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Living and Discovering History

As you’re no doubt aware, the California Supreme Court heard arguments about the validity of Proposition 8 on March 5.

While the Court has 90 days to deliver its ruling, initial impressions of the proceedings left many people doubting that Prop 8 would be overturned. I was particularly interested in the arguments of the main lawyer for Prop 8, Ken Starr of Monica Lewinsky fame. The centerpiece of his case was the idea that voters can amend the state constitution to restrict any activity, including “things that tug at the equality principle” such as free speech and gay rights as long as a majority of people vote for the change.

How frightening! To the best of my knowledge, minority groups have rarely gained equal status as the result of a popular vote. Slavery and segregation were not ended because citizens voted for them. Women were guaranteed the right to vote by Congress, not individual voters. In the states that currently allow same-sex marriage, Massachusetts and Connecticut, it was their respective Supreme Courts that made it possible.

People complain about “judicial activism” but it has been a vehicle for social change in this country, possibly because judges are able to make their decisions free from social pressure, unlike elections. If it is decided that legally granted rights and protections can be overturned at the whim of the public, I’m worried about the future.

While history is being written in California, on the other side of the country, a bit of LGBT history is getting the recognition it has long deserved.

Frank Kameny may not be a name you are familiar with, but he is a pioneering gay leader whose accomplishments include organizing the first gay protest of the White House in 1965, defending the early gay rights organization Mattachine Society when Congress threatened to remove its non-profit status in 1963, coining the phrase “gay is good” in 1968, and becoming the first openly gay candidate for Congress in 1971. Kameny is credited with bringing a more militant, aggressive approach to the gay rights movement, and the home he has lived in since 1962 was designated as a historic landmark by the Washington, DC Historic Preservation Review Board. It is now eligible to join the Stonewall Inn as the only gay sites in the National Register of Historic Places.

This status is important because LGBT history is not treated with the same level of respect as other groups. The only other historic landmarks recognized by cities or states are Harvey Milk’s San Francisco camera shop and home and the residence of early gay activist Henry Gerber in Chicago. Furthermore, because much of LGBT culture is centered in urban commercial areas, many landmarks are subject to erasure by developers before being able to apply for historic status. For example, the original offices of the Mattachine Society were torn down for a parking lot and more modern office space. Being able to preserve our history is vital to our ability to have a greater understanding of gay culture, appreciation of how far we have come, and a recognition of what remains to be done.

That is why I was glad to read about the 35th anniversary celebration of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. This is a grassroots project that holds the world’s largest collection of lesbian literature, memorabilia, and artifacts. Normally, such a collection would be in a museum or academic institution, but the archives have remained open to the public since 1974, a truly remarkable achievement. They even own the building housing the archives. Events are planned throughout the year across the country, but you can visit them online at www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org.

Continuing on the historical theme, I was very pleased to learn about the discovery of a long-lost film, Portrait of Jason. The 1967 documentary was one of the earliest films to focus on a black gay man, as “Jason Holliday” (real name: Aaron Payne) pours the tea on his experiences as an openly gay man in the pre-Stonewall era. It recently played in Atlanta, where it was paired with the even more obscure Behind Every Good Man, an eight-minute short about a black transgender woman in 1965.

That is the rewarding thing about researching history, you never know what you’ll find and how common perceptions can be changed in the process. For years, it was commonly accepted that Paris Is Burning or Tongues Untied, both from 1990, were the first attempts to document the black gay experience, so it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that even these trailblazing works had antecedents.

From “Blackout” for 3/9/09 by Anthony Rucker

 

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