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.