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Gay History: More than Mildred Pierce

09/29/2011

There’s been discussion back and forth in this blog about Mildred Pierce as gay icon, and whether she’s still relevant. Or, perhaps, whether she ever was. I think I’m fairly clear on where I stand: Basically Mildred was then, and now is now. She – and Judy and Liza, and Barbara – aren’t all that important as gay icons any more. Cher and Madonna are fading fast, and Lady Gaga will be gone before you know it. And if you have to ask who any of these people are, you’re just proving my point.

But, good old Mildred with her mile-high shoulder pads, scary hats and scarier eyebrows does have a place. She’s part of our community’s past. And there is relevance in the past. Big time. It’s called history – the factual kind, or as near as we can get to it – and it runs deeper and wider than torch songs and drag queens and disco divas.

Knowing our history – how we as a sexual minority have positioned ourselves in relation to the rest of the world, how others have seen us and dealt with us, how we have coped with adversity and success – is critical to being healthy and secure as an out gay man.  Maybe, once we achieve full equality, it won’t be so important. But until then, and perhaps beyond, it will be.

A couple of months ago, my great friend, Brian, one of several indispensable guides on my journey outward, loaded me up with reading he felt was basic to my gay history education. So I read. And, while I was not exactly ignorant of the past, I learned a lot – both about the arc of history, and about a lot of fascinating, sometimes harrowing detail.

I’m still reading, but here are three books I can recommend.

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell

Big, scholarly and a bit dense, but absolutely worth slogging through. Boswell, who was a professor of history at Yale, shows in no uncertain terms that I am – we are – neither alone nor unique. Gay people have been around since the beginning of recorded history, and we have not always been despised or considered unnatural. We’ve been in the mainstream and out of it, revered, tolerated, persecuted and ignored, for as long as mankind has known how to write. And that ought to come as a comfort to any one of us, late bloomers especially, who ever wondered if there was anyone else on earth who had feelings like ours.

It also serves as a warning. While there have been times in history when gay people were embraced by society even more fully than they are today, these times have always been followed by intolerance and repression.

Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 by John D’Emelio

Shorter and more to the point of our lives today, this book outlines the history of the American gay rights movement, from its beginnings after the close of WWII, through to 1970 just after Stonewall. Almost all of the history covered took place during my lifetime, and yet I was surprised to learn how hard life was for gay people in this country such a short time ago, and how unaware of it I was. There is all sorts of shocking detail about how your gay brothers – and sisters, too ­– were abused, physically and socially. We’ve been denounced in public, put in jail, given shock treatments, fired from jobs, harassed by the police and attacked on the streets in broad daylight. In America. Less than 40 years ago. And this was the rule, not the exception.

At the same time, it paints an uplifting picture of the bravery it took to challenge the existing order, to stand up to ridicule and harassment, to go against the grain and consider oneself normal  in the face of a society that considered us sick at best and more often, criminally degenerate. It wasn’t until the 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed gayness from its list of mental disorders. And only in 2003 were state anti-sodomy laws, many with felony penalties, finally struck down by the Supreme Court.

It makes my struggle to let go and come out – possibly yours, too – look amazingly easy. It puts things into perspective.

The Gay Metropolis by Charles Kaiser

After all that deep history and dreary detail, this one is a bit of a respite. Much lighter, but full of interesting, valuable information – some of it scary, some of it funny and fun. Taking things decade by decade, and centering on New York, Kaiser uses interviews with men, and several women, who were living out in New York as the framework for a cultural history that begins long before Stonewall and ends after the worst of the AIDS epidemic. With the hard times described in D’Emelio’s book clearly visible in the background, this one also covers some of the good times, the joy gay men felt being in New York and much freer than in most American places to be who they were.

As the AIDS epidemic hits in the 1980s, the tone turns much darker, of course – another valuable lesson to hold on to. And yet, when the original edition of the book closes in 1996, the year of its publication, it sounds a clear note of hope and happiness.

But, it’s also instructive to see that while a lot has changed in the years since 1996,we are still fighting for full equality 16 years later. In an afterword to the 2007 edition, Kaiser talks about the amazing increase in our presence in mainstream media – from Rosie and Ellen coming out, to programming like Will and Grace, Queer as Folk and The L Word – and the embrace of our community by business, recognizing our purchasing power, ignoring boycott threats from the right and sponsoring these programs and print media as well.

With Vermont’s recognition of same sex civil unions in 1999, marriage rights moved to center stage – and yet we are still fighting for them 12 years later. A great deal of progress has been made, but the right is still using marriage and other gay rights as a wedge issue and we can be absolutely certain that homophobic bigotry will rear its ugly head in the 2012 elections at every level.

Of course, the need to know our history applies not only to us late bloomers, but to our younger brothers and sisters, too. Actually, it applies to anyone, including our straight allies, who, while knowing that our community isn’t exactly mainstream at present, has no direct experience of the virulent homophobia that was the norm a only couple of decades ago.

The point being that, until we are guaranteed our equality in law, we are all still vulnerable. We cannot be complacent. We have to stand up. We have to be out and proud of the fact. So, young or older, always out, or just coming in our direction, we share a fascinating and instructive history, and we need to know it. It will help us navigate the future.

More coming in future posts.

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