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 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.

The color of Scouting during World War II

Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)
Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)

This year marks the one-hundredth birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. In a new guest post up today over at The Lazy Scholar, I discuss my nagging interest in the Scouts’ history and suggest some ways the digital archive can allow historians to pierce the organization’s own mythology and examine its place in American life. Have a look. (And my thanks to Stephen for the platform.)

One archival resource that I ran out of room to discuss in the post is the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog of the Library of Congress (LOC), which offers several hundred images of Boy Scout activities. Many of these were created by Office of War Information (OWI) photographers during World War II, and they hint that at how Scouting’s social composition became part of the government’s wartime propaganda effort. A 1942 image, taken by an OWI photographer at the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Chicago, depicts the African American members of Troop 446. Others depict a multiracial group eating dinner at a Scout camp in New York and Portuguese American boys in New Bedford, MA.

Most striking are the two seen above. On the left: “colored, white and Chinese Boy scouts in front of the Capitol”, holding a poster celebrating the Allied coalition. On the right: a second photo of the same scene, including only the white boy. (The LOC metadata suggests a July 1941 date for the photographs, but that doesn’t seem right: both the OWI and the term “United Nations” originated in 1942.)

Although I don’t think he examines these specific photographs, George H. Roeder’s vividly-illustrated book The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two (1993) establishes their context. The OWI made sophisticated use of photographic imagery—and distribution channels segmented by race and region—to celebrate social harmony on the home front without upsetting existing social arrangements. This pair of images offers powerful evidence that the Boy Scouts participated in both prongs of this effort.

When country music, regional resentment, and gender politics collide

While hunting around YouTube for the best version of Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers’ “New England,” I came across another remarkable text: the music video for Reba McEntire’s 1986 song “Whoever’s in New England.” Written by Kendal Franceschi and Quentin Powers, the song was a #1 hit on Billboard’s country charts and inspired McEntire’s first music video; the album of which it was a part was McEntire’s tenth, but her first to go to #1.

I’m not being ironic in using the adjective “remarkable” to describe the song and accompanying video. Both present a wife’s lament about suspicious business trips “up North” to Massachusetts taken by her husband, “an executive on his way up.” The video alternates between scenes of a lonely McEntire in her home and driving her husband to the airport and (imagined?) images of her husband dining and frolicking in the snow with a Boston businesswoman. “You know its not too late, ’cause you’ll always have a place to go / When whoever’s in New England’s through with you,” the singer declares in the song’s conclusion. In the video, her husband realizes the error of his ways, abandons his flight at the airport, and returns to McEntire’s arms.

The song seems to me to encapsulate a strain of the South’s late-twentieth-century resentment and feelings of inferiority toward “elites” from New England—and especially, and explicitly, Massachusetts—even amid the South’s own simultaneous political, economic, and cultural ascendancy.

Wikipedia tells me that McEntire’s song is a response to Barry Manilow’s 1976 recording “Weekend in New England,” a song penned by by Randy Edelman. In “Weekend,” the singer addresses a lover with whom he has spent time in New England (although it’s not clear that he is otherwise spoken for). The liaison occurs on “long rocky beaches” and the singer returns to “the city,” evoking the New England of coastal tourism, an escape from modern life.

But the lyrics and video of McEntire’s song establish a contrast, instead, between the tall buildings, executive boardrooms, fancy restaurants, and public parks of urban Boston and a suburban, implicitly Southern, home featuring both modern and country accents. New England is cold, with winters that may be “beautiful” but “can last forever.” It’s a foreign “up there,” and one needs a “place to go,” a Southern home to return to, when it inevitably abandons you.

The other woman (still from music video for Reba McEntire, "Whoever's in New England")
The other woman (still from music video for Reba McEntire, "Whoever's in New England")

Strikingly, the video also casts this contrast in terms of two models of feminine styling and comportment, aligning 1980s-era controversies over feminism with the clash of “icy” New England vs. the South. It depicts McEntire at home in her kitchen and/or at her husband’s side, clad in a sweater, denim, and a sensible perm. Compare this with the woman with whom he has an affair. She is not the secretary taking notes on his presentation; instead, she’s a businesswoman sitting among the men at the conference table. She wears glasses, a men’s-style jacket, and a tie, and her hair is pulled up severely. She, indeed, is the aggressor in their encounter: her smile cuts to his, then to hers again, after reeling him in for a dinner out. And the stained-glass window behind her, for some reason depicting the state seal, brands her and her behavior as unquestionably “Massachusetts.”

In short, watch this video. I think it could be a really useful in teaching—a compelling launching point for a discussion about the regional, cultural, and gendered dimensions of U.S. politics in the 1980s, and their many intersections.

“The civil rights push deserves much of the credit”

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington in 1963. Sidney Poitier is in the background, and Harry Belafonte is standing behind Brando (USIA photo, via Wikimedia Commons)
Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington in 1963. Sidney Poitier is in the background, and Harry Belafonte is standing behind Brando (USIA photo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, I came across a 1967 interview in which Charlton Heston, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, declares “we’ve got a long way to go before the Negro image on screen catches up with reality.” Being familiar with Heston’s right-wing, pro-gun politics of his later, NRA years, the interview came as a bit of a surprise. So did, after taking to Google for background, the above photograph from the 1963 March on Washington. Nor had I realized that Heston, still associating himself in King’s legacy, was not only a Second Amendment activist but a committed culture warrior on a number of fronts by the 1990s.

Now, judging by the 1967 interview, Heston was no radical on the issue of black images in film or on racial questions generally. He speaks of progress made, citing Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby approvingly. Pressed on his personal contribution, he mentions a prospective “picture about a professional football team and the girl who plays opposite me will be a Negro,” acknowledging that it won’t “make a shattering impression on the movie industry,” but calling it “a step in the right direction.” (Heston may have been talking about 1969’s Number One; his costar in that film was the fabulous, but white, Jessica Walter.) And he leads off by celebrating the civil rights movement in expressly universalist terms, noting that black efforts to integrate technical unions had undermined their insularity and nepotism in ways that aided whites too: “There’s a huge wave of employment reform surging through the movie industry these days, especially behind the camera, and the civil rights push deserves much of the credit for making the situation better for both races” (Walter Burrell, “NAACP Has Ripped Apart Hollywood’s ‘In Crowd’,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 14, 1967).

Still, I find Heston’s evolution—he might have denied that he’d evolved—from civil rights marching Democrat to “white pride”-defending Republican fascinating. All the more so because it seems to have been part of a broader phenomenon. Ronald Reagan is, of course, the archetypal case. Matt Jacobson and Gaspar González offer an interesting account of Frank Sinatra’s changing politics in their book on The Manchurian Candidate. Are there more examples? Can we think about these liberal-to-conservative Hollywood stars as a group, even if their evolutions proceeded along somewhat different timelines? Is it significant that all three of the actors mentioned here engaged in at least some early-career activism against racial prejudice, or in support of civil rights? Is it possible that changing racial dynamics within the film industry helped—alongside many other factors—to reshape their politics by the 1970s and 1980s?

These aren’t, precisely, questions I’m aiming to answer with my dissertation, which tackles only a slice of a much larger history of the civil rights movement and racial politics in Hollywood. On the other hand, I’m increasingly realizing that the campaigns against film stereotypes that I’m examining are hard to detach from this context. By the 1960s, they had become deeply intertwined with demands for altered hiring practices and, broadly, for greater African American power within the industry. As my research proceeds, Heston’s case prompts me to think more about the reception afforded such demands, and to consider how the growing black presence in Hollywood, the fraying of old interracial alliances, and rightward migrations like those undertaken by these actors might fit together.

Fearing victory

George W. Bush endorses the FMA in 2006 (screencap via Rod 2.0)
The FMA failed in 2006, despite George W. Bush's endorsement (screencap via Rod 2.0)

Not to pick on the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart, but his online piece earlier this week arguing that “the prospect of victory [in Perry v. Schwarzenegger] has me and more than a few others concerned about what may follow” makes a number of points that are, I think, a bit silly. I want to tackle just a couple of them.

Capehart makes the case that public sentiment—as evident in a legal landscape where most states prohibit same-sex marriage—does not support marriage equality to the extent necessary for the Supreme Court to feel comfortable ruling that barring gay people from marrying is unconstitutional. In doing so, he cites the example of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, when the justices overturned remaining state criminal prohibitions on sodomy, reversing their 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. Specifically, he points to Justice Kennedy’s observation that “In our own constitutional system the deficiencies in Bowers became even more apparent in the years following its announcement. The 25 States with laws prohibiting the relevant conduct referenced in the Bowers decision are reduced now to 13, of which 4 enforce their laws only against homosexual conduct.” Kennedy does make this point, in passing. But he does so after a much longer discussion that draws heavily on the work of historians of sexuality in order to make the case that the Bowers court was basically approaching the question the wrong way, because they proceeded from “historical premises [that] are not without doubt and, at the very least, are overstated.” In fact, historians demonstrated, although laws prohibiting sodomy had long existed, they targeted a range of acts between both same-sex and different-sex partners, and they were unevenly enforced; “laws targeting same-sex couples did not develop until the last third of the 20th century.” Indeed, Kennedy writes later in his opinion, “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today” (my emphasis). Rather than an argument for waiting for public opinion to evolve, Lawrence seems more to suggest the value to gay activists of showing judges and justices strong historical and social scientific evidence that supports our arguments—which few doubt the Perry plaintiffs did.  (For a taste, check out reenactments of the testimony by historians Nancy Cott and George Chauncey here, on days 1-3 of the trial.)

Later, Capehart writes:

Here’s something else to consider. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that ushered in marriage equality there in 2004 also kicked off a push to enshrine discrimination in the Constitution through an amendment banning same-sex marriage. It went nowhere then. I’m not so sure today. Two-thirds of the states — 38 — are needed to amend the U.S. Constitution. As I just mentioned 30 states have already done it on their own. Or look at it this way, 45 of the 50 states currently do not permit same-sex marriage.

Three points here. First, the hurdle is actually three-fourths of the states, although this does indeed amount to 38. Second, even granting that all 30 states with some sort of constitutional marriage prohibition would definitely ratify a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage, I don’t think one can assume that state legislatures that have successfully kept state-level amendments off the ballot in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina would rush to put a federal amendment before voters. Third, and most importantly, Capehart’s worrying here entirely ignores the role of the Congress. Between 2004 and 2006, with a supportive White House, the Republican-controlled Senate twice failed to invoke cloture on the Federal Marriage Amendment, with 50 nay votes on one occasion and 48 on the other. The amendment also failed twice in the Republican-controlled House, with just over half the members voting in favor each time—about 50 votes short of the two-thirds required, in other words. Even assuming that Republicans won control of both houses of Congress this fall with modest majorities, would a district court ruling in Perry really be enough to push more than a dozen and a half Democratic senators toward suddenly supporting a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage? I’m skeptical.

Most broadly, I just don’t really understand the point of pieces like Capehart’s. Debate the merits of bringing a suit like Perry, sure. But once a civil rights lawsuit is under way, what’s the value of extensive hand-wringing about success? Unfavorable decisions from Judge Vaughn Walker and especially from the Supreme Court on appeal would definitely be setbacks to the cause of marriage equality. Favorable ones might produce backlash. The expansion of civil rights in the face of strong opposition almost always does. But we have to confront that opposition at one point or another. Rather than casting the possibility of victory in vaguely apocalyptic terms—“All that’s needed is a spark. Right now, Judge Walker is the man holding the matches,” Capehart concludes—why not gird oneself and others for the fight?

“There is consolation in the thought that America is young”

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. National Archives and Records Administration, ARC identifier 558770

For the past couple of years, I’ve taught excerpts of probably the most famous Fifth of July speech, Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 address, popularly known as the “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. I was familiar, therefore, with the searing rhetoric of the speech’s climax:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

I took the opportunity today to read the full address, and wanted to share a couple other passages I found resonant. One comes from the opening section, where Douglass discusses what the holiday means to his (white) audience:

This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young.

The second comes from the end of the address, when Douglass, having delivered such lines as, “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie,” pivots suddenly to make common cause with the abolitionist audience—to talk of global interconnectedness, hope, and change, and to prove that there is very little new in American political rhetoric:

I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind.

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.”)