New England roundup #6

Undated aerial photograph of the construction of I-89 in Middlesex, VT. Photo #T-1, Dept. of Highways Photograph Collection, Vermont State Archives
Undated aerial photograph of the construction of I-89 in Middlesex, VT. Photo #T-1, Dept. of Highways Photograph Collection, Vermont State Archives

For whatever reason, not too much to round up this week:

  • In the wake of Wednesday’s earthquake near Ottawa, felt in parts of New England, check out a report by a Boston College geologist, “Why Does the Earth Quake in New England?”
  • The National Endowment for the Humanities has rewarded Yale University Library a $250,000 grant to support the first in a series of electronic collections of documents related to New England Native Americans.  The Yale Indian Papers Project (YIPP) is a collaborative effort of Yale, the Connecticut State Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Massachusetts Archives, and the National Archives of the United Kingdom.  The initial project is titled “The New England Indian Papers Series: The Connecticut Colony Collection, 1603-1783.”
  • AAA Southern New England projects a 19 percent increase in travel in New England over the July 4 weekend—1.7 million people will be on the move, 90 percent of them by car.  It’s a shame that final number isn’t lower!  You can find a few more photos from the Department of Highways Photograph Collection at the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration website.

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

Gay marriage, forty years ago

Newspaper article: "Denied Marriage License: Homosexuals Plan Court Action," Hartford Courant, September 2, 1971
Hartford Courant, September 2, 1971 (click to view full size)

I just dug this out from research I conducted a few years ago on gay and lesbian organizing in Hartford, Connecticut, in the Gender Equity Collection at Central Connecticut State University’s Elihu Burritt Library.  The Kalos Society-Gay Liberation Front was an early gay organization there, dating from the late 1960s.

My advisor, George Chauncey, writes in his book Why Marriage? about the phenomenon of early gay liberation-era claims by same-sex couples for marriage rights:

From the earliest days of gay liberation, some activists demanded the right to marry. This may surprise some, who imagine that gay liberationists were united in denouncing marriage as a discredited patriarchal institution.  But the messy complexity as well as the fervent politicization of the gay liberation years is part of what made them so generative and influential. (89)

Bland and Malvin’s efforts were, needless to say, unsuccessful. Thirty seven years later, the good folks at GLAD won Connecticut same-sex couples the right to marry in Kerrigan and Mock v. Connecticut Department of Health.

Here’s another item that suggests how, for at least some young people of the gay liberation era, “marriage” could be just as much about personal self-definition as politicized demands for rights, getting at some of that “messy complexity”:

News photograph: "Couple Wears Matching Wedding Rings," Hartford Times, September 27, 1970
Hartford Times, September 27, 1970

The hands pictured belonged to Leonard Simons, a 29-year-old trucking company clerk, and Richard Stankiewicz, a 24-year-old machinist, who had been living together in Plainville for nine months. The couple seemed to consider themselves activists—they “wore purple buttons with a peace symbol and the words, ‘Homosexuals for Peace.'” They also reported that they were “good Christians.” Stankiewicz told the reporter, “I just happen to prefer men over women.”

(Rather amusing background for the picture: it accompanied a report on a picnic that was thrown by Kalos-GLF in a Hartford public park in 1970 and was opposed by a neighborhood figure named Bert “Big Boy” Carilli, a beer salesman and former boxer. Carilli collected 400 signatures from area residents in an unsuccessful effort to have the picnic canceled. Then he attended the event, where he provided grilling utensils, was dubbed “Teddy Bear” by the gay attendees, and simultaneously preached “tolerance” and called gays and lesbians “sick people.”)

Quick thoughts on Stonewall Uprising

Last night, I saw Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s new film Stonewall Uprising, based on David Carter’s 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. Overall, and especially given the time constraints of the medium and the limitations of narrator-free documentary, and the inevitable fuzziness on some points of detail that come along with them, I thought there was a lot to recommend it. I certainly hope it gains a wide audience.

The film’s strongest aspect, by far, is its vivid, compelling account of the medical and legal oppression that most gay people faced in the midcentury United States, between World War II and the late 1960s. It’s tricky to lay this all out without leaving the impression that gay cultural and communal life was completely nonexistent, but the film strikes this balance pretty well: the presence of a “pre-Stonewall” gay culture is evident, but so too are the often-tragic consequences for those unlucky enough to be arrested or subjected to medical “treatment” for their homosexuality. The filmmakers also do a good job offering at least cursory glances at a number of important contexts for the events at the Stonewall Inn in late June 1969: the homophile movement (including in New York City), mayoral politics, organized crime, the radical milieu of the late 1960s. Although a few of the subjects wax historical in ways that aren’t quite accurate, most of the examples of this I noticed were countered elsewhere in the film, and the contradictions were often suggestive. (For instance, one of the Stonewall patrons says of the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march something to the effect of, “No one could have imagined before now carrying signs saying, ‘I am gay.'” But, as we’ve already seen in the film, homophile activists had done just that in Philadelphia and Washington five years earlier!)

My biggest beef with the film was its lack of transparency regarding the sources of the still and moving images used during the discussion of the Stonewall uprising itself. There’s a title in the opening credits noting that little visual record of the riots exists and that filmmakers used both footage from other events and filmed reenactments. But I wondered what those other events were, and what footage was from the period and what was reenacted—partly from my own curiosity, and partly because I imagine students would inevitably ask if I ever used Stonewall Uprising in teaching.

Authentic footage did provide provided one of the film’s most fascinating and resonant moments, though: in an excerpt from a mid-1960s television interview, Richard Inman of the Florida Mattachine rejects (on behalf of all homophile activists) any interest in same-sex marriage or adoption by gay people, and then, when asked if he’s gay, declares that it’s not his “cup of tea.”

New England roundup #5

  • The "Red Sox Nation Citizens' Entrance" at Fenway Park
    The "Red Sox Nation Citizens' Entrance" at Fenway Park (cc image by Darren Larson)

    With the expected resignation of Hartford mayor Eddie Perez and ascension of city council president Pedro Segarra, and after Cambridge mayor David Maher came out earlier this month, three of New England’s dozen largest cities will have openly gay mayors. The third is David Cicilline, mayor of Providence since 2002 and currently a candidate for the U.S. House. (Cambridge’s last two mayors, Denise Simmons and Ken Reeves, were also openly gay.) Thanks to Ryan for bringing this to my attention!

  • Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino sought—in jest?—on Wednesday to push the boundaries of Red Sox Nation to Connecticut’s southwestern border. The Stamford Advocate quotes Lucchino: “As far as I’m concerned, Connecticut is part of New England. New England has a baseball team, it’s called the Boston Red Sox, and as long as you’re part of New England, you’re part of Red Sox Nation.” Lucchino apparently does not embrace maps like journalist Joel Garreau’s, from The Nine Nations of North America, that exclude Fairfield County from New England.
  • More people are taking cruises to New England ports, the AP reports.

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

Come take a look

The current Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles, the 1983 Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein musical, is up for 11 Tony Awards tonight. In the revival, Kelsey Grammer plays Georges, the owner of a French Riviera drag club, and Douglas Hodge is Albin, his lover and the club’s star. But this video from the 1984 awards features George Hearn, who originated the role, singing Albin’s big number, “I Am What I Am,” after the Cagelles perform “We Are What We Are.”

I did some digging today, without success, to find authoritative confirmation of the various claims out there (CBS’s squeamishness, a clause in Hearn’s contract) about why Hearn was not in drag while performing on the telecast. I was also curious to see gay reactions to the musical’s premiere, but I’m away from the microfilm room, and little of the gay press from the period has been digitized. (Gay Community News ran an unattributed review of the Boston preview that called the show “a pleasant surprise.”)

So I’ll leave you, instead, with an amazing anecdote from Michael Bronski’s contemporaneous (1984) book Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility:

After the gala opening of La Cage Aux Folles, a disgruntled queen muttered that “It’s nothing more than Mame in drag.” The obvious answer, proffered by a close-standing wag, was: “But, my dear, Mame was Mame in drag.”

Happy Tony watching!

New England roundup #4

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future.  If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

    Tough questions

    Bill Richardson: "It's a choice!"
    Bill Richardson: "It's a choice!"

    Following up on my tweets last night, Judge Vaughn Walker yesterday provided several dozen questions to the plaintiffs and defendants in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the lawsuit challenging California’s constitutional ban on marriage by same-sex couples, enacted by Proposition 8 in 2008. Although I sometimes like to pretend I’m a constitutional lawyer, I’m not, so I’ll recommend Nan Hunter’s analysis of Walker’s questions, which she thinks suggest “the Walker opinion will be a blockbuster, at least in terms of its scope, depth and detail.”

    Like Hunter, I was struck by Walker’s questions about immutability, “choice,” and social construction. She writes:

    One of Judge Walker’s concerns gives me some apprehension: he seems to have been drawn into what I consider to be the deadend of thinking that immutability has any constitutional significance.  Thus these questions to both sides: “What does it mean to have a ‘choice’ in one’s sexual orientation?” “What are the constitutional consequences if the evidence shows that sexual orientation is immutable for men but not women? Must gay men and lesbians be treated identically under the Equal Protection Clause?”  Note to Judge re: that last question: have you ever heard of sex discrimination?

    Constitutional significance” is a key qualifier here, I think. Even as the Perry trial remains very much a battle waged on the ground of constitutional law, it has also been elevated into something more: a grand contest, where accumulated expert opinion and logical argument were mobilized toward the goal of legitimating gay people and gay rights to a larger public, and of discrediting those who disagree. That’s why Prop 8 opponents sought, ultimately unsuccessfully, to have the Perry trial broadcast, and that’s why two different staged reenactments of the testimony have emerged since.

    And in this context, Walker’s questions are bracing and difficult ones, because they cut to the heart of several powerful assumptions that drive much of the contemporary gay and lesbian movement—and, perhaps even more so, underlie arguments made by the movement’s increasingly numerous straight supporters. Continue reading “Tough questions”

    New England roundup #3

    Dunkin' Donuts sign that stood in Brighton, MA, until 2008 (cc photo by walknboston)
    Dunkin' Donuts sign that stood in Brighton, MA, until 2008 (cc photo by walknboston)

    About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future.  If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

    Three films, three protests

    I’m currently working on synthesizing a number of existing accounts of minority protests against films of the silent and early sound eras, of the first social scientific accounts of the influence of film stereotypes on audiences, and of the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency as the primary external constraints on film content.  The result will serve either as a first chapter or as part of a long introduction.

    Conveniently, each of the three most important players throughout this story—African American, Jewish, and Irish-Catholic groups—campaigned prominently against a different film of this period, and did so in a way I can use to illustrate the nature of their broader role in the story.  So the fulcrum of the chapter will be African American protests against D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Jewish protests against Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), and Irish and Catholic protests against The Callahans and the Murphys, a 1927 MGM comedy.

    The last of these three cases is the most obscure but, I think, the most fascinating.  First, because aside from its offensive stereotypes of brawling, drinking, ditch-digging Irish, the film’s story of two women, Mrs. Callahan and Mrs. Murphy, who are at once friends and bitter rivals, sounds potentially entertaining and intriguingly modern (Mmes. Bluth and Austero, anyone?).  Second, because protests by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Catholic Church, and the Irish American press worked—the film was withdrawn from circulation—and intimated the success that a core of Catholic clergy and laity would have in shaping the regulation of film content in the years that followed.  And finally, because the film is lost—a sobering reminder that, notwithstanding the website promising to let you “Watch The Callahans And The Murphys Movie Free,” even in the digital age not every source is at your fingertips, after all.