Editor's Note: Today's Guest Contributor is Tom Brown, a freelance writer who has done business and political reporting for print media in Daytona Beach, Providence, and Boston.
What was the first gay bar in your town? What year did it open? Was it ever raided?
Chances are you're probably having trouble answering one or more of those questions.
We've just waded through innumerable nostalgia pieces about the 1969 Stonewall raid in Greenwich Village, but many communities still have little or no documentation of their own local gay history. Whatever historical information does exist tends to be largely folklore, with few written records, video or audio tapes for future generations to peruse.
I received a personal lesson about this gap a few weeks ago when I set out to write a brief historical leaflet for a gay pride observance in Daytona Beach. It was relatively easy to summarize the events of Stonewall, using the detailed accounts written by David Carter, Martin Duberman, Eric Marcus and others. But when it came to compiling a bare-bones list of Daytona's LGBT milestones, the resources were almost nonexistent.
The closest thing to an archive that I could find was a stack of three or four photo albums in the files of New Church Family, a small gay-affirming Daytona congregation whose roots go back to 1986. The snapshots of various rallies, marches, picnics and parties were fun to browse - those hairstyles and fashions of yesteryear were something else! - but few of the photographs had any labels.
Fortunately, the church's membership still includes several oldtimers from its earliest years and they were able to supply me with dates for some of the photographs. Yet even the elders were fuzzy on certain details. At first, we thought Daytona's first public gay pride event was a church picnic at Tomoka State Picnic in Ormond Beach in 1989. Later on, we learned that the very first picnic, although held at Tomoka, actually was organized by bar owner Jim Whitehead, now deceased, and occurred in 1983, before Daytona had a gay church.
It was quite a challenge to compile a list of all the gay and lesbian bars that have come and gone over the past four decades. We came up with a list of more than 30, and I'm sure we missed a few. Sadly, Daytona today has only one fully gay club, and another that is gay only on certain nights.
As we went through this exercise, I was thinking how sad it was that we lacked films and tapes of the late Billie Boots, a drag queen who entertained at Daytona's Hollywood Bar for many years prior to its demolition in 2001. All we have are Michael Musto's brief mention of her in the Village Voice last month, and a 1.5-minute video clip included in "Queens for a Night," a documentary produced by Upstairs Media.
I suppose it's not surprising that few records exist to portray the gay scene of years ago. After all, it was an underground life, kept behind closed doors as much as possible. Gays owned businesses and professional firms but mostly had to rely on a straight clientele to make a go of it. That's still the case today. So there continues to be conflict between proclaiming yourself as "family" (that euphemism itself bespeaks a lingering semi-closeted mindset) to reach gay customers and keeping all gay references out of advertising and conversation so as not to scare away the straights.
Yet, by not recording who we are and what we do, we stay invisible in our local communities. We shortchange ourselves not only in day-to-day politics but also in the public's understanding of how our cities have evolved over time. As a retired newspaper reporter, I know for a fact that many gay people have made important contributions to Daytona's arts, social services, education, religion, tourism, law and several other fields, but by and large the gay element in their careers remains unacknowledged.
Claiming our rightful place in history starts with mundane basics. Gay organizations have to keep files on their activities month by month, and year by year --- and then remember where those files are stored! When they undertake a project, they need to notify not only the LGBT media but the mainstream media as well. Make sure your local libraries and schools possess materials about gay life - both nationally and locally. If you have prominent gay people in your community, try to persuade them to tape an oral history that encompasses the gay part of their life. When your city tears down a gay bar in the name of urban renewal - as has happened several times in Daytona Beach in recent decades - make sure the city records fully detail the cultural landmark that has been destroyed.
And don't forget about the Stonewall Library and Archives in Fort Lauderdale. With more than 5,000 items documenting local, regional and national LGBT history, it's growing into a gay Smithsonian, a beacon we all should support.