality that a rights-based political platform is made possible with the same apparatus that has subtended white supremacy and cishetero-patriarchy (such as the prison industrial complex, overreaching surveillance, and dubious hate-crime legislation) is another form of disavowal. I’m reminded of Jonathan Ned Katz’s introduction to Gay American History in which he says, “all homosexuality is situational.” A political climate of white supremacy and mass incarceration is our situation. It is our responsibility to think through it.
Surveillance Constancy: Trump on the Threshold
PhD Student, American Studies, University of North Carolina
Outhistory is a space, digitally housed, for historicizing queer movements. It holds what Ann Cvetkovich termed “archives of feeling,” an attention to the loves, losses, and liminalities of queer historical subjects. My research for the last few years has attended to questions of intergenerational history-making, the transmission of gay and lesbian activist strategies, and the passing along of experiences of surveillance. I am interested in how archives and oral history offer forms of time travel that transgress while simultaneously being institutionally bound, preserved by universities, libraries, government bureaus.
Living in North Carolina, I have focused on the Atlanta Lesbian/Feminist Alliance and traced how founding members “came out” of left movements. Many Atlanta feminists were on Cuba’s Second Venceremos Brigade, a part of Civil Rights activism, and key organizers working against the Vietnam War. For these actions, surveillance followed. While FBI agents struggled to find information about lesbian feminists, their presence was soon felt. In Atlanta, the FBI arrested an ALFA member in her lesbian collective house for antiwar activities. In Lexington Kentucky, a grand jury probed local lesbian connections to Susan Saxe, an underground lesbian activist.
With Donald Trump’s impending inauguration, my thoughts have been on his connections to this lineage of surveillance. I have been reading Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, in which she historicizes surveillance and its counterpart sousveillance, the people’s capacity to record state mechanisms. Surveillance systems grew out of histories of colonization and enslavement, a centuries-long process of biometrics. In my own research, I see cyclical fears of FBI presences. COINTELPRO and the anxiety it mustered echoed the McCarthy era of ALFA activists’ childhoods. Grand juries mirrored the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trump’s ideologies resound those of his mentor Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s star litigator (famously depicted in Angels in America). J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretap methods have played out on a digital scale in my lifetime and it seems the NSA’s role will only intensify. Reflecting on these connections, I think of my grandparents and great-grandparents living in Trump’s Brooklyn tenements. I think of my lesbian mother’s red-diaper-baby childhood and the fear she carries today.
Last Friday, I went to a protest here in Raleigh. Republican state legislators were in the process of passing bills to strip the incumbent Democrat governor of that post’s customary powers. Protests were loud and coalition-based, but Republicans did not bat an eye. With both press and police filming protestors, state legislators voted unviewed.
My time in North Carolina has made me acutely aware of legislative violence. Trump is one thing—something quite scary. His presidency emboldens patriarchy. The bullying culture he incites inherently hurts minoritarian communities, hurts queer people. But the racism of federal and state legislatures works on the level of the everyday. While Trump stokes white fears of a demographic shift toward black and brown political power, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell stall on passing an updated Voting Rights Act. The lack of preclearance, or federal oversight of voting law, is felt in quotidian life. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act has led to violence that cuts across identity categories. In North Carolina, legislative gerrymandering has precipitated HB2, no Medicaid expansion, ransacked public education, voter suppression, and measures against police transparency. At Friday’s protest it was clear: the same politicians who are transphobic, are racist, sexist, anti-worker, xenophobic, islamophobic, and are swiftly moving on legislation in line with those ideologies. As a queer Jewish historian, I hope the Trump years increase solidarity and the fusion politics North Carolinians utilize. I hope, for example, Jewish communities will ally with Muslim communities.
Surveillance for my generation has been a constant. But for me it has been helpful to understand the racist historical underpinnings that produced the data-driven system we live within. My study of lesbian activism has been grounded in ALFA’s grassroots archives and FBI archival materials. I encourage historians thinking about this historical moment to look to both those archives for insight into creative resistance (radical softball teams, newsletters, bar life) and surveillance’s stumbling blocks. For historians of queer life, this work must continue to be framed by intergenerational dialogue. Outhistory can be a great resource toward these ends!
The Queer Arc of Justice
Eric Nolan Gonzaba
PhD Candidate, History, George Mason University
Director, Wearing Gay History
Echoing the words of 19th century abolitionist clergyman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed many times throughout his life “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Assuming King is right (and that’s a big assumption) after the recent election, it’s really hard to see that bend, especially if you’re a person with a disability, someone of Latino heritage, a Muslim seeking asylum in the “land of the free,” or anyone who understands that grabbing anyone by their private parts without consent constitutes sexual assault.
And yet, Donald Trump won a majority of votes in the Electoral College, and will become the 45th US President. President Obama’s departure from the White House seems so devastating to so many LGBTQ people because the Obama years felt like an era of change. Certainly there were big victories—marriage equality, the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the election of the first openly lesbian woman to the US Senate and the first openly bisexual person to become a governor. President Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch even launched a suit against North Carolina and it’s anti-trans bathroom law. On behalf of the administration she served in, Lynch told trans communities that “we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
There were also setbacks—the continuing attacks on trans people, especially trans women of color, persistent bullying in schools, the passage of so called “religious freedom bills” in GOP controlled statehouses, and the fact that LGBTQ people made up the vast majority of victims at the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
As historians, Trump’s victory is a call for us rethink how we teach history. The cliché answer students give me when I ask “why do we study history,” is some variation of the famous Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I mean . . . I guess? Though, I know lots of historians and we aren’t an army of modern Nostradamuses over here. Historians can certainly inform the present and give us tools to shape our futures, but I often respond to this answer by asking my students why they assume we’re living in some utopia compared to the past? Maybe those who cannot remember the past are condemned not to repeat it. Imagine for a moment future Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions ever telling transgender Americans that they have a friend in the Trump administration. While we all may be guilty—at times—of interpreting the past through rose colored glasses, it is clear that our future is no safe haven.
The Obama years were—by no means—Camelot, but the social progress during those eight years for some queer people was laid brick by brick by those who fought decades and centuries earlier. Our queer past isn’t something we study to pat ourselves on the back; rather, these requisite recounts of past tragedies and achievements give us necessary perspective to celebrate change and acceptance. More importantly, this history should embolden us all to fight injustices that some continue to overlook—and many continue to endure. The comfort of a supportive president is gone, and along with him should go our complacency to challenge and fight inequalities.
King may have been right; the arc may bend toward justice, but let’s not wait around to find out. We ought to bend it ourselves.
Complexity Can Give Us Hope
PhD Student, History, Rutgers University
I am a historian of the AIDS crisis in Louisiana in the 1980s and 1990s. I spent the first twenty-four years of my life in Louisiana, and my research is as much an effort to understand the world in which I came of age as it is an effort to historicize why Louisiana is at the forefront of the contemporary HIV epidemic.
Yet, my work also recognizes possibilities for resistance, even in hostile times and places. In recent days I have conceived of my work, and the work of historians, as arguing for the complexity of the past. Under an administration whose campaign suppressed narratives it found troublesome and rejected complexity in favor of simplistic mantras, historians are truly obligated to uphold complicated truths. In this disempowering post-election moment, a complicated past is a powerful past. I would like to explain by offering a few takeaways from the history of AIDS activism:
The Right is not monolithic. Historians, including Jennifer Brier in Infectious Ideas, have highlighted Republicans’ fault lines during the Reagan administration, as multiple issues divided the Right in the 1980s. Gary Bauer and other members of Reagan’s cabinet sharply conflicted with Reagan’s own Surgeon General, C. Everett Coop, over the administration’s approach to preventing HIV transmission. Similarly, we witnessed Trump’s difficult relations with the Republican establishment during the primaries, and, while many establishment figures have attempted to atone for earlier disagreements, the Right remains visibly fragmented. We should recognize that Trump’s administration comprises cabinet members and advisers with competing interests and outlooks. Despite the wishes and pronouncements of Trump and others, the Right is not unified, and its internal disagreements are potential sites of challenge and contest.
The Left lives on. Particularly when riven by internal conflict, the Right cannot quash all opposition. Populations and people marginalized by Trump’s victory are not powerless. Even in moments when conservative social and political messages predominate, they do not stymie the vital and ongoing work of the Left. Our organizing efforts endure, perhaps with renewed vigor and inspiration in the face of a hostile political administration and social climate. What we have to recognize is that the Left is alive in ways that are often ignored. In the 1980s everyday actions, like grocery shopping for a person with AIDS or writing a letter to a newspaper editor about living with HIV, were profoundly powerful. We can remember that in uncertain times, as the AIDS epidemic began to rage in the early 1980s, marginalized populations banded together to care for one another. These simple acts disrupted and displaced, even if temporarily, public rhetoric and attitudes that were heterosexist, racist, misogynistic, and classist. These simple acts asserted the value of lives deemed worthless by mainstream conservative attitudes. Many disregarded the social stigma attached to AIDS to care for friends, family members, lovers, and strangers. These practices were never perfect, and we should keep in mind the need for intersectional organizing, as we simultaneously reject limited conceptions of community. Nonetheless, the Left is alive and powerful.
Accordingly, we should recognize local and everyday politics as sites to challenge oppression. National elections and legislation are not the only measures of power. As HB2, the transphobic bathroom bill, in North Carolina and the recent rash of legislation restricting abortion access in Ohio and Texas have shown, we will be fighting for bodily autonomy and personal dignity at the state and local levels, too. Moreover, we have to remember that political power also lies beyond legislation. Local organizations provided the first care for people with AIDS, and I think often of what it meant to care for a person with AIDS before the advent of life-sustaining drugs. By refusing to let lives slip away and refusing to let people die in degrading circumstances, AIDS activists sent a political, life-affirming message. Caring for one another is a potent and meaningful political and human victory.
All this to say, historians are obligated to challenge narratives that claim the Right is all-powerful, that the Left is utterly lost, or that national electoral and legislative victories are all that matter. The present, like the past, is more complicated. That complexity can give us hope to carry on.
We Stand On the Backs of Many
PhD Student, Gender Studies, University of California, Los Angeles
In the days after the election, I found myself profoundly numb. The stillness was only periodically punctured by waves of fear and anger. As a victim and survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, I wept. As a queer woman of color, I wept. For two weeks, I recoiled into myself and did not write. But I knew better than to ask the question, how could this happen?
The ideology and political, imperialist practices of this country are deeply invested in a white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. The creation of this country was and remains contingent upon the dispossession of Native peoples and the systematic denial of their sovereignty. The American economy was built upon the backs of Black slave labor. It remains contingent upon the exploitation of people of color both here and abroad. This was never a place that offered recognition or protection to Black folks, Native folks, or queer folks of color. The promises of citizenship and legal recognition or protection have largely been illusory. Today, we see this legacy of violence at Standing Rock, in the state-sanctioned murders of men and women of color in our streets, in the brutality visited upon transwomen of color, and the rampant xenophobia aimed at Muslim communities and the undocumented.
For many of these communities, life will continue to be as precarious as it has always been. Perhaps we can begin the necessary work by holding ourselves accountable. I am a Ph.D. student at a Tier-One University on what was once Tongva territory. I value my work as an educator, but I am not naïve to its context. The university is, first and foremost, a business. The work I do is only valuable if it is accompanied by daily practice and I am willing to put my energy into the community outside the university grounds. We must continually ask ourselves, how can I be of service to the community? How is the work that I am doing helping to redistribute resources to those most vulnerable?
We cannot build radical communities or movements if we do not grapple with these realities. Many of us were not afforded the luxury and privilege of “shock” at this election’s outcome. We cannot afford to confuse progress towards social justice with neoliberal progressive politics. Here, we see the failure of single-issue politics and the need for intersectional analysis and political practice. Our political agendas should advocate for those continually and repeatedly rendered most vulnerable. To celebrate our existence is not enough, and our mobilization in the wake of a Trump regime means that coalition building is crucial.
In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde writes, “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” Lorde delivered this paper in 1977, and, nearly forty years later, the sentiment rings true. There is a long and storied history of survival and resilience around us – in the faces and stories of our elders and in the literature of women and queers of color. This is not the first time that we are struggling against domination and injustice. We are not doing this alone; we stand on the backs of so many.
Reflecting From Across the Pond
Graduate Teaching Assistant, International History, London School of Economics and Political Science
More than once in the past month I have encountered historians here in the UK contemplate refusing to return to the United States because of the election of Donald Trump. There is something about the prospect of his presidency that fills some Americanists in this country with a palpable sense of revulsion. Much of it is distaste at the xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and a litany of other obloquies that can be rightly leveled at the candidate and his campaign. But there is something deeper, too. Perhaps it is the inevitability of having to see Mr. Trump’s incandescent mug displayed in the entryways to the National Archives and the Presidential Libraries in which we conduct much of our research. More likely it is a sense of anguish, despair, or even betrayal that the United States – a beacon of hope amid the gloominess of Britain’s Brexit winter – would succumb to the same populist backlash that has roiled this country. Best to turn our back, impose a personal embargo on the Yanks, and hope things turn around in four years time.
Those of us outside the US have the luxury of being able contemplate such remedies. But how much comfort does distance really provide given the enormity of recent events? For LGBT historians in particular the populist revolt of recent years portends a deeper crisis. The rise of the far right in France, the Netherlands, and other European countries, the clampdown on academic and press freedom in Turkey, the spike in hate crimes in the UK following the victory of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, and, of course, Mr. Trump’s election represent not only a rejection of ‘elites’ but also a repudiation of the pluralist ethos that has underwritten the study of sexuality as a historical subject. For a (sub)discipline built on the recognition of the lives of the powerless, the nonconforming, and the despised, validation of casual bigotry and alt-right authoritarianism by the imprimatur of electoral success poses an existential threat.
If this sounds alarmist, it should. LGBT historians have a particular incentive to speak out in times of rising intolerance to dissent. Our subjects and their stories are salient because, more often than not, they concern those who occupied the margins of society. They were the first targets of oppression by the state, the mob, and civil society when demagogues fanned populist anger or induced people to look for scapegoats. Sexologists in Weimar Germany, gay and lesbian civil servants in the Federal Government during the Lavender Scare, and radical AIDS activists during the 1980s, to name but three examples, all endured official opprobrium in a political climate that deemed sexual diversity to be dangerous. Studying their successes and failures reminds us of how tenuous gains in civil rights can be and how intolerance of one minority group is rarely an isolated lapse in a society’s treatment of its most vulnerable citizens.
Bearing this in mind, LGBT historians in the coming years can reassure themselves that they have more resources, colleagues, and platforms to draw on than preceding generations did. The interconnectedness of contemporary scholarship – spanning continents and crossing disciplines – provides an armature to withstand the coming trials, provided we keep speaking out and do not stay home hoping it will all pass.
Oral Histories Speak Truth to Power
MA Student, History, Rutgers University – Newark
Team Member, Queer Newark Oral History Project
In the short time we have before the President-elect takes office, scientists are pushing to archive as much U.S. government data on climate change as possible. According to a recent article from the Washington Post, the scientific community is highly concerned about the new administration’s bent towards scientific suppression. Although the inauguration is still a few weeks away, there has already been an insidious request by Trump’s transition team for lists of Energy Department employees and contractors who have taken part in climate change talks. To date, the Energy Department is resisting and in Toronto, climate change data from the Environmental Protection Agency will be mass copied as part of a “guerrilla archiving” hackathon event.
As these storm clouds continue to gather over our political landscape and the word of the year is “post-truth,” the work of the Queer Newark Oral History Project feels more crucial than ever. Writer and activist Darnell Moore, who was also the first chair of the City of Newark’s Advisory Commission on LGBTQ Concerns, Rutgers-Newark history professor Beryl Satter, and Rutgers-Newark Department Administrator for History and African American and African Studies Christina Strasburger started the project in 2011 as a community-based and community-driven endeavor. Queer Newark’s focus is to document Newark’s urban communities of color in an effort to expand the dominant historical narrative, which largely ignores the contributions of queer people of color. In Trump’s Amerikkka, lies made up of 140 characters are eaten up by far too many people convinced a billionaire has their best interest at heart, while in depth political analysis and fact-finding by reputable journalists gets dismissed as “butthurt” rants. It is hard to say where the obfuscation of truth will extend its reach next. Therefore Queer Newark, and public history projects like it, are more than a repository of human experience, they become an important part of the defense against authoritarian influence.
While Tony Perkins, Trump ally and head of hate group, Family Research Council, calls for a “purge” of pro-LGBTQ employees from the State Department, Queer Newark provides a counter-narrative to the spread of hate speech and misinformation dangerously hostile to queer individuals and families. On our website, black lesbian narrators like Renata Hill and Venice Brown—two of four friends who were characterized by the news as a “Gang of Killer Lesbians” and sent to prison for defending themselves against a man who violently attacked them because of their sexuality—expose the intersections of racism and homophobia in our court system and media. You can also listen to Alicia Heath-Toby describe what it was like for her and her partner to be the only African American lesbian couple in the 2006 legal battle for marriage equality in New Jersey. Without the preservation of stories like these, the new administration’s vision for our nation gains another foothold.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his book, Silencing the Past: Power and Production in History, writes, “History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” (xix) We must question what truths are lost from our historical records in order to dismantle dangerous ideologies of hegemonic forces. If you allow silences in the archive to persist, you allow power to exist unquestioned. The oral histories of Queer Newark speak truth to power. They disrupt the dominant paradigm and disseminate knowledge as a powerful act of resistance.
Against the Romance of Futurity
PhD Candidate, American Studies, University of Maryland
A little over a month ago I sat with a group of [predominantly liberal, white] coworkers processing various reactions to the outcome of the recent election. During our conversation, they almost uniformly expressed their genuine disappointment in the election results as well as their overall surprise at the increasing intensity with which acts of violence are happening against black and brown people—often queer and women of color—“in 2016.” Their surprise combined with the assumption that these issues should not be prevalent at this particular moment in our history suggests a progressive teleology wherein we should have arrived at a type of multicultural liberalism by now. We should be beyond sexism. And homophobia. And racism. The conversation sounded just like the ones I had with my [predominantly liberal, white] colleagues almost a decade ago during my undergraduate career while recounting childhood experiences growing up in a small rural town in central West Virginia.
My family moved from Sandusky, Ohio to West Virginia the summer before I started the seventh grade. At the time, the only cultural context through which I understood WV was the 1999 horror film The Blair Witch Project, which had just debuted. Needless to say, I was adamantly resistant to transplanting from a place where I had thriving friendships, familial relationships, and “a life” to one where an unidentifiable witch might lurk through the forest to claim my soul. On the first day of school, I found out how wrong I was; besides the fact that I had since dispelled all the myths presented to me in the film, I was confronted with the real threat lurking in the background.
It wasn’t witchcraft; it was racism. Interpersonal. Structural. Systemic. Racism. The stories are endless. Ask me.
That is to say, when I was just twelve-years-old I was forced to think deeply about how race, geography, and sexuality intersected. It was then that I started to realize the tapestry of American empire was sewn together through, against, and on the backs of black and brown folks, that there was no progress narrative to which I could cling, despite my colleagues’ desires, as the only progress I could ever measure was in my own change in height. And yet, every time I retell stories of my childhood, there is inevitably one—or four—person(s) who seems surprised, who is genuinely taken aback by how such racism could exist in 2000 (or 2005 or 2011 or 2016). What this tells me is people are profoundly committed to seeing this moment right now as one that is better than the moment preceding, as understanding the present as much better than the past and the future as always having the capacity to be even better than the now. And yet, there has been a cultural shift (at least amongst many liberals, perhaps exacerbated by Trump’s own campaign refrain to make American great “again,” which is to say to return to the past) since the election wherein the representations of the future have been fraught with a type of nihilistic, post-apocalyptic skepticism that suggests there is nothing forward to which we can look (presuming there ever was). While I want to otherwise resist this impulse, I think this is a productive place to sit for a while—a place of discomfort, a place that queer men and women of color often sit. Not to empathize. Not to know or consume the Other’s pain and trauma and trepidation. To strategize. To rethink time and the value of futurity. To reassess our relationship to the state and to think more critically and creatively about how to engage the state and state agents such that we account for the many people who cannot altogether afford to disavow it—people receiving housing subsidies, affordable healthcare, public assistance, and other forms of social welfare—while simultaneously not reinvesting in it as a site or recovery and retribution. It is a time to not only listen to but also center the voices and experiences of queer people of color. We have to work across and through difference, creating safety networks for when the state works—and it assuredly will—against us.
The day after the election, I did not mourn or cry or panic. Instead, I curled up and reread Wahneema Lubiano’s edited collection The House That Race Built. Not because I am better than or built differently from others but because being a black queer man in America has taught me that Trump is simply an embodiment of all of the intersecting modalities of oppression I—and many others before and with me—have encountered and been fighting against. I hope this moment encourages others to join. Right now. For now. Against the future.
BY John D'Emilio ON December 21, 2016
While the archival collections at Gerber/Hart are grounded in the history of Chicago, inevitably some of the papers reach beyond the city to illuminate national events. They reveal connections between the local and the national and the impact of each on the other. The papers of the Chicago chapter of the 1987 March on Washington Committee are a case in point.
The importance of the 1987 March on Washington cannot be overstated. It put the organized LGBT community on the national stage as never before. There had been a first lesbian and gay national march in 1979, but it drew fewer than 100,000 people to Washington. By the standards of the time, that marked it as decidedly unimpressive. By 1987, just eight years later, much had changed. The AIDS epidemic was raging across America, killing men who had sex with men in staggering numbers. The Reagan administration was disgracefully ignoring it. In 1986, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court added to the fury by upholding the constitutionality of state sodomy laws, with language that was gratuitously contemptuous of same-sex love and relationships. Put all this together, and the result was a march of 500,000 people in October 1987, perhaps the largest protest march to ever assemble in the nation’s capital.
But there was more. There was also mass civil disobedience and arrests in front of the Supreme Court, a mass wedding of same-sex couples to protest the absence of family recognition, and the powerful display, for the first time, of the Names Project Memorial Quilt on the Washington Mall. Key speakers at the rally were the Reverend Jesse Jackson, long-time African-American civil rights leader and a candidate in 1984 for the Democratic presidential nomination; Cesar Chavez, head of the United Farmworkers Union and perhaps the most visible Chicano leader in the U.S.; and Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, the largest feminist organization in the United States. Their participation was a dramatic sign that the LGBT movement had come of age and was recognized as a component of the broad struggle for social and economic justice in the United States.
Materials in the papers of the Chicago’s MOW Chapter provide a glimpse into just how wide and deep the organizing for the March was. The national steering committee had representatives from 18 states, and there were local committees in 43 states. For instance, three cities in Alabama, six in Georgia, and three in Maine had an organizing structure to get people to Washington. The Chicago chapter papers contain a list of endorsers of the March that filled several pages. It included labor unions, religious groups, and women’s organizations, as well as national, state, and local elected officials. It is worth remembering that every one of those endorsements came because an LGBT activist reached out to key figures in those groups, talked about the March and the issues, and persuaded them to lobby within their organization for an endorsement.
The papers also contain extensive materials about civil disobedience and the kind of training that was provided to individuals. A condition of joining in the civil disobedience outside the Supreme Court was that participants belong to a local affinity group. This meant that, in the summer and early fall of 1987, deep and trusting relationships were forming among groups of activists in cities across the country. As I looked through this material I could not help but wonder how much this contributed to the explosion of local direct action protests by ACT UP and other AIDS-activist groups in the months after the March on Washington, both in Chicago and around the country.
Besides the window that this collection opens into the scope and reach of national preparation, it also naturally gives a close sense of what the organizing looked like and accomplished in Chicago. Julie Valloni and Victor Salvo were the co-chairs of the Committee. In the course of organizing Chicagoans to go to Washington, they and other committee members sought local endorsements, a process that undoubtedly built support for a city non-discrimination ordinance which still hadn’t passed in 1986-87. They also worked closely with media in Chicago; one result was front-page coverage of the March by the Chicago Sun-Times. Perhaps the most visible local achievement was the endorsement letter the Committee received from Mayor Harold Washington. “It is with enthusiasm that I endorse the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights,” he wrote in his letter of September 17. “The breadth of the issues highlighted by the March – against racism and apartheid, as well as for civil rights – is consistent with the historic thrust of struggles for civil rights in this country.” Working hard to get a civil rights ordinance passed in Chicago, Mayor Washington also wrote: “The March will in turn support passage of a comprehensive Human Rights Ordinance here in Chicago.” Such a law was finally enacted a year after the March on Washington.
The last thing I’ll mention about this collection is a laugh that it elicited. In October 1986, the Vatican issued a major document on homosexuality that provoked a great deal of criticism and outrage, since it supported a theology that defined homosexual behavior as criminal. But one result was that, in Chicago, it led to the formation of a new group called “P.O.P.E.” The letters stood for “Pissed-Off Pansies Energized.” You’ve got to love our sense of humor!
BY John D'Emilio ON November 30, 2016
Our life stories are the core content of LGBT history. Yes, our organizations and businesses produce records that detail important work. And mainstream institutions and social structures affect us deeply. But the texture and the challenges of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender at different times and in different places will only fully emerge if we make an effort to collect a broad range of our life stories. Reading – or hearing – the life story of an individual is not only compelling and absorbing in its own right. It can also open doors of understanding and offer revealing insights into what it was like to be . . . well, whatever combination of identities the individual brings to the interview. Each of our life stories will have something to tell us beyond the L,G,B, or T. We are also the products of regional culture, of racial and ethnic identity, of religious upbringing, of our particular family life, of class background, of work environments, and other matters as well.
The truth of this was brought home to me when I stumbled upon the small box of papers at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives labeled “Robinn Dupree.” In November 1996, a professor in folk studies at Western Kentucky University took his class of graduate students to Nashville to see a performance of female impersonators at a bar, The Connection. One of those students, Erin Roth, was so impressed by the event and by the lead performer, Robinn Dupree, that she asked for permission not to do her seminar paper on the assigned project – interviews/studies of “riverboat captains and old-time musicians” – but instead be allowed to interview Dupree and write about the art of female impersonation. The professor said yes, and so Roth conducted two interviews with Dupree, in March and April 1997. Fortunately for everyone else, she donated the tapes, a typed transcript, and her seminar paper to Gerber/Hart, so that Dupree’s account of her life is now available for study and inclusion in our collective history.
To summarize her story briefly: Dupree was born in 1952 in Chicago, her mother of Sicilian background and her father a Puerto Rican of African heritage. When she was in the 8th grade, she told her mother she was gay. As a teenager, she discovered the Baton Show Lounge, run by Jim Flint and already well-known for its performances by female impersonators. Soon she was sneaking out of the house to go there regularly. “It’s like I found what I wanted to do,” she told Roth, and soon Flint was coaching her and she began performing regularly.
Dupree performed at the Baton for almost a decade, and then moved on to another club, La Cage. In 1982, her boyfriend of ten years, who had connections to the Mafia, was killed in a car bombing outside their apartment building. Dupree realized it would be best to leave Chicago quickly, and she resettled in Louisville, Kentucky, where she rapidly made her way into the local female impersonator scene. Over the next decades, she performed for long stretches in Louisville, Nashville, and Indianapolis. According to online sources, her last show before retiring as a performer was just a few months ago, on February 13, 2016.
Reading the transcript of the interviews as well as Roth’s paper, I was struck by certain themes, some of which likely have broad applicability and some of which might be particular to Dupree. One involves economics. For those like Dupree who take the work of impersonation seriously as an art form and devote themselves to it, the economic realities can be harsh. On one hand, costs are high: the dresses, the jewelry, and everything else associated with the glamor of their performance are expensive, and new apparel has to be bought regularly for new shows. On the other hand, wages are low. Performers depend on tips, but these are unpredictable and often will not support them sufficiently. Thus, most impersonators need to have a day job, but that brings them up against the gender boundaries of the culture.
Another theme is family. As Dupree became a well-known, successful, and seasoned performer, younger impersonators-to-be came to her for advice, tutoring, and support, just as she had received from Jim Flint when she was starting and barely out of her teens. To many, she was their “mother,” and to Dupree, they were her “daughters.” The terms conjure up images of a warm and intimate family of choice, which it is. But behind the pull to use those terms is a harsh reality. After Dupree started performing, her biological mother broke off contact with her, and they remained separated for ten years. “Most people who do drag or want to become women, their family totally disowns them,” Dupree told Roth in their interview. Although Dupree acknowledged that much had changed in the 25-plus years since she had started performing, the loss of connection to families of origin remains true for many. Thus the relationships that were established had significant emotional and practical meaning. Dupree’s daughters often lived with her for long stretches as they worked to establish a life for themselves. Yes, it was a chosen family, but it was also a deeply needed family.
A third issue emerged in reading the interview with Dupree: the complexities and shadings of identity. At the time of the interview, in 1997, transgender had just recently established itself as a term of preference in the LGBT movement and in activist circles. Dupree described herself as “a pre-operative transsexual . . . I live every day of my life as a woman.” She had had surgeries done on her face to accentuate a kind of feminine beauty. She had also done hormone treatments in order to increase her believability as a performer in the world of female impersonation. “That’s why I actually ended up taking hormones and becoming a pre-op,” she told Roth. “Not to become a woman, but to look as much like a woman on stage as possible.” And within this world of stage performance, at least in the decades in which Dupree was an important presence, a range of self-understandings existed. “I have some daughters who want to be just entertainers. Then I have other daughters who want to go all the way through and become a woman.”
The Dupree oral history at Gerber/Hart is a treasure. We need more of them. Go out and interview someone – now!