How Real Is Our Sense Of "History"?
By Patricia Nell Warren
For starters, the feminists got it wrong. In the word "history," "his" likely does not refer to men. The American Heritage Dictionary index of root words shows us that there are astounding relationships among like-sounding root words. "History" 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's "history" starts with family history, and keeping track of the generations. Men often didn't know who the fathers of children were -- a thing that a mother was far more likely to know. No generation was ever skipped. Some native peoples referred to history as "Belts," because women wore belts rich in symbols of the long oral histories they knew. Oral traditions rode on elaborate memory-aid systems that made sure no child, and no generation, was left out.
In those days, "families" were vast clans, who traded, warred, intermarried and created culture on a vast 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, China is still clan-conscious, with the Han being the most numerous.
Today, we have the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered clans coming together to attempt a single nation, dedicated to the proposition that not all men and women are not created with the same kind of sexuality. Yet how real is our own sense of generations passing? How dedicated are we to keeping track of each and every child?
In current PC language, it is chic to call ourselves a "tribe" -- and we are actually creating a homosexual version of the heterosexual unit family. This sounds good in print. But the fact is, often we talk about "history" without being clear on what we're celebrating and preserving, or why. Once again Gay and Lesbian History Month looms ahead, 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 petty political vendettas and violent disagreements among our community academics.
Seldom, for example, does mention of our "history" include eras before 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 a U.S. history book in 1776, omitting three centuries of colonialism and long centuries of native culture -- to say nothing of visits to the Americas by early European and Mediterranean peoples, which are usually dismissed as "theory." Stonewall did not happen like a bolt from the blue! That blaze of drag-queen spirit was sparked by World War II activists who served in uniform, who 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 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 in our community makes 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 "gay and lesbian 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 quietly in New York City today, virtually created gay theater in the 1970s, and wrote a body of plays that still ring true in the 1990s.
Generally, our view of "gay and lesbian history" is obsessively urban, with a gloss of cafe-society glitz. And it's true that we 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 "Common Sons" and "Native", that smell of earth and open spaces.
With our millennial world so dependent on microchips, it is easy to forget that those horse-and-buggy days of ours even existed. 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 sexual 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, who could remember when there were few fences in the West, grumbling about this or that good-looking young "punk" on the ranch...and his meaning was always clear. Our ranch roots are forgotten by us -- in fact, straight historians today have chosen to deny the quiet presence of homosexuality in that old-time cowboy life. We live in a highly mechanized age when agriculture no longer hires vast armies of unmarried men on horseback, so it is all too easy to "not understand."
"History" is terrifyingly vulnerable to denial. If one grandmother sweeps a family secret under the rug, or never shares her stories with her grandchildren, the family's picture of itself is skewed. In my own family, the truth about intermarriage with blacks and native Americans was kept hidden for several generations, till my brother and I ferreted out the truth. On a national level, if you silence or kill the person who has the vital information, or burn the historical archive full of documents, you have hacked a limb from the living body of history.
This vulnerability was used by government and missionaries to destroy the old sense of history among conquered tribes on the 19th-century reservations. It was "pagan history," so it was "bad" and deserved to be forgotten. Belt-keepers who had the information were silenced. Only white man's history was acceptable in the new reservation schools. Brown-skinned children learned of George Washington instead of Crazy Horse and Quetzalcoatl. In just two or three generations, only a fragmented picture of history remained for 20th-century tribal members to share with each other. Native people have had to re-invent their history -- ironically finding themselves dependent on bits and pieces recorded by early white anthropologists, mostly Christians who didn't have a clue about the pagan world-view that underlay the old native chronicles, or what the old symbols meant.
"History" is highly vulnerable to single acts of arson. In the 1960s, as the (then) Soviet Union experienced its first stirrings of liberalization, the dominant Russians so feared nationalistic stirrings in Ukraine that one day a mysterious fire broke out in the main historical library of Kiev, capital of Ukraine. That archive contained documents going back to the early Middle Ages, when Slavic clans came together to form the Ukrainian people. For days the fire burned out of control. Everybody knew it was arson. Not a single fire engine came -- the city government had to answer to Moscow. The library burned to the ground. With the information gone, Moscow hoped that Ukrainians would have no basis for arguments that they deserved cultural autonomy within the U.S.S.R. This arson was not even reported in the Western press, who were busy trying to keep detente with the USSR.
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 archive at One Institute in L.A., or the Homosexual Information Center in Louisiana, or Joan Nestle's Herstory archives in New York. We already suffered the loss of the immense Berlin archive of gay and lesbian history, including manuscripts of Socrates and Sappho, that was burned by the Nazis.
Homosexual history is even more vulnerable than heterosexual history. For most of our thousands of years in the West, we HAVE lived underground. The persecution of newly conquered native peoples, the threats to the survival and integrity of their histories, has been our daily fact for generations. Today our U.S. archives are 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 recording and CD is important. Losing most of my own personal archives in the 1994 Northridge Quake -- old manuscripts and letters and memorabilia -- taught me the frailty of my own "past". All the more reason why we, like the Belt-keepers of old, should be careful to count each and every "child".
"History's" greatest achilles heel is that history books can and do 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. Ongoing archeological discovery of "lost" manuscripts hidden in jars in desert caves, show that our idea of those "biblical" times is far from complete. The Catholic Church wrote pagans out of European history once Charlemagne had conquered Europe. Before the 1960s, Christian white Americans wrote 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 universities or in the media to tamper with our own history.
We are far too prone to kowtow to straight celebrities who support us, even to rewrite our own history on their behalf. At this writing, Princess Diana has been dead only two weeks, yet I already see statements in the gay press that she helped "pioneer AIDS awareness." With all respect for Diana's compassion about AIDS patients, she was no "pioneer." Neither was Elizabeth Taylor, who is now being toppled from her pioneer pedestal so Diana can be put there. The real pioneers -- like publicist Tyler St. Mark, who created the first AIDS awareness campaign in 1983, long before Liz ever jumped on the bandwagon -- are mostly vanished from the record.
Gay people who attack the memories of colleagues they don't approve of, are like those vindictive priests in ancient Egypt who went around chiseling the names of out-of-favor kings and queens out of temple inscriptions. We should not efface the record of any clan within our own confederated lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered nation, even though we may not agree with them politically. Much as I disapprove of NAMBLA, for example, I would never help burn their library. They -- and the hot controversies around sex between adults and minors -- are undeniably part of our history, the way polygamy is part of Mormon history, the way slavery is part of American history.
Today our young people -- high school and college age -- enter the community with minds and memories that are understandably blank of any sense of our long history. Few among straight parents, straight educators, straight media will teach them a single iota of anything positive about our contributions to history. As censorship becomes more a fact of American life, they are less and less likely to hear that Walt Whitman was gay, that Eleanor Roosevelt was bisexual, that homosexuals died in Nazi death camps, or that transgendered people enjoyed an extraordinary respect among many native tribes. Again and again, when I lecture in schools, I have seen kids' faces light up as they hear about Stonewall and all that went before.
"Cool...I didn't know that!" they say.
That newborn sense of history, whether in a tortured underground or the occasional spotlight of fame and leadership -- helps our youth to know they are not alone. I vividly remember the reaction of a gay teen activist who had just discovered the existence of an exciting 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 I gave him, which (ironically) was from a Quaker publisher, not a gay publisher. Today our historiographers mostly 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 this judgmental kind of PC nonsense. He had an excited appreciation of Rustin's courage and contribution.
Knowing their real history is a powerful way for young people to combat their fear that they are the only queer kid on Earth. The recent suicide of Utah teen activist Jacob Orozco, who took his own life after two years of battling for student freedoms in Utah schools, is a sign that we still have a long way to go.
The history we give to our youth must be COMPLETE. "World history," whether it's the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Belts of my native forebears, provides us with searing examples of what's real and what isn't, both in written records and in a civilization's unwritten yet powerful sense of itself, as transmitted to its children. To survive into the 21st century, the gay community will need a powerful will to remember and a powerful respect for every single child in every generation behind us.
Patricia Nell Warren authored The Front Runner and its sequels Harlan's Race and the forthcoming Billy's Boy. Also a commentator and youth advocate, she lives in Los Angeles, where she serves on the Gay and Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District.