A long time ago, before the internet, knowing what our history was in the LGBT community was difficult if you weren’t living it—right in the middle of the fracas.
After I decided to dedicate myself to LGBT activism in the late 1980s I tried to find books on our history but there were few around.
Sure, some names and events came up like Harvey Milk and the Stonewall Rebellion but I wanted details! I knew Harvey Milk was a City Supervisor in San Francisco who was assassinated while in office for being. I knew that a group of drag queens in a Greenwich Village bar called The Stonewall Inn got sick of being harassed by the police and fought back in 1969 and it spread to the entire Village gay community and laid the groundwork for gay rights in New York, but not much more.
I fumbled along through the majority of the 1990s reporting on the issues and the advances being made during that decade (although we had as many set-backs as we did advances during that turbulent decade with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act) and while I heard there were a few history books on our community, finding them was a different matter. The bookstores didn’t have listings for them and the libraries refused to carry them.
Then, early in 1997, I had the good fortune to meet and become good friends with Jack Nichols.
Nichols was the veritable fountain of knowledge. I was too young to have lived the foundation of the gay rights movement, but Jack did and so he became my mentor, my library and the center of stories from the Golden Age of the gay civil rights struggle.
Many of our conversations would begin by Jack saying, “Did you ever hear about…?” Or he would ask me, “Have you ever heard of (insert name here)?”
Invariably, I hadn’t and he would get up and walk to either his bookshelf, office closet (his second bedroom became his office and he had boxes stacked full of papers, magazines and assorted information regarding everything from his first articles to copies of the Daughters of Bilitis newsletter, The Ladder and his articles he wrote with Lige Clarke in Al Goldstein’s Screw and Gay magazine). I ravenously devoured whatever he told me, gave me to read, watched the video tapes he had recorded of interviews he had given through the years and slowly I became more and more aware of our history.
I never stopped learning after that. My bookshelves today are crammed with LGBT history books and as Editor for LGBT-Today, I don’t know everything but if I trip across something, I research it and learn.
After Jack Nichols passed away on May 2, 2005, I waited to see who might spring up to fill his shoes. For a very long time, GayToday was nothing more than the archives of Jack’s articles despite the continued promise that “a new GayToday was coming soon!”
And I waited and waited.
Some people might bring up Ellen Degeneres but she’s an entertainer—a comedienne who came out as a lesbian and became a damned fine talk show host but still leans heavily on comedy to make her points. She and Portia do make very good examples for the lesbian community and role models for us all but I would hardly say that activism is their only motive. She started out to become rich and famous and she attained her goal. If being a lesbian would have hindered her career instead of helping it, does anyone reading this really think that Ellen would not have kept her sexuality a secret to still be rich and famous?
No brainer, folks!
Others might tap me on the shoulder and point out Rachel Maddow. Hmmmm. Rachel is a news person and she talks very well. She usually gathers her facts together and delivers them in a hydrogen bomb-style conclusion to each segment.
For the last few years of Dr. Frank Kameny’s life, I was in close and regular contact with him. I had been introduced to him by Jack Nichols back in 1997, well, at least by phone. Anyway, due to my thirst for knowledge about our community history, I virtually bled Frank dry for everything he wanted to talk about—and man could that dear old guy talk!
He would spin the entire tale of his life’s story for you and never skip over the slightest detail because the “Dr.” in front of his name was not a ceremonious title. He was a Doctoral graduate of Harvard in Astrophysics and his mind, even to the end of his 84 year-old life, was incapable of working in any other way than scientific theorem. Life, to Kameny, was nothing more than a scientific equation and being a gay man was the epitome of chaos theory.
Back to dear Rachel Maddow. When Dr. Franklin Kameny passed away on October 11, 2011, I believe it was the next evening on the Rachel Maddow Show, her tribute to Kameny contained no fewer than 26 errors on Frank’s life. With a gentle smile on her face, her salute to Kameny, each inaccuracy was more bitter than the last and it ended with the most egotistical, self-promoting and knife-twisting thing of all; a picture of her with her arm around Frank at some function (mostly because Frank was also a ham and never turned down an opportunity to be seen in public)!
When I saw that, to me, she might as well have climbed in Frank’s coffin and had someone take a picture of her performing simulated fellatio on Frank’s lifeless corpse.
This becomes a theme of today’s history. Forget the old because, heaven forbid, the old gay pioneers like Dr. Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols lived in relative poverty and spent their lives doing something very important but never tried to figure out how to turn it into a profitable venture and do the activism to make money.
How un-American of them!
Nowadays, if you start a movement and people begin listening to you, the first thought in your mind is supposed to be, “Gee, look at the crowd of people. Ask them to pass the hat for the cause—Wow! Look at all the millions of dollars!”
After that, you think up a name like the “Human Rights Campaign” and trade your sandals, jeans, tee-shirts and long hair in on a Brooks Brothers suit and a stilted luxury hut in Bali and leave the activism to the grunts you hired to do it for you. You’re on vacation.
Many of us who lived through the 1960s and early 1970s when activism meant getting in the trenches and actually protesting in order to accomplish change have now been made to feel that our way is “old fashioned” and antiquated. That would indicate that we’re ineffective and docile, and with the effects of aging on our body, that our minds are equally ineffective and as a result we should just shut up, sit in our rocking chairs and let the “million dollar babies” handle the world of activism now.
Well, quite frankly, I resent the hell out of that implication and if those Denison’s of gay history, those very same people that President Obama sought to honor in this nationally declared, “LGBT History Month”, could speak from the grave, they would tell all of you that it’s not the Human Rights Campaign, nor the National Gay and Lesbian Rights Campaign that will get us equality. It’s the lesbian who works as a driver for UPS, or the gay man who tends bar at the local gay bar. It’s the teenager who gets bullied and beaten at school for being gay and their parents who can’t get the school to stop it from happening. It’s the transgender woman who tries to walk to the bus stop to go to work, only to have adolescent children in her neighborhood throw stones at her because she looks slightly masculine.
Imagine three million LGBT people gathered around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Do you think our government could ignore us then?
If I’m old and my ideas are antiquated then how did this concept work so well for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his right-hand man, a little known gay (at the time), African-American, named Bayard Rustin?
Many of us who are inching up in age have come to feel useless because of ageism but I do not and will not.
I am proud to hold the values and goals of the gay pioneers as the center of my heart and spirit and I consider that anyone who isn’t working for full equality during this month of observing LGBT History is a hypocrite.
I list the following Gay Pioneers and not one of them fought for gay marriage. Every single one of them fought for full equality and so will I until I’m dead (Thanks to Paul D. Cain and his tremendous book, Leading the Parade, for the list): Dorr Legg, Harry Hay, Lisa Ben, Jim Kepner, Hal Call, José Sarria, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen, Randy Wicker, Frank Kameny, Jack Nichols, Dick Leitsch, Troy Perry, Ginny Berson, and Robin Tyler.
I salute these Gay Pioneers, both living and past. These were people of moxie who didn’t allow their computer to auto-fill petitions, write a check for a $5 donation and consider themselves an activist.
These were people who hit the bricks and got things done.
As my friend Randy Wicker once told me, “We used to march down the street in the (Greenwich) Village and every gay bar we came to we’d go inside and yell, ‘We’re marching! Come join us!’ and hardly anyone would come out, but boy, when a few joined, the energy built and built and we knew we had something!”
It’s time to build that energy again. Who’s with me?
Filed under: Views & Voices