Sweeping gay history into oblivion

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I guess there's never been a gay Martin Luther King: a gay leader we all remember.

Why? It is easy to come up with a series of speculations.

Most gays can't easily be identified as such. Gay people can pass in a way that was an option only for the fairest Creole. When gay men heard fag jokes they could laugh along it wasn't an option for a black man confronting the clan, denied housing or a decent wage.

While there's always been an at least small black middle class I suspect gay people were more fragmented socially than African-Americans. Money can be a great separator.

Probably many gay men (I've shifted to a specific gender because I don't feel competent to address gay women) satisfied their lust covertly, went back to their job, even their wife and family. Orgasm obtained they were more focused on silence and avoidance of shame than helping another queer person.

Is this why so much gay history has been discarded, early gay leaders forgotten? We've never been blessed with someone like King (one of my personal saints) or a witty, fiery leader like Jesse Jackson.

Any historically aware American knows of the NAACP. Fewer know of the SCLC or CORE. How many gay people know of the queer equivalent? Or would've cared had not the weasel in the White House chose us as easy targets.

A very few of you have heard of Harry Hay, the Mattachine Society, One, Inc. How about Dorr Legg? Or W.E. Smith, Jr., appointed by the major of Atlanta to represent gay people in the city in the early 70s? Or similar local gay politicians, gay publishers whose influence was only regional.

The black equivalents are well documented in the African-American studies books in my bookshop.

On my LGBT shelves there's loads of self-involved noodling called queer theory. So easy to indulge in the search for homoerotic subtexts but it reminds me of the experience many of us have had when we first came out and couldn't help but wonder if this that and the other person was gay. (Some guys never escape that and see gay men under if not in their beds.)

While many of these early gay leaders are dead the men and women who knew them are still with us. Surely it would be better for academics and journalists to preserve the details of queer history they have to share than wander about in speculations that will be forgotten a generation from now. Or analyzing the latest Madonna (not to knock her: chose your own heterosexual gay icon) release.

Social history is geographic (local) and temporal (of a time). Gay social history seems to be washed aside in anecdote and pettifogging.

Many gay men and women worked to bring your life where it is today. They deserve more than to be swept under the carpet.

Comments

I guess that might explain why I’m having such a difficult time finding any substantial documented history on the gay/lesbian history of Atlanta. I’m only finding blurbs here and there. I only wonder how many are still left that can remember how it really was prior to the more widespread acceptance that we enjoy today?

This article really hit home. If there was a Martin Luther King like gay leader it would be so much easier to get out of this suffocating closet that I am living in.

I dig all of the new famous gays in the media, like the Queer Eye guys and Ellen, and am happy for their success, but I just wish there was a more acadmeic one among the bunch. A non-entertainer, who non-queer people would take very seriously, and who had just the right charisma, compassion and most importantly intellect to inspire straight and gay people towards making more ethical choices.

I want to see a gay leader on the evening news on a regular basis to raise the awareness of civil rights for all people. Maybe the host of this thoughtful forum should step up to the plate! He’s got a great website with inspiring information and ideas.

Also, I know it would have been far too radical at the time and perhaps against his fundamentalist religious beliefs, but I wish that Dr. King could have slipped in homosexuals among the long list of disenfranchized groups that he was fighting for. I am such a dreamer.

Chris,

Sorry, I’d meant to point you to James Sears website. Not sure how much he’s written about Atlanta but he is only specialist in Southern gay life who comes to mind.

Last year, my partner and I went to the the One archives and spent an afternoon browsing the displays and the stacks. Though I thought I knew the broad outlines of American gay history, being at the archives threw into stark relief how much I didn’t know.

I felt a bit like I’d betrayed a lot of very brave people who did heroic things when it was very dangerous in order that people like me would have a better world. I can’t even imagine the environment some of them worked under, yet I didn’t even know their names. That’s gratitude, huh?

We as a community don’t do enough to teach our past or to honor our heros. How much is lost by this disconnect?

It is only recently that the issue has hit me. I?ll buy any gay book, even gay astrology crap. But almost all of the serious books are the theory books. A few are autobiographical but not many. And too many of the autobiographies are about gay pop figures like, um, mind goes blank ? female rock stars who?ve come out.

I?m not so much concerned about disseminating the information: only so many would ever care. But while they are still living I wish more queer scholars were capturing the words of living gay activists rather than going on about ?signifiers? or wondering about the subtext of some 17th century play.

Dante,

King was probably a bad example. To be that significant a figure you also need to be alive at the right time. Without the preceding civil rights legislation he wouldn’t have been possible.

Acceptance of gay people has progressed more gradually: even the recent gay marriage debate hasn’t energized gay people the way civil rights rulings did black Americans.

I have no idea what King thought about gay people. Maybe I don’t want to: he was a man of his time. The linkage between you might suspect between the African-American and queer minority has never much been there. Sometimes because black politicians have felt a need to pursue a practical course that focused only on their own community’s needs. Other times because they are just as homophobic as whites.

Black Americans have also been united in economic concerns than gay Americans. Before the Log Cabin Republicans arrived I remember how shocked I was when The Advocate was purchased by a gay Republican. Who knew there were gay Republicans back then?

Hopefully the slow but steadily increasing visibility of some gay people and gay entertainment programming will make it easier for people like yourself to be who they are rather than who others think they should be.

About gays & blacks : There was Bayard Rustin, a black activist who was also gay and worked with King.

Amusingly, I just found an article from The Advocate which links the gay rights movement and King’s ideas: http://www.advocate.com/html/stories/8178/8178_martinlutherking.asp

Your feelings?

Please share your feelings about Sweeping gay history into oblivion.
Thanks,
Richard

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