How real is our sense of GLBT history in this community?
Few in the our Gay community have a general knowledge of GLBT history and even less, I suspect, have a sense of our regional Queer Utah history.” How committed are we in the GLBT communities to remembering the people and the events that created one of the greatest civil rights movements?
How important is our history to us? How important is it to our so-called leaders? I once heard a former director of our community center tell a reporter that she did not care about what happened in the past before her appointment but only cared about the here and now. While I realize that her comments were meant to imply that there’s a task to do here and now and we must not be hindered by mistakes from the past, I, however, thought it was not only an ignorant thing to say but it also lacked gratitude to those who made having a community center even possible.
Today, people coming to terms with their homosexuality — young and old — often enter our community without any sense of a collective identity or access to an institutional memory. We grow up in a cultural vacuum, unaware of the significant contributions made by Gay men and women in all the academic, political, scientific, and aesthetic fields of humankind, unless we are willing to do some serious researching.
What is history? It is often said that history is the collective myths, facts, and lies agreed upon, by which a people can define themselves. Be that as it may, where there is no “history,” there is no sense of group identity either.
“History” is terrifyingly vulnerable to denial,” wrote author Patricia Warren. “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.” This true when Gay elders do not share or write their stories, warts and all.
Many right-wing heterosexual ideologists and some liberal assimilationists would have us believe that we are not a distinct and separate people apart from heterosexuals. To many heterosexuals, homosexuals are still simply misguided heterosexuals, although that view is rapidly changing.
Yes, love is love. However, it is obvious that we are homosexual, not by how we have sex, but by the very nature of our love for our own sex. We fundamentally know that we are different, that our Gay “love” infuses us and enriches us with a totally unique life experience from what heterosexuals can experience. It is from this experience that we, as homosexuals, view the world.
While no one would want their sexuality to be the recognized as the sole sum of their worth, the nature of one’s sexual orientation must be understood as important in writing about historical figures or about our own lives. Understanding someone’s sexual orientation is necessary, much in the same way that it is necessary to know if a person is male or female. No one would argue that the physical and behavioral components that make us male and female are not factors in how we perceive the world. However many heterosexual historians disregard homosexuality as pertinent to the understanding of how a person reacts to the world around them. Sometimes this is known as “queer energy” by GLBT people.
Often in our heterosexual normative world the perspective on homosexuality is generally negative. In the non-Gay world, homosexuality is seen as a moral weakness or a character defect at best and at worse a sign of a depraved or wanton nature.
Homosexuality is rarely discussed or brought to the table when studying history. This absence of the mention of a person’s sexuality implies that everyone is heterosexual by default unless proven otherwise. Therefore it is imperative that we homosexuals become historians and reclaim what is rightfully ours, our perspective and place in history.
When a majority of any type wants to negate a minority’s legitimate cultural identity, the first thing it does is destroy their history. The Nazi’s knew this when then burned sexologist Magus Herschfeld’s immense archive on Gay and Lesbian history, including manuscripts from the times of Socrates and Sappho. If one can bury vital information, or even worse destroy an historical archive of a people or movement, one can successfully eliminate them from living memory.
Heterosexuals should not have to be relied upon to examine and explain us in a context to which we can relate. Most won’t do it for us and in reality many if most can’t. I can write Lesbian history but I cannot write it from a Lesbian perspective. We got to write and preserve or histories for ourselves.
How much does the younger Queer generation know about our Utah roots? I wonder if people think that the powers that be just rolled out the rainbow welcome carpet in Salt Lake City and said “Come On Down! We love our faggots and dykes.”
Let me tell you, we in Utah did not get where we are today by expensive fund raisers. We didn’t get where we are today by people who can write big checks. Before the master degrees in Social Work, before classes in Gender Studies, before the legion of law students took up anti-discrimination issues, there were just extraordinary people who were brave enough to withstand society’s repercussions in order to build a “community”. Times evolve and money and degrees open doors that even extraordinary people can’t today but let’s not forget our beginnings. Let’s not forget the people who opened the doors to support groups, created social outlets, created newspapers, ran our taverns, and led our protests.
Before the suburbs became accepting of Gay families, there first had to be the Gay ghettos. A line from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert succinctly stated the importance of our ghettos.
“It’s funny. We all sit around mindlessly slagging on that vile stinkhole of a city of ours, but in some strange way it takes care of us. I don’t know if that ugly wall of suburbia has been put there to stop them getting in, or us getting out.”
Our “stinkholes” were not an economic ghetto by any means but a cultural ghetto where Gay people could live, love, and thrive relatively unmolested by those who hated us. As society’s prejudices are breaking down, new Gay pioneers are leaving for the suburbans to raise kids, cats, and dogs.
I tell young GLBT people if you have never been arrested for public display of affection, if you have never been denied the right to serve your country, if you have never been criminalized for the way you make love, if you never been diagnosed as having a pathology because of your sexual orientation, you need to thank all the Gay seniors who fought for these rights for you and perhaps show a little gratitude by taking the time to remember our history.
Salt Lake City is so very lucky that many of the people who created our Gay Communities in the 1970s and 1980s are still alive. Nothing was taken for granted by these pioneers who eked out a vibrant community within the hostile and harsh environment of theocratic Utah. We can still know and honor the community builders and leaders who donated their time and talent and even tears to making Salt Lake City truly the Gay Crossroads of the West.
This summer the Utah Stonewall Historical Society and QSaltLake are providing a free five-week lecture series on Utah’s fabulous history. Located in room C of the downtown City Library, June 30 through July 28 at 7 p.m. Subjects germane to our story will be presented by historians and community leaders followed by a question and answer period. Space is limited to the first 35 people interested. Contact the Utah Stonewall Historical Society’s Facebook Page for more details.