Now’s the Time to Quit Stonewalling

The Stonewall Inn reopened in 2007. These days, everyone's invited to the party. Source Wikimedia Commons

On an impromptu night out last summer, two friends and I descended upon the Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village.  As soon as we entered the bar, a drag queen named Enchilada ushered us upstairs to watch her performance.  Enchilada put on quite the show: she sang, she danced, and she roasted some of us unsuspecting patrons.  Everyone had a rollicking good time, and Enchilada even thanked us afterwards for laughing along with her jokes about my friend’s side ponytail and my insistence on wearing a backpack at all times.

Today’s inclusive Stonewall, where our group of two straight females and one gay male fit right in, is a far cry from the secretive, members-only bar of the past that would become the famous site of the first gay riots in history in 1969.  The gay community has since rapidly emerged from the shadows and cultivated a very visible existence.  Celebratory events like gay pride parades and Enchilada’s show, as well as the struggle for gay civil rights, have kept the modern gay community in view.  While this heightened presence is welcome and necessary, it must be complimented by an understanding of the gay community’s typically unclear history.  The website OutHistory.org strives to become a collaborative, user-driven resource on American lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) history.  OutHistory.org has struggled, however, to build a substantial base of non-academic contributors.  For a comprehensive understanding of the traditionally marginalized gay community to exist, public history initiatives like OutHistory.org must succeed in capturing those historically hard to reach community voices.

The lack of a recorded history has repeatedly affected the gay community.  In the book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, author Lillian Faderman explains the difficulties the lesbian community encountered in publicly asserting and documenting its existence.  In the 1950s, censorship was a constant threat that often halted written attempts at portraying homosexuality in a realistic and positive light. [1] For example, author Helen Hull decided against writing a novel based on real lesbian experiences to preserve her reputation.  Additionally, the literature about lesbians that was published—lurid “pulp” novels—spread stereotypes and suspicion about lesbians. [2] Paranoia over lesbian infiltration of the military drove many lesbians to deny their sexual orientation, especially in written documents, and embrace a life of secrecy. [3] These missed opportunities for recording lesbian history and forced denials hampered understanding of the gay community.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, lesbians began to consciously form subcultures.  Constructing identities was a taxing undertaking for a group of people with little recorded history to consult.  Several class- and age-defined subcultures emerged and competed with each other for dominance. [4] These divisions, resulting from the scarcity of information on if and how women had historically lived as lesbians, prevented a unified front that could have aided in an earlier acceptance into society.

Fear still crippled some of the lesbian community even as the new millennium approached.  When conducting research for Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Faderman encountered residual apprehension in older lesbians.  She conducted 186 interviews and found that many of the older women were hesitant to even tell their stories anonymously, let alone come out. [5]

The next step. Source OutHistory.org

Twenty years have passed since Faderman published Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.  Much has transpired in those two decades: the gay community worked relentlessly to debunk damaging myths about AIDS and has emerged as an increasingly organized and proud group.  Today’s tolerant society creates a safe environment for gay people to share their stories unencumbered by the fear of the past.  Furthermore, the rise of the internet has eased connectivity and increased information-sharing.  Conditions appear to be ripe for a website like OutHistory.org to become a community-driven resource.  However, the majority of contributors are currently scholars and academics. [6] While scholarly analysis is useful, community voices alone can uncover stories adrift in an aging cloud of shame to fill in gaps that academics likely missed.  OutHistory.org is pursuing innovative ways to reach potential community contributors, including sponsoring courses on website use and offering prize money for outstanding contributions. [7] The website must continue to refine their outreach measures to ensure that the once silenced voices of the gay community are preserved.  Fear is finally subsiding, and it is now their time to be heard.

[1] Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 146.

[2] Ibid., 148.

[3] Ibid., 153.

[4] Ibid., 160.

[5] Ibid., 7, 157.

[6] Lauren Jae Gutterman, “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making,” The Public Historian 32 (2010): 106.

[7] Ibid., 109.

8 thoughts on “Now’s the Time to Quit Stonewalling

  1. I was initially surprised to read that Outhistory.org had trouble reaching a non-scholarly audience. I think that if I had worked on developing the website, I would also have assumed that people would flock to the site eager to add their own content and create their own exhibits. Then I started thinking about my own internet habits and I became less surprised that Outhistory.org had not taken off the way that its creators expected it would.

    I think part of the problem is the shear proliferation of participatory websites on the internet. How many of us really have the time to actively contribute to a website like Outhistory.org? Personally, I have time to check Gmail, Facebook and a couple of news websites every day and that is it. I don’t have the time to actively contribute to a web community in any of my areas of interest and I don’t seek them out. Maybe that will change when I am finished with graduate school, but my point is that the public isn’t contributing to Outhistory.org because it hasn’t penetrated their consciousness yet.

    Conversely, a website like the It Gets Better Project attracted a major audience of active contributors in a very short period of time. That happened because the site’s creator launched his project in September 2010, when the nation was reeling from several LGBT teens’ suicides. The website and its video content immediately went viral and spawned national interest and involvement. Could Outhistory.org have jumped on that bandwagon and filled the societal need to “do something about the problem” that the It Gets Better Project did? Possibly, but they did not act fast enough.

    1. I think that’s a really interesting comparison between the two sites and I would say the difference is need. It Gets Better went viral not because of some internet phenomenon like Honey Badger, but because the project allowed people to meaningfully contribute their voice to help youth who felt isolated by their sexuality. It Gets Better offered an outlet to testify and make a difference in the lives of people today.

      On the other hand, Outhistory.org addresses an academic niche that works like Odd Girls began to address — filling in the blanks of a group’s history that was largely ignored within mainstream scholarship. While this is still very important work with a long-term reach, it doesn’t address the same kind of need that It Gets Better does. As I see it, this is a Maslow-like situation that we also face in museums and academia: when a community faces questions of life and death, academic scholarship loses its importance.

      1. @Jill: I agree. I think that the public is so conscious of “It Gets Better” because it addresses a need by providing emotional support. I don’t know if outhistory.org could’ve jumped on the bandwagon because it does something so different.

        @sbudlong: I was interested to see you link these two issues of public consciousness and having time to contribute to user-generated content. At first, I was convinced that they were two separate issues. Even though both sites employ user-generated content and offer content for public consumption, I think there’s this perception that “It Gets Better” is more oriented towards public consumption, whereas outhistory.org stresses creation and collaboration over perusing content. With limited time, we’re obviously going to choose consumption over creation. But public consciousness is related to this idea of time. I think that the public chooses to invest its time in things they perceive to have more measurable impacts, and the public might think that “It Gets Better” offers that.

      2. In the lbgt community there is a dual sense of history, as there is in any community. The older generation can feel that they fought for something very important and that younger people may take that for granted. I think the evolution of queer studies at university across the nation really fights to rectify this gap between generations and start to understand the trends in the struggle. Outhistory.org reads like a queer studies course. Those who are really interested will take the classes and go to the website. How do we expand outside of these people? I think the site needs to work to connect history and modern issues. It seems that it wants to teach others without letting them be part of the history.

  2. Outhistory.org provides an interesting case study of what to do, and what not to do, in order to generate public participation in a history website. Gay history is a great example of an area of history where community participation is particularly helpful. As a persecuted minority, the gay community did not leave as much of a paper trail, and therefore the participation of community members is necessary to re-create the past. Nevertheless, it remains a challenge convincing people that their history matters, and their help is needed in order to preserve their past. Although gay history seems to be perfect for a community history project, Outhistory.org nevertheless ran into the same problems that many other websites with user generated content face.

    I also wonder about how the anonymity of the internet affects community participation in this sort of effort. While gay people feel more comfortable speaking about their experiences today, this was not necessarily the case in previous decades. If there was a website like Outhistory.org in the 1980s, would it have helped the gay rights movement to have a platform where people could share their history anonymously? I imagine that it might have sped the recognition of the persecution of gay people. I wonder if there are any communities today that might benefit from a platform where they could anonymously share their history.

    1. I think your comment about the effect anonymity has on involvement with the website is an interesting one, and really speaks for the times. Whereas anonymity would likely have been considered necessary in previous decades when people were sharing experiences and stories about their sexuality, I like to think that those people don’t need to hide their identities as ferociously anymore. With the 1980s, though, I wonder if anonymity would have been a double edged sword–after “plants” had been placed all over in the 1950s, 60s, and even after that, I would think that people would be very suspicious of anonymous posters, because lines between truth and fiction, trust and distrust, would be so blurred due to many people’s previous experiences.

  3. Though it is certainly true that fewer gay historical documents and accounts exist, I think another issue is access. For example, when I was working in the Archives Center at NMAH in 2009 one of the Smithsonian employees, who was gay, utilized the archives holdings to create a small exhibit in the archives display case commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Though the Stonewall Rebellion is certainly one of the most significant single events in the gay liberation movement, I was surprised to see some of the items that the NMAH archives possessed. These included a number of early gay periodicals, as well as ephemera from various eras of the movement.

    I believe efforts like OutHistory.org can be very successful, but I think the biggest challenge is rediscovering a lot of these historical holdings. As Jacob stated, maybe OutHistory.org can help fill a void that existed in early years and provide access and organization to LGBTQ history and information that previously was lacking.

  4. I agree with Matt in that even just getting the history of the gay community out there through OutHistory.org and museum exhibitions is a great thing. I think even if It Gets Better touches on a more current issue that the gay community is facing in their history but I think both cites could be great facilitators of dialogue to the greater American and even world community about the gay and lesbian community. Both sites can speak to the history of the gay community and encourage people who wish to know more about the gay and lesbian community in order to understand where they are coming from and what they are all about. As a straight person, I didn’t know about the conflicts within the gay and lesbian community outside of what I know from the news and from my Latin classes. I can only imagine what a child who believes themselves to be gay or the parent of a child, who has no basis outside of recent events would know about this group of people. Like the civil rights movement which encouraged more publications and academic authorship on slavery and black history, perhaps there should be more of that on gay and lesbian culture and community. Though there should be an attempt also to reroute it all back into the fabric of American history as a whole.

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