Jeanne Córdova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws: a memoir of Love & Revolution, recently released from Spinsters Ink, fills an important gap in the existing first-person accounts of the history of gay and lesbian liberation, but suffers from an unfortunately inconsistent tone. When students take up gay or lesbian history in the US, the starting point is often the Stonewall Riots. The picture of gay and lesbian liberation has a decidedly East Coast slant, or it is told more generally in the context of national movements–homophiles, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and so on. Córdova’s strength is in the details she provides on the day-to-day life of lesbian activism in 1970s Los Angeles, centered around the strike against the Gay Community Services Center. Her weakness lies in a tendency towards melodrama and an inflation of her own importance in the broader story.
The reason why accounts such as Martin Duberman’s Stonewall are so gripping and effective is that the narrator or the individual subjects of the story are portrayed as mere players in a bigger picture. The power of those individuals in the narrative comes from how subtly their story is told. Córdova has an amazing story–the details of the relationships between gay men and lesbians in LA at the time, the struggle between gay liberation and labor movements, and Córdova’s journalistic relationship with “her Nazi” are particularly interesting. There is a good balance between broader themes and particularly interesting historical snapshots in the book. Where it starts to come apart is Córdova’s tendency to drop into melodrama in describing her personal romantic relationships, non-monogamy in the movement, and her own role as an activist. The dialogue doesn’t come alive, and whenever Córdova focuses directly on analyzing herself at the time or her role in the movement, the subtlety that helps a reader relate to a narrator is lost. The dynamics of butch and femme in the 1970s LA lesbian community and the trend of non-monogamy are interesting, but the moralistic tone that weaves through the narrative will make it uncomfortable for some.
I would recommend this account for those who are particularly interested in first-person history of lesbian liberation on the West Coast, but with reservations. A shorter, more tightly controlled narrative would be more effective in communicating this particular story.
The opposition has already started challenging California’s new legislation on teaching LGBT history in schools, the Huffington Post reports. Others have already pointed out the benefits that accrue when straight students learn about the historical contributions of LGBT people–people are less likely to discriminate against a minority they better understand, for example. I’d like to highlight some of the benefits of this kind of legislation for queer students.
When I went to the Cameron Village Public Library in Raleigh, NC to research my eleventh-grade US history term paper on the lesbian liberation movement, I was both excited and terrified. I knew nothing about the history of lesbians in the US, or anywhere else. I had a vague sense of a burgeoning gay movement in the 90s, but my knowledge of gay and lesbian people didn’t extend much earlier than that. I was shaking when I checked out that stack of books, sure that someone would see and know me, or that the librarian would make a comment.
When I stood up in front of my class to present my paper topic, after tons of research that was more interesting and relevant to me than anything else I’d studied in a history class, the room fell silent. In sharp contrast to other students’ presentations, no one had any questions for me during the Q&A. When I sat down, a friend passed me a note–“are you a lesbian? check yes or no.”
It’s important that teachers cover LGBT history not only because straight, cis-gender kids need to be aware of the community’s historical contributions, but because queer kids often have no other resource for information. It may be too scary to go to the library alone, or the library may carry no books on the subject. Looking into the topic independently may be seen as a declaration of sexual orientation or gender identity before a teenager is ready. Unlike straight, white, cis-gender students (especially male students), queer kids have not been studying the contributions of those like them throughout school. Many are not aware that there is a history to study.
Finally, queer kids often grow up in families made up entirely of straight, cis-gender members. Similar to the problem of children of color growing up with white adoptive families, queer kids often receive no education from their families about the history of their community because parents don’t understand their children’s identities. School may be the only place where a queer student hears a positive message about LGBT people and their contributions to society. The impact this first lesson can have is enormous, and it’s unfortunate that for so many queer young people, it goes untaught.
As an undergraduate, my major was history. One of the most important things I learned from my study of history is that history is not only relevant to the present, but extremely also value-laden and described in a different way by almost every narrator. Part of the ongoing struggle for social justice in the present is the fight to define the past.
Part of this fight is simply including topics like sexuality, gender, queerness, race, disability, imperialism, etc. etc. in our teaching of history. When history curricula fail to include these elements, students are never given an opportunity to question the values passed down by their parents, and you get the clincher, what I call the way it’s always been argument.
I got a taste of that argument on the train yesterday, when a man next to me was talking on his cell phone about his gay son. He expressed feelings of disgust to the woman on the other end of the line, but what he kept coming back to was the “men having sex with men isn’t natural” argument. The specifics were a mix of bad history, bad theology, and bad biology–men in relationships is a recent perversion, the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is wrong, and we are the only species where males have sex with other males.
This is a case where mere exposure to alternative facts could make a difference in a child’s life.
I’m not saying that people aren’t stubborn, or that they won’t argue back. I know that for every sex-positive or queer-positive curriculum, there’s a conservative argument that espouses the opposite with facts to back it up. But some things are kind of hard to disprove. Biology isn’t my field, but I bet I could find you a couple of male animals of some species that like to get it on. Just like I can provide countless examples of queerness throughout history.
The man on the train may never change, and his son may never know what it’s like to have a father who loves him for who he is. But we can educate ourselves about our history and share it with others, and we can support the introduction of wider history curricula in our schools, and those of us who are interested in history can ask some direct questions in our research about who’s writing the articles, and who’s being left out.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Rachel Maddow’s success, and some of that talk has involved the fact that she’s an out lesbian. In lesbian circles, some of the talk has involved the fact that her lesbianism isn’t discussed more, and how that’s a good thing.
I was thinking about coming out in a high profile position, because it’s a thought I’ve had in the past. I’ve asked for advice before about disclosing my sexual orientation in relation to any possible future political role, but I’ve never felt all that serious about the question. The fact is that I am out, and I’m never not going to be out, and I’m young enough to believe honestly that my orientation will not disqualify me for any serious position in an organization like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, or others for which I’d like to work.
I do think that there is a timing thing to how people feel about being publicly out, and my guess is that more out politicians and policymakers will show up in the near future. Some have commented on how Obama’s transition website includes a hiring policy that mentions non-discrimination based on orientation or gender identity. I agree that that’s great. I also expect more people to take advantage of it.
I was born smack dab in the middle of the 1980s. I grew up in the 1990s, a time when a lot of bad stuff was happening to gay people – legislatively as well as in schools and communities – but also a time when gay people were suddenly very visible. I know that I used to joke “he’s gay” or “she’s gay” and think gay people were gross up until 13 or 14, but I also remember seeing gay people on TV and being kind of silently curious. Not with relation to myself, but gay people seemed glamorous and interesting. The image I recall is of shirtless men in cut-off shorts with cool haircuts holding hands in California or somewhere. I have no idea whether it was the news or a TV show or what, but gay seemed at least borderline acceptable.
The beauty of my generation’s timing is that we had some inkling that gays were coming out of the woodwork, and that gay just might be a bad thing, but we were young enough not to know about those bad things that were happening. Anita Bryant and AIDS panic didn’t mean anything to me, really. By the time I found out just how bad things are for homosexuals in our country, I was an out and proud lesbian. Even through my teenage and college years, I honestly believed that though there was discrimination in my home region, this country generally was starting to really accept gays. I believed that gay rights had come a long way and that we were pretty much home free. A lot of that comes from the fact that allies in my parents’ generation, including my parents, have the impression that gay rights have come a very long way, and they have a point. My mom recognizes that we have a way to go, but she grew up in a time where there would be no way to have a job and be openly gay at the same time.
I was thinking about Harvey Milk, and the openly gay Durham councilman whose name I can’t remember, and the few scattered gay and lesbian politicians. I think that there will be more. Everytime I hear about a gay person in politics, I’m shocked. I’m used to gay actors and singers by now, but politics is a new playing field. I think we’re slowly beginning to inhabit it, because we do have non-discrimination policies, and we have people who are willing to hire us. And then there are people like me, who just don’t think anything of it anymore when we “come out.” We see ourselves as already out. A classmate the other day told me that he couldn’t believe my courage for coming out in class the other day, and I was confused. I had mentioned my own orientation as a tangent to make a point, and didn’t think anything of it. I am gay. Nothing’s going to change that, and I wouldn’t want anything to.
Still, I recognize the challenges behind us and the challenges ahead. I think of the Southern minister who did so much selfless work for his community and was unable to share his sexual orientation during his lifetime because people wouldn’t get it. I think of a mentor who couldn’t disclose his orientation as a public school teacher in North Carolina because non-discrimination policy or no, it wasn’t worth the risk. I think of the high school friend who was beaten to within an inch of his life because it never occurred to him to seek closets when there was a wide open stage and an audience waiting to witness his talent. To me, being open about who I am is no great heroic act, but I recognize that to some it is a struggle, and to others an insurmountable obstacle. I hope that the openness and tolerance of some men and women will allow me to gain a position where I can effect change one day, so that other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people are able to seek employment or public office without even giving a thought to whether disclosure is prudent.
I found it difficult to be optimistic on Wednesday morning, when I watched our rights wash away with the coming of the tide, but this is a new week, and I’m ready to put my best foot forward. Two steps forward, one step back, but eventually that amounts to progress.
I close with a snippet from a friend’s e-mail. I hope he won’t mind my sharing:
My great great grandmother was a slave, my great grandmother was a sharecropper in Louisiana, my grandmother got an eighth grade education in segregated schools and worked in the cafeteria of the “Black high school” in Lafayette, LA, my mother went to the segregated “Black high school” in Lafayette, LA and I went to the high school in the same building that was built as the segregated “Black high school” Alexandria, LA. I never imagined I’d see a day like Tuesday, 5 November 2008. And yet, it happened in my lifetime.
Yes it did. And I have hope that many more great things will happen in mine.