Guest Blogger

The Lies That History Tells: Rainbows and Gay People Don't Exist?

Filed By Guest Blogger | December 14, 2009 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: Black Panthers, Black Youth Project, Fred Hampton, gay history, LGBT history, lies in history

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Jonathan Lykes is a spoken word artist, 19 year old University of Chicago student, and blogger for the Black Youth Project. He is a recipient of the ACLU Activist of the Year Award for his work with the Ohio state-wide activist group Youth Voices for Justice.

photo-6.jpgWhy was I told so many lies in my grade school history classes? It recently occurred to me that a lot of the history that I was taught was not only wrong, but the truth was skewed for very specific purposes.

I can remember learning about the Black Panthers in elementary school and how I was given a negative and demonizing view of Fred Hampton, or how I was made to think the Civil War was a black and white issue about abolishing slavery. I realized that these lies changed my outlook on important figures in history and seemed to always paint America as the hero/peace maker, when many times the leaders of this country were the main perpetrators and oppressors.

Is a half-truth a whole lie?

When looking back over my 6 years elementary school, 3 years of middle school, and 4 years of high school, I realized that not once did my classes teach me about any gay or lesbian figure in history. As a matter of a fact, if it is public education's job to teach about the realities of the world, they definitely failed on letting me know that there were gay people who existed in history that did great things.

I'm not sure if I can call this homophobia, a better defining term for it is homo-non-existence. You can't be afraid of something that doesn't exist. This is what I am labeling the great injustice of my childhood. This non-existence of gay people in my history books [while growing up] is another reason to why I was so insecure about my sexuality in middle school and much of high school. I remember being in 8th grade and thinking "what was wrong with me" or that I was the only gay person alive. I thought I was going to hell for the desires that I kept concealed in the innermost crevices of my mind.

I know it is not random taxpayers' job to make me secure in my sexuality, but I don't believe it to be a coincidence that there was not one single individual in all of my history classes that let me know gay people could achieve just as much as straight people. In the thousands of pages in my "less-than-elite" grade school curriculum why would there not be one single instance that let me know gay people existed and lived productive lives?

The first time in my life that I can remember recognizing that another gay person existed was when I was in the 6th grade. I was sitting on my living room floor of our 3-bedroom apartment and my step-mom was flipping through the television stations. She stopped at one station to see a clip of Elton John singing "It's me that you need"--don't ask me why I remember the name of the song. She quickly yelled "queer!" at the TV, and continued turning the stations. I turned to look at her for an explanation; she leaned in and sternly told me, "We don't watch queers in this house." At 12 years old I didn't even know the definition of queer, but somehow I understood that she meant Elton John was gay.

Looking back at my childhood--and now attending a liberal university as an out gay black man--I now realize it is unfortunate for any young person to grow up in a less than tolerant household and society. To this day it's hard for me to understand why oppressed groups look for others to oppress. But this experience of homophobia was not simply limited to my home life.

I remember going to school and "gay" being used as a synonym for any negative actions that existed. If someone was "un-cool" they were "gay." If something looked ugly, it was "gay." If a situation in our very important elementary minded lives didn't go as planned, somehow we were intelligent enough to associate that disappointment with the word "gay." I don't know where or by who this trend was started, but I do know that it only added to the detrimental mindset I had began to have of myself and it made it that much harder to overcome the "secret" that was dooming me to hell.

I am fortunate. I am fortunate that I found a solid group of friends that I eventually could come out to and be accepted by. I am fortunate that even in the mist of homophobia I learned to accept who I was. I am fortunate that I was able to read and study history for myself and find that there are numerous amounts of out and proud LGBT people in history who deserve to be taught about in schools. James Baldwin, Leonardo Da Vinci, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare, Eleanor Roosevelt and many others. I heard all of these names in school but was never told the whole truth about their lives.

I know in my heart, that many are not as fortunate as I was. I know that there are still confused students in red states roaming the halls of our public schools hoping for someone to tell them that "it's ok, the thoughts you have don't make you any less of a person." The gay rights movement has come along way in the past decade, and I know it will continue to push on--I'll be on the front lines--but I also realize that we have a long way to go. We still live in a hetero-normative society where being gay in many communities is not normal. Maybe if people would tell the whole truth in our history classes and paint a picture of reality, it will be that much easier for the next generation of LGBT's to accept who they are.

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Bravo, Jonathan. Excellent post. I often have to confront such issues as a college professor, when students who have been fed a Disneyfied story of history and society are confused and angered by the truths I have to tell them. They are totally unprepared to confront the issues we as a country face: homophobia and transphobia, rampant race, gender and class prejudice, unjust war and propaganda, human rights violations everywhere, corporate interests running the government, the prison-industrial complex, economic domination and ruination of weaker countries, environmental disasters, and a long list of things they never heard of. By the way, I disagree that it isn't the responsibility of taxpayers to educate you about gay history. If the state is going to mandate that you get indoctrinated by its propaganda specialists, then they bear a responsibility to get it right and not give you half-truths that make you fodder for state and corporate interests.

Bravo for a marvelous, insightful essay overall, but because there is SO much lazy ignorance out there, it's important to clarify your, I'm sure, unintentional implications that could, unintentionally add to it.

Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare, and Eleanor Roosevelt were certainly not "out and proud LGBT people" if gay at all. While more is known about Hughes to convince some that he was gay than Shakespeare [whose identity itself is still uncertain], that they were gay/bisexual is still debated, so they, with respect, were definitely not "out and proud."

da Vinci's sexuality, while reasonably assumed by all but the willfully homophobic, also has little documentation however. He was charged with but found innocent of sodomy; still one could not properly call him "out and proud."

Similar homophobicly motivated denials as those applied to Hughes and da Vinci obviously apply to dissenters about Mrs. Roosevelt's nature given the physical longing she expresses for Lorena Hickok in her letters that can hardly be attributed simply to the tradition of "romantic friendship." Still, however, far from "out and proud," therefore, objective accuracy requires such qualifiers.

Lorraine Hansberry, like Eleanor, married a man, but her lesbianism is now undisputed by most despite having been extremely "publicly" closeted during her short life, despite having injected the subject into two of her plays and having two letters published in 1957 in the lesbian journal "The Ladder" signed just "L.H."

Coming from a family active in the struggle for racial equality [her immortal play "A Raisin in the Sun" was based on her own family's experience, and her father's lawsuit against segregated housing result in a landmark Supreme Court ruling], she has a later parallel in the great black Congresswoman Barbara Jordan who became nationally famous defending the Constitution in the Nixon Watergate hearings but went to her grave publicly closeted.

Baldwin was absolutely "out" most of his adult life, but is seen by some as not being so consistenly "proud" given how much gay suffering plays a role in his work raising the question of whether it is to demonstrate our mutable victimization or our inherent curse.

Yes, there were far more LGBT people in History doing great things than we are being taught, but placing them on the same plain of political consciousness as LGBT activists is problematic. [The same could be true of many sexually active moderns...e.g., most "gay Republicans."]

Still, Mr. Lykes, love on and continue your own great contributions to all our lives.

Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Noel Coward(Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, once caught him eyeing the soldiers at a Palace reception and whispered into his ear "I wouldn't, if I were you, Noel. They count them when they put them out.")
Natalie Clifford Barney("I am a Lesbian, one needn't hide it"), Romaine Brooks(the artist called 'the thief of souls'), Dolly Wilde, Eva la Gallienne, Navimova, Madeline ffrench-Mullen(no typo) Dr Kathleen Lynn(radicalised neonatal care), the very very out French actress of the 18th and early 19th century Francoise Raucourt, Mercedes da Costa(of whom Alice Toklas said "You cannot dismiss Mercedes lightly; she's had the three greatest women of the age.") Djuna Barnes(out, bisexual, and wrote a Lesbian themed novel, Nightwood)the photographers Gisele Freund and Marie Hennessey Mac Mahon, Sylvia Beach(the publisher of Ulysses and owner of Shakespeare & Co.) Janet Flanner, Solita Solano, Lucia Saornil(Leader of the Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Civil War and very out)

The reasons for not having any gay heros or icons in grade school, middle school and high school is that the curriculum of those schools is dictated by the local school boards who, unfortunately, do not have a real-world view and do not want a reality based education system. These are the religious fanatics who are running the local school boards and who keep materials and classrooms gay-free for their precious little christian/muslim/jewish children. To hell with LGBT children is the meme of these school boards. So, if you want to change this, run for your local school board and change it from inside.

Okay, but how do we solve the problem?

I think the solution lies in two directions. The first is stimulating more acceptance among local populations that vote for school board members. That is a long term proposition requiring local people to come out and be part of mainstream organizations, a tall order in many places. The second, which can only happen when social acceptance rises above a certain level, is LGBT people running for local school boards. These processes are already under way, though how quickly they are proceeding I cannot say.

Also, it helps if you are out and actually have children in the school system and then run for the board. People will know you are doing it because you have a personal stake in the outcome -- its called integrity and courage. It also helps to have local ordinances and state laws passed that honor civil equality.

The media play an important part too- there is already art and science about this out there, but how do we make sure that it reaches queer kids? Like, more children's books that contain shreds of this infomation?

This is a very interesting problem which requires thoughtful consideration from several disciplines.
In terms of psychology/psychiatry, it is a rather recent phenomenon of only about 100 years or so, that there has developed the understanding of an LGBTself- identity. Prior to this development, persons were understood to engage in particular sexual activities, or to do secondary conduct such as in dress or speech. However, these secondary actions were merely understood as actions, and not as part of a different identity than that of heterosexuals. Likewise, sexual acts were considered just that, acts, and not an identity.
There is also the problem that until the last century, LGBT individuals themselves may not have even had a term of language to call themselves, let alone to understand their own identity. Queen Christina of Sweeden (1626-1689) is such an example. She very likely was trans, and openly cross-dressed on many occasions. She is reported to have had sexual relations with both men and women, but never married. With all the resources of today, such persons today often have a long and difficult discernment process. In her era, with only her own wits to figure things out, we do not know exactly how she thought of herself, and we do not know what her identity actually was.
In modern times, it is essential to describe a historical figure such as Harvey Milk as gay, since this is really the story and motivation of his political life as well as his death. However, I believe that it is necessary to determine when and if a person's sexuality is really part of the story or not. There reaches a point when too much is pure speculation regarding many historical figures, and other times when it is rather a tittlation a la National Enquirer, rather than a strong element of the story.
Of course, as you introduce LGBT identities into courses, be prepared to hear from Italians, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Eskimos, Ethiopians, etc. about why their group is not given special recognition. It's a complex problem, and not as easy as "lies" or no lies. However, I agree continuing into the present, there is often an urge for suppression of letting it be known that an individual is LGBT.

@ Drake: We're sure ya mean well, but PUHLEEZE spare us regurgitating the revisionist HORSESHIT that "[prior to about 100 years ago]... sexual acts were considered just that, acts, and not an identity."

The number of otherwise brilliant minds that have been swallowed by "constructionist" bull still stuns me everytime I read it.

Well, Drake, put down the manufactured sophistry and just step away from the clown car with a hood ornament of "Michel Foucault Avec Un Fist Dans Son Ass."

Then fasten your seatbelt and travel back in time to the Classical Greeks whom only the constructionists seemed to have forgotten cultivated the love of boys [though they gained strange bedfellows in the Greeks who, a few years back, threatened to sue Oliver Stone for portraying Alexander the Great as Alexander the Man Lover]. Then hopscotch forward through some of the articles by Berlin's Schwules Museum about friendship circles of men-loving-men traceable all the way back to 1700 in not just Berlin but Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, Napes, and Vienna.

But pack a big lunch and maybe even an overnight bag to spend time digesting the research proving what nonsense gay social constructionism is by Rictor Norton, best known for his writings about London's "molly houses" in the early 1700s [see below].

"[S]ocial constructionist thought... seems to have been based on nothing and to have lead nowhere in the past twenty years. Its initial premises have been constantly reinforced by restatement and incestuous quotation amongst constructionist colleagues rather than supported by scholarly research."

"In English during the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century the words of preference were ‘molly’ and ‘sapphist’, for which good modern equivalents are ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’. During the seventeenth century and earlier the commonest terms were ‘Sodomite’ and ‘tribade’, for which, again, good modern equivalents are ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’. In ancient and indigenous and premodern cultures there were many terms for which good modern equivalents are ‘queer’ and ‘tomboy’."

"Margaret Clap’s molly house was nothing out of the ordinary, for molly houses – public houses (usually alehouses or taverns, but in this instance a coffee house) where homosexual men kept their rendezvous – had existed in London since 1700. ...Her special room was also a feature of other molly houses. It was sometimes referred to as ‘The Marrying Room’ or ‘The Chapel’, and usually it contained a large double bed. Though no ordained minister seems to have officiated at the nuptials celebrated therein, in Mother Clap’s molly house there was at least a kind of marriage attendant, by the name of Eccleston. He stood guard at the door to guarantee the occupants’ privacy if they so desired. Often, however, the couples did not bother to close the door behind them, thus allowing the others to witness the carnal rite. As a general rule, ‘when they came back they would tell what they had been doing, which in their Dialect they call’d Marrying’.

"In 1698 the Duchesse d'Orleans wrote to a friend that "nothing is more ordinary in England than this unnatural vice". She was amused by the description of the English court as un château de derriére. King William was widely believed to belong to the sodomitical brotherhood, but he defended his fondness for one of his courtiers: "it seems to me a most extraordinary thing that one may not feel regard and affection for a young man without its being criminal". Later, Queen Anne was openly accused by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, of "having noe inclination for any but one's own sex" (not that this prevented her from bearing seventeen children). (Note, incidentally, that "inclination for ... one's own sex" is a nearly exact equivalent of the modern phrase "homosexual orientation".) Anne was called "the squire queen", and she devoted all of her attention to her servant Abigail Masham (cousin of Sarah Churchill), who dressed her hair and nursed her."

AND: " 1709 nine sodomites were apprehended at a brandy-shop near [London's] "German Street", and brought to the Gatehouse of St James's. Officers were sent out in search of the men who frequented it, but only two men were committed to Newgate, the keeper of the shop and "a Foot-Boy belonging to his Grace the Duke of O——". Skelthorp, a soldier executed the previous year, "gave a private Intimation of some of them, and the Houses they met at".

AND: "my view is that the British queer subculture did not "emerge" in 1699 (when a "confederacy" of sodomites was arrested in Windsor): that is simply the year when it was discovered and revealed in the public prints: it was not born, it was exposed. What is spoken of as "birth" by the historian Randolph Trumbach and others should really be recognized as merely "public knowledge". Or, to put it another way, the birth of the subculture is nothing more than (a) the birth of efficient policing and surveillance, and (b) the birth of the popular press."