The revolution was intersectional. Amnesty International’s Ian Lekus returns to discuss ways educators can highlight the many identities of 1960s activists and help students understand the roles LGBTQ people played in movements you already teach.
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Resources and Readings
- Learning for Justice, Teaching Stonewall
- Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Section III: Instruction
- Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Appendix B: LGBTQ Historical Figures
- Learning for Justice, The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement
- LGBT Thematic Specialist, Amnesty International USA
- Host, Radio Free Qtopia (podcast)
- Author, Queer and Present Dangers: Sexuality, Masculinity, and the Sixties
John D’Emilio: The 1960s was my personal coming out decade, and in more ways than one. It was during my years in college when I wasn’t living at home anymore, and I wasn’t in a Catholic school environment that I finally experienced the freedom to say, “Yes. This is who I am,” and accept my being gay. I didn’t come out in the sense that we use that term today. I didn’t announce it to everyone who knew me, but I did tell a small number of my closest buddies, and even managed to find a couple of other gay guys in the dorms who became my friends.
I lived in New York in these years, and I slowly began to explore the world of gay bars, which were the only places I knew of where gay men gathered together and met one another. One of the bars I went to a couple of times was the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. I had no idea that little more than a year later it would become the site of what is perhaps the most famous event in LGBTQ history.
My other coming out involved becoming an activist. These were the years of the late 1960s when the Vietnam War and the protests against it were at their height. Hardly a week went by on my campus without some kind of rally or march or demonstration. I soon found myself participating actively in the movement. I applied for Conscientious Objector status with my local draft board, and I volunteered as a counselor who helped other young men avoid getting drafted.
I came from a very politically conservative family, and when I revealed to my parents, or you might say when I came out to my parents as an activist against the war, it began a long period of tension and conflict.
Being gay and being against the war were the two most important parts of my life during these years. But it never occurred to me that they might be connected or that they might feed into and complement one another. As far as I can remember, I never met another LGBT person while involved in anti-war activities. When I started to hear about gay liberation and its demonstrations, I wasn’t tempted to get involved. Being publicly gay seemed far more dangerous to me than refusing to participate in a war that I thought was wrong.
By the mid-1980s, I had become a college teacher. One of the courses I taught was a history of the 1960s. At that point, those years barely seemed like history to me since I remembered so many events from that decade very vividly. But to my students then and to those I taught over the next 30 years, the ’60s were always history. For almost all of them over the many years that I taught the course, it was a period that excited them and captured their attention. They loved the bravery displayed by ordinary people who were willing to risk anything to create a more just and equitable society.
Whether it was young adults in the South risking their lives by sitting at lunch counters or organizing voter registration drives, or farm workers in California endangering their immigration status by striking for better wages and working conditions, or drag queens rioting in Greenwich Village rather than be taken to jail by the police, most students found themselves deeply engaged by the movements of those years. Black protests, women’s protests, queer protests—all of them seemed to be connected together in a decade of militancy. Gay liberation was as much a part of the story of the ’60s as the other, better-known social justice movements.
Watching the reactions of my students over the years, I wished that, in my own lived experience of the ’60s, I had been able to see the connections as easily as they did. In other words, as I’ve discovered through my own teaching, the history of the 1960s is one of the most effective ways to integrate LGBTQ experience into the curriculum.
I’m John D’Emilio, and this is Queer America, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
LGBTQ history has been largely neglected in the classroom, but it’s necessary to give students a fuller history of the United States, and to help them understand how that history shaped the society they live in. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to incorporate important cultural touchstones, notable figures and political debates into an inclusive U.S. history curriculum. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Talking with students about sexual and gender identity can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can discover the history and comprehend the legacy of queer America.
In this episode, we will continue our exploration of post-war activism with the 1960s, the riots at the Stonewall Inn, and ultimately, the gay liberation movement. Historian Ian Lekus will take us through this decade, explaining some of the complexities and some useful ways of dealing with them in your classroom.
Here’s Ian Lekus.
Ian Lekus: By and large, the history of the ’60s is taught in U.S. history classes as an aberration, a period that seems profoundly out of place with the purported conformity of the ’50s, the supposed disengagement and return to normalcy of the ’70s and the conservatism of the Reagan ’80s. Sometimes, these decades are taught as a series of reactions and counter-reactions: the ’60s as an uprising against the ’50s, the ’70s and ’80s as a counter-backlash against the supposed excesses of the ’60s. While there’s a small grain or two of truth in these easy catchy narratives, which is why they’re hard to dislodge, they don’t begin to do justice to the complexity of post-war America nor to the threads weaving together key developments and trends from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War.
Textbook chapter titles reinforce this oversimplification and that of an era of turmoil and conflict. We read of America divided, a time of upheaval, of war at home, war abroad. This is how the period gets framed, and too often, how it gets taught.
I’ve taught a course on the ’60s a dozen times now, and my opening exercise is to ask students, “So, when did the ’60s begin?” This usually catches students a bit off-guard, who first default to the calendar definition of the decade starting with January 1, 1960, or maybe ’61, but I prod to push them to think about what they associate with the ’60s and why we even have a class on the ’60s. Pretty much every time, we end up spending the entire opening class period debating just when the ’60s started, along with the bookend question of when did the ’60s end?
For the first question, on the beginning of the ’60s, I get a bunch of answers on when the ’60s started that most often span Brown versus Board of Ed., the Montgomery bus boycott and the ’63 March on Washington. I get Elvis’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, the birth of rock and roll and the British Invasion. Or maybe I get the election of John F. Kennedy or even his assassination.
For the second question, on the end of the ’60s, I get at least as broad a range of replies. Those answers range from the ’68 Democratic National Convention to Watergate, the oil embargo and the end of the Vietnam War. From Altamont to the breakup of the Beatles to the drug-related deaths of Hendrix, Joplin and Jim Morrison, all the way to the rise of punk and disco. Even occasionally, I hear from students that they see the election of Ronald Reagan and the beginning of the HIV epidemic as marking the end of the ’60s.
This extraordinarily wide range of answers allows me to point out that depending on what we count as the beginning or the end of the ’60s, that era lasts somewhere between four and 30 years. My students see the obvious absurdity of this, which prompts us to debate just what counts as the ’60s, and the only thing we can agree on is this: The ’60s represent change. Political change, social change and cultural change especially, but really, every kind of change we can imagine.
This opening exercise helps drive home how the ’60s are not some queer historical aberration, but rather that the era is fundamentally anchored in the full sweep of post-war American history. For me, that’s one major agenda point in teaching the long ’60s, one that cannot easily be demarcated with an obvious beginning or an end, with roots in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and which, rather than neatly ending, become more and more a set of political and cultural dynamics woven throughout American society.
So that’s one agenda point I have, teaching the long ’60s. A second major agenda point for me is to integrate LGBT people, communities, politics and culture, into the narrative of post-war American history. In doing so, I want to emphasize that gay liberation and lesbian feminism are not mere postscripts to the era, but rather that LGBT people are part and parcel of the whole era.
Moreover, as I just said a moment ago, about the only thing we can agree upon when trying to decide what the ’60s were about is that they’re about change. This turns out to be a terrific way to introduce one of queer history’s central questions: How are the ideas and practices of what we consider to be quote-unquote normal, constructed and maintained, resisted and reshaped? For studying and teaching an era defined by political and cultural change and the limits of such changes, that set of questions is incredibly useful.
For example, I encourage my students to inquire why some activists who dedicated their life to ending Jim Crow, economic injustice and the Vietnam War found it so difficult to question the sexual and gender norms of the society against which they rebelled.
Black Panther leader Huey Newton’s 1970 letter endorsing the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements offers an excellent resource for discussion, illustrating how some straight male activists reconsidered and reimagined those norms to be a part of their political agenda.
I also assign Carl Wittman’s “A Gay Manifesto,” Charlotte Bunch’s “Lesbians in Revolt” and other critiques of marriage, monogamy and military service in order to prompt debate over whether 21st-century LGBT leaders are focused on securing full citizenship rather than on the politics of liberation.
One of the challenges in teaching the ’60s is the complexity of the movement’s countless organizations and even more names. Just in getting going with the civil rights movement I have often seen my students’ eyes glaze over in confusion when trying to keep straight SCLC, SNCC, CORE, the NAACP and all of the other organizations, let alone the various key figures. But this challenge is also an opportunity to rethink how we teach the ’60s and, in the process, it’s a fantastic opportunity to weave in LGBT people all through the history of the long ’60s, and frankly, to paint a much more diverse mural of ’60s changemakers. This allows us to show how people and thus political ideas, analyses, and tactics and strategies, move from movement to movement to movement.
In hindsight, it’s too easy, too tempting’ and too common to teach the ’60s as if there were all these discrete, distinct movements, when history tells us that individuals moved from cause to cause to cause, from organization to organization, continually experimenting and testing out new ideas and new tactics. Indeed, they often spoke of themselves as being “in the movement,” that is, one big collective effort for liberation and justice and change.
So this is why I prefer an approach to teaching the ’60s that emphasizes the experiences of individual activists. One, this approach opens windows onto more movement history than any traditional attempt to run through the myriad list of key organizations and key dates. Two, it allows for a more LGBT-inclusive and generally more diverse mural of the history of the ’60s. Three, it helps students look at and relate to the individual as a changemaker in history.
There’s all sorts of document collections on the ’60s filled with original sources written by individual activists. I often use Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines’ “Takin’ it to the streets.” Beyond that, there’s also a veritable cottage industry of memoirs by ’60s veterans, so you’ll have plenty to work with and even divide up among all your students.
So, let me ask, beyond the homophiles, how do LGBT people fit into the history of the ’60s? To help you make your classes on the ’60s more LGBT inclusive, let me offer an overview that you can work into your existing lesson plans on this period or to develop new ones altogether.
Throughout the ’60s, LGBT people played critical roles in movements for freedom and justice, both at the local and national levels. Indeed, following the Stonewall riots, the gay liberation movement’s sweeping vision of social change grew directly out of its members’ experiences in the civil rights movement and in the white New Left. In particular, activists attempted to live out what scholars have called “the politics of authenticity.” That’s another way of saying that fighting for social justice and achieving personal wholeness were inextricably intertwined, a dynamic that women’s liberation activists described by declaring, “the personal is political.” Indeed, when Carl Wittman declared that queer people needed to “come out everywhere” in his essay “A Gay Manifesto,” he was building directly on his experiences in SDS and elsewhere in the New Left.
SDS, Students for [a] Democratic Society, was the flagship organization of the white New Left, the ’60s movement made up substantially of young, mostly white activists working to end racism, poverty, and as the decade wore on, the Vietnam War. Students can read about these goals in countless memoirs, but also in key documents such as “The Port Huron Statement,” SDS’ de facto founding statement of principles in which leading students declare their opposition to Jim Crow and the nuclear arms race, their rejection of antipathy and conformity in the modern consumer society, and their quest for participatory democracy where individuals could live as personally authentically as possible.
But despite the politics of authenticity, despite this philosophy connecting the personal and political, the movements of the ’60s, and here I’m talking about the civil rights movement in the predominantly white New Left and antiwar movements, along with the women’s liberation and the counterculture, these were often not comfortable spaces for LGBT people. Notwithstanding the self-proclaimed radicalism of many New Leftists, they frequently shared the anti-gay attitudes of Cold War society, of the Lavender Scare era in which they grew up.
Within the movement, male leaders often gay-baited their rivals and cajoled male recruits into proving their quote-unquote normal masculinity. These leaders often ushered women in and out of the movement based on whom they were dating at a given moment, effectively dividing New Left women into girlfriends who mimeographed and made coffee, on the one hand, and desexualized leaders who were essentially accepted as one of the boys, on the other hand.
As the decade wore on, more and more often, these white middle-class men justified their own anti-gay and anti-feminist rhetoric and behavior by painting the homophobia and misogyny that they perceived as inherent to the white working class, the Black Power and third world movements and cultures as authentic revolutionary attitudes.
Gay-baiting took its toll on unknown numbers of LGBT people, compelling some to lie and hide their sexual orientation while driving others from the movement altogether. Gay and bisexual men endured homophobic behavior from their movement comrades, as heterosexual men threw viciously anti-gay slurs without a second thought to mock and disparage their male rivals, as they also bragged about their prowess with women, and as they joked about pretending to be gay to get out of the draft.
Such behavior deflected mainstream condemnation that equated their opposition to the Vietnam War with being insufficiently manly. At the same time, women who challenged the male chauvinism in the New Left risked being labeled lesbians, although, relatively few lesbians and bisexual women came out as such until after spending some time in the women’s liberation movement.
So, how do I teach all this? One way is through the popular culture of the ’60s. As a prelude to our discussions and our assignments on how the ’60s are remembered and misremembered, I talk about being the son of ’60s activists, growing up hearing my parents play, again and again, two anti-draft anthems: “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie and “Draft Dodger Rag” by Phil Ochs. In both of these classic anti-Vietnam War songs, Arlo Guthrie and Phil Ochs advise their male listeners to pose as gay to escape being drafted.
I’d also show my classes a short clip from the movie The Gay Deceivers in which the two straight male leading characters pretend to be a gay couple to their draft board while simultaneously reassuring their families and their girlfriends of their heterosexuality. This sets up a conversation about how the folk singers and movie characters sought to convince the military authorities that they were psychiatrically unfit for military service while still using humor to reassure others that they were actually, again, quote-unquote normal.
Furthermore, Phil Ochs’ advice to always carry a purse, quote-unquote, and the conflation of male homosexuality with effeminacy in The Gay Deceivers revealed to students how Cold War narratives about gender deviance persisted well into the protests and the counterculture of the ’60s.
Additionally, as I noted before, I use memoirs to teach how activists moved from movement to movement, bringing their ideas, tactics and organizing experience from one activist space to another. Those include excerpts from Karla Jay’s Tales of the Lavender Menace, which is great for looking at how the women’s liberation movement struggled to deal with the emergence of lesbian feminism. I also use essays from and interviews with Charlotte Bunch and Amber Hollibaugh to examine the challenges that lesbians negotiated in their personal and political lives. Both Bunch, from a middle-class Methodist family in New Mexico, and Hollibaugh, from an impoverished family in California’s Central Valley, cut their organizing teeth in civil rights and anti-war work before rising to prominence in women’s liberation and lesbian feminism.
Bunch came out as a lesbian in the context of women’s liberation consciousness-raising groups following a short marriage to a male comrade in the New Left. In contrast, Amber Hollibaugh, who smuggled draft evaders, AWOL G.I.s and Black Panthers into Canada, and who paid her way through the New Left by doing sex work, represents the handful of lesbians who were, in fact, lesbian-identified before finding feminism. Both Bunch and Hollibaugh’s experiences demonstrate the homophobia and sexism that queer women encountered in the ’60s. They also illustrate the class politics of the Left and the ways that the personal is political is simultaneously incredibly specific to a given individual, and at the same time, also part of sweeping complex historical forces at large.
Finally, along with Charlotte Bunch’s “Lesbians in Revolt,” earlier, I mentioned teaching Carl Wittman’s “A Gay Manifesto.” There’s a strong case to be made that “A Gay Manifesto” is the key theoretical document of the gay liberation movement. Carl Wittman began drafting “A Gay Manifesto” in the spring of 1969, months before the Stonewall riots. This helps drive home the lesson that not only did LGBT activism in the United States begin two decades before Stonewall, even gay liberation was beginning to take shape before Stonewall.
In drafting “A Gay Manifesto,” Wittman drew heavily on his experiences in civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-draft organizing, including his work co-authoring “An Interracial Movement of the Poor?” SDS’ manifesto for what we would now call community organizing for economic justice. Wittman co-wrote this with Tom Hayden, one of the most important early leaders of SDS. Wittman long claimed that it was Hayden’s alleged homophobia that eventually forced him out of SDS in New Jersey. Wittman eventually moved to San Francisco, where he plunged into draft-resistance activism and wrote one of the first anti-draft movement’s key essays, “Waves of Resistance.”
Working with students, I show them “Waves of Resistance” and “A Gay Manifesto” side by side, and it becomes clear right away how “Waves of Resistance” was at least partially a working draft of “A Gay Manifesto.”
So, “A Gay Manifesto” builds on Wittman’s exploration of the personal is political he wrote about in “Waves of Resistance.” It also builds on his earlier civil rights and economic justice work, and on the conversations he had with San Francisco homophiles. It is one of the most effective documents for showing how ideas move from movement to movement, as Wittman himself did as he applied the lessons of the other movements to the issues facing LGBT people. He rejected marriage and mimicry of other heterosexual institutions and condemned discrimination by legal, psychiatric and government authorities. He called for the formation of coalitions with the women’s, black and Chicano movements with other white heterosexual radicals, the homophiles and movements of the counterculture. Wittman issued a call to, in his words, free ourselves. Come out everywhere. Initiate self-defense in political activity and initiate counter-community institutions.
These principles fundamentally guided the emergence of the gay liberation movement, which I’ll talk about more along with Stonewall after the break.
John D’Emilio: This is Queer America, and I’m your host, John D’Emilio. You can learn even more about LGBT activism in the ’50s and ’60s in a valuable collection of essays called Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History. This podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this anthology, which was edited by Susan K. Freeman and my co-host, Leila Rupp. It is the first book designed for high school and university teachers who want to integrate queer history into their standard curriculum.
You’ll find a link to purchase the book at tolerance.org/podcasts.
Again, Ian Lekus.
Ian Lekus: For all the outstanding work that the last couple generations of LGBT historians have done to displace Stonewall as the accepted beginning of the queer movement, a movement that did not, in fact, come out of nowhere when an unplanned riot happened in late June 1969, Stonewall remains the polestar from which we’re changing the narrative. It is the topic that, when it comes to high school projects, I get asked for help with again and again. And again, it remains the most likely LGBT topic by far to come up on an APUSH or U.S. history subject test.
By now, most U.S. history textbooks cover at least the bare basics of Stonewall, that in late June 1969, the New York City Police Department launched what they expected would be just another raid on a Mafia-owned gay bar, and that yet again, the gay bar’s patrons, conditioned to expect raids and to live in fear much more broadly, would put up no resistance. Instead, for reasons that remain murky, the patrons fought back, starting several nights of riots and leading to the birth of the Gay Liberation Front.
From there, the depth of details and impact vary widely from textbook to textbook. In Alan Brinkley’s American History, the textbook that the majority of my D.C.-area students bring in when they come to work with me, the book offers a couple paragraphs of high-level overview, that is, very limited details that would help students actually understand change over time as the book jumps from Walt Whitman and Horatio Alger to Stonewall and the Gay Liberation Front to the AIDS epidemic, and then to Bill Clinton and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, before finally landing in early 21st-century marriage politics.
So, how do we go beyond our textbooks? If you’re teaching a focused topics class, dividing up Martin Duberman’s Stonewall is one option, as Duberman tells the stories of the riots, the birth of gay liberation and the ’60s in general as a biography of six participants in the riot. But the chances are that most middle and high school teachers will be covering Stonewall in a U.S. history survey, though a few of you might be teaching a course on the ’60s, on protest in America, or in multicultural or in gender and sexuality studies.
There’s no significant media coverage from the first night of the Stonewall riots. After all, they were unplanned, and they involved a group of protestors—drag queens and transgender people of color—whom the media, even the alternative and underground media of the time, let alone mainstream New York newspapers and TV stations, were not paying much attention to in 1969. But the 2010 documentary, Stonewall Uprising, does a strong job of re-creating the police raid and subsequent riots, drawing on some terrific interviews.
So let me offer a couple framing tools for making sense of Stonewall. First, in another episode of Queer America on transgender history, Genny Beemyn positions Stonewall not as a beginning but as a culmination of working-class transgender resistance to police harassment. Genny discusses the trans riots in May 1959 at Cooper’s Do-Nuts in downtown Los Angeles and the August 1966 trans uprising at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Both of these events involved transgender people fighting back against the ongoing, even incessant, police hassling of trans persons.
Without question, Genny is right about the importance of these prior riots, and one can juxtapose Stonewall uprising with Susan Stryker’s documentary Screaming Queens on Compton’s Cafeteria to ask why we remember Stonewall and not the earlier uprisings. We can also discuss all sorts of rebellions and acts of defiance, exploring which get coverage and which get remembered and which don’t. We can draw a connection to the civil rights movement, noting how Rosa Parks wasn’t the first African American to refuse to sit in the segregated section of a Jim Crow bus, yet we remember her defiance not that of her predecessors that can open up the broader history of the movement. Parks had already been the secretary of the NAACP’s chapter in Montgomery, Alabama, for 12 years when she defied Jim Crow. While Stonewall brought many, many queer New Leftists with all of their organizing skills and experience into gay liberation and lesbian feminism in a way that the Cooper’s Do-Nuts and Compton Cafeteria’s riots did not.
Another framing tool for making sense of Stonewall is to talk about the timing of the riots. The timing of Stonewall is critical. I bring this up to students as a way of reminding them that I’ve no interest in bombarding them with dates and names to prepare them for trivia nights, but rather that chronological order and context are essential for understanding historical cause and effect, especially because cause and effect is often a matter of a large mix of people, events and dynamics, rather than just one cause prompting one effect.
By the time that the Stonewall rebellion took place in late June 1969, ’60s activists had a profoundly different take on police violence than they did in 1959 or even in 1966 when the other riots happened. The Vietnam War had kept escalating with many hundreds of thousands of Americans now deployed to Southeast Asia. Night after night, the evening news showed images of American body bags coming home, along with the stories of just countless Vietnamese casualties. Back on the U.S. home front, white Americans had had some idea of police violence against African Americans. A few years earlier, they’d watched television coverage of Bull Connor unleashing fire hoses and attack dogs on nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham. But by 1969, police departments across the country, and not just in the Jim Crow South, were engaged in ongoing, violent battles with the Black Panther Party.
Moreover, the 1968 police riots against demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago drove home the lesson to white New Leftists that the power of the state could be directed against them as well. So, when Stonewall happened it could be quickly interpreted within the history of the long ’60s and then built upon in the way wasn’t possible at Cooper’s Do-Nuts or even by the time of Compton’s Cafeteria.
For example, Stew Albert, a key figure in the counterculture, responded to Stonewall and the emergence of the gay liberation movement by calling for solidarity with what he called the new and absolutely crucial liberation front that was born when “hundreds of homosexuals poured out of gay bar and fought the harassing pigs to a standstill.”
This quotation from Stew Albert brings up the opportunity to talk about, “How do people change?” As I alluded to before, my research on the ’60s is driven by my fascination with how activists who are passionate about fighting Jim Crow, who are passionate about stopping the Vietnam War and ending poverty weren’t, at first, able to see women’s liberation and gay liberation as part of their agendas. Sometimes they changed. Sometimes they didn’t.
We can draw parallels to today and to the recent past with, for example, Barack Obama giving the public the language to, quote, evolve on marriage equality, and with so many people reconsidering gender identity and expression, and what it means to live and love outside the binary to identify as genderqueer or pansexual, as agender or asexual.
In teaching the ’60s, we can read the letter from Huey Newton, one of the key leaders of the Black Panther Party, declaring his solidarity with the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements, not with lesbian feminism, however, as one primary example of how one very prominent, straight male leader of the ’60s reconsidered his personal assumptions and political agenda. We can also look at the media coverage of feminist writer, theorist and artist Kate Millett being outed as bisexual by Time magazine in 1970, and then discuss why some women’s liberation activists were deeply scared of being associated with the so-called Lavender Menace of lesbianism. We can discuss that story while also looking at how other feminists discovered in all-women spaces and in consciousness-raising groups the opportunity to re-examine all aspects of their lives, including their sexual orientation.
In turn, we also discuss how gay liberation and lesbian feminists themselves suffered from limited political vision. That includes, for example, the sexism that some lesbians charged was endemic to male-led gay liberation groups. It includes the racism that some lesbians of color charged white lesbian feminist groups with. It includes the attitudes that we would today call transphobia that many drag queens and other gender-nonconforming people, often transgender people of color, experienced from both gay liberation and lesbian feminist organizations. Discussing all this raises the question of how individuals and organizations alike can be both radical and conservative at the very same time.
These vexing challenges help students understand that tough discussions, that movement battles and debates over intersectionality are hardly brand new. Gay liberationists and lesbian feminists fought not only for gender and sexual revolutions, but against racism, for peace and against the Vietnam War, and for a broad social justice agenda even when other movement groups weren’t comfortable with the presence of openly LGBT participants in their conferences and at their demonstrations.
Indeed, in my classes, I make it clear how absolutely central queer and feminist activists in the early to mid-’70s were for putting intersectionality front and center in modern social movements. These queer and feminist activists, many of whom were activists of color, struggled to develop radical politics that did not presume a false universalism based on the experiences of white, straight, middle class, cisgender men.
I point, in particular, to the Combahee River Collective, the black lesbian feminist organization. The Collective’s 1974 statement was fundamental to reshaping how progressive organizers ever since have come to understand overlapping and interlocking forms of oppression. The Combahee River Collective put the conversation on the table that we must develop social change strategies that acknowledge the intersections between race, class, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, ability and other identities and lines of power.
In talking about these routes of the modern politics of intersectionality, my students and I grapple with changemakers as products of their own eras. We compare the homophobia of some ’60s activists to, for example, the racial politics of Progressive Era leaders, or to those women’s suffrage advocates who argue that if black men, theoretically, had the vote after the Civil War, so too should white women be able to cast their ballots.
Hopefully, we wrestle with how there are no easy answers, and how understanding the past doesn’t mean excusing it.
John D’Emilio: You’re listening to Queer America. I’m your host, John D’Emilio.
Teaching Tolerance has learned a lot about what LGBTQ students need to thrive, how even small policy adjustments and curriculum changes can make a big difference in the lives of queer and non-binary students. We also know that LGBTQ-inclusive schools benefit all students. Our new LGBTQ best practices guide can help educators and school leaders ensure that all students feel safe, seen and capable of success. By creating a curriculum as complete and representative as possible, and cultivating a school climate that fosters open and respectful dialog among all students and staff, you’re preparing your students to engage and thrive within our diverse democracy.
You can find it at tolerance.org/podcasts.
Again, here is Ian Lekus.
Ian Lekus: So, to wrap up, I want to talk to you about how we talk about the memory of Stonewall and the ’60s. This episode of Queer America will drop in the months leading up to the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, which makes for a great opportunity to not only re-examine Stonewall itself, but to also re-examine how those riots fit into the broader sweep of LGBT history. But no matter when you hear this episode, there’s all sorts of ways to take a fresh look at how we remember, indeed, how we misremember, Stonewall and the ’60s.
Certainly, for middle schoolers and high schoolers, relating their history classes to current events makes those classes much more tangible. I’ve already mentioned how, for straight New Leftists, violence between the police departments and the Black Panthers, as well as other political violence in the late ’60s, helped them make sense of Stonewall. For teens today, they may very well look back at the African-American and Latinx drag queens and people of color resisting police harassment and violence at Stonewall and see in that the forerunners of the Black Lives Matter movement, a contemporary movement that itself has substantial black, queer leadership.
This, in turn, leads to all sorts of questions about media coverage today and historical erasure in the past. By the time we get to conversations like this, my classes on the ’60s have frequently seen Berkeley in the Sixties, a documentary that does an amazing job of the Free Speech movement and on civil rights and Black Power activism in and near Berkeley. But my students generally catch on without my prompting that the documentary offers just about two or three minutes at the end on women’s liberation and, really stunning for a documentary on activism in the San Francisco area, doesn’t even mention gay liberation.
This then sets up discussion about historical memory in the documentary Stonewall Uprising, which indeed does an excellent job re-creating the events of Stonewall, and indeed, to capturing the homophobia of the ’50s and ’60s. At the same time, the documentary barely mentions the homophile movement before Stonewall or the gay liberation movement after Stonewall. And I weave this into longer conversations about the historical erasure of the labor of social change, again, debunking the self-correcting narrative of Americans who just one day stand up to injustice and things just get fixed.
With Stonewall, I raise the question of how an uprising led by drag queens and transgender people of color could so quickly become the polestar for a white-led LGBT movement. In the case of Stonewall Uprising, I probe how and why the interviewees are overwhelmingly white and cisgender, leading to discussions about the historical reasons that include anti-transgender violence, poverty and HIV, that not many transgender participants in Stonewall survived up until the making of the documentary.
And thus, I pair Stonewall Uprising and documents from gay liberation and lesbian feminism with documents from STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, led by Stonewall participants Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, especially Rivera’s 1973 speech, “Y’all Better Quiet Down.” In STAR, Rivera and Johnson took intersectional approaches to their activism, reflecting upon their lives dealing with homelessness, anti-transgender violence, police harassment, economic discrimination, racism and hostility from gay and lesbian activists committed to either respectability politics or who interpreted transgender politics and transwomen’s lives as inherently sexist.
Finally, whenever I’m teaching the ’60s or LGBT history, I include an oral history assignment. All through the course, we’re talking about memory. We’re looking at interviews and recollections and other voices of history makers, and I consider it central to my mission to have students do their own original interviews. Few exercises make history as relevant and accessible to students as conducting their own oral history interviews. Whether interviewing parents or grandparents, older neighbors, teachers, and coaches, religious figures in their lives or other community members, oral history provides an experience to students that often remains with them long after the details of their readings have begun to fade. Students, not surprisingly, often find it relatively easy to empathize with young activists whether out of admiration for their causes or curiosity about how differently an earlier generation of students experienced their time growing up.
Comparing and contrasting the experiences of different activists, the choices they debated and then made, helps students better understand the context in which these movements took place and resist a single, uncritical narrative of a heroic people just doing the right thing.
Moreover, oral history is especially well-suited to exploring the history of both LGBT people so long hidden from history and of the ’60s, given the emphasis on giving voice to the people. For classes on the ’60s, students can quickly learn how the pace and intensity of change varied dramatically from region to region, as they complete interviews with someone who lived through the era, write a critical analysis of that interview and then discuss their interviews with their classmates. Students get a fresh reminder that the movements of the ’60s occurred within the context of an often skeptical, anxious and even hostile broader local and national political climate.
They can also develop an understanding of the diversity of movement activism, and how participants’ involvement related to their personal experiences. These principles hold just as true when I’m teaching LGBT-specific classes, as I work with students to move beyond any simple narrative of progress from the closeted past to the much more open present.
Often, I share with students how I was doing an oral history assignment in my 11th-grade U.S. history class that sparked my understanding of the power of oral history, of preserving the voices and the stories of the past. Sometimes, I’ll even play the tapes of me interviewing my grandparents’ friends from Lower Manhattan, asking them about life during McCarthyism. My grandparents’ friends were all neighbors of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who, as you may well recall, were arrested, tried and eventually executed in a highly controversial and contested trial for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets.
Even despite mediocre sound-recording technology and noisy interview conditions that make me now shudder as a professional oral historian, my students are always captivated by my grandparents’ friends’ stories, feeling much closer to history, hearing the terror in one friend’s voice as she talked about driving 100 miles to dump books about Marx and communism into a landfill lest they be traced back to her, 40 years after the fact.
In my LGBT studies classes, the impact of these oral histories can be even more profound as queer and allied students find role models in the past, even as they learn to study history critically. I regularly hear from students I taught years ago about how their oral history projects still resonate. Just the other month, I talked with a former undergrad student from a class I taught in 2003, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in queer history, their own historical journey having started back in that class all those years ago.
When I think about my friend’s daughter in Hawaii and all the others who have come to me about advice about Stonewall, I can only imagine what their learning experiences would have been like studying with teachers who actively work to include LGBT topics in their classes on post-war America, and to help students see themselves as history makers.
I hope this episode has given you some concrete tools to help your own students better understand the queer past, indeed, all of our pasts.
John D’Emilio: Ian Lekus is a writer, researcher and advocate. He is an LGBT specialist for Amnesty International USA, the host and producer of the Radio Free Qtopia podcast and is currently finishing his book Queer and Present Dangers: Sexuality, Masculinity, and the Sixties from University of North Carolina Press.
Queer America is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publisher of the award-winning anthology Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History.
In each episode, we’re featuring a different scholar to talk about material from a chapter in that collection. You can purchase the book at tolerance.org/podcasts. You’ll also find additional tools including resources we’ve mentioned, episode transcripts and an LGBTQ Best Practices Guide to help your school create an inclusive curriculum and an open and respectful climate for dialog among students and staff.
Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find those online at tolerance.org.
Thanks to Dr. Lekus for sharing his insights with us.
This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is our project manager. Music in this episode is by Chris Zabriskie.
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I’m Dr. John D’Emilio, professor emeritus of history and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and your host for Queer America.