Who Gets to Write Gay Rights Into the History Books?
I was a sophomore in high school when Rodney Wilson, a courageous high school teacher in Missouri, came out to his class and reimagined October as National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month. And while I lived in a fairly progressive town within an afternoon’s drive of New York City, we never got that memo. My education about gay life – and what it meant to be part of the larger LGBTQ community – took place mainly on the nascent internet (like soc.motss, the massive newsgroup for “members of the same sex” started on Usenet in 1983). Once I got to college, I was guided by some slightly older queer peers and a few out profs – my own personal Rodney Wilsons – but it was still a largely self-directed process.
Like all teenagers, I felt I was discovering the world – and when it came to queer history, in a very real way, I was. In the absence of unbiased books, the anonymity of the internet, or college queer studies departments, our history as LGBT people could only be found in one of two ways: by talking to other queer people, or by reading ourselves into the silences and distortions of the formal histories with which we were presented.
So I talked to anyone who might have a piece of our history to share. I gave a second look to all those great male-male friendships in my copy of D’Aulaires’s Book of Greek Myths. I dreamed of the day when our histories might be taught in schools.
But teaching queer history – developing a canon of thought about ourselves, for presentation to the world at large – presents some conundrums: Which stories will we teach? Who will choose them? And how will they be told?
Writing the history of any marginalized group for the consumption of the masses is difficult, and queer history presents its own particular challenges. Until very recently, our community lacked any organizations that would have passed on history in any canonical way: we didn’t have schools or departments looking into us, museums or churches to celebrate and document us, or even welcoming and inclusive birth families to keep picture albums and personal papers. Without institutions to preserve our past and communicate it to our future, we never developed the kind of historical narratives other communities have.
We’ve rarely told our history as a straight line, and we’ve never had others tell it for us. Instead, queer people have acted as our own historians and shared our own histories as individuals and parts of small, fluid communities. Each of us held a few pieces of a mosaic that was constantly being reconfigured, like we were putting together some giant puzzle on the floor, each time we came together.
There are major drawbacks to that kind of history making – primarily, that what you know ends up defined by the community in which you move, making it easy to end up with a limited understanding of the past that privileges the experiences of people like you. But it can also be an empowering approach to a discipline – history – that most Americans are taught to see as an exercise in rote memorization.
Because no one told us where to look for our history, we had to go looking for ourselves. Because most of the histories we found were lies, we learned to distill small truths from an ocean of disinformation. Because our teachers couldn’t help us, we helped each other. And because it was so rare, we learned that our history was a precious thing, to be savored and shared.
Now, for the first time ever, these histories will be taught in elementary and secondary schools, thanks to California’s Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (Fair) Education Act. Because of Fair, and the decades of scholarship and activism that made it possible, the professionalization of queer history is happening: the rigor of academia will continue to bear down on the histories of sexuality, and fascinating discoveries will be made. But that doesn’t have to mean that our alternative way of history-keeping is no longer necessary. Sharing our histories with each other and with the outside world is part of our coming to live without shame, and writing ourselves back into the books we were so carefully excised from is part of making sure we never have to again.