How Queer History Finally Came into Its Own

More podcasts, films, TV shows, and books are mining stories from the fight for LGBTQ rights than ever before.
November 2, 2017, 7:51pm
A protest for gay rights outside Philadelphia's Independence Hall in 1967. AP Photo

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.


Marcus's podcast, the third season of which premiered last week, uses each episode to dive deep into forgotten figures and events from the LGBTQ civil rights movement, as remembered by the people who lived it. It's been downloaded in 206 countries and territories around the world, seen rave reviews, and made a number of best-of podcast lists. And it's just one of several new efforts to resurface and spotlight queer history, giving it the consideration it's long deserved but seldom received.

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.


Marcus's Making Gay History podcast shares a name with a book he wrote that was published in 1992, a nonfiction account of five decades of the gay civil rights movement. His podcast mines research collected for that work; he said he was inspired to start it after remembering "being outraged when I first learned this history," as he documented scores of stories previously unknown to the public.

"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.

"We're in a peculiar moment, not just for queer life but for the country and the world," wrote Nathaniel Frank, an author and historian whose in-depth chronicle of the American marriage equality movement, Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, was published this April on Harvard Press. But despite the incredible, recent progress made on a number of civil rights fronts, "we're in the midst of a worldwide backlash to modernity," he continued, "and Donald Trump is president."


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)."

"But I think there's an added layer with queer history—part of what so many people were taught, for so long, was that there was no (or very little) queer history," he wrote. "Everything before Stonewall is supposed to be tragic, small, and nonexistent, and that's just not the truth. So queer history seems like a series of incredible, almost impossible moments, because we've learned to think it's non-existent. When you add to that a recent culture of (at least limited) mainstream acceptance, it makes sense that these stories are being told now. Queer people have slightly more access to the means of production, and people like and accept us more, and that makes it easier to get our stories told."


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's Stonewall, 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 film with a similar focus, for stealing her work and profiting off her ideas.

France has denied her accusations, but these and other conflicts highlight the delicate nature of queer history-telling, and the struggle to ensure stories are canonized in an inclusive, accurate and mindful way.

"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."

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Correction: A previous version of this piece mistakenly characterized "Happy Birthday, Marsha!" as a documentary. It has been updated to clarify it is a film.