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.”

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”

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”

Back into the archives

After a stop in Vermont over the weekend, I’m about to embark on two dissertation research trips, first to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and then to Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell.

This will be the first extended archival research I’ve done since I’ve started blogging and tweeting regularly, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share some first impressions from the archives.

Balancing new and old modes of scholarly communication, I’ll also be doing an informal presentation on my research during each trip. So if you’re in the neighborhood and so inclined, you can find me:

  • talking about “The Women’s Movement and the Struggle for Fair Representation in Mass Entertainment” at a brown bag lunch on October 15 at noon in the first floor conference room at the Schlesinger, and
  • speaking about my research in the HSC’s GLAAD and Gay Media Task Force papers on October 19 at 4:30 pm in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies office in Uris Hall at Cornell.

“All history really up to now has been written by straight historians”

Some history not written by straight historians
Some history not written by straight historians

Earlier this week, the Arts Beat blog at the New York Times published excerpts of Patrick Healy’s interview with Larry Kramer about Kramer’s 4,000-page The American People project—“envisioned as a national history of homosexuality” and now, apparently, forthcoming in 2012 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in what the publisher terms a two-volume “work of fiction.”

Kramer’s a complex and important figure. (The essays in the collection We Must Love One Another or Die make that clear, as does this fascinating 2009 New York magazine profile.) A single blog post does not provide nearly enough space to grapple with him satisfactorily. But the Times interview does prompt me to comment briefly on the American People project and the reception it’s already receiving.

Kramer has elaborated elsewhere on some of the project’s conclusions. One seems to be that just about any famous white male historical personage you can think of (George Washington, Meriwether Lewis, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce) was “gay”; another, that queer theory and gender studies are essentially useless.

I and many others think these conclusions are, respectively, dramatically oversimplified and simply incorrect. Continue reading ““All history really up to now has been written by straight historians””

Queering the social network

Thefacebook.com circa 2004 (screengrab from Archive.org)
Thefacebook.com circa 2004 (screengrab from Archive.org)

I’m a little perplexed by the publicity juggernaut surrounding the new movie The Social Network—it doesn’t look very good, nor, by all indications, does it offer a particularly accurate account of the origins of Facebook. Given that the movie’s hard to avoid, though, read Rebecca O’Brien’s Daily Beast piece “My Classmate Mark Zuckerberg,” which does a good job correcting some of the liberties it takes and explaining the circumstances in which Facebook (or Thefacebook.com, as it was known then) first appeared at Harvard in 2004.

One additional piece of context that I think is important, based on my recollections of the site’s early days, is its quick adoption by many members of Harvard’s LGBT community. This owed something to Chris Hughes’s role in launching the site, I’d guess. Just as significantly, in those early days, when membership was limited and there were fewer worries (like those raised by Jose Antonio Vargas at the end of his recent New Yorker profile of Zuckerberg) about one’s extended family reading one’s profile, the site offered gay students like me something both appealing and disconcerting: with a simple search on the “interested in” field, a list of everyone at the college who chose to identify himself or herself as gay.

Among my gay friends, the “men interested in men” list was a regular topic of conversation, fodder for our casual gossip about our classmates. Who was new to the list? Oh, had he finally come out? What about that ambiguous guy… no answer to the “interested in” question? Well, that spoke volumes. Those guys whose profiles listed “men” and “women”: were they bi, or were they just “looking for friends” and not understanding what the (admirably) open-ended prompt really meant? And that seemingly-straight athlete in section? He was just “interested in men” as a joke—right? Facebook placed a new overlay of information onto mental maps of Harvard’s gay community.

I don’t presume to know how everyone used Facebook then, and I certainly don’t presume to know how all 500 million of its members use it now. Within a few years, as the site expanded and was redesigned, it became harder to search along these lines, and my friends and I graduated and moved on with our post-college lives. I, like many of my friends, don’t even answer the “interested in” question on our profiles anymore. But when some historian writes the twenty-first-century sequel to Martin Meeker’s Contacts Desired, trying to understand how queer people forged connections to one another and built communities in the early years of the new millennium, Facebook ought to be part of that story.

DADT repeal and the boundaries of heterosexuality

Detail of 1943 advertisement for Cannon Towels--or, technically, for war bonds--depicting "the bathing facilities of our boys in the service." Click for full advertisement.
Detail of 1943 advertisement for Cannon Towels--or, technically, for war bonds--depicting "the bathing facilities of our boys in the service." Click for full advertisement.

When historians talk about how modern conceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality emerged in conjunction with one another beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, attention understandably focuses on the changing lists of sex acts one could do, or have done to oneself, without raising eyebrows. But the emergence of homo- and heterosexuality also involved a whole array of subtler changes in routine social interactions. My advisor George Chauncey discussed a compelling example—the less-intimate poses adopted over time by Yale football players in their team portraits—in a Yale Alumni Magazine article last summer.

This phenomenon came to mind as I read New York magazine’s fascinating new profile of the National Guardsmen in Iraq who, led by 22-year-old Codey Wilson, created the Ke$ha-soundtracked “If the Army Goes Gay” video that went viral earlier this year. This passage of Lisa Taddeo’s article especially stood out:

The thing they seem most concerned about is that the repeal [of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy] will usher in a slew of new rules about fraternization. “If everyone knows you’re gay and you touch someone, even as a joke, you’ll be going down for it, the same way that if a guy held a girl’s hand on the—Stop it, man! My roommate’s touching me right now.”

Wilson’s concern that DADT’s repeal would require the reconfiguration of the behavior considered acceptable for heterosexual soldiers offers another example of how sexual categories have evolved, and continue to, at different paces and in strikingly different ways in different social contexts.

And it would be pretty fantastic if those much-maligned DADT surveys ended up indicating, rather than anxiety about predatory gays in the barracks, apprehension about the fate of horseplay and grab ass.

Rapid response

Add-a-gay Tim Bagley (cc photo by NoHoDamon)
Add-a-gay Tim Bagley (cc photo by NoHoDamon)

Last week, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) released its 2009-2010 Network Responsibility Index, “an evaluation of the quantity, quality and diversity of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people on television.” In the report, GLAAD gave CBS a failing grade, citing a lack of “LGBT series regular characters on any of its scripted programs.” Only seven percent of CBS’s primetime program-hours were deemed “LGBT-Inclusive.”

Yesterday, presenting CBS’s fall schedule, network president Nina Tassler declared, “We know we will do better.” Specifically, Tassler promised, “We’re going to meet Alicia’s brother on The Good Wife as a gay character. We’re also going to be adding a new character to Rules of Engagement. Jeff and Audrey’s surrogate will be a member of Jeff’s softball team and she’s a lesbian. We’re also going to be recurring a gay character in Bleep My Dad Says. The character Tim Bagley played will be returning this season.”

I don’t watch any of these shows. But I still find this sequence of events interesting and remarkable, for a number of reasons. It seems especially noteworthy to me right now as I plow through primary sources documenting several decades of pressure by African American activists and performers to increase the number of black faces on primetime TV, often to quite limited effect. Indeed, just a year and a half ago, the NAACP identified a “critical lack of programming by, for or about people of color.” CBS’s swift reaction to GLAAD’s report, I think, highlights a fundamental difference between efforts to make television programming more racially and more sexually diverse—the far greater ease, for better or for worse, with which producers seem to be able to tack gay and lesbian characters (usually, white, male ones) onto already-existing pilots and shows.