queer history & us versus them.

crowd in front of the stonewall inn, new york city, ca. 1969; photographer unknown

My first semester at City College, that’s when I met Ruben. I’d noticed him right away, in U.S. History class. The way you do when you’re family. Not the first gay I saw in the wild there, but the first I’d have reason to talk to and did. Together, we chartered the first LGBTQ club on campus and called it the Rainbow Alliance.

We were a ragtag little group, made up of mostly queer and trans folx of color. At one of our meetings one week, discussing LGBTQ History Month, Stonewall came up and one of the members asked us what it is. I was shocked and disturbed. Then Ruben and I jumped right in and spent most of the hour telling the story of what happened that night, evoking the same spirit in which I was told, years before by an elderly lesbian at the Palms Bar in West Hollywood. In hearing of the long ago rebellion, I was given the first sense of myself and the community I came out into and it was a gift to me to be able to pass that on to someone else.

Just landed in Berkeley from L.A., preparing for the big time, I perused the list of undergrad research spots, still firmly bought in to the whole publish or perish, academia sort of thing. I landed on two that struck my fancy. The Emma Goldman papers or Surviving the Plague: HIV/AIDS in a Queer San Francisco Church. A no brainer, as far as I was concerned. Still I applied to both and was accepted to one.

san francisco sentinel, inaugural edition, february 1974.

I spent those first five semesters pulling articles in eight categories from The San Francisco Sentinel, one of the city’s gay newspapers, at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library beginning with the paper’s inaugural issue, in 1974, and continuing on until 1990, the height of the Plague and a year before I first came out to myself, two before I came out to my friends & family.

There I’d sit, at a computer on the microfiche floor scanning articles in the Sentinel, four hours every Saturday amongst fellow scholars & downtown folk, nodding in their chairs at the tables, thinking of little me and where I was or might have been in relation to what I was reading, at the age of one in ’74, growing up with, but separate, from the community I’d eventually count myself a member of.

Then there’s the feeling, too, of not only reading, but living a first draft of our history suddenly somewhat party to squabbles between political factions, the tangible fear of a wave of violent bashings, strings of disappearances, bodies found, that mysterious cancer suddenly seen in gay men in 1981. I had the privilege, in reading those pages, of watching our foreparents’ struggle to build a community for us, just babies or maybe not even born yet.

I came upon an opinion piece last week, published in the U.K, titled, “Young Queer People Shouldn’t Be Obliged to Care About LGBT History — And That’s The Biggest Sign of Success There Is.” In it, the author, presuming to speak for all LGBTQ milennials, it seems, argues, essentially, that our history no longer matters to young people because, with only a few exceptions, queers have finally reached near universal acceptance, let’s get back to partying, and they’ll learn about it when they’re damn well ready, okay, you fucking self righteous old person?!

Well, I don’t know if this kid’s noticed, *he hasn’t* but we’re living in some dark, trying times, these days. We still have the struggles we always have — suicide, violence, and, of course, just run of the mill discrimination. That’s the least of our problems, honestly, with Dump Truck Donnie and Vlad the Impaler in power, Vice President Jesus Talks To Him & He’d Like To Kill Gays waiting in the wings for Twitler’s Impeachment. Can we truly understand where we’re going if we don’t understand where we’ve been?

I’m not so self righteous as to think that there’s nothing to learn from youth folk, either. After all, it was Eli, one of those young trans people of color in the Rainbow Alliance, from whom I first heard the word, “genderqueer,” a discovery that set me further along in my journey. Lesbians versus trans men; gay men versus lesbians; lesbians versus trans women; young versus old; history versus the present. At times, though, it feels like we’re losing sight of the most important of them all — us versus them.

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