VALERIE ALEXANDER

  • The Right Side of History: LGBTQI American history

    History is written by the victors, according to Winston Churchill - which is why so much of queer history has been obscured, given that the battle for LGBTQI rights has only been a successful one in recent decades. Other movements have historical milestones that are shared and canonized down through the generations, such as women getting the vote or Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus.

    Yet if you ask a general section of the population to name a pivotal moment in queer rights, most can come up with Stonewall and that's it. And plenty of people who know that term rarely know of the bar raids, harrassment, sexual violence and arrests that preceded it. For people my age, gay rights have largely centered around marriage and to a lesser extent, the military. Just watching The Celluloid Closet and Milk with a partner was an education in how little of our history has been communicated. "They really used to round people up like that? Movies were really like that?" Yes and yes and yes.

    So it was rather thrilling to read "The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism" by Adrian Brooks. The book covers what Jonathan Katz calls "the mystifying leaps, backtrackings, and repetitions that are queer American history." Wisely, it doesn't do this in a long dry narrative but in a series of personal stories, recollections and vignettes from a variety of contributors. This means we learn about:

    - the history of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis

    - LGBT figures in the Civil Rights movement

    - the importance of Kinsey's research in making LGBTQI "real" to America

    - multiple accounts of Stonewall

    - the showdown betwee Norman Mailer, Germain Greer and Jill Johnston

    - the many laws and mental health biases that could and did institutionalize queer people

    - Anita Bryant and her campaign to ban gay teachers

    - the manifold experiences of being queer, whether a trans man grappling with modern feminism or an a gay black Muslim man

    - the obscenity trial over Howl, whose lines like "blew and where blown by those human seraphim" were shocking in 1957

    - the history of ACT UP and AIDS activism

    The book also isn't afraid to get a bit dishy, discussing Josephine Baker's affair with Picasso, Isadora Duncan's many adventures and Kerouac and Burrough's roles in a murder trial. Which makes it not just an educational read, but an enthralling one. By understanding our own history, it's that much more inspiring how much the LGBTQI movement has achieved in recent years, and encouragement for all the progress yet to come.

Email: Vaxder@gmail.com

Twitter: @Vaxder

Tumblr: tumblr.com/blog/valeriealexander

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