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why we should all know our lgbt history

Eric Marcus

The creator and host of podcast, Making Gay History, tells i-D how he discovered a love for those who threw off the shackles of prejudice and made a safer and more welcoming place for LGBTQI folks.

Image via Pixabay

Mr. Federbush taught me to hate history. Here’s the scene: It’s the fall of 1970, a little more than a year after the now legendary riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood at the Stonewall Inn gay bar. I’m at my desk at Russell Sage Junior High School in Queens, New York, fifteen miles east of Manhattan, a place so culturally distant from the bright lights of the big city that it might as well have been Iowa. Mr. Federbush is reading to us from a history textbook, as he does for every class. Our task is to take notes by hand for forty-five minutes straight. Three things I remember about Mr. Federbush: a monumental nose; a hair piece that looks like a burnt potato pancake; and his gravely, nasal drone.

The greatest challenge in Mr. Federbush’s class was keeping up with the note-taking while fighting the urge to sleep. But there were a few moments of brilliance -- a hint of how alive history could be. A handful of times, Mr. Federbush let drop that he was at the Battle of the Bulge. Yet beyond the fact of his serving on the front lines during one of the most consequential and bloodiest confrontations of World War II, we never learned anything more. Looking back, it was a lost opportunity to introduce a room full of pimply 12 year olds to the power of history as told by a person who lived it.

Fast forward eighteen years. I’m at my desk at CBS News on Manhattan’s West Side. An editor from Harper & Row Publishers calls to ask me to write an oral history book about the gay civil rights movement (now known as the LGBTQI movement). “Why me?” I asked, and explained my puzzlement. I was a journalist, not a historian. He told me that he liked how I’d handled interviews and dialogue in my first book, The Male Couple’s Guide, and wanted someone who was fresh to the subject. I was definitely fresh -- I knew almost nothing.

I still found most written history to be boring, but in the intervening years I’d come to appreciate the work of Studs Terkel, the well-known American oral historian whose book Working had been a huge bestseller. Terkel figured out the formula for translating recorded oral history into print by “mining for gold,” as he put it. That meant extracting the most compelling bits from long interviews and sewing them together in a seamless narrative. I decided to take on the editor’s challenge, especially since it was clear to me by then that as an out gay man (in 1988 America) that my career path at CBS was about to hit a wall.

It wasn’t until I found myself sitting on Edythe Eyde’s front porch, at Wendell Sayers’ dining room table, and in Dr. Evelyn Hooker’s living room and Vito Russo’s office that I really fell in love with history— my history—for the first time. Over the next year I had the privilege to meet and interview dozens of people who made possible the life I took for granted. I asked them questions. I recorded their stories. And I learned that I came from a brave people who had fought against all odds (and sometimes with each other) to throw off the shackles of prejudice and make the world a safer and more welcoming place for LGBTQI folks.

Never heard of Edythe Eyde? She published a zine for lesbians in 1947 on her office typewriter at a Hollywood movie studio and in the 1950s and 60s sang parodies of popular songs at gay clubs with her own gay lyrics (listen here and here).

Wendell Sayers was diagnosed as a homosexual at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in 1920, yet went on to be the first black lawyer to work for Colorado’s attorney general and attended some of the earliest meetings of Denver’s chapter of the Mattachine Society -- a gay rights group founded in Los Angeles in 1950 (listen here).

Dr. Evelyn Hooker conducted the first psychological study comparing gay men to straight men. Her conclusion -- that gay men were no crazier than straight men -- just about blew the roof off the convention center where she presented her findings at the 1956 meeting of the American Psychological Association (listen here).

Vito Russo wrote The Celluloid Closet, a groundbreaking 1981 book on how Hollywood’s portrayal of homosexuals shaped the public’s negative perceptions of gay people. He later co-founded GLAAD (originally called the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and ACT UP (listen here).

The best part -- and biggest thrill -- of interviewing one hundred people out of the LGBTQI past was the time travel. I got to be there on Christopher the night of the Stonewall uprising with Vito Russo and the legendary trans activist Sylvia Rivera (listen to Sylvia here), with Chuck Rowland at the founding meeting of the Mattachine Society (listen here), and Jeanne Manford when she marched in New York City’s 1972 gay pride parade carrying a sign that read, “Parents of Gays: Unite In Support of Our Children,” and was cheered and hugged every step of the way (listen here).

I came away from each interview thinking, Why didn’t I know about the people who carved a path to the future -- my future? It made me angry that I grew up without these foundational stories about the LGBTQI movement. But now I had the opportunity to spread this exciting history far and wide so no LGBTQI person had to grow up thinking they were the only one in the world.

Once I finished recording the interviews, I spent the next eighteen months translating them into print for a book called Making History (published in a second edition ten years later as Making Gay History). And then in the fall of 2016 I launched the Making Gay History podcast -- where the people I met decades ago tell their stories in their own voices. But the thing about history is that it doesn’t stop. That means we need to record it today, tomorrow, and every day after that. And we need to share it through podcasts, zines, social media, and conversations with one another and across the generations.

I like to think that it was Mr. Federbush, despite his poor teaching skills, who sparked something in me nearly a half-century ago. His tiny morsels of personal history left an indelible mark that helped fuel my curiosity to learn about history from people who actually lived it. I’ll never know what it was like for Mr. Federbush as a young soldier fighting in a war far from home. But thanks to the LGBTQI people and allies who entrusted their stories to me, I have a powerful sense of my own history as a gay man and the proud history of my people. And through the magic of podcasting I now get to introduce my heroes and role models to listeners all over the world.

Happy LGBT History Month!

You can find out more about Making Gay History here.