Writing Our Own History

The other day Sig Fig and I were talking about her fear of always sounding like The Gay in class. It’s a fear I can certainly understand–at a certain point you get a little tired of constantly being the only one offering up The Queer Viewpoint. It’s hard work, and it’s not often rewarding. Sometimes it’s a little scary. Even in academic settings–settings where you think you’re all adults and everyone will at least behave with a modicum of respect–people you thought were halfway decent human beings can be dismissive, ignorant, and downright abusive.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized it sucks that we even have to offer up The Queer Viewpoint. But we have to because it would otherwise so often be completely absent.

Think about it. In a room full of adults, try asking how many of them have heard of the American Revolution. Probably everyone will raise a hand. Now ask about Rosa Parks. Hopefully all the hands will stay up. Finally, ask about Stonewall.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this gap in American collective memory is unique to queer history. So-called “women’s history” (terminology I really dislike because it’s always been happening simultaneously with men’s history, which is still the default) is finally showing up in textbooks–albeit in a very marginalized and grossly abbreviated way. Non-western history (and, really, non-white American history) is far from prominent. And the history of people of color generally gets inserted the same way women’s history does–separate chapters, neat little info boxes.

But queer history? Not even on the radar.

It’s incredibly frustrating that we have to look on the margins for the story of our own people. I was lucky enough to go to a college with a pretty well-stocked queer resource center and a department of Women, Gender & Sexuality, but not everyone is so lucky. I didn’t know about Stonewall, or Harvey Milk, or Sylvia Rivera until I was in college. I didn’t get to read about them in my high school textbooks, or hear about them on the nightly news, or see their names written into popular culture.

Instead I got queer themes treated as off-color jokes (still true–I watched Baby Mama, Hancock, and Get Smart in the past few days, and all of them included “humor” with queer subjects as the butt of the joke) and straight white men as the default heroes of history.

The important part, then, is that we keep educating each other. I’ve started reading the books I see mentioned on other blogs I like, and I try to share the excellent ones I’ve read. The Sig Fig works at an archive with an amazing collection of queer history, and she’ll be doing most of her research there to write what I’m sure will be an amazing queer thesis. (Hooray! Free education for me!)

Mainstream education will not tell us where we came from, because the vast majority do not know our history. Some would even try to erase it. We must write and speak our history, share our victories and our defeats, with each other and the world.

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