By Liz Massey, Oct. 23, 2014.
It’s interesting to look at how the American public’s reaction to well-known people coming out of the closet has evolved over the past 30 years.
In the 1980s, the outing-by-death that AIDS provided for many closeted celebrities elicited horror and disgust, with the general freak-out over Rock Hudson serving as a prime example.
By the 1990s, voluntary coming-out announcements by living celebrities were generating more mixed reactions. Ellen DeGeneres got a lot of support and ended up on the cover of Time magazine when she came out in 1998, but she also lost her sitcom on network TV shortly thereafter.
In recent years, one of the common reactions I’ve heard when a celebrity comes out is, “So what? Why does it matter that they’re gay? Why do they have to announce it?”
Well, if we lived in a world where it had always been socially and legally acceptable to love members of one’s own gender and/or express one’s gender identity freely, then knowing about one’s orientation or identity wouldn’t matter, as much.
But since that’s not the case, knowing about a contemporary or historical person’s LGBT status is not frivolous and is not a subject only of interest to queer history nerds such as myself.
Knowing our queer history matters for those of us who are LGBT because it gives us a second family tree, one that gives a pedigree to our “difference” and underscores how much our queer ancestors have enriched humanity.
For allies, and potential allies, knowing which historic and contemporary notables were/are LGBT normalizes our community, busting myths about who we are and documenting our contributions to the world.
As LGBT history becomes better known, it’s my hope that we can move beyond just showcasing the most well-known queer historical figures, and move on to highlighting people who are less likely to be known to be gay or trans, yet made a major impact on U.S. or world history nonetheless.
Here are several folks who fit into that category, who in my mind deserve a little more coverage in the media for how they’ve influenced the world we live in today.
• Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook were political organizers and educators who were contemporaries of Eleanor Roosevelt. The three were so close during the 1920s that they all shared a cottage — Val-Kill — on the famous Hyde Park estate owned by the Roosevelt family. Dickerman and Cook, who were partners for most of their adult lives, heavily influenced Eleanor’s thinking on human and civil rights issues before she gained a platform for her activism as the First Lady of the United States.
• S. Josephine Baker was a female physician practicing in the early 20th Century who identified as a “woman-oriented woman.” She organized the first child hygiene department under government control in New York City. Her tenure led to the lowest infant death rate in any American city during the 1910s, and she was instrumental in identifying the infamous illness carrier “Typhoid Mary” and stopping the spread of that highly contagious and deadly disease.
• Fitz-Greene Halleck was a poet born in 1790 who became a member of the New York “Knickerbocker” writing group. Extremely popular during his lifetime, he is the only American writer featured in Central Park’s Literary Walk. His great affection for his friend Joseph Rodman Drake formed the basis for the first American novel with a gay theme — Joseph and His Friend, written in 1870 by Bayard Taylor.
LGBT people have made great strides in preserving their heritage over the past generation, whether it’s by designing history walks through key neighborhoods, as have been created in New York City and San Francisco, or through presentations such as those done locally by “hip historian” Marshall Shore. But why remember our difficult past, when the present and future looks so much brighter?
John Tosh, in his 2008 book Why History Matters, argues that the breadth of that gap between past and present is precisely why we should document what has happened and who our heroes were.
“The value of the past lies precisely in what is different from our world,” he writes. “By giving us another vantage point, it enables us to look at our own circumstances with sharper vision, alert to the possibility that they might have been different, and that they will probably turn out differently in the future.” e