Patricia Nell Warren

How Real Is Our Commitment to "History"?

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 02, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Media
Tags: before Stonewall, book burning, Eleanor Roosevelt, LGBT history month, LGBT youth, Walt Whitman

For starters, the feminists got it wrong. In the word "history," "his-" does not refer to men. The American Heritage Dictionary index of root words shows us that "his-" probably comes from hyster, the Greek word for womb. Why womb? In times gone by, according to my native American aunties, women were the keepers of histories. Civilization starts with family history -- keeping track of the generations. Men often didn't know who the fathers of children were -- but the mothers were sure to know. No generation was ever skipped. Oral traditions rode on elaborate memory-aid systems that made sure no child was left out. The "no child left out" part is the problem today, for many who create what they call "LGBT history."

In those days, "families" were vast clans that traded, warred, intermarried and created culture on a growing scale. Eventually, the world over, confederacies of related clans who spoke the same language evolved into nations. Twelve clans came together to form the nation of Israel. Frankish tribes united to create "France." William Wallace united the Scot clans against English tyranny. After thousands of years of empire and nearly a century of Communism, China is still clan-conscious.

Today, the motley migration of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered clans are coming together to try creating a single nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are not necessarily created with the same kind of sexuality and gender identity. Yet how real is our own sense of generations passing? How committed are we to keeping track of each and every child? To making sure that no story is lost?

In current PC language, it is chic to call ourselves a "tribe" -- and some of us are actually creating the homosexual answer to the heterosexual unit family, complete with children. It all sounds good in print. But the fact is -- we often talk about "history" without being clear on what we're celebrating, or why. Once again GLBT History Month is upon us, with yet another round of bookstore displays, panel discussions and media lip service. All too often, that purported "history" comes from a narrow vision, because of disagreements among our politicians and academics.

Before Stonewall

Seldom, for example, does our "history" include mention of eras preceding the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, when drag queens fought back during a police raid on a downtown Manhattan bar. Starting our history at Stonewall is like starting American history in 1776, omitting three centuries of Spanish, French, Portuguese and English colonialism, as well as a dozen or two millennia of native culture.

Stonewall didn't happen like a bolt from the blue! That blaze of drag-queen spirit was sparked by World War II activists, both women and men, who served in uniform. They created our first post-war gay and lesbian networks and publications -- in a time when our people still feared arrest if they met in tiny political groups at someone's apartment. Yet the PC crowd don't like to mention our uniformed forebears, because of left-wing pacifist biases against the military. Likewise, Stonewall sprang from a rich and feisty drag culture with deep roots in the Hispanic and black communities. Today anti-drag politics make it hard for some to acknowledge the important role that drag played in our pre-Stonewall history.

Even less do we have a sense of "LGBT regional history." The Northwest, for example, can claim notable pioneers who deserve greater celebration today -- like playwright Doric Wilson, who grew up on a ranch in eastern Washington. Doric, who lives in New York City today, virtually created gay theater in the 1970s.

Generally, our view of "gay and lesbian history" is obsessively urban. And yes, we do have a historic pattern of migrating into cities, where we can hide more easily, and find one another more easily. Yet this narrow view belies the broad mass of roots that we put down in rural America. There is rural literature that deserves to be more celebrated, whether 19th-century writings like Willa Cather's "My Antonia", or contemporary novels like Ronald Donaghe's "Common Sons," that smell of earth and open spaces.

With our post-millennial world so dependent on microchips, it is easy to forget those horse-and-buggy days of ours. When I tell people that the word "punk," used today in men's prisons to denote a young male sexual partner, was common in old-time ranch lingo because of love relationships among cowboys, people are always astonished. "I didn't know that!" they say. I grew up on a ranch in the 1940s, and heard my father grumbling about this or that good-looking young "punk" on the ranch...and his meaning was always clear.

Who Burns the Books?

"History" is highly vulnerable to single acts of arson. Try to imagine the Vatican Library burning to the ground, and the fire's impact on the Catholic Church. Try to imagine the Library of Congress being destroyed, and the impact on Americans. Then try to imagine the loss of Morris Kight's archive, or the archives at the ONE Institute and Homosexual Information Center in California, or the Stonewall Library and Archives in Florida, or Joan Nestle's Herstory archives in New York. Among others, we've suffered the loss of the immense Berlin archive of LGBT history, including original manuscripts of Socrates and Sappho, that was burned by the Nazis in May 1933.

Today our U.S. archives are still few, and most of them limp along on tiny budgets, in locations that are often far from adequate. Our library collections are few in number. Yet every old paperback of lesbian pulp fiction, every yellowed men's magazine, or newsletter on bisexual organizing, or Web page of transgendered networking -- each and every box of documents, tape recordings and CDs is important.

Our history's greatest Achilles heel is the fact that history books get re-written by the winners of wars. The Bible itself was rewritten by different church councils, who took things out and put things in. The Catholic Church wrote pagans out of European history once Charlemagne had conquered Europe. Before the 1960s, Christian white Americans wrote the achievements of slaves and descendants of slaves, as well as non-white immigrants and pagan native peoples, out of U.S. history books. The gay community is no different. All the more reason why the winners of our own ideological wars should not misuse their positions of power at colleges and universities, or in the media, to tamper with our own history.

Unfortunately we are all too prone to rewrite our own history -- which can include too much bowing and scraping to straight celebrities who support us. After Princess Diana's death, she was hailed as a "pioneer of AIDS awareness." With all respect to Diana's compassion for AIDS patients, she was no "pioneer." Neither was Elizabeth Taylor, another so-called pioneer. The real pioneers were out on the battlefield fighting for awareness long before Liz got on the bandwagon. They included film actresses Zelda Rubenstein, Vivian Blaine and Mamie Van Doren, and gay publicist Tyler St. Mark, who created the first AIDS awareness campaign in 1983. But now these real pioneers are not acknowledged.

Now and then, too, I see instances where LGBT people launch into "burning" books or other forms of expression by other LGBT people they don't agree with. No, there's no actual bonfire. What happens is that the "offending" book is removed from community library collections. Community bookstores are pressured to withdraw them from sale. The offending painting disappears from the archive wall, while the problematical film disappears into a vault, or is blackballed from LGBT film festivals. We can't criticize Sarah Palin for removing gay books from the Wasilla library in Alaska as long as some of us continue to play the same game.

The Needs of Young People

Today our young people -- high school and college age -- enter the LGBT word with minds and memories that are understandably blank of any sense of our long history. Few are the straight parents, straight educators and straight media who will teach them anything positive about our contributions to history. As censorship becomes more a fact of American life, they are less likely to hear that poet Walt Whitman was gay, that Eleanor Roosevelt was bisexual, that homosexuals died in Nazi death camps, or that transgendered people enjoyed great respect in many native American tribes. We need to figure out more ways to make our history accessible to LGBT youth through the community institutions that deal with them.

Again and again, when I lecture in schools, I have seen kids' faces light up as they hear about these things. "Cool...I didn't know that!" they say.

A newborn sense of connecting into history can help a young person to know that he or she is not alone. They also like hearing that there's more to our history than entertainment idols. I remember the reaction of a black gay teen activist who had just discovered the existence of an era of ancient history called the "Sixties." I told him about Bayard Rustin, black gay Quaker who helped Martin Luther King construct the black rights movement of the Sixties. He devoured a book about Rustin I gave him. Today many of our historiographers turn up their noses at Rustin because (in their view) he was not "out" by today's lofty standards. But this teen activist leaped beyond that judgmental PC nonsense. His attitude was, "Wow...a guy like me did all those great things."

Creating and cherishing our real history is a gift that we give not only to ourselves, but to our young people -- the heirs of the traditions that we create today. But it will take commitment to create that history. It must be complete. It must be honest. It must be accurate. Most of all, it must reflect the many faces of sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, spirituality, artistic taste and political conviction that teem in our tribal confederacy.

To survive through the jarring ideological changes that threaten American society right now, the LGBT world will need a powerful will to remember every single child in every generation behind us -- and every child in our own generation as well.

Note: I published an earlier, longer version of this article in 1997. Sad to say, most of the issues that divide the LGBT world have not changed -- indeed, they have only gotten worse. This is an updated version. --PNW

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 2, 2008 10:32 AM

Patricia, Kudos! I only wish that our movement found it too disgusting to allow the exploitation of any child in a sexual manner, straight or gay.

I gave a book of Langston Hughes poetry to a black teen I was employing for his summer from college while in business in Chicago. I wrote within: "You can know nothing about the future if you know nothing about the past." It was an old book that I had owned for years and enjoyed reading. He acted as though I had given him an agent of leprosy.

His father was with him and I will never forget what he said: "Boy, that was someone important and you will read that book! And after you have read it I want to read it." Langston Hughes had been dead for thirty years and was a mystery to a young black man.

We are far from alone when it comes to ignoring our history. You are an inspiration.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | October 2, 2008 12:14 PM

Coincidentally, Robert has recently dissuaded me from disposing of what seems to be an almost complete collection of old Advocate magazines in my basement since about 1980 in favor of choosing one at random and writing about some of its contents from time to time. All in the interest of furthering an appreciation by the more current LGBT generations of where we've been as that may help shape where we're going/need to go. I know that the Advocate has come in for its share of criticism, much of it justified, for not always mirroring the full spectrum of our community, but on the other hand a glimpse at some "Letters to the Editor" in those back issues is a pretty valid lesson in both "the more things change, the more they remain the same", as well as an indication that we haven't exactly stood still, either. "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" has its own application to the LGBT spectrum, too.

The feisty OutWeek magazine, published from June of 1989 to July of 1991, is now available in an online archive, thanks to the generous sponsorship by The Gill Foundation, Larry Kramer and Gabriel Rotello, with help from the One Foundation and Tectonic Theater Project.
The archives are at

Thanks, Patricia, for this entire essay, and particularly for mentioning Bayard Rustin.

It is amazing how Black conservatives will go out of their way to write him out of the history of the 1963 March on Washington, even though he arranged all the nuts-and-bolts under the auspices of H. William Randolph, who was the official Chairman of the event. It is considered heresy in some circles to point out that the most famous speech of the 20th Century might not have occurred without the sweat work of Bayard Rustin --- but this is true, and we must not let this facet of the speech be rubbed out!

Additionally, Rustin was the channel that influenced MLK to study the fine points of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance. The entire character of MLK's work, and thus the Civil Rights Movement itself, was influenced by Rustin at its foundation. Rustin played a central role that many historians have suppressed.

Patricia's story about "punks" on the ranch reminds me of this historical observation I once heard, and I wonder if it is true:

Supposedly, in the 1849 gold rush, so many men migrated to the hills of northern California that the sight of a woman became a rare event. The story goes that in San Francisco, the men would get into a partying mood on weekends, and they would have street dances. But without any women, some of the men had to play the women's roles, and to mark these men as substitute women, these men would hang a red handkerchief out of their back pocket. The speculation is that this is the origin of the gay man's practice, particularly in the 60's and 70's, of a "top" hanging his red handkerchief on the right and a "bottom" hanging his red handkerchief on the left. I find it intriguing that an element of our "underground" culture has its origins in the demographics of a major American era. But the important question is, Is this story just convenient speculation or is it really true? I have not been able to verify it to my satisfaction.

Correction: The correct name of the official chairman of the 1963 March on Washington was A. Philip Randolph. My apologies.

I am, relatively speaking, "new".

I am voracious, and for me, history is essential to anything one does.

Where there is no history, the waters are uncharted, and that alone tells me I need a really good compass.

Since I came out on October 10th, 2006 to myself (and then to others the following day), I have been scouring everything I can to find out what the history is that I can grasp.

I knew much already, but that's because I read a lot of history anyway, and now I was able to see it in a new light.

Thank you for raising this.

And for making me aware of how fragile it is.

I find too many gays and lesbians ridiculously ignorant of history, not knowing how some of the greatest (or most influential, anyway) people preferred their own sex. From Solon (democracy) to Cecil Rhhodes, from Alexander to Turing, from Isaac Newton (probably) to Frederick the Great to Charles Martin Hall to DaVinci. History would be completely different without those people. We probably wouldn't even be here.

For LGBT History Month we plan on featuring some of the stories folks may not know as versus the standard Del Martin profile or generic account of Stonewall. I'd rather know some of the smaller stories from our history - especially from other countries and middle America.

Patricia, you really need to put more of these out. I can't keep myself from devouring your articles that dabble in LGBT history. I read the OUT-sports archive in it's entirety, and not once did I lose interest. This says a lot, as I utterly detest sports.

I also recommend to people who like to peruse more obscure LGBT history Rictor Norton.

Oh, and perhaps inviting Donaghe on a guest post would be nice. The "Common Sons" series endeared me to a region I usually don't have fondness for. I certainly can't wait to get my hands on The Gathering.

gregory brown | October 3, 2008 9:52 AM

Thanks for another great post!

I worked in a public library for 35 years. During that time I tried to integrate LGBTTQA (outta breath there) materials into the collections of the places I worked. I was fortunte to have supportive managers and administrators who bought books I recommended, and defended my choices when I was accused of "promoting the Gay Agenda", though i was encouraged to change my approach a couple of times. Being true to myself andto professional standards was a bit dicey sometimes.

I discovered a couple of things along the way. First, having books and dvds and magazines in the library doesn't guarantee that they will be used. Potential users have to be made aware that the stuff is there. Second, too few people understnd the economy of libraries. Public libraries do not keep everything forever. That's a matter of having finite space. Books that don't circulate are likely to be withdrawn and discarded. Reading a copy of CURVE or ADVOCATE or a queer-themed book in a corner discreet corner is fine, but that doesn't show up in circulation figures. People have to check the stuff out--and return it, of course, and have to put themselves on the line sometimes to tell librarians that they's like to see a particular book/author/topic represented in THEIR library. And those of us who are fortunate enough to have some extra money have to be willing to share a bit of that by making gifts to our local libraries and making sure that they are added to collections, and tell other people to use what's there.

Of course, there's the claim that we live in a post-literate culture. There's some truth to that. But print media remain a valuable way to tell our stories, share our histories, pass on traditions and knowledge.

Yes, Librarians have a negative stereotypical image in pop culture. Some conform to the image. Many are alert, flexible,concerned about everybody in their communities. They are approachable. Quite a few are queer, at least queer-friendly.

And some of us are a bit long-winded.

"The Catholic Church wrote pagans out of European history once Charlemagne had conquered Europe. Before the 1960s, Christian white Americans wrote the achievements of slaves and descendants of slaves, as well as non-white immigrants and pagan native peoples, out of U.S. history books. The gay community is no different."

And that lack of difference can run in both directions - particularly on trans people and our place in history. Clendenin & Nagourney's 1999 'Out for Good'? With that as a source, a reader would come away with the impression trans presence in gay history from Stonewall thru 1990 consisted solely of Sylvia Rivera popping up on a couple of occasions in New York and a group of 'men in dresses' in Minnesota in 1975.

I use 'Out for Good' in the class on trans history that I teach - but as an example of transphobic anti-history.

You think trans people have it bad, try walking in the Black GLBT community's pumps in terms of being erased from GLBT history.

Hey Gregory -- my hat's off to you and all librarians who care about freedom of thought at libraries, especially all the LGBT librarians out there...any "keepers of the books" who have fought to keep the tome-trashers from yanking titles off the shelves and throwing them in the fire.

The very nature of your job makes you all into guardians of the real history. The best libraries have all kinds of points of view available, so the patrons can go in and study and find out who said what, and who did what. Thank you, thank you.