A quick queer history pilgrimage

I’ve been submerged lately in the records of the Gay Activists Alliance, the most prominent gay activist organization in New York City during the early 1970s. From 1971 until the building was heavily damaged by arson in 1974, the GAA was headquartered in a former SoHo firehouse that played host to meetings, dances, film screenings, and a number of other events. Today, I decided to pay a visit.

First, here’s the building in its heyday. (You can also see a color photo in the New York Public Library’s great digital gallery of GAA images.)

The GAA Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street in New York in the early 1970s (cc photo by mountain_man_ny_2)

And here it is today, bracketed by Crocs and Patagonia stores. The building itself houses an art gallery.

The same building today (my photo)

In his 1979 memoir Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, Arnie Kantrowitz, the writer and academic and an early GAA officer, describes the building activists called “The Firehouse”:

The basement held committee meetings. The first floor, where the engines had been stored, was lined with white tile. It made a good hall for general membership meetings. A small spiral stairway led to the second floor, which was used for a snack bar, informal sitting around, and more committee meetings. The top floor was for offices and, of course, still more committee meetings. There was no shortage of meetings. There were so many meetings that, in spite of all the room, space had to be booked in advance.

At the dedication ceremonies in May, 1971, I stood on the spiral staircase and pointed at the new mural that stretched across the tile wall on the first floor in a series of photomontage panels. […] [T]o me it was a family portrait. It was the way we saw ourselves: a homosexual clutching iron bars in anguish (cropped from a picture that revealed the bars to belong to the fence in a public park), Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein and black militant Huey Newton endorsing our cause, Jim Owles at City Hall, Vito Russo in Albany, Allen Ginsberg, men embracing, women holding hands, slogans such as GAY POWER, GAY PRIDE, AN ARMY OF LOVERS CANNOT LOSE, my erstwhile lover Bud and I holding hands in the streets of Washington, D.C. The mural was something for homosexuals to be proud of.

Kantrowitz then highlights the vital but deeply fraught relationship between the political and the social in the gay movement. The mural, he writes, faded into the background on “Saturday nights,” when “the meeting hall became a dance floor packed with a shoulder-to-shoulder sea of dancers undulating to the deafening blast of soul rock, an awesome sight from halfway up the spiral staircases, which was perpetually too crowded to afford more than a hasty glimpse of all that rhythmic homosexuality.” Indeed, as Alice Echols argues in her flawed-but-interesting new book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, “The GAA dances suggest the intimate and synergistic connection between gay liberation and gay disco.”

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Some reflections on following the AHA on Twitter

Tweets tagged #AHA2011
Tweets tagged #AHA2011

I wasn’t able to make it to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this past weekend, but my absence gave me my first real opportunity to follow a major historical conference from afar, via Twitter’s #AHA2011 hashtag. (I was also tweeting announcements of sessions and events for the AHA-affiliated Committee on LGBT History.)

Given the ongoing conversations about how new technologies can and should reshape the historical profession in general and conferences in particular—see, for instance, critical takes on the current structure of academic conferences by Michael O’Malley, Dan Cohen, and Larry Cebula—I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few thoughts on the experience.

So, what did I learn?

  • First, not many historians use Twitter. This almost goes without saying, especially in light of Robert Townsend’s recent report on the limited use of new media in the profession. But comparing the announced attendance of over 5,000 with the several dozen intrepid souls who populated the timeline for the #AHA2011 hashtag really threw this fact into relief.
  • Nevertheless, more historians use Twitter than many may realize. Several different historians I follow on Twitter provided updates from the AHA during the weekend… but without the #AHA2011 hashtag. I’d wager that this resulted more from oversight than intention, but regardless, it highlights how even historians tech-savvy enough to be active Twitter users may not necessarily want or know how to use it in the ways the most devoted digital humanists do.
  • These missing hashtags are one example of how best practices for Twitter at conferences are not well-established or widely-embraced. This is particularly so when it comes to reporting on and reacting to sessions in an intelligible way—not an easy task, as I learned in my first conference-tweeting venture, at last April’s OAH annual meeting. Before describing or reacting to a session’s content, it’s of course helpful to somehow indicate the title or topic of the session, the name of the speaker, and the subject of his or her talk. But that’s a lot to do in 140 characters, and it’s tempting to leave this context out. Long session titles and missing name tags don’t help. This weekend, several attendees used shortened links to the online program in useful ways, but I imagine these can be cumbersome to find and insert quickly, especially if there’s no wireless available in the session room. One idea: include on each session page in the online program a “tweet this session” link that automatically generates a shortened URL and creates a new tweet with the URL, the conference hashtag, and maybe even a second, session-specific hashtag. The online program could also include participants’ Twitter handles, where available, to encourage backchannel conversations between presenters and the audience.
  • For now, Twitter is probably more useful to attendees at large academic conferences than to their absent colleagues. Based on my experiences with both the OAH and the AHA, Twitter does a number of things well: it collates and democratizes announcements from attendees and vendors, encourages backchannel conversations and new connections, and cultivates a sense of solidarity among attendees. Indeed, most MLA attendees surveyed last year by George Williams at ProfHacker focused on the ways Twitter encouraged networking and fostered camaraderie there (although, as Chad Black tweeted yesterday in response to the debate about the exclusivity of the digital humanities that spun out this year’s MLA, this blend of the professional and the personal may seem cliquish to some outsiders.) But this past weekend, at least, detailed, substantive accounts of presenters’ ideas and arguments over Twitter were rarer, and tended with a few exceptions to focus on panels on careers and the digital humanities. Although I expect that the breadth and thoroughness of these accounts will grow as it gains wider adoption, right now, Twitter is no substitute for being there. And microblogging may always function best in tandem with “regular” blogging and other forms of online pre- and post-publication (including video) to cover conferences in detail.

Equality Matters and the new gay activism

Yesterday came news of Equality Matters, a new creation of Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog founded by gay conservative-turned-liberal journalist David Brock in 2004. Equality Matters, the Times reported, will be “a ‘communications war room for gay equality’ in an effort to win the movement’s next and biggest battle: for a right to same-sex marriage.” Richard Socarides, the former Clinton aide and current Obama critic and TV pundit who will head the group, writes on its website, “The goal of Equality Matters is to leverage our expertise in media and communications, and politics and policy, to support those who share this belief [in ‘full gay equality’] and help create an environment where policymakers, the courts, the media and the public at large understand that gay rights are human rights.” Kerry Eleveld, the outgoing White House correspondent for the Advocate, will edit the group’s website.

This is a really noteworthy development. In a later post, I’ll write more about the light that history can shed on Equality Matters and its challenge to GLAAD in the realm of gay media activism. Right now, I want to consider why this challenge is emerging now, and in the way it is.

The launch of Equality Matters confirms, I think, a significant shift underway in the structure of gay activism. This shift dates to the moment when, in the wake of California voters’ passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, young people and the Join the Impact movement organized massive, nationwide protests largely over Facebook and other social media. But it has not exactly taken the shape many predicted at that time: a shift toward technologically-enhanced and -enabled grassroots power labeled, famously, “Stonewall 2.0” or “Gay Activism 4.0” by Rex Wockner.

To be sure, frustration with both the status quo and established gay organizations, particularly the HRC, has persisted, even intensified. This has been especially so online, on blogs including Pam’s House Blend and AmericaBlog Gay. The October 2009 National Equality March was arguably an extension of that initial “Join the Impact” moment; possibly, the “It Gets Better” phenomenon is as well.

Ted Olson, Chad Griffin, David Boies, and plaintiff Jeff Zarrillo at AFER's May 27, 2009 press conference (screengrab from live webcast)
Ted Olson, Chad Griffin, David Boies, and plaintiff Jeff Zarrillo at AFER's May 27, 2009 press conference (screengrab from live webcast)

However, the most notable new activist-esque enterprises to emerge from this environment have included an additional feature not forecast in the heady days of Stonewall 2.0: deep-pocketed founders or supporters. The American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), created in 2009 to sponsor the Ted Olson-David Boies federal court challenge to Prop 8, is backed by Hollywood power players Rob Reiner and Bruce Cohen. The direct action group GetEqual is bankrolled by Progressive Insurance heir Jonathan Lewis. Fight Back New York, the PAC established this year to oust state legislators who opposed marriage equality, is funded by Tim Gill and others. And now, Equality Matters will draw from the largesse of Media Matters’ liberal donors.

Socarides himself addresses this context–sort of–in his initial statement on the Equality Matters website:

Another important factor in the evolution of where we are today is the democratizing impact that “new media” and the Internet have had on the equality movement. […] Partially as an outgrowth of all this information, new gay rights groups like Get Equal and Fight Back New York, formed just this year, were able to demonstrate that you could get results by being tough on friend and foe alike (a fact almost no one in Washington seems to get).

It’s a bit submerged in this account, but it seems evident that the democratizing power of new media and the discontent with established gay organizations among the LGBT grassroots have also made it much easier for gay, lesbian, and allied elites to challenge these established organizations while giving their efforts a grassroots, insurgent cast. Many existing gay organizations lack the credibility to stand in the way of well-off donors who decide to create new activist initiatives and hire legal, political, and media experts to staff them. Social media allow these new groups to offer, at minimum, the appearance of accessibility and transparency—like us on Facebook! read our tweets! embed our videos! And widespread anger with the status quo provides them a ready base of support.

Still missing, however, is anything approximating an actual grassroots alternative to organizations like the HRC and GLAAD.

Also missing, significantly, is any hint of real substantive differences with these organizations’ agendas. As Socarides’ statement above suggests, most of the loud discontent voiced over the last two years has focused on matters of style and strategy: a need for a more aggressive stance, greater pressure on allies, less compromise, immediate progress, and (sometimes) more direct action. But these preferred approaches still serve a similar agenda: open military service, employment non-discrimination, and marriage equality. These new, vocal challenges to the gay organizational establishment have not, so far, done much to broaden or diversify its agenda, as queer and radical critics have long sought. The Times article ends with a quote from David Brock: “We believe the big battle is full equality, which is gay marriage.” Indeed, if anything, the agenda of these new groups is more narrowly focused on the important, but ultimately limited, military-employment-marriage trifecta.

Roundup: historians react to DADT repeal

Envelope mailed December 27, 1944. Full details and image credit below.

Since Saturday’s Senate vote repealing the U.S. military’s seventeen-year-old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy regarding gay servicemembers and paved the way for open service, a number of historians with expertise on the subject have offered their perspective. I thought their reactions were worth compiling. (Here are some thoughts of my own on DADT from earlier this year.)

George Chauncey, “Last Ban Standing,” The New York Times

…the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the military has been a crucial issue for the gay movement for 65 years — in part because, during the postwar decades, it served as a model for anti-homosexual discrimination throughout the government and private sector.

Claire Potter, “Why Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Is Important, And What Remains To Be Done”

…I consider this to be an important step — not necessarily towards equality, but towards a basis by which we might imagine an inclusive human rights agenda in the United States and a recognition of the ways in which certain groups are confined by the law and other groups are freed by it.  Repealing DADT is an imperfect way of getting there, as is marriage equality, but they are both necessary moves even if you, personally, find marriage and the military noxious and retrograde.

Tanya Roth, “The Beginning of a Long Road”

Yes, looking to the military’s racial integration successes (and shortcomings) is important for ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and moving forward. But I think it’s a big mistake to focus on racial integration and exclude sexual integration. In fact, I’d argue that it’s paramount for the armed forces to take a good, long, serious look at its history ofsexual integration efforts, success, and – above all – limitations.

And finally, depicted above Brenda Marston of Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection shares, via Facebook, “a WWII envelope in the papers of Richard Schlegel, whom the U.S. army dismissed in 1961 for rumored homosexual activity,” mailed December 27, 1944.

While we’re on the topic, the late Allan Bérubé’s landmark 1990 study Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II is back in print from UNC Press, including an e-reader edition. Margot Canaday’s 2003 article “Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Social Citizenship under the 1944 G.I. Bill” is also essential reading.

The “It Gets Better” videos as historical sources

Word cloud based on six "It Gets Better" videos, by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joel Burns, Perez Hilton, Tim Gunn, and Google employees.

The “It Gets Better” project, initiated by sex advice columnist Dan Savage this September in response to a series of suicides by boys and young men bullied by their peers for being gay, or being perceived as gay, has become an undeniable cultural force. Thousands of ordinary people, celebrities, non-profit organizations, and elected officials have created online videos to tell LGBT youth that “it gets better.” Some—most notably the one featuring a public statement by Fort Worth, Texas, city councilman Joel Burns—have gone viral, with over 2.3 million views.

From the perspective of LGBT history, this is a remarkable phenomenon. On the one hand, the participation of so many non-gay celebrities, liberal politicians, and large corporations seems to signal how accepting and embracing gay people has become completely matter-of-course within a large and powerful segment of American society and culture—even extending to the once-taboo, and still always-controversial, matter of gay young people. On the other, much like the growth in straight support for gay people during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the phenomenon relies, to a degree, on depicting gay people as tragic victims. Either way, the outpouring of videos from LGBT people, famous and anonymous, reveals how technological innovation continues to transform the ways LGBT people connect with and contact one another.

The “It Gets Better” messages people have filmed and shared, if properly compiled, cataloged, and preserved, will also be an invaluable resource to future historians studying LGBT life, culture, and politics in the United States in 2010. Even right now, I think they can reveal a lot. Inspired by Cameron Blevins and Julie Meloni, I realized word clouds might offer a quick initial glimpse into the language and themes contributors emphasized in their messages. So I pulled transcripts of six of the most popular videos—President Barack Obama’s, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s, Burns’s, reality TV fashion mentor Tim Gunn’s, gossip blogger Perez Hilton’s, and gay and lesbian Google employees’—from Lybio.net and fed them into Wordle.

The image above is based on the transcripts of all six videos together, and it’s fairly predictable, given the project’s mission. In fact, know, school, life, get, better basically sums up the project’s core message.

But the individual word clouds quickly illustrate some revealing differences and peculiarities. Have a look at them, after the jump. Continue reading “The “It Gets Better” videos as historical sources”

New England roundup #20

Counting paper ballots in Cornwall, VT, in 2004 (cc photo by origamidon)
Counting paper ballots in Cornwall, VT, in 2004 (cc photo by origamidon)
  • With the 2010 elections in the books, the AP declares, “The GOP resurgence sputters in most of New England.” But Jay Newton-Small, of Time, equivocates in a piece titled “The Rebirth of the New England GOP (Or Something Approximating It),” and the Globe argues that the victories Republicans did secure “reflect a resurgence of the uniquely New England stripe of moderate Republicanism that has receded in recent years as the national party has become increasingly conservative on social issues.” All three analyses note that Republican gains were not all that the party had hoped for. Over at the Providence Journal, John E. Mulligan observes that the elections tilted the balance of power in the U.S. House delegation from the Northeast (New England, plus New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) from a 68-15 Democratic advantage to a 55-28 split. And if you missed it, I explored some historical context for the election results in New England earlier this week.
  • The region’s largest wind power project, on Kibby Mountain in Maine, near the Canadian border, is complete. But the future of alternative energy and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is in some doubt with Maine’s election of Paul LaPage—a climate change skeptic and wind power opponent—to replace outgoing governor John Baldacci.
  • Panera Bread Co. is expanding its presence in the New England states, and echoing comments last summer by Papa Gino’s CEO about the region’s unique pizza culture, Panera’s executive chairman declares, “The New England consumer gets Panera. The New England consumer appreciates Panera.” (I’m not exactly sure what there is to “get”—I guess I don’t!)

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.

Graphing the Democrats’ rise in New England

One of the things that first spurred me to think seriously about New England’s complex regional history in the twentieth century, and its evolving place within the larger nation, was the Congressional election of 2008, when the Democratic Party swept the last Republican from the six states’ U.S. House seats. The moment seemed to symbolize New England’s status as a liberal outlier, even within a very strong year for Democrats nationwide. Obviously, partisan control of House seats is a crude metric: it obscures more-complex realities in voting patterns for other elected offices, it fails to distinguish between party and ideology, and it doesn’t capture intra-regional diversity very well. Still, the 2008 results—along with other indicators, including the rapid advance of state recognition of same-sex relationships and surveys showing atypically low levels of religious adherence—bespoke a New England that stood apart from the national mainstream.

What intrigued me is when and how this “liberal New England” had come to be, especially given the historical image, and to some significant degree the reality, of flinty Yankee conservatism. Then, in the wake of Tuesday’s election results, which included Republican victories in both New Hampshire U.S. House races, I wondered whether New England was, even by this crude metric, actually all that exceptional any more. So, as a way to start answering these questions, I decided to throw together a quick graph of the historical data on Democrats’ share of New England’s House seats to see what sort of light it could shed.  Here it is:

Graph: Democratic Party Share of U.S. House Seats

After the jump, some amateur, first-impression political science. Continue reading “Graphing the Democrats’ rise in New England”

New England roundup #19

1890 John Singer Sargent painting of Henry Cabot Lodge (cc photo by cliff1066)
1890 John Singer Sargent painting of Henry Cabot Lodge (cc photo by cliff1066)

Some miscellany from the past few weeks:

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.

Archives and online collections in U.S. LGBT history

(cc photo by library riot)
(cc photo by library riot)

This post accompanies a talk I’m giving today about my current research at Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection. I’ll be speaking about my dissertation, with a focus on its gay and lesbian history component and how LGBT archival collections will help me to answer the questions I’m asking.

Here, I wanted to offer those attending the talk, as well as those following along at home, some links to archives I’ll be mentioning. I’ve also listed some useful digital resources for studying the LGBT past. Find it all after the jump. Continue reading “Archives and online collections in U.S. LGBT history”