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Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity

BY ON April 24, 2017

My objective in creating stonewallhistory.us has been to collect a range of documents, images, texts and testimony about the controversial and crucial Stonewall rebellion. Presenting these items in an online digital database provides an entry point into the complex, tangled, web of stories and memories that construct the Stonewall narrative. Through this engagement with the past, the audience can determine for themselves if answers to the many questions that remain are possible – or even desirable. The accepted Stonewall narrative is that the riots are the spark that ignited the LGBT rights movement.  For the most part, the community has embraced this view.  Although the collective understanding that Stonewall is significant is not debated, on most other aspects agreement is hard to find: Which segment of the community led the way organizing protest? Did gay male social networks have a profound effect on organizing in the gay rights movement? Was the early homophile movement influential, or even considered by the more radical movement that emerged post-Stonewall?  Were trans individuals influential in gay liberation?  Were people of color invited to participate in activism?  Who was really there that night in June of 1969?  Who started the rebellion?

The facts and details of the rebellion are open for interpretation and in my opinion should remain so, for as this project hopes to demonstrate, Stonewall and the resulting birth of the “gay revolution” were very much spontaneous and creative. Barbie Zelizer writes in Remembering to Forget  (a study of the impact of images of the Holocaust on collective memory) “…we allow collective memories to fabricate, rearrange, elaborate and omit details about the past, pushing aside accuracy and authenticity so as to accommodate broader issues of identity formation, power and authority, and political affiliation.”[1] Zelizer’s thesis, which could also be considered a warning, helped me to recognize that even the stories that emanate from those with the least power, who exist on the margins of society, are impacted by political and social influences. In the case of the Stonewall narrative the broader social movements of the time, the militant protest culture, the youth-oriented counterculture and consciousness raising all converged to help leaders of the nascent gay rights movement form a concept of identity, affiliation, and authority for the community. In this case, the authority that was exerted was the concept of oppression.  Prior to Stonewall, many gays and lesbians existed quietly in the closet but enjoyed a moderate level of comfort and stability within their social lives and to a degree in society at large as long as they were reserved and respectable. The new authority, exercised by the liberation movement, was one that asked for more than tolerance and required acceptance.

Come Out! newspaper of Gay Liberation Front, 1970

I decided early on that recording oral histories would be a crucial part of this public history project.  Alessandro Portelli’s examination of the history of the labor movement in Italy through oral histories was an inspiration for this decision.  I found some similarities in the blurring of facts and chronology between the story of Stonewall and the narrative he chronicles in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories. Nan Alamilla-Boyd notes that when writing his book, Gay New York George Chauncey states, “early in my research it became clear that oral histories would be the single most important source of evidence concerning the internal workings of the gay world.”[2]  In my interviews I too became keenly aware of the hierarchies present within gay social circles. The power of listening to the recorded voices of my informants, elder members of the community, provides a uniquely accessible point of entry for those who may not be familiar with the events described. The crucial next step now that the site is built, the data collected and content written, is to disseminate it. Hearing the voices of older members of the community is something that can draw a listener into the rich history of the liberation movement. Alamilla-Boyd talks about the voices heard in oral histories as texts “…open to interpretation and their disclosures should be understood as part of a larger process of reiteration.” She questions whether factual details matter or whether a more romantic story is told through oral history.[3]  Certainly the Stonewall story is romanticized as any other “battle” or “revolution” has been throughout history. But for some, it was perceived as a tool in a broader series of actions and reactions. The activist community in New York was clearly media savvy and therefore capitalized on the attention the unrest attracted, even the most disparaging. If it were not for the media coverage and the ensuing controversies, the commemorative potential of Stonewall may not have been realized.

The individual interpretations of participants, witnesses, activists, and authors also provide the means to shape the factors that contributed to Stonewall’s “success” as a catalyst and create a narrative that resonates beyond simple facts and a linear sequence of events. The development of this schematic narrative is echoed in the testimony of those I interviewed and also in the earliest written accounts such as the Rat Subterranean News coverage of the incident: “Soon pandemonium broke loose. Cans, bottles, rocks, trash cans, finally a parking meter crashed the windows and door,” the Rat reporter, known only as “Tom” writes.  He concludes, “What was and should have always been theirs, what should have been the free control of the people was dramatized, shown up for what it really was: an instrument of power and exploitation.  It was theater, totally spontaneous. There was no bullshit.”[4]

Come Out! newspaper of Gay Liberation Front, 1970

The development of this story into the schematic narrative of Stonewall is set in motion by the grassroots organizing that develops almost immediately after the first night of the rebellion. The narrative that develops represents elements that are derived from the protest movement culture of the late sixties and is tied to notions of identity that envelop the specific narrative (individual components that are arranged and interpreted schematically). [5] Craig Rodwell, Jim Fouratt, Martha Shelley as well as Sylvia Rivera can be seen as shaping this narrative of Stonewall Rebellion, while Dick Leitsch, Vito Russo and others authorize its re-telling. Despite the fact that this was by no means the first violent protest against police harassment, the event is instilled with the significance of the activist’s interpretation within the context of broader social movements of the time.

I hope to continue building the collection of stories, images, and documents contained on Stonewallhistory.us with the goal of bringing in as many voices and interpretations of the past as possible. Contributions of digitized archival material or written testimony and comments are welcome and can be submitted through the “contribute an item” tab on the home page.

__________________________________________________________________

[1] Barbie Zelizer, Remebering to Forget, University of Chicago Press; 1998

[2] Nan Alamilla-Boyd. 2008. “Who is the Subject? Queer Theory Meets Oral History.” Journal of the History of Sexuality (2): 177

[3] Ibid.

[4] Unknown, “The Rat, July 9-23, 1969, pg 6.,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed April 7, 2017, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/56.

[5] Knut Lundby. 2008. Digital Storytelling, Mediatized Stories: Self-Representations in New Media Peter Lang.

Digital Archives | Bridging the Gap​

BY ON April 20, 2017

Founded in 2010, the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony is an online archival research project based in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. The archives work in partnership with Simon Fraser University (SFU) and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

This week, the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony (ALOT) launches Bridging the Gap, a research initiative that aims to connect the broader community with their archives through the use of digital technologies. Now, users can record and contribute oral history interviews to the archives themselves and engage with other participatory features. To increase awareness about ALOT’s holdings and enable users to learn how to conduct oral interviews, they are also launching a new podcast and blog, both of which you can find here: http://www.alotarchives.org/blog

Interest in lesbian and queer women’s history is on the rise. Recent research by the ALOT team found that people searching for the term “lesbian history” have increased by 30% in the past two years alone. This proves that there are people who want to learn about and engage with their history. The Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony is a much-needed resource to hear real, raw, and honest accounts of lesbian and queer history.

You can find them on Twitter and Facebook.

 

In the Archives | Friedrich Radszuweit and the False Security of Collaboration

BY ON March 29, 2017

In March of 1932, Weimar-era gay publisher and activist Friedrich Radszuweit died of tuberculosis. Born in 1876, Radszuweit came to public gay life in 1923, when he founded the Bund für Menschenrecht (Federation for Human Rights, or BfM) in Berlin and began publishing dozens of gay, lesbian, and trans*-themed periodicals. The BfM grew to become the largest (indeed in some sense the only) mass-membership LGBT organization of its time. It claimed 100,000 members at a time when other Weimar gay organizations (like Magnus Hirschfeld’s scientific institute Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee he cofounded, and the masculinist Gemeinschaft der Eigenen) were vanguardist and tiny, circulating widely-distributed periodicals but lacking the ability or ambition to mobilize.

Radszuweit, on the other hand, had both. In the issue of Blätter für Menschenrecht (one of his firm’s flagship publications) that memorialized his death, his lover Martin remembered a survey Friedrich had conducted “in times of political peace.” He had sent 50,000 questionnaires about politics to his members, of which just over 37,000 were returned. The results:

1292 People’s Party,
8112 German National People’s Party,
1917 German People’s Party,
2903 Center Party,
709 German Democratic Party,
9207 Social Democratic Party,
7002 Communist Party,
16 German-Hanoverian,
6704 Independent/No Party.

This statistic has thus proved that homosexuals have spread to all parties, and that therefore only a neutral organization was the only possibility.¹

Of the approximately 31,000 members who stated their affiliation with a political party, just over half belonged to parties of the (at least nominally) Marxist left, with the rest approximately evenly divided between the center and the right. Nevertheless, for Radszuweit and his organization, they helped prove a larger point: that homosexuality was essentially apolitical, the movement “based solely on the grounds of law and human understanding.”² No alliances with parties were pursued, and while members of the organization were given information about which parties (the Social Democrats and the Communists) had supported the reform of sodomy laws, articles published under Radszuweit’s and other bylines across his firm’s publications sent conflicting political messages. Martin, whom he adopted as his son so that he could inherit the organization and firm, had been a Hitler Youth member who met Radszuweit while street brawling with Communists.

I’m in the archives of the Schwules* Museum Berlin — and many other university and private archives and libraries in Berlin — on the hunt for connections and comparisons between prewar Weimar queer identity formation and the intellectual development of the postwar California-based queer movements, mapping these onto the diaspora of refugee artists and intellectuals from the Nazi regime to Los Angeles. In the middle of competing and intertwining narratives of uniqueness and assimilation, of sociality and individuality, of collaboration with or separation from other social movements, up came a folder in which Schwules* Museum archivists have collected a series of pro-fascist and antisemitic articles written by Radszuweit in the early 1930s.

In January 1931, in his lesbian-oriented magazine Die Freundin, Radzuweit wrote, “We do not believe that even the National Socialists will proceed so rigorously against homosexuals as they announced before the September 1930 elections. Anyone who constantly reads the National Socialist newspapers, especially the ‘Völkischer Beobachter,’ will sometimes find some very reasonable articles on homosexuality. These newspapers generally do not condemn homosexuals as social pariahs, but on the whole only want to go after those Jews [das Judentum] (especially Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld) who wish to, in an ugly way…drag people’s sex lives into the public.”³ Radszuweit argued that even right-wing parties could be trusted to come around on the homosexual question:

We do not want to argue here and to justify what morality and so-called custom are, we only want to make the point that everything can be changed over the course of time. Moral concepts are different today than they were a hundred years ago. This is even acknowledged by right-wing circles…the vast majority of homosexual men of Germany do not intend to publicly display their relations, and would never have thought of creating a homosexual movement if the legislators were not so irrational…the homosexual men of Germany are of the opinion that one should not talk about these things at all, and that no one is concerned with the way in which two men, by their free will, and by mutual consent, have sexual intercourse in their secret chamber.

Later that year, in an article in his Freundschaftsblatt newsletter so positive it inspired the mainstream centrist paper Die Welt to write it up under the headline “The Third Gender Welcomes the Third Reich,” Radszuweit claimed that the presence of homosexuals such as SA commander Ernst Röhm proved Nazi leaders were not personally homophobic, and that Hitler fit into a line of great manly leaders, many of whom were homosexual. The article, structured as an open letter, praised “Herr Hitler’s” focus on “political issues” rather than “sexual questions,” offering to “inform” him in a “non-partisan” way about “the prevalence of homosexuality.” It presented a list of “reasonable” requests, including equalizing the age of consent, allowing same-sex sexual contact in private between consenting adults, and strengthening laws against prostitution and intergenerational sex. In defenses of the article published in later issues of Die Freundin, Radszuweit acknowledged that the “Hitler camp” created anti-homosexual “propaganda,” but argued that the names of homosexuals in the Nazi Party should be kept secret and that their presence meant the Party would not seriously prosecute what we might now call ‘heteronormative’ homosexuals if in power.

Radszuweit, as the publisher of widely circulated newsletters of a genuinely mass-movement organization, had the opportunity to mobilize his not-insignificant forces against the rise of fascism, and refused. Instead, he chose to collaborate with antisemitic rhetoric, denounce the most outrageous fascist statements in mild terms, and hope for accommodations and concessions once they took power.

We are too often today, in the face of a new and global and growing far-right that threatens economic, environmental, racial, and sexual justice, presented with new forms of this upper-class collaborationism. Twinks for Trump leader Lucian Wintrich claimed that the left is “just as if not more reactionary” than the radical right and compared himself to Robert Mapplethorpe after protests of his pro-Trump “Daddy Will Save Us” exhibition. Florian Philippot, Marine le Pen’s openly gay campaign manager, has masterminded a campaign strategy of turning French LGBT voters against immigrants. Twenty percent of French gays interviewed on the Hornet dating app, the same percentage who indicated their support for the hard-right proto-Nazi German National People’s Party in Radszuweit’s survey, say they will vote for le Pen in the first round of April’s elections.¹⁰ Gay magazines appealing to a broad readership publish glossy profiles of now-discredited fascist sympathizer and gay minstrel Milo Yiannopoulos.¹¹

Most extraordinary of all was the praise given President Trump by San Francisco Pride, after a New York Times article indicated that his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner had persuaded him not to issue an executive order overturning many pro-LGBT Obama-era executive orders. Trump instead issued a press release insisting that the President “continues to be respectful and supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, just as he was throughout the election.” Pride reposted the Times article on Facebook, commenting, “Very cautiously optimistic, with a nod of gratefulness.”

This was terrifying to read the same week as the pro-Hitler Radszuweit articles. To their credit, San Francisco activists forced Pride to rescind their optimistic statement and restate rote concern for the displaced, the targeted, the vulnerable. But the danger remains. It is entirely possible that in the United States and/or Europe, white middle- and upper-class gays and lesbians will choose to collaborate with the growing far right after being promised, however perfunctorily, that it does not seek to target them. These parties and figures (Trump, le Pen, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland) are two-faced on gay issues, creating advertisements and messaging targeted at the racial insecurities and class privilege of newly-married older white gay and lesbian couples, while simultaneously promising religious and social conservatives the revocation of those rights and even, in the case of one state AfD politician in Saxony, a return to Nazi- and Weimar-era sodomy laws.

A bitter irony: the BfM’s cautious refusal to take a stand on the crucial issues of its day, its kind words about Hitler, its collaboration with poisonous anti-Semitism, bought it exactly no protection when the Nazi regime set its murderous sights on LGBT people and institutions. The final document in the organization’s file at the Schwules* Museum celebrates the organization’s dissolution, reading, “The liquidation has ended. Heil Hitler!”¹² Stormtroopers had raided and destroyed the publishing house. This document, like the Nazi bunker on my street and the tiny bronze memorials to murdered Jews set into the cobblestone sidewalks, is a reminder of the dangers of our time and their clear echoes in the past. Accommodation and collaboration are moral and political failures, even on their own terms. There is no sure path to safety except to win the fight for the kind of world we want.


  1. 1. Blätter für Menschenrecht, April/Mai 1932. Box 2, Folder 1. Sammlung Radszuweit — Schwules* Museum Berlin.
  2. 2. Ibid.
  3. 3. Die Freundin,
    Jan. 11, 1931. Box 6. Sammlung Friedrich Radszuweit — Schwules* Museum Berlin
  4. 4. Ibid.
  5. 5. Die Welt am Montag, Aug.17, 1931. Box 6. Sammlung Friedrich Radszuweit — Schwules* Museum Berlin
  6. 6. Herrn Adolf Hitler, München. Die Freundin, Aug. 12, 1931. Box 6. Sammlung Friedrich Radszuweit — Schwules* Museum Berlin
  7. 7. Die Freundin, February 1931. Box 6. Sammlung Friedrich Radszuweit — Schwules* Museum Berlin
  8. 8. http://www.breitbart.com/milo/2016/10/08/wintrich-trump-art-show-new-york/
  9. 9. https://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/frances-nationalist-party-is-winning-gay-support?utm_term=.mydAYV8Yz#.odKNv4LvV
  10. 10. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/03/01/1-in-5-french-gays-are-voting-for-anti-gay-marriage-marine-le-pen/
  11. 11. http://www.out.com/out-exclusives/2016/9/21/send-clown-internet-supervillain-milo-doesnt-care-you-hate-him
  12. 12. Box 1: Vereinsakte. Sammlung Radszuweit — Schwules* Museum Berlin

Family Viewing: Historians Watch When We Rise

BY 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.


Susan Stryker, Wrestling With San Francisco’s Past

Emily Hobson, #WhenCleveRose

David Román, “Write Their Names”

Kwame Holmes, Finding a “Home” in the Bay


 

Wrestling with San Francisco’s Past
Susan Stryker

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.

Jonathan Majors as Ken Jones, Austin P. McKenzie as Cleve Jones, and Michael DeLorenzo as Jose Sarria

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.

 


 

#WhenCleveRose
Emily Hobson

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.

Guy Pearce as Cleve Jones

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”
David Román

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.

Bobbi Campbell, photography by Marie Ueda, c. 1984

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.

Kevin McHale (left) as Bobbi Campbell

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
Kwame Holmes

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.

Michael K. Williams as Ken Jones and Sam Jaeger as Richard

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.

In the Archives | Chicago’s Gay Academic Union

BY ON March 13, 2017

A flyer from a 1983 Chicago GAU event. Courtesy of the Gerber Hart Library and Archives.

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.

Call for Papers | On Uses of Black Camp

BY 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, a.pochmara@uw.edu.pl, or Justyna Wierzchowska, j.wierzchowska@uw.edu.pl by May, 31 2017.

In the Archives | Gay Liberation

BY ON February 7, 2017

August 1965 Cover of Mattachine Magazine, from OutHistory.org

August 1965 Cover of Mattachine Magazine, from OutHistory.org

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.

AHA Committee on LGBT History Awards

BY 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.

In the Archives | Listen to the Voices

BY ON January 11, 2017

Making Gay History Podcast LogoThis 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.

In the Archives | The Irwin Keller Papers: 1987 Sexual Orientation and the Law Conference

BY ON January 9, 2017

sexualorientationconference018To 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.”