After Eric Marcus introduces himself on his Making Gay History podcast, the first thing you hear is the sound of a cassette tape being loaded into a recorder, a decidedly retro noise that serves as an all-too-appropriate metaphor. Not only are listeners about to embark on a deep journey into LGBTQ history, they’ll be taken there through hundreds of hours of tapes Marcus recorded himself, of interviews with the very figures who made that history.
There’s also Dustin Lance Black’s When We Rise, an eight-hour miniseries that premiered earlier this year on ABC, which chronicled major turning points in the struggle for queer rights. Last month, the American release of BPM (Beats Per Minute), a French film about the history of AIDS activist group Act Up-Paris, drew critical acclaim and was announced as France’s entry for the 2018 Oscars. Last year, the California State Board of Education voted to approve a history and social science educational framework that includes LGBTQ history, the first state to do so. And new local efforts, like queer historical societies and archival projects, are incorporating LGBTQ history into the communities and homes of people across the nation.
As a result, more people have access to the stories and figures who shaped modern LGBTQ society than ever before—an especially important development for today’s generation of queer people, who are witnessing the construction and evolution of a historical canon firsthand.
“It’s a history I didn’t know,” he said. “I was never told I wasn’t alone, that there were a lot of people like me and people who fought for my rights and I had a proud history as a gay man. That would have made a big difference to me early in my life when I felt very alone, and I didn’t feel proud of who I was.”
Episodes include first-person interviews with figures like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, trans activists integral to the Stonewall riots, and Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies and a co-founder of both ACT UP and GLAAD. “I feel a responsibility to the people I interviewed, especially those who have already died and can’t speak for themselves because their stories should be remembered,” he said.
“There’s an incredible hunger out there for our history, and that hunger has grown dramatically in recent years,” he noted. “And that’s coincided with a recognition by educators and mainstream media that our history is legitimate American history.
That backlash, Frank noted, may be part of what’s driving the hunger for queer stories. “It’s not surprising that artists, cultural leaders and even major institutions would reach to queer history as a kind of bridge from the past to the future,” he said. “While we’ve been mainstreamed with the triumph of marriage equality, we still retain a sense of being always a bit different, forever something of a vanguard. People may be wondering: How did these folks survive as a besieged minority and then cultivate a distinctive but mainstream identity in this modern moment? How did they meet the challenges they faced and continue to face right now? Our experiences are a natural wellspring for cultural, political and historical insight. It’s no wonder these stories are being mined.”
Hugh Ryan, a historian whose recent work includes a column on queer history for the LGBTQ publication them. and a forthcoming book called When Brooklyn Was Queer, points to recent shifts in both how we consume culture and who produces it. “I think there’s a broad interest in history right now, and in identity,” Ryan wrote in an email. “You’re seeing a lot of projects that try to merge the two together. Some of this is brought on by the internet, and how easy it makes sharing stories (and particularly images and videos).”
Of course, with that newfound acceptance comes the problem of access—”the questions of whose stories get told, and how do we tell them,” as Ryan put it. It’s a problem highlighted by recent films that have faced controversy for how they came to be and what they choose to highlight. In 2015, Roland Emmerich’sStonewall, a fictional account of the figures and build-up to the Stonewall riots, saw critical backlash and accusations of minimizing the role of figures like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, trans activists of color integral to the protest. And last month, David France’s documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson faced immediate condemnation upon release by Reina Gossett, a trans activist and filmmaker who has spent years working on a documentary with a similar focus, for stealing her work and profiting off her ideas.
“Queer history has never had a ‘canon’ before, and that’s part of what happens when a subcultural history attracts mainstream attention: it has to be turned into a digestible narrative that can be added to history books,” wrote Ryan. “We’re still deciding what’s included in that baseline. Stonewall is an obvious one. Harvey Milk is another. But we’re still figuring out the rest. Which is part of why internecine fights about queer history”—who gets to tell it, what it should include and what lessons we should draw from it, in other words—”are often so fraught and emotional. We’re literally the first generation charged with integrating queer history into American History.”