All Over the Map | November 2015

Why Memory Matters

By Liz Massey, November 2015 Issue.

This issue of Echo we’re celebrating LGBT history month. Each October, this observance takes a look backward and, inevitably, brings up somber and terrifying realities.

While modern scholarship has uncovered scores of historical figures who were LGBT, and the existence of communities and networks that made self-acknowledgement of one’s gayness possible, our collective past is littered with a lot of trauma and sorrow. Members of our tribe were, for centuries, shunned, defamed, castrated and executed. Even in the late 20th Century, after Stonewall, Harvey Milk was assassinated, we lost tens of thousands to AIDS, and many were murdered simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Our historical struggle for equality and dignity continues today, but remembering the past also provides perspective on our huge victories in the past generation. Healthy, successful, openly LGBT people are now a common sight in the media – and their relationship status or gender are frequently a footnote, not the reason they are being featured. Corporate America recruits at our Pride events, instead of mandating a life in the business closet. The military has accepted gay service members and marriage equality has become the law of the land, without the sky falling.

Everyone who supports the LGBT community should participate in our “memory days” in some manner during the next two months. Doing so will make you a better advocate or activist, and bring an added sweetness to the events we hold that affirm who we are as a people. Memory matters to our community because …

The “bad old days” weren’t always bad. 

As mentioned above, there was a LOT of danger and sorrow associated with coming out as LGBT before Stonewall, in the places where it was even possible. But a lot of the traditions and dynamics of our sub-culture spring from the period after World War II (when a whole lot of queer people discovered they weren’t the only queer people on earth) and before the Stonewall riots. Those who were “in the life” built a vibrant, unique culture, and in many cases, took care of each other after being rejected by family, faith and other civic institutions. Long before anyone really believed that LGBT people would ever be treated with respect, we began treating each other that way.

Our opponents will fill the vacuum
with misinformation. 

If you’ve been following the faux oppression dramas of “religious liberty” victims such as county clerk Kim Davis of Kentucky and those anti-gay owners of floral shops, pizza parlors and photography studios, you’ve probably noticed the egregious appropriation by their attorneys of Civil Rights storylines. This is only possible in a country that has begun to forget its recent social history. Our LGBT history is our context, and we owe it to ourselves to make sure we know, and others understand, what our lives were really like, in years past, and why things need to be different going forward.

AllOverMap_HandRainbowOur queer ancestors deserve
recognition simply for surviving. 

I don’t know about you, but I thank the heavens every day that I was born in 1968. I have no idea how I would have carved out the life I now lead – given my personality, sexual orientation and mode of dress – before gay liberation began. It takes my breath away to think about what lengths some of our forebears had to go to just to be with their beloved, build a family (however they defined it), or contribute to the larger community.

Knowing our history reminds us of our place in the caravan of human liberation.

Realizing that we have a history as an oppressed people, similar in many ways to that of other marginalized groups, helps remind us that this struggle isn’t just a selfish desire for sex or for dressing and presenting ourselves the way we want … it is part of the universal movement of humankind from social governance marked by hierarchy and dominance to a pattern of partnership and egalitarianism.

I often reference my love of history, including queer history, as a geeky hobby, but it’s really far more than that. Twentieth-century Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire recognized that remembrance, through knowing the story of one’s tribe, could be a form of activism, even of revolution.

“Without identity, there can be no real struggle,” he wrote in his book “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” “Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who (an oppressed group is) so that they can more wisely build the future.”


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