John D'Emilio: "History and Me," 1950-2008

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This essay appeared in the Windy City Times, May 21st, 2008, under the headline: "HISTORY and Me." Copyright (c) by John D'Emilio 2008. All rights reserved.


Long before I had a clue I was gay, I fell in love with history. Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, I learned my Catholic catechism. “God always was, always will be, always remains the same,” Sister Perpetua made our class repeat. To my nose-to-the-grindstone, tradition-bound Italian family, it wasn't only God who remained the same. Everything was supposed to stay the way it was; nothing was ever to change.


History gave the lie to all that. Whether in articles I read in the family encyclopedia that Mom purchased at the supermarket, or in books I borrowed from my local library, history told a different story. Empires rose and fell. Kingdoms came and went. Glorious generals met humiliating defeats. Armies and peoples marched across continents and created whole new nations. Even our beloved United States: for most of history, it didn't exist.


To my ten-year-old's mind, this lesson of history—that change was possible, change was normal—was sweeter than heaven.


Later, on the cusp of adulthood, I came back to history for different reasons. A college student during the Vietnam War era, I had my head turned around by the antiwar movement, especially the priests and nuns who were making protest against the war a way of life. The war seemed wrong to me. I had to take my personal stand in relation to the military draft, and I had to do what I could to stop what seemed like a moral nightmare.


I remember thinking, “how could my country do this?” I realized I knew almost no U.S. history. How did I ever expect to change things, I asked myself, without knowing how something like the Vietnam War could happen? So I went back to school in the early 1970s, hungrily consuming the mass of books that U.S. historians were churning out in those years.


It was the most exciting time imaginable to be studying history. A new generation was writing a new history. Instead of history being the story of the rich, famous, and powerful, it was becoming the story of everyone. Slaves, factory workers, miners, housewives: you name it, and someone for sure was writing their history. The past was now peopled with ordinary folks and their stories, the kind of stories that, when I was a kid, my mom told me about her parents and their immigrant generation. There was drama and heroism and tragedy in these lives.


I was learning all this in New York City in the early 1970s. Gay Liberation was swirling all around me. It was only a matter of time before I found my way to it, and it to me. I think every gay and lesbian activist of those years was sure that we were changing the world ( we were! ) , and was just as sure that nothing like this had ever happened before ( wrong! ) . The word out on the street, so to speak, was that, until Stonewall, all homosexuals, all queers, had led secret, shameful lives, isolated from one another, invisible to everyone.


By chance ( but is anything ever really chance? ) , I ended up one Saturday in 1973 at a Manhattan apartment with a group of folks talking about the need to produce new knowledge that could get added to the toolbox of gay and lesbian liberation. Jonathan Ned Katz was there. His play, Coming Out!, based on historical documents he had painstakingly uncovered, was electrifying audiences in New York. Soon, his massive book, Gay American History, would demonstrate to anyone who picked it up that there was a rich queer history waiting to be harvested, if only some of us would do the spadework. The picture of the 1970s that's come down to us today is a strange one: gay men partied and had orgies; lesbians were angry. But many of the men and women I knew best in that decade were busy in archives and libraries. We got excited by reading old newspapers and letters or by finding the survivors of a much older queer generation so we could interview them and capture their stories. Don't get me wrong: I did have sex in the 70s. But doing history was sublime.


Some of my most vivid memories of the 1970s and early 1980s are of times when our history went public. In those days, universities were not falling over each other to hire queer scholars and offer queer courses. Those of us doing gay and lesbian history did it in community spaces, before audiences attracted by the flyers we pasted all over town. I remember Joan Nestle, of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, giving her talk on “the voices we have lost,” with barely a dry eye in the audience. Jim Steakley gave a wonderful slide lecture on the homosexual emancipation movement in Germany in the decades before the Nazis wiped it out. Judith Schwarz shared stories about the “bohemian” women living in Greenwich Village in the World War I era. Allan Berube's slide show, “Marching to a Different Drummer,” honored the lesbians and gay men who served in the military in World War II. Greg Sprague put together a slide talk [ all these were done in the days before laptops and PowerPoint ] on Chicago's queer history. There was magic in these rooms as audiences thrilled to images of queer worlds and queer lives they never dreamed existed.


Sometimes I think this magic has been lost. Such excitement has become history, a thing of the past. Many undergraduates today can take courses on LGBT history. Some of us who do this research now have academic jobs. Any good bookstore will have a shelf or two on gay and lesbian studies. Our history has gained legitimacy, and with legitimacy, perhaps, it has become ordinary.


But then I have an experience like I did last spring, when I planned and moderated a panel at the Chicago History Museum on “Gay Is the Revolution” with a few members of the gay lib generation telling their stories. The auditorium was filled to the rafters, and the audience response reminded me of the raw emotional power of history. Or, I attend a panel at the Gerber/Hart Library on Harold Washington and the LGBT community and, in the remarks of the panelists, I hear how knowing history can expand our sense of the possible.


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