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Derik Cowan

October 1997

Historical Inquiries

October is an important month in the GLBT calendar in that it is Gay History Month and includes National Coming Out Day. In the past, I've always tended to focus on NCOD during October. This has always led me to reminiscences on my own personal coming out experience or contemplations on why coming out is important both personally and socio-politically. This year, however, I've decided to focus more on the importance of knowing our history as GLBT persons. The impetus for this decision came from several sources. First, as one of the individuals who has written longest for Oasis, I've become more and more nervous about repeating myself. But perhaps more importantly, over the summer I've had a couple of experiences that have reminded me again both of the lack of historical insight we have on ourselves as GLBT persons and the importance such an insight has both in our ability to defend ourselves against homophobic rhetoric and in our ability to appreciate our own experiences today.

One of the great downfalls I think of the US education system is its devaluation of modern history. I know at least in my high school it was the case that we spent so much time studying the American War for Independence and Civil War that we barely even managed to touch upon World War II, much less the Civil Rights Movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, or the US invasion of Grenada. I find this unfortunate in that, while certainly I suppose it is important to know the uber-defining moments in the past -- the turning points of society as we know it, if you will -- it is equally important to understand how more recent historical events have fine-tuned those turning points and dramatically affected our society at large. How greatly does the creation of a Republican Democracy truly affect our lives today given the general feeling that our government is ineffectual and we are mainly unable to change it -- a feeling rooted in the triple blows of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis?

Furthermore, I think the general ways in which history is taught in our schools is debilitating in that it focuses so heavily on people and dates that we aren't taught to get a feel for the actual events, the times in which they occurred, and the effects they had on our society. We are taught that George Washington was a great man, the Father of our Country, but are we really taught what he did for us? It seems to me that we have erected a series of paper heroes -- people to whom we know we should look up but we don't know for what reason and for whom we feel no true empathy.

Both of these factors, I think have had their influences on the way we as GLBT people try to create our history. We seem to spent much of our time stargazing, looking for important figures in the past who we can claim as our own -- Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Walt Whitman, Sappho, Willa Cather -- without paying any attention to what I would say is our true history, the more recent history that includes the Bohemian drag balls in Harlem during the 1920s, the gay cabaret scene in Berlin prior to Hitler's rise to power, the conflagration and urbanization of large numbers of gays and lesbians in the US due to World War II, the events leading up to and culminating in Stonewall, the election and subsequent assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, and most recently, the outbreak of and response to AIDS in the gay community.

At the start of this article, I mentioned a couple of experiences I had this summer that led me to see a need to write this article. The first was a large discussion on one of the newsgroups I read about the importance of Judy Garland to the gay community. Taking part in the discussion were a number of people around my age who either weren't born or were too young to recall the events surrounding Stonewall and a number of others who did remember Stonewall. I won't go into the argument in its particulars, but I was very surprised by how little many of the people my age involved in the argument knew about their history, especially considering that the topic at hand was the Stonewall riots, perhaps the best known event in gay and lesbian history.

The second experience that led me to write this article occurred one of the first days that I was volunteering at the Bay Area Chapter of the Names Project's visitor center. There's a wonderful woman who leads historically oriented tours of the Castro, starting from the Gold Rush era through today. Anyway, her tour, called Cruising the Castro, ends at the visitor center, where she talks about AIDS and its effect on the Castro. Now the AIDS epidemic is something that I've pretty much grown up with, so I know how it was treated in the media, the way that gays and lesbians have over time responded to AIDS -- going back and forth between saying that AIDS is not a gay disease and then in some ways embracing it as such (Note: I'm not making a judgment here about the validity or negativity of either approach. In point of fact, both statements have their positive and negative connotations within the right contexts.), and the effect that AIDS has had on the gay community both physically and psychologically over basically two generations. But what intrigued me about the tour guide's take on AIDS was how in about three statements she was able to sum up and dissect the entire rhetoric around the crisis and in fact absolve the gay community of what I see is a vague and general sense of guilt about having brought about this epidemic by acting irresponsibly that many gay and bi men seem to feel, a guilt that is capitalized on by writers like Larry Kramer. Her points go as follows:

1. If AIDS is God's punishment for Gays, then lesbians, who have always had the lowest rate of infection, must be God's chosen people.

2. That AIDS struck the gay male community as its first primary target was in large part due to socialization and timing. Socialization because men are taught by society that sex is their right while women are basically taught nesting values -- so two men put together are more likely to look for extra-relationship sex, while two women are more likely to settle into a monogamous relationship. Timing because at the time the AIDS virus hit in the US, gay men were undergoing their sexual revolution. Had it hit a decade earlier, it would have hit the heterosexual Summer of Love population hardest.

3. The AIDS epidemic may have been limited to a certain extent in this country had the gay community not been scapegoated as the carriers of the 20th century black plague. In much of the world, AIDS began and holds sway mostly in the heterosexual community. Indeed, today in the US, the group with the highest rate of infection are heterosexual women in their 20s.

While the first and last points in this set are fairly universally made, it is really her discussion of how socialization and timing made the gay community of the late 70s and early 80s susceptible to an epidemic that gave me pause. At the time I was very young, and coming from a Christian background, I naturally got the God's punishment speech quite often and had deeply internalized it. Even though I hadn't thought of AIDS as that in years, there was always some quality of reaction to that in my understanding of the epidemic -- either violent rejection in the "AIDS is not a gay disease" fashion or a subversion in the "AIDS is a part of our community" fashion. I had never been able to objectively step back and see AIDS for what it really is: an opportunistic virus that happened to come along at the right time to infect the gay community.

I know this article is getting long, so I'm not going to go into great detail at this point on any of the things that I think we as young gay people living in our world should be aware of. Instead I'll simply encourage you not to take what people say about the gay community at face value. Rather, you should learn where the gay community of today came from. Explore its roots. That way when you're reading Bruce Bawer or a friend asserts that the only way for gays to gain acceptance and equal rights is for them to hide themselves and act like straight people, you can remind them that it was the drag queens in the Stonewall Inn who rioted and began the modern gay rights movement that has brought us as far as we are today, not the more respectable and straight acting folks of the Mattachine Society (which isn't to say that the Mattachine Society didn't do great things for the gay community as we know it). Know who Harvey Milk is and what he campaigned for, because his fight is one that as gay youth we have to be on the frontlines for today -- the right to have schools that are safe for both gay students and teachers, the right for us to learn our history.

Find out more about the gay underworld surrounding the Harlem Renaissance than simply that Langston Hughes was gay, because much of modern gay urban culture is rooted in the Bohemian lifestyle of the time. Find out what was going on in pre-WWII Berlin in terms of progressive gay rights laws because it will help us keep from making the same mistakes, and while you're at it take a look at how allied troops reacted to gay prisoners in the concentration camps they freed, or how the return of massive amounts of soldiers after WWII into cities like New York and San Francisco helped create the large gay ghettos in those cities. If you're like me and have parents who still think that gayness is a psychological disorder, it might help you to get the perspective that it officially was classified as such by the American Psychiatric Association into the late seventies, in spite of the fact that Freud said it wasn't. A decent knowledge of gay history can also show how both the rise of specifically anti-gay rhetoric by groups like Focus on the Family and the recent commercialization of gay life are actually signs that we are taking huge steps in the direction of obtaining the goal of equal rights in that we have become visible enough to be attacked, powerful enough to become a market sector, and accepted enough to be packaged for a mainstream audience. This is a far cry from where we were even a decade ago.

But even as I say it's important to know your gay roots, it's equally important in my mind to not get lost in the past, to also know who you are today. I say this because in my experience there are many people in the gay community who like to try to dictate what gay life should be, often based on their experience in the past. I saw a recent example of this in an interview I read with Edmund White on his latest book. In it he was asked about young gay men reading his book and said something along the lines of young gay men are less offended by it because they're very sexual themselves. I found this troubling not in the sense that I think young gay men aren't sexual or that there aren't many young gay men (indeed I would classify myself this way) who live very promiscuously. What I found troubling was rather what I felt to be a dismissal of what my experience as a young gay man with other young gay men has been far more important -- that many in our generation are looking for love, romance, and monogamy, not sexual liberation. Most of the out gay young men I know are far more sexually conservative than older gay men I know, and for someone to dismiss that seemed utterly shortsighted to me. So know your history, but know yourself, and use what you learn to know more about yourself rather than letting it get in the way of your own experiences.


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