Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2015-11-25
About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage


History and Me
by John D'Emilio

facebook twitter pin it stumble upon digg google +1 reddit email

Long before I had a clue I was gay, I fell in love with history. Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, I learned my Catholic catechism. 'God always was, always will be, always remains the same,' Sister Perpetua made our class repeat. To my nose-to-the-grindstone, tradition-bound Italian family, it wasn't only God who remained the same. Everything was supposed to stay the way it was; nothing was ever to change.

History gave the lie to all that. Whether in articles I read in the family encyclopedia that Mom purchased at the supermarket, or in books I borrowed from my local library, history told a different story. Empires rose and fell. Kingdoms came and went. Glorious generals met humiliating defeats. Armies and peoples marched across continents and created whole new nations. Even our beloved United States: for most of history, it didn't exist.

To my ten-year-old's mind, this lesson of history—that change was possible, change was normal—was sweeter than heaven.

Later, on the cusp of adulthood, I came back to history for different reasons. A college student during the Vietnam War era, I had my head turned around by the antiwar movement, especially the priests and nuns who were making protest against the war a way of life. The war seemed wrong to me. I had to take my personal stand in relation to the military draft, and I had to do what I could to stop what seemed like a moral nightmare.

I remember thinking, 'how could my country do this?' I realized I knew almost no U.S. history. How did I ever expect to change things, I asked myself, without knowing how something like the Vietnam War could happen? So I went back to school in the early 1970s, hungrily consuming the mass of books that U.S. historians were churning out in those years.

It was the most exciting time imaginable to be studying history. A new generation was writing a new history. Instead of history being the story of the rich, famous, and powerful, it was becoming the story of everyone. Slaves, factory workers, miners, housewives: you name it, and someone for sure was writing their history. The past was now peopled with ordinary folks and their stories, the kind of stories that, when I was a kid, my mom told me about her parents and their immigrant generation. There was drama and heroism and tragedy in these lives.

I was learning all this in New York City in the early 1970s. Gay Liberation was swirling all around me. It was only a matter of time before I found my way to it, and it to me. I think every gay and lesbian activist of those years was sure that we were changing the world ( we were! ) , and was just as sure that nothing like this had ever happened before ( wrong! ) . The word out on the street, so to speak, was that, until Stonewall, all homosexuals, all queers, had led secret, shameful lives, isolated from one another, invisible to everyone.

By chance ( but is anything ever really chance? ) , I ended up one Saturday in 1973 at a Manhattan apartment with a group of folks talking about the need to produce new knowledge that could get added to the toolbox of gay and lesbian liberation. Jonathan Ned Katz was there. His play, Coming Out!, based on historical documents he had painstakingly uncovered, was electrifying audiences in New York. Soon, his massive book, Gay American History, would demonstrate to anyone who picked it up that there was a rich queer history waiting to be harvested, if only some of us would do the spadework. The picture of the 1970s that's come down to us today is a strange one: gay men partied and had orgies; lesbians were angry. But many of the men and women I knew best in that decade were busy in archives and libraries. We got excited by reading old newspapers and letters or by finding the survivors of a much older queer generation so we could interview them and capture their stories. Don't get me wrong: I did have sex in the 70s. But doing history was sublime.

Some of my most vivid memories of the 1970s and early 1980s are of times when our history went public. In those days, universities were not falling over each other to hire queer scholars and offer queer courses. Those of us doing gay and lesbian history did it in community spaces, before audiences attracted by the flyers we pasted all over town. I remember Joan Nestle, of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, giving her talk on 'the voices we have lost,' with barely a dry eye in the audience. Jim Steakley gave a wonderful slide lecture on the homosexual emancipation movement in Germany in the decades before the Nazis wiped it out. Judith Schwarz shared stories about the 'bohemian' women living in Greenwich Village in the World War I era. Allan Berube's slide show, 'Marching to a Different Drummer,' honored the lesbians and gay men who served in the military in World War II. Greg Sprague put together a slide talk [ all these were done in the days before laptops and PowerPoint ] on Chicago's queer history. There was magic in these rooms as audiences thrilled to images of queer worlds and queer lives they never dreamed existed.

Sometimes I think this magic has been lost. Such excitement has become history, a thing of the past. Many undergraduates today can take courses on LGBT history. Some of us who do this research now have academic jobs. Any good bookstore will have a shelf or two on gay and lesbian studies. Our history has gained legitimacy, and with legitimacy, perhaps, it has become ordinary.

But then I have an experience like I did last spring, when I planned and moderated a panel at the Chicago History Museum on 'Gay Is the Revolution' with a few members of the gay lib generation telling their stories. The auditorium was filled to the rafters, and the audience response reminded me of the raw emotional power of history. Or, I attend a panel at the Gerber/Hart Library on Harold Washington and the LGBT community and, in the remarks of the panelists, I hear how knowing history can expand our sense of the possible.

So, instead of keeping what I know about LGBT history inside the walls of a college classroom, or inside the pages of a book, I thought I'd make use of one of Chicago's queer community institutions, Windy City Times, and share some history with you. Most of these columns will be about Chicago. Now and then I'll move beyond Chicago. Longtime local folks may not be surprised by what they read, but younger readers, and recent arrivals, will learn new things. I can at least promise that I won't be writing about anything you had to study for your high school advanced placement history test!

Copyright 2008

John D'Emilio—who has won awards for his books, including Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities—is a professor of history and of women's and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Windy City Times will run a series of D'Emilio's columns throughout the spring and summer.

facebook twitter pin it stumble upon digg google +1 reddit email

Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


Legacy Wall Traveling LGBT History Exhibit part of Youth Summit 2015-11-25
Northwestern professor on the making of LGBTQ history 2015-11-25
Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame induction held 2015-11-11
National roundup: Kameny honored; military rape; anti-gay attacks 2015-11-10
Hall of Fame looks to its future 2015-11-02
Hall of Fame display at library, includes new name 2015-10-31
Attorney who helped defeat DOMA talks about Edie Windsor 2015-10-26
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Dick Leitsch: History is unavoidable 2015-10-25
Legacy Project concludes Phase IV celebration 2015-10-21
David Mixner to tell LGBTQ history on stage to benefit Point Foundation 2015-10-20
LGBT HISTORY MONTH From Stonewall to the White House, activist to author 2015-10-19
LGBT HISTORY MONTH 'Women of San Quentin' comes amid historic changes 2015-10-19
Launch party held for LGBT history book for kids 2015-10-19
Chicago monument to honor Ida B. Wells wins fundraising support 2015-10-16
Oct. 15 is Nat'l Latino AIDS Awareness Day 2015-10-14
History is for kids 2015-10-14
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Transgender forward 2015-10-14
Legacy Walk unveils five new bronze memorial plaques 2015-10-14
BOOK REVIEW Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights 2015-10-14
BOOKS Gloria Steinem recounts 'Life on the Road,' legacy 2015-10-14
Upcoming: For women; LGBT history; trans forum; art auction; Halloween 2015-10-13
Phase IV Legacy Walk Induction ceremony Oct. 10. 2015-10-09
Books events: LGBT history; violence against queer people; Black gay identity 2015-10-07
LGBT HISTORY MONTH P.L. Travers: A spoonful of speculation 2015-10-07
GLSEN lauds progress since LGBT History Month first launched 2015-10-01
Faderman puts history in its place in 'The Gay Revolution' 2015-09-30
Columbia College alumni give art history a gender-identity makeover 2015-09-29
BOOK REVIEW The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle 2015-09-29
Windy City Times celebrates 30th anniversary 2015-09-28
MOVIES Stonewall: Brick layers 2015-09-23
Windy City Times: The team 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photo page 4 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photo page 3 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photo page 2 2015-09-23
VIEWS The first draft of history 2015-09-23
Gay Press: The Long Haul 2015-09-23
Windy City Times, The Early Years: A personal perspective 2015-09-23
Windy City Times at 30 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photos 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Coverage 2015-09-23

Copyright © 2015 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.








About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage

About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Subscriptions      Distribution      Windy City Queercast     
Queercast Archives      Advertising  Rates      Deadlines      Advanced Search     
Press  Releases      Event Photos      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Post an Event      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Blogs      Spotlight  Video     
Classifieds      Real Estate      Place a  Classified     

Windy City Media Group produces Windy City Queercast, & publishes Windy City Times,
The Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community,
Nightspots, Out! Resource Guide, and Identity.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.