The Daniel Hurewitz Blog
Welcome to the OutHistory blog!! I will be posting updates and reflections on lgbtq history.
I'm a historian on the faculty at Hunter College, and author of Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics. .
Happy Birthday Audre Lorde!: February 20, 2011
Audre Lorde would have been 77 this week, and hers is a voice that we would so benefit from hearing these days.
Lorde was a child of Depression-era New York, of Harlem specifically. Like James Baldwin, she came of age in a community that gave pride of place to emerging African-American voices and she began writing poetry when she was a young teen. In the early 1950s, she was a student at Hunter College High School, one of the city's premier public schools, and from there she attended Hunter College itself, an all-women's school.
In those years, as Lorde became increasingly estranged from her family, she discovered the lesbian and gay scene of Greenwich Village. One of her favorite hang-outs was a lesbian club called The Bagatelle, a place she described as "fast and crowded," and "a good place for cruising." Full of "good-looking young women," Lorde wrote that she was always too intimidated to get out onto the "postage-stamp dance floor for a slow intimate fish." Somehow, she felt, "Every other woman in the Bag, it seemed, had a right to be there except us; we were pretenders, only appearing to be cool and hip and tough like all gay-girls were supposed to be."
Lorde overcame her fears, eventually, and began to speak out. As such, she is remembered as much for her poetry as for her prose writing -- much of it autobiographical, much of it polemical. Among the steady challenges she made was her call for white middle-class feminists to recognize and acknowledge and even appreciate the diversity of women around them. White feminists ignored how racial differences created real divides within some imagined unified womanhood. And so too, sexuality. Lorde insisted that she be seen as a "black lesbian mother warrior poet" -- all of these many facets, viewed somehow as contradictory, and yet embodied in her single self.
A few months ago, Urvashi Vaid delivered the annual Kessler Lecture for CLAGS, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY. In it, she denounced the way mainstream LGBT activism has failed to address racial and economic differences within their communities. Twenty years after Lorde's death, and forty years after she began speaking up, her message still resonates.
Reaching LGBT Teens: October 6, 2010
Two further thoughts on LGBT teen suicide:
First, my friend at GLSEN reported back to me that what we're learning about this month is not actually a spike in LGBT teen suicide. Although she pointed out that the start of the school year is always a difficult time for LGBT students -- and so, therefore, there is always a rise in LGBT teen anxiety in the fall -- we are also hearing more about these issues because the media is paying attention.
That strikes me as a mix of good news and bad news. The good news is that what we're learning is not a sign that more LGBT kids are taking their lives. There is not a sudden rash or epidemic of suicides occurring.
The bad news is that this is, in fact, the usual rate of suicide among our teens. We're just now hearing about it in concrete terms, with names and faces and stories attached. This is what's considered normal.
For me, that's a deeply troubling realization. Each of the stories we've heard about this month have been heart-breaking and eye-opening. And yet these kinds of stories have been going on for months and years.
Second is the question of what we in the history business can contribute to making a change. Clearly one of the lessons of this moment is that the policies that even the best-intended school systems have in place -- such as those described by the school's superintendent in California -- are not enough. So there is a need for all of us to develop some new approaches.
In part, of course, those of us who are historically-inclined can examine the ways that gay organizations and activists have tackled homophobia in the past, as well as the way that other groups have tackled other kinds of hate in schools, and bring those lessons to bear in developing new policies. We can bring those examples to the table and see what they can show us, in terms of successes and failures.
I also believe, though, that history lessons themselves can be a powerful tool. A great deal of emphasis has been placed, over the last several years, on developing self-esteem in the classroom by making sure that there are role models for young people who are teaching them and who are in the learning materials. We in the history world can start working on developing such materials.
Here at OutHistory we've been talking about developing possible curricular materials, but this has been a slow moving project for us. GLSEN and the Family Equality Council have done more. But there is much work to do. And OutHistory and other sites might be an ideal place for us to pursue this goal further.
Perhaps the stories of the LGBT greats of the past -- whether Eleanor Roosevelt or Aaron Copland or recent politicians -- will help students find hope in their futures. It's a contribution worth our pursuing.
Gay Suicides Stay in the News: October 4, 2010
The New York Times has continued to report on gay teen suicides, which in and of itself is news. Suddenly now the long-standing epidemic of LGBT teen depression and suicide is occupying the spotlight, and that's great.
In today's story, the Times discusses the significant number of teen suicides that have been reported on this month. I'm going to ask the head of GLSEN, the Gay-Lesbian and Straight Education Network, if they think this is a spike in events or a spike in news coverage: I suspect it's the former, but let's see what she says.
There is a sense, though, in reading the Times piece that school cultures and adult culture are not exactly the same thing. What is no longer considered socially acceptable for adults to say to one another or about one another at a workplace, say, still appears acceptable in American high schools. Workers in many American workplaces could not verbally assault a co-worker as a "fag" and tell him "You should kill yourself" or "You're gay, who cares about you?" -- as students apparently said to Seth Walsh, a California boy who killed himself last month. Workers who did so would, I suspect, face some kind of consequences.
But American educators seem either baffled or indifferent to the question of how to end the harassment-is-OK culture of their schools. Richard Swanson, the superintendent of the school district where Seth Walsh went to school, told the Times that the district had rules against bullying, taught "tolerance" in the classrooms, and had assemblies every few months to discuss behavior. "But these things didn't prevent Seth's tragedy," he wrote to the reporter. "Maybe they couldn't have."
Yet clearly if, over the last 40 years, we have successfully changed the homophobic culture of a large number of American workplaces, then we do, in fact, have the tools and skills to change the culture of America's schools as well. We just need to borrow those tools from one environment and apply them to another.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, "This is a moment where every one of of us --parents, teachers, students, elected officials and all people of conscience -- needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its form." That's well and good, but hardly specific and hardly focused on the very well-documented plight of LGBT youth. There is a very specific form of intolerance that we need to target, and we need to do more than issue declarations of principle. And we have a history of doing this work successfully that we can and should start borrowing from.
How Can We Help Kids Like Tyler Clementi? September 30, 2010
The cover of today's New York Times carried the tragic story of a Rutgers University freshman named Tyler Clementi who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge last week. His suicide came three days after his roommate used a webcam to record Clementi making out with another young man, and then stream the footage onto the Internet. No doubt devastated by the events, Clementi took his life: he was 18 years old.
Clementi's death came in the same month's as the deaths of 13-year-old Asher Brown in Texas, 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Indiana, and 13 year-old Seth Walsh in California. All had been harassed and bullied by their peers in a way that focused on them being gay.
GLSEN reports that 9 out of 10 LGBT students say that they have been harassed for being gay, and, perhaps more significantly, that LGBT youth are 4-times more likely to try suicide than their straight peers.
These stories are tragic and even though the mainstream media is just now picking them up, in some ways the vulnerability of LGBT youth is not news to us. Statistics about gay youth suicide rates have been circulating for several years. But even anecdotally, we know how brutal coming out issues can be.
I am reminded of Harvey Milk's recurrent speeches about hope in the 1970s. He talked about the late night phone calls he received from the desperate. And he called on everyone gay to come out and run for office, if only because it would send a message to those lost souls. "The young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias," he would say, "and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right." Milk knew how terrible it could be to be young and realizing that you're gay: he knew how lonely that could feel. And he understood that part of the work needed to be making the world safer for those who were struggling.
And in saying that, Milk was echoing what the Mattachine activists had done twenty years earlier: he was picking up a thread that they had already prepared. As historian Martin Meeker has ably demonstrated, when Mattachine, the nation's first significant homosexual rights organization, spread its roots in San Francisco in the 1950s, it expended enormous amounts of time and energy working as a social service agency. In a way, it was forced to do so. The offices were deluged with desperate letters and calls from around the country and world. And so the Mattachine volunteers learned to provide suggestions, offer assistance, and lend sympathetic hope. This was the work at the beginning of the gay rights struggle.
But how strange and sad that here we are some 60 years later, and in spite of all the progress we've made in other areas of LGBT rights and cultural representation, this remains the work. Despite what has been accomplished, for many young Americans it still remains devastatingly difficult to be gay. The homophobic culture that took root in this country in the 1930s just refuses to let go.
Sex columnist Dan Savage and his partner have just launched an "It Gets Better" Project on YouTube, inviting LGBT adults to post videos describing how much better their lives got after high school and coming out. It's a wonderful idea and a wonderful project. Clearly, it's vital that we make connections to those kids in Altoona and New York. But how I wish that the tide was already turning on this front... Posted by Daniel H at 8:31 PM 0 comments
Labels: Aaron Copland, Eleanor Roosevelt, Family Equality Council, GLSEN, suicide, teens
Labels: GLSEN, harassment, suicide, teens, workplace
Labels: Dan Savage, GLSEN, Harvey Milk, Mattachine, suicide, teens