This month’s column is a little personal. I feel like I need to address “who I am and what I do” regarding my attempts to preserve the history of the homosexual struggle and community building in Utah. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Social Science, specifically in history and political science, some 40 years ago; before having a master’s degree became the only qualification for credibility. My emphasis was on Oral Histories which at the time was a new field. I came to Utah in 1973 and I have been an eyewitness to most of the events I write about; or I have taken an oral history from those who participated in “busting open the closet door in Utah.” I have a sense of history. That is my background.
However, there must be an impression among some folks that I am more than what I say I am. Recently I was attacked on social media by a staff member of the Pride Center who said my work is “garbage” for not including trans history and that as a gay man how much could I know about trans history? Therefore I had no right to call myself an “LGBT historian.” I was accused that I wasn’t much of a historian if I didn’t write that the Stonewall Riot was a trans event.
At first I was taken aback by this vitriolic attack by someone I hardly knew and from whom this community pays a salary. Clearly this person had no idea who I am and what I have been trying to do for the past 30 years in Salt Lake City. And that is to preserve the memories and works of a homosexual people who had struggled to create a sense of identity and acceptance in Utah among a hostile religion and people.
I would like to set the record straight for those under the impression that I am a historian for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, polysexual and trans people. I have never made the claim that I was an “LGBT historian” and for those who have bothered to read the 10 years of columns I have written for QSaltLake, I have never used that acronym although some have labeled me a LGBT historian. I am not an LGBT historian. Let me make that clear so I am no longer disparaged for something I am not. If anything I am a person who keeps a chronology of historical events of Utah’s sexual minorities for future researchers to use before they are forgotten. Period. I have never pretended to be more than what I am; a gay man, attempting, however imperfectly, to keep track of the events and times of my gay and lesbian friends and others who have fought against incredible religious bigotry in this state. I know my limitations. I will admit I am old school. I believe that homosexuals are a not just a community. I believe we have a unique “Volksgeist” or queer spirit that speaks to us, that connects us to each other. This concept does not marginalize us but rather unifies us in a hostile world no matter what our individual life choices may be.
I call it my good fortune to have known most of the people I write about personally. They pioneered the way to equality and I have set down their stories in my archives and my journals. I have spent countless hours over three decades compiling material that I have always gave freely to anyone who asks. I have never made money off of the gay community. I do not believe in buying and selling family which I believe Utah’s gay community is to me. Instead I have helped several people with their doctorate and master’s endeavors. I have helped someone who was court ordered to know the history of gay people in Utah. I have even helped a high profile lawyer from Jackson Hole, Wyoming win a case against the state of Utah that claimed there was no gay community in Utah.
The past directors of the Pride Center have referred me to the media because they do not know their own history. I was once asked who all the past chairs of the board of the Center were because no one there knew. Where is the institutional memory of the Pride Center? Sadly sometimes I think it is me.
As librarian at the Utah Stonewall Center, I had several volunteers who were trans people, before there was an identified trans community, including Deborah Dean founder of Engendered Species. I never pretended to tell their story. I never pretended to tell the stories of lesbians and bisexuals either. I can only tell a story from my perspective as a gay man dealing with the issues of gay men and our friends. Why would I presume to? Fortunately, Dean has written her story.
However, in my archives of over 10,000 pages there are recorded the newspaper accounts and other sources of gay men and women and the trans movement, as it began to be written about in the late 1990s. I’ve included as many articles from the LGBT communities as I can find. But for some I am sure that will never be enough.
When the bisexual and trans communities became included in the movement for equality and social justice in the 1990s, I recorded in my archives what I could find but I do not write about that which I do not know. Very little has been written in the media and I do not have access to the minutes of various trans organizations. Personalities, like Dominique Storni, however are heavily included in my records because I know her and she has been an outspoken advocate for both the trans and gay communities. Needless to say I am not omniscient and I cannot write about what I don’t know. I do have a regular job that preoccupies much of my life.
One of the reasons I am reluctant to write a book of the history of the gay community in Utah is because of the criticism I would receive if I did not reflect the political correctness of the moment. I am sure different parts of the LGBT community would take offense at whatever “language” I used. If I only wrote about history from a gay man’s perspective, I would upset people who felt “erased.” However, I feel you can only be erased if you allow your history to disappear.
People need to step up and write their own histories. People come and go in this community and they take with them their information and records. People who are in positions of “authority” today will not always be here tomorrow. We need the records. People should be required to write a synopsis of their accomplishments in salaried positions. If I can create a historical society for gay and lesbian studies why cannot others create their own historical societies for various elements of the LGBT community? They wouldn’t even have to start from scratch. I will gladly let them have access to my entire archives for free to glean as they will. But that is much harder to do than simply bitch.
A record of Utah’s homosexuals is my only legacy. Our struggle is worth preserving. I apologize for any shortcomings in trying to preserve fading memories before they are lost in the dust of time. However, I will never apologize for my life’s work and love for the queer communities of Utah.