Let's learn something new during Gay History Month
October 1, 2001
October is Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual History Month. It means a lot to me because I'm a working historian who helped create this field. I am by no means the only one doing research on this sort of work. Today, there are hundreds of people at work in the archives or pounding away at their keyboards who are discovering lots of fascinating new stories about the past. Their findings are helping to rewrite our nation's history.
As a boy growing up in the early 1960s, I found myself drawn irresistibly to history. In those days, history was about kings and presidents, diplomacy and wars, the rise and fall of empires.
On the surface, the events I read about had nothing to do with my fairly ordinary life in the Bronx. Nothing dramatic or heroic happened in my neighborhood. And neither did anything ever seem to change. But that's what kept me fascinated by history, and always hungering for more. No matter what the particular story, there seemed to be at least one steady lesson: things change, nothing remains the same. Today's certainties ("The Earth is flat") become tomorrow's foolishness.
This was a lesson I needed to hear because, you see, I was a gay adolescent. I was struggling alone to figure things out. In those days, there was no road map to what a decent gay life might look like. There were no positive images or messages that I could find. History offered me the ray of hope I needed. Not, mind you, because it said anything about being gay but because it told me "things change."
More than a generation later, my love affair with history continues. I do research, write books and teach in the classroom. But the history I produce now is different from what I encountered 40 years ago. I have written about the origins of the gay and lesbian movement in the United States. I have also written about the history of sexuality. I want to understand how American attitudes and values have changed and why sexuality has become such a contentious public issue.
For instance, we ordinarily think of the McCarthy era as a time of anti-communist hysteria in the United States. Good Americans were hounded for their political beliefs. "Blacklists" cost many people their jobs.
But did you know that in the 1950s, far more Americans were fired or never hired because they were gay, lesbian or bisexual? The "lavender scare" was even more widespread than the "red scare."
During the gays-in-the-military debate in 1993, we heard from Gen. Colin Powell and others who said that openly gay service members would be bad for morale. It would destroy unit cohesion, they said.
But did you know that during World War II, large numbers of gay and lesbian Americans served with distinction? Commanders often looked the other way because they knew that, in a national crisis, we needed the talents of these men and women. The war years were something of a nationwide "coming out" experience for the gay and lesbian community.
Did you know that a century or so ago, as young women were struggling to gain access to higher education, women who loved other women were overrepresented among the first generations of female college graduates?
These women formed lifelong passionate same-sex relationships called "Boston Marriages." Many of them went on to lead the fight to humanize an industrial system that put greed and profit above everything. They staffed settlement houses in immigrant neighborhoods. They investigated unsafe conditions in the factories. They fought against child labor and for decent wage levels. They made the America of their generation a better place.
These are just some of the discoveries that gay history holds out to us. They make it worth studying, certainly in October, and during every other month of the year, too.
John D'Emilio teaches history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently writing a biography about Bayard Rustin, a little-known African-American civil-rights leader and pacifist who was also gay. D'Emilio can be reached at email@example.com.