Posts by John D'Emilio
John D'Emilio has been researching and writing about the history of sexuality and social movements for forty years. His books include Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, about the pre-Stonewall homophile movement, and Lost Prophet, a biography of Bayard Rustin. He recently retired from his teaching position at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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 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!
BY John D'Emilio ON November 16, 2016
On more than a few occasions in the last three or four years, as I’ve read the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune in the morning, I have had the sensation that I was reading an LGBT community newspaper. The range and number of stories have sometimes been staggering. There have been stories on the fight for marriage equality, of course, but I was also encountering news about changes in federal policies, tech industry initiatives, sports figures coming out, arts and culture profiles, young people organizing in their schools, op-ed pieces, and much, much more. In addition to the quantity of material, the positive perspective embedded in the reporting has also been noteworthy. The underlying point of view in the coverage and reporting has been one that affirms and validates LGBT communities and our fight for acceptance and justice.
Needless to say, it was not always so. In the pre-Stonewall years, before the rise of a militant movement, more typical coverage about our community was the alternation between a deep silence – no mention or recognition at all – and lurid stories that emphasized crime, danger, and moral corruption. This didn’t all magically change after Stonewall and the rise of a gay liberation movement. Part of what contributed to the rapid spread of AIDS in the 1980s was the tendency of the media either to ignore the story, thus perpetuating ignorance and an inability to act effectively against its spread, or to sensationalize the epidemic and thus perpetuate the deep cultural and institutional bias against men who have sex with men.
I received a powerful reminder of how slow the media was to change when I explored the GLAAD-Chicago collection at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. The seven boxes of material, which span the first half of the 1990s, were donated by Randy Snyder, who served as the chapter’s executive director. GLAAD, which stands for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, was a media watchdog organization formed in New York City in 1985 by Vito Russo and Darrell Yates Rist, both writers, as well as others. They acted in response to some of the horrifying coverage of AIDS coming from papers like the New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch. By the early 1990s, GLAAD had spawned perhaps a dozen local chapters, of which Chicago was one.
One of the major emphases in the work of GLAAD was its monitoring of the newly powerful “Religious Right.” For those interested in learning about and exploring the Religious Right more deeply in these years, the collection is a rich source of material. GLAAD kept track of and collected publications produced by organizations like the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Institute, Focus on the Family and, locally, the Illinois Family Institute that, even today in 2016, is out there rousing opposition to initiatives to protect the safety and well being of transgender youth. The work of Paul Cameron especially drew GLAAD’s attention. A psychologist who was expelled from the American Psychological Association in 1983, Cameron produced reports with titles like “Criminality, Social Disruption, and Homosexuality”; “Child Molestation and Homosexuality”; and “Murder, Violence, and Homosexuality.” The GLAAD-Chicago papers also provide insight into the organizing being done to contain and discredit the Religious Right. Materials produced in the 1990s by organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and People for the American Way can be found here.
Interestingly, the work of a media watchdog group like GLAAD in these years was not confined to exposing extremists. Mainstream media outlets, including those that might be defined as liberal, needed to be targeted as well. A case in point was the Chicago Sun-Times, the city’s liberal daily paper. In the space of two months in 1994, the paper published two editorials that, shockingly, sounded as if the editorial board had lifted passages out of a Religious Right report. In response to the suburb of Oak Park extending medical benefits to the same-sex partners of town employees, the Sun-Times editorialized about “the importance of more traditional families” and “the central role in society traditional families must still assume.” Then, in an editorial coinciding with the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, the Sun-Times declared: “we oppose extending favored status to gays . . . the heterosexual majority is justifiably concerned that its values not be marginalized . . . and that a new set of rights not be extended to a privileged class.” GLAAD’s response was uncensored: “you have bought into the Religious Right’s lies and myths,” it wrote to the editorial page editor. Your claims, it said, were “vague and fallacious.”
As with so many collections, there are also the jaw-dropping surprises. The GLAAD-Chicago papers include a “Mike Royko” folder. The Pulitzer Prize winning columnist was a fixture of Chicago journalism for decades. He had a take-no-prisoners style of writing that called out politicians and other public figures. His biography of Mayor Daley, Boss, was a best seller. In the folder is an unsigned typed memo, dated May 22, 1995, and with it a copy of a police report, dated December 17, 1994, documenting Royko’s arrest on DUI and resisting arrest charges in conjunction with a car crash. The memo called attention to comments of Royko’s documented in the report. Among other things, he screamed at the responding officer “you cocksucker” and “get your hands off me, you fucking fag.” Later he yelled, “Get away from me. What are you, fags?” and “Jag off, queer,” and finally, “What’s your ethnicity, you fag?” Because of Royko’s stature, the memo and report, which was sent to several LGBT organizations, created a media moment in Chicago
All this and more are to be found in the collection. GLAAD’s work helps explain why the tone and content of media coverage of LGBT issues is different today than it was even two decades ago. It didn’t happen by magic, by some mysterious process of evolution that brings progress. It took activist commitment and energy, and some of that commitment and energy are documented in the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives.
BY John D'Emilio ON October 31, 2016
One of the pleasant surprises that comes from snooping through the collections at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives is seeing how rich with information even small collections can be. The papers of Melissa Ann Merry are a perfect illustration of that.
Merry was a Chicago-based bisexual activist and performer. Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1963, she went to college at Eastern Michigan University and then moved to Chicago soon after graduating in 1986. It was in Chicago that she came out as bisexual, and she soon plunged into a world of bisexual activism that was coming together in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Locally, she got involved in the Bisexual Political Action Coalition (BIPAC) and was also a Midwest representative to the national organization BiNet (Bisexual Network of the USA), which grew out of the first national bisexual conference, held in San Francisco in June 1990. The papers she donated to Gerber/Hart consist of three boxes of material, almost all from between 1990 and 1995.
The first thing that emerged very clearly from surveying Merry’s papers is how important both the 1993 March on Washington and the 1994 Stonewall ’25 commemoration in NYC proved to be for bisexual activism and mobilization. Merry has several folders of material on each of them. First there was the organizing that needed to happen in order to have “Bi” be included in the official name of the 1993 March. Once that was achieved, planning for the March provided a great spur to local organizing across the U.S. to make sure that bisexuals participated in and were targeted by the efforts to guarantee a vast turnout in Washington in April 1993. Thus, the March proved to be not a single event, but a tool that had consequences afterward in the heightened level of local organization that it produced. The same can be said of the buildup for and aftermath of Stonewall ’25, which brought massive numbers of people to New York and achieved extraordinary media visibility. Not only did more local organizing emerge from both of them, but they also led to higher levels of national networking.
The increasing breadth and depth of bisexual organizing also emerges from another feature of Melissa Ann Merry’s papers. The collection contains a substantial number of bisexual publications from the early to mid-1990s. Among them are Anything That Moves, from the San Francisco Bay Area; Bi-Lines, from Madison, Wisconsin; Bi-Monthly from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network Newsletter; North Bi Northwest, out of Seattle; Bi-Atlanta; Bi-Centrist, from Washington, DC; Bi-Lines, from Chicago; and Bi-Focus from Philadelphia.
These newsletters and community magazines suggest that bisexuals were organizing on a far more extensive scale than is commonly recognized. In rare instances, an individual might prove capable of writing, producing, and distributing such a publication. But, typically, it requires a group to do the work of gathering the information, writing it up, and building an audience to read the material and sustain the newsletter or magazine. The existence of publications like these also suggests that there were sufficient groups and issues and campaigns to write about, thereby confirming that this was a period of intense and productive bisexual activism.
Finally, working my way through these three boxes of Merry’s papers also brought many smiles to my face. Besides documents, her collection also includes physical objects – tee-shirts, buttons, and political stickers. Many of them display a sense of humor that will easily produce chortles of laughter for the knowing but may also perhaps produce a moment of shock that successfully grabs the attention of those who may never have thought of bisexuality before. To mention just a few: there is a tee-shirt that read “Caution: Ice-pick wielding bisexual fag-dyke. Do not agitate!” Another portrays a line of women, some back-to-back and others face-to-face, with looks of ecstasy on their faces and the words “Primal Clit: Lesbians and Bi-Womyn in Radical Action.” There were stickers, meant to be placed on poles and walls and cars, one of which read “Bisexuals Don’t Sit on Fences. We Build Bridges!!!” And, finally, many buttons, among them the following: “I’m Bisexual – You’re Confused”; “Bi-Sexuals Are Equal Opportunity Lovers”; and “Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood . . . and I Took Both.”
As I said at the beginning of this post, the Melissa Ann Merry Papers might be seen as a relatively small collection of three boxes, but they are packed with material that, cumulatively, provides rich insight into key years of bisexual activism in the United States.
BY John D'Emilio ON October 19, 2016
“In the archives.” It’s a phrase that those of us who do history – whether as a profession or a passion or both – have used for a long time. It sometimes serves as shorthand to say that we’re doing research. But it is also often meant literally. “In the archives” is where we have gone to read the letters, diaries, memos, reports, and so many other documents from the past that are the raw material for writing histories of almost anything.
Of course, in the era of the web, much archival material is relocating to hard drives and cloud servers. Many archives are digitizing at least some of their collections, and many individuals and organizations place the written documents they produce on websites as well. The result is that a day spent “in the archives” can now mean a day spent with one’s tablet, at a coffee shop, working one’s way through digitized records of the past.
Still, even with these revolutionary technological changes, the physical reality of archives as places that house the records of the past remains important. And this seems particularly true for the LGBTQ community. The generations of “wearing a mask” and having to pass as heterosexual, of invisibility and enforced silencing of our own voices, and of oppressive distortions about our lives in the mainstream media have all made collecting and preserving our historical records an act of liberation.
The first LGBT community-based archival effort that I am aware of was the Lesbian Herstory Archives, founded in New York in 1974 by lesbian members of the Gay Academic Union. Forty-plus years later, it still exists, and it occupies its own building in Brooklyn, New York. The founders of the LHA made it their mission to spread the word about the importance of archiving for our community’s liberation, and in the 1970s and 1980s core members like Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel traveled widely giving public presentations meant to inspire and energize audiences. The impulse to create community history projects and archives spread over the next decades. It is not an easy thing to succeed at, since it requires a certain amount of technical knowledge and skill. It’s also not the kind of thing that is easily funded, since many funders just don’t “get” that history is a tool for fighting homophobia. Nevertheless, when the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR) of the Society of American Archivists published a new edition of their Lavender Legacies Guide in 2012, they were able to locate by my count about twenty archives created and sustained by LGBT communities around the United States. And, the list of mainstream institutions that have developed LGBT collections, such as universities and state historical societies, is much, much longer. Places like Cornell University, the Schomburg Library in Harlem, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Southern California have made substantial commitments to developing LGBTQ archival collections.
To me, this is all very exciting and fills me with hope. In 1974, when I first began doing the research for what became Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983), except for a short visit to the Institute for Sex Research (commonly known as The Kinsey Institute), none of my research was conducted “in the archives.” I visited the homes of activists, and worked my way through file cabinets and boxes that they kept in their studies, living rooms, basements, and garages. I visited the offices of homophile groups that still existed and explored their organizational records. In the case of the New York Mattachine Society, I was told one day that it would be closing at the end of the month, and I was welcome to take their office files if it would be useful to me! Needless to say, I responded affirmatively, and for the next several years two four-drawer file cabinets of Mattachine records filled one of the closets in my apartment. For a while, I didn’t have to travel far to be “in the archives.” But the experience serves as a reminder of how precarious the survival of our historical records has been.
While I am very pleased that there are more and more mainstream institutions that are committing themselves to preserving our history, I have a special affection for our community-based archives. They remain near and accessible to the community they are a part of and that they exist to serve. Creating and sustaining them are themselves acts of community building. And the materials that they house very much reflect that intimate connection to the local. Much of what is housed in these archives are not the records of the rich and the famous, the big headline-makers. Instead, LGBT archives tend to have the materials of local activists and community members, people whose work and lives may not have captured the attention of Fox News or The New York Times, but whose lives and actions make up the substance of the past. Many of the books that have been written on queer history over the last two decades might not have been possible without the existence of these community institutions and the stories contained in their many shelves of acid-free boxes.
The Gerber/Hart Library and Archives in Chicago is one of those community-based institutions. Founded in 1981, it came into being in part through the work of Gregory Sprague, a graduate student and activist who began doing research in the 1970s on queer Chicago history and who was part of the early national network of folks exploring LGBT history. While Gerber/Hart contains material from the Midwest generally, especially periodicals, the heart of its archival collection consists of the personal papers and organizational records generated in the greater Chicago area. Some collections are small, consisting of a single acid-free box; others are massive, spanning half a century and filling over a hundred boxes. The overwhelming majority of the collections contain materials from the 1960s forward, but there are a few that reach back into the earlier decades of the twentieth century.
Lately, I’ve been spending a couple of afternoons a week exploring some of these collections, trying to get a sense of the range of material and what it can reveal. Call me a history nerd, but there is something very exciting about finding a document that suddenly gives me a new understanding of where we’ve come from and how we’ve gotten here. For all the research and writing I have done, there is still much to be found that will make me smarter, make me grasp the world around me better, and help me think better about how to make change in the world.
Over the next months, I plan to share in occasional blog posts discoveries that I’ve stumbled upon in the Gerber/Hart archives. Its collections are rich, and making them more visible hopefully will spur more people to use them. Plus, I hope you’ll learn some new and surprising and fascinating things about our LGBT past. And, I also hope that folks from other community-based archives will do some blogging on OutHistory about their collections.
John D’Emilio is a Director of OutHistory.org and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Illinois Chicago.
BY John D'Emilio ON March 4, 2015
Last week, I was spending time working my way through my notes from the interviews I did back in the 1970s with pre-Stonewall “homophile” activists. I’ve been imagining that, at some point, I will put them all on Outhistory so that the material will be available to future researchers wanting to explore that topic. Almost everyone I interviewed at that time has since passed away, so there are no opportunities to explore their experiences directly today.
While reading through the notes of my interview with Gerard Brissette, who in the early 1950s was responsible for bringing Mattachine discussion groups to the San Francisco Bay Area, I noticed this: “Rod McKuen went to May 1953 convention.” It caught my attention, I think, because I had read just a few weeks earlier obituaries of McKuen, and did not remember any mention of his being gay, and certainly nothing about gay activism of any sort. I went on-line to read the New York Times obituary, and sure enough, nothing gay turned up [An excellent commentary on the silences in the accounts of McKuen’s life was posted by Gillian Frank on Notches.
I had absolutely no memory of Brissette mentioning McKuen when I interviewed him at his home in El Cerrito, California in November 1976. It was a detail that did not contribute to the narrative of what happened at the Mattachine meetings in 1953, so it never made its way into the account I wrote in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. As a result, for the last 40 years, this little tidbit has been lying untouched and unnoticed, of use to no one.
I interviewed my subjects with a purpose in mind: to reconstruct a history of pre-Stonewall activism. What mattered to me most in those interviews was to get enough background biographical information from my subjects in order to be able to situate and contextualize their move to activism, and then their recollections of the people, the organizations, the activities, and the events associated with this young, fledgling movement. But, not surprisingly, random bits and pieces of the past are scattered through my notes from these oral histories. Some mention bars they went to in the city where they first came out; others say something about the social networks that existed; still others might recall a news story or a police action. Someone else might throw in a reference to . . . Rod McKuen.
The experience confirmed for me that I do need to move forward with the project of putting all these interview notes online so that they can be accessible to others. Yes, they will be of special interest to those wanting to know about the history of queer activism in the 1950s and 1960s. But, given that LGBT history is not exactly “over-documented,” I hope that some of the details scattered through these reminiscences are able to find their way into histories of other topics that are still to be written.
BY John D'Emilio ON February 25, 2015
I can’t help watching the Oscars and not find myself reflecting afterward on how important a role films have played in my classroom over the years. Occasionally, I have used mainstream Hollywood movies to illuminate the culture of the era we were studying. One semester, for instance, I organized my 1960s course as if it had a once-a-week “lab” session: on Thursday afternoons, we assembled to watch a ‘60s movie. The Manchurian Candidate captured the paranoia that the Cold War and McCarthyism engendered. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner exposed how retrograde Hollywood was in presenting race. Its idea of a film that promoted racial justice, at a time when mass protests covered the country and Black Power had become the leading edge of racial politics, was a domestic story about a white family. The Graduate gave a view of the “generation gap” that was so much a part of the cultural atmosphere.
Most of the time, however, I have incorporated documentary films to illustrate vividly the times we were reading about – films, in other words, that made a claim to being history. For post-World War II history, I will forever be grateful to the makers of the two series, Eyes on the Prize and Vietnam: A Television History. They drove students back to the pages of history books, which can be drier at times than I would like them to be, to learn more about the episodes the films depicted.
Documentary films have been especially valuable to me in teaching LGBT topics. Until fairly recently, popular culture has not done much to portray queer lives, and so these documentaries allow students to see people and settings and hear discussions that otherwise were not widely accessible. The Times of Harvey Milk reliably provoked spasms of shock and outrage – shock at the events they saw on the screen and outrage that they hadn’t known about these events before. Common Threads made the AIDS epidemic more immediate than it had ever been and provoked its share of outrage as well. And It’s Elementary has often worked as a history about my students’ lives. The film, about how to integrate LGBT issues into classrooms, was released in 1996, and college students today can still identify closely with the stories it presents since it very much describes issues relevant to their own experience of schooling.
Last year saw the release of two movies that were not documentaries but that gave dramatic on-screen life to two important pieces of history. Selma, set in 1965, showed the courage it took for African Americans to fight for the right to vote in the South and the resistance of the system to demands for racial justice. The Imitation Game was a “biopic” about the life of Alan Turing, whose role in deciphering Nazi code during World War II may have been decisive in the Allied victory and whose gayness made him the target of the harshest oppression after the war.
Both films generated a lot of discussion about their portrayal of history, mostly in the form of criticism of the inaccuracies and distortions. For instance, critics of Selma found fault with the way President Lyndon Baines Johnson was presented – as someone trying to obstruct the campaigns of civil rights protesters rather than as a strong supporter of voting rights himself. I thought these criticisms were groundless. LBJ did oppose the demonstrations early on, and the film does show his turnaround later in the story.
The criticisms of The Imitation Game have been more far-ranging. The filmmakers have been accused of distorting almost every aspect of Turing’s life. They have variously questioned the presentation of his personality as snarky and curmudgeonly; challenged whether he was as obsessed with an early boyhood friend as the film suggests; taken issue with major aspects of how the breaking of the Nazi code was pictured and the working relationships among the group of characters; and objected to the depiction of Turing’s death as a suicide. Unlike with Selma, where I know the history well, I’m not in a position to pass judgment on any of these issues. But the criticism has come from so many writers (including from my cherished co-director, Claire Potter, in a blog post on this site) that I assume that, in fact, The Imitation Game is bad history.
So, let me get to my “shocking for a historian” conclusion: I find myself not caring whether the criticisms are accurate or not, or whether The Imitation Game is “good history” or “bad history.”
What makes me say such a thing, I wonder and you might ask. Well, when I went to see the movie with a friend last fall, we both sat there utterly mesmerized by the story that was unfolding and the passion and drama of it. The whole audience (probably 200 or so people, most of whom to my eyes were not gay) seemed to be having the same response. The film gripped them. I try to imagine why. Most, I suspect, had never heard of Alan Turing. And now they were coming away with the sense that 1) this man played a crucial role in the winning of World War II; and 2) horrible things happened to him for no reason other than that he was a gay man.
Roughly 10 million people in the U.S. have seen this movie. I am SO pleased that most of them will have taken those two historical lessons home with them from the theater. The Imitation Game isn’t a documentary. Its purpose is to dramatize a story successfully so that it wins over an audience. It did that. And, while there may have been lots to question in the way of historical accuracy, I simply can’t take issue with the two big lessons that are at the heart of the movie. See it if you haven’t already.
BY John D'Emilio ON February 11, 2015
Last weekend, I was paging through an old unread pile of The New York Review of Books. A review of John Lahr’s recent biography of Tennessee Williams caught my attention. At one point, the reviewer quoted at length from a diary entry in 1941 where Williams was questioning the self-hatred of a gay friend of his who had said “We ought to be exterminated for the good of society.” In response, Williams wrote: “How many of us feel that way, I wonder? Bear this intolerable burden of guilt? To feel some humiliation and a great deal of sorrow at times is inevitable. But feeling guilty is foolish. I am a deeper and warmer and kinder man for my deviation. More conscious of need in others, and what power I have to express the human heart must be in large part due to this circumstance.”
Even though I have written a biography, I am not a great fan of the genre. Almost every full-length biography tells me much more than I ever want or need to know about an individual. And, given whose records are likely to exist and be preserved, biography as a genre too easily plays into “great white man” approaches to the understanding of history. No, I prefer the study of collective movements and community life, both of which are much more likely to provide a sense of the lives of everyday people and how they made a mark on their worlds.
But then I think about my undergraduate students over the years. When I lectured on the broad social and economic forces that gave rise, say, to urban reform efforts in the early 20th century or the black freedom movement of the mid-twentieth century, they might be able to resurrect a bit or a piece of it for an exam essay. But, if I organized my lecture on Progressive reform around the life and work of Jane Addams, or the history of the black freedom movement around the life and work of Bayard Rustin, they seemed to retain every last detail. A life was something most of them could intimately relate to and a life story became the doorway through which they began to understand historical change.
A few years ago, when I signed on to work on Outhistory and its redesign, I invited a group of sharp undergrads to produce material for the site. We settled on a “birthday biographies” project – researching the lives of LGBT people in the past and producing short profiles that became the basis for the “Happy Birthday” feature on the home page. I included some “high profile” names, such as Jane Addams and James Baldwin and Oscar Wilde, but most of the names, not surprisingly, were thoroughly unfamiliar to contemporary undergraduates – people like Perry Watkins, Marijane Meaker, Alberta Hunter, and Bill Strayhorn. In thirty years of teaching, this proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences I had. The level of excitement that discovering and learning about these lives generated among them was extraordinary. It led me to a second project with two students who did more extensive profiles that came together in the “Big Lives” exhibit, and it persuaded another faculty member, Cat Jacquet, to have students in a Transgender History course produce a series of biographies that are also now on the site.
All of which is to say: while I’m not about to write another biography, and while I will probably not become a reader of full-length biographies, I don’t want to underestimate the power and value of biography as a way to generate interest in the study of the past.
And, I come back to the Williams diary of 1941. This was before Williams had become a literary celebrity. He was just turning thirty, the product of an economically struggling white middle class family. His words provide a piece of evidence of how, even during an era of intense oppression, a gay man could generate a counter-narrative of what it means to be gay, one that emphasized self-respect. I think back to my research on Bayard Rustin. The life experience of this African American man from a hard-working family in the early 20th century also produced a self-image that did not accept the homophobia of American society. Maybe, I find myself thinking, the biographies of those-who-became-famous-but-didn’t-start-out-that-way could be sources of evidence to reconstruct the history of broader LGBT communities, the consciousness of earlier generations, and much more.
BY John D'Emilio ON February 4, 2015
Anniversaries are one of the useful tools that lovers of history have for drawing attention to important events in the past and encouraging a broader public to learn about and reflect upon a history that they might not have experienced themselves. These last few years especially have offered an opportunity to draw attention to the mass movements for peace and justice that flourished in the 1960s as we mark the 50th anniversary of key events from that decade – from the sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC to the iconic 1963 March on Washington to the voting rights campaign in Selma, which is getting an added layer of visibility through the magnificent film by the same name.
One individual who has posthumously benefited from this attachment to the golden 50th is Bayard Rustin. The build up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which Rustin organized, provided the perfect opportunity for President Obama to award Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. As a life-long agitator for justice whose work extended across four continents and more than half a century, who had an impact on issues ranging from racial justice to the nuclear arms race to the alleviation of poverty, and who played a major role in the development of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as a believer in non-violence, Rustin deserves this kind of retrospective recognition.
However, there’s one Rustin-related anniversary that probably won’t be receiving much recognition: the publication in February 1965, 50 years ago this month, of his essay “From Protest to Politics” in Commentary magazine. The essay – “political manifesto” might be a better description – is one of the reasons I decided to write a biography of Rustin. Coming from someone whose history to that point deserved the label of radical, the essay offered a provocative strategy for change that proved to be dramatically different from the direction that left radicals, whether among black power advocates or antiwar activists or emerging radical feminists, ended up taking.
“From Protest to Politics” was addressed most explicitly to activists in the black freedom struggle. But it can also be read as a call to his fellow activists in the pacifist movement, the growing antiwar movement, and other groups of the left. Rustin, who had spent more than two decades as a committed protester against injustice, inequality, and war, was telling his fellow activists on the left that, if they ever wanted to be more than protesters on the outside, they needed to begin developing a “coalition of progressive forces” with the intention of becoming “the effective political majority.” For Rustin that meant plunging into politics directly via the political party system. With Southern white segregationists leaving the Democratic Party in droves, the time seemed right to attempt to organize and capture the Democratic Party and transform it into an effective agency for progressive change.
Every election season, and this past November especially dramatically, I am struck by the irony that history offers. Rustin’s call was basically ignored by the great majority of his intended audience on the left. Instead, the commitment to protest, and to community organizing that maintained a distance from the political system, remained paramount. But another group of radicals did pursue a strategy akin to what Rustin called for. They were radicals of the right, not the left. In the wake of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, they began an intentional campaign to capture control of the Republican Party and make it a vehicle for a right-wing agenda. They succeeded probably far beyond their best hopes, and the rest of us live with the results of that success.
To fully appreciate the thinking that produced “From Protest to Politics” does require some familiarity with the history of the 1960s. But, even without that familiarity, reading it today is provocative and forces one to think about strategies for change. It is especially relevant for participants in identity-based movements, because it asks us to reflect upon how we propose to move beyond formal legal equality and how a movement with a particular “minority” constituency reaches beyond itself and its allies and creates something with a broad comprehensive agenda for justice, opportunity, equality, and fairness.