Bringing queer history to the public (excerpt)

Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University, is the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold for deerRethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement and The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. He is more recently the author of Queer Public History: Essays on Academic Activismpublished in March by University of California Press.

HNN and its founding editor Rick Shenkman are discussed in several sections of contributor Marc Stein’s new book Queer Public History: Essays on Academic Activism, published in March by University of California Press. The following is an excerpt, presented with permission from UC Press, of the introduction to Part 4, “Queer Historical Interventions” (pages 131-134).

HNN has proven to be an outstanding platform to reach a wider audience. My HNN essays have been shared over a thousand times and many thousands more have read these articles. That said, I haven’t always been happy with the changes HNN has made to my proposed titles. My discussions of this with HNN’s editor illustrate some of the complications that can arise when academics try to write for the public. I may have been sensitive to this because I had written hundreds of titles for the Wesleyan Argus and GCN [Gay Community News], so I considered myself competent and experienced in this area. The first conflict was in 2003, when I offered “Alienated Affections: Remembering Clive Michael Boutilier (1933–2003)” for a reprinted essay in Part 5. HNN first used a title (now lost) that I criticized for pointing out that gay activists had neglected the matter, which was not my point. HNN editor Rick Shenkman replied, “On the internet, you can’t be subtle. Headlines should tell people what they’re getting. Otherwise, they won’t care. He nevertheless agreed to change the title to “Forgetting and Remembering a Deported Stranger”. In 2004, “In My Wildest Dreams: Advice for George Bush” became “Mr. President, I’m glad you called.” When I expressed concern about the removal of the reference to queer writer Oscar Wilde, whose voice I was trying to channel, Shenkman replied, “My headline will get more readers. Yes, it’s less literary, but on the Internet, the titles that work best are those that crack the reader with an idea. Can’t be too subtle. In 2005, “Recalling Dewey’s Sit-In” (reprinted in Part 3) became “The First Gay Sit-In”.

In this case, I complained that while one of my sources had called Dewey’s protest the “first” gay sit-in, I had avoided endorsing it, “because claims about “firsts” are always subject to criticism when new research reveals new evidence. I also noted that “the headline was particularly embarrassing because around the same time I was quoted in some Philadelphia newspapers as disputing claims by Philly Pridefest organizers who claimed the picket lines of the ‘Independence Hall were ‘firsts’, and the article itself criticized the kind of urban boosterism that leads to hyperbolic claims about ‘firsts’. ”

My conversations with HNN about titles continued over the next few years. In 2005, I suggested three titles for an essay on Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas: “Find the Fortas File!” or “Queer Eye for the FBI” or “Queer Eye for the Supreme Court Filibuster”. Shenkman replied, “I like titles to be clear, which means they tell the reader what they’re about to discover.” He added, “My background has given me a pretty good idea of ​​what titles work on the internet. Most writers want titles like they see in the Atlantic, which don’t work on the internet. At the end, he titled my essay (reprinted in part 6) “Did the FBI try to blackmail Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas?” In 2014, “From Glorious Strike to Obama’s New Executive Order” became “The Long Struggle to End Employment Discrimination Against LGBT People Is Even Longer Than You Think.” In this case, Shenkman’s original title used “gays” instead of “LGBT people,” but he relented after I explained: “Saying ‘gays’ is problematic here given the intense sensitivities regarding the inclusion of trans people. After all, the executive order is careful to include gender identity along with sexual orientation. In 2015, “Constitution Day Loyalty” became “Did you know that California requires teachers to sign a loyalty oath?” In 2016, “In My Mind I’m (Not) Going to Carolina”, which referenced a popular song by James Taylor, became “North Carolina’s Brutal Tradition of Sexual and Gender Discrimination”. In 2017, “Defectives of the world, unite! became “50 years ago, the United States Supreme Court upheld the deportation of ‘homosexuals’ as ‘psychopaths’.”

In 2017, Shenkman and I had a long conversation about language after he came up with titles referring to immigrant Clive Boutilier as “gay” or “homosexual.” At one point I wrote,

Yours is an information network that strives to bridge the academic/public divide. That’s why I love it. Isn’t one of the points to understand how to translate complex academic research for a more public audience? I try to do that in the pieces I submit. . . . We don’t know he *was* gay. We know that he had same-sex relationships and that the government called him “homosexual” and a “psychopathic personality”. Names matter. I was very careful in my work on Boutilier in qualifying him as a homosexual. When I talk about how the government has labeled it, I use homosexual and usually put it in quotes to mark my distance from an outdated and offensive term. But note that one of the options I offered used gay people differently: 50 years ago, the US Supreme Court upheld the anti-gay restriction on immigration. This solves the problem by not calling him gay but referring to the law as antigay. You might consider this semantic or pedantic, but it’s a significant distinction.

My 2017 dialogue with Shenkman was particularly complicated because at some point in the previous fifteen years he had come out to me that he was gay. He would be the first to admit that he is not an expert on LGBT history, but in our exchanges he relied on the authority of his personal experience to emphasize that he does not mind being called of “homosexual”. Ultimately, Shenkman’s title for the 2017 essay used “gay,” but put it in quotes. More generally, I think our conflicts over headlines underscore some of the possibilities and pitfalls of packaging and promoting academic research to a wider audience.

Three years later, when I wrote to Shenkman asking permission to identify him as gay and quote our correspondence in this book, I asked him if he saw a connection between his gay identity and his work as a public historian. He said yes, explaining that being gay gave him “an outside perspective”, which “affected everything” he did, “including history”. Taught by a mentor who had emphasized the “value of approaching issues of public interest from a historical perspective,” Shenkman came to view public history as a “perfect marriage” of his “two great loves.” intellectuals, history and journalism”. As for being gay, he observed, “It shaped what I was looking for every time I looked into a topic. Being gay made me realize the difference between how we as human beings present ourselves in public and how we behave in private. I have known many homosexuals, for example, who passed for heterosexuality: the young homosexual seminarian preparing for the priesthood, the homosexual actor playing Jesus in Mormon plays. This knowledge shaped the lens through which I looked at people. This made me skeptical. I always wondered when I met people what secrets they could be hiding. Shenkman specifically referenced his work on political history: “When I wrote about presidents, I assumed there was a big difference between how they appeared in public and what they should be in private. When, for example, it was reported that Bill Clinton was a less than faithful husband, I was not surprised. I don’t think any homosexuals were. Gay men know from experience how many people go astray and how powerful the lure of sex outside of marriage is. In more general terms, he added: “Being gay has expanded my expectations of human behavior. Humans are complicated. They don’t conform to stereotypes. Shenkman’s reflections raise the provocative possibility that historians who identify as LGBT, whether or not they study the queer past, may have distinct relationships to public history.

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