Bringing history out of the closet

Posted on 06 Jan 2006 at 5:32am

Dallas Voice celebrates the rich and triumphant history of the LGBT community with a Gay History Month series

Gay History Month began as a direct result of the lack of gay and lesbian history in textbooks.

In 1994, Rodney Wilson, a high school teacher in Missouri, along with other leaders and educators, started a campaign to educate the general public about the history of the LGBT community. Since then, many prominent groups have endorsed October as Gay and Lesbian History Month, along with several state and city governments.

In celebration, leaders of the gay press have come together to raise awareness of those who fought for all the rights and privileges we enjoy today, and gave us all reason to dedicate this month to them. All of us involved with the project hope that sharing their history will show a guiding light upon today’s paths that remain uncharted.

Starting this week, we’ll introduce you to some of those historic individuals who took us from secret meetings in apartments and clubs, to the day in June in 1969 when one group finally said no to oppression and fought back against the police.

Before and after Stonewall, there were different heroes who came out and led the community to the admirable heights it has reached today. This publication, along with other leading LGBT publications from across the country, voted on 12 people to honor during this year’s Gay History Month
To help enlighten us further on specific facets of LGBT history, we’ve asked some of the most important, well-known, and outspoken members of our community to point the way:

We’re proud to bring you exclusive pieces from Congressman Barney Frank as our first chronicler of gay political history, Academy Award writer Bruce Vilanch’s look at how we’ve been portrayed on the silver screen and famed TV writer Gail Shister’s views of our presence on the small tube. Tennis phenom Martina Navratilova gives a first-person view of sports and the coming out process, and finally, we’ll see how the media hones in on a gay reality star and his well known boyfriend with exclusive excerpts from “Amazing Race” winner Reichen Lehmkuhl’s book “Here’s What We’ll Say.”

Welcome to Gay History Month.

GAY HISTORY MONTH

– Week 1: An Introduction; Information on diversity. Bios of Leonard Matlovich, Troy Perry, Matthew Shepard; Barney Frank on gays and politics.

– Week 2: A timeline of gay history; bios on Frank Kameny, Tammy Baldwin, Harvey Milk; Martina Navratilova’s first-person take on sports and the coming out process.

– Week 3: Bios on Martina Navratilova, Harry Hay, Larry Kramer; an exclusive from Bruce Vilanch on gays in the movies.

– Week 4: Bios on Tom Waddell, Barbara Gittings, Barney Frank; an excerpt from Reichen Lehmkul’s book, “Here’s What We’ll Say”; Gail Sherter recaps gays on television.

LEONARD MATLOVICH


When Leonard Matlovich became the first openly gay man to grace the cover of Time magazine on Sept. 8, 1975, his story had enlivened both the anti-gay military climate and the gay civil rights struggle.

After coming out in March 1975, Matlovich was discharged from the Air Force after 12 years of impressive service, including three tours in Vietnam which resulted in a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and an Air Force Commendation Medal. The 32-year-old fought against the ruling, taking the case up to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which began a firestorm in press and political circles.
A program about his case, “Sergeant Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force,” was aired by NBC as one of the first gay feature stories on broadcast television. Matlovich also graced the covers of multiple national media outlets besides Time.

The Court of Appeals eventually overturned the lower court decision to uphold the discharge, and subsequent proceedings led to ordering the Sergeant’s reinstatement and $62,000 back pay. However, the court ruled not on the constitutionality of the discharge itself, but the Air Force’s failure to clarify its reasoning.

Rather than return to military service, Matlovich decided to accept an honorable discharge and a $160,000 tax-free settlement. He entered the civilian world and moved to San Francisco, where he lived as ensuing events unfolded. He took a strong conservative stance during the AIDS epidemic, campaigning against bathhouse culture and creating a gay conservative organization in Washington, D.C. In 1986, Matlovich was diagnosed with AIDS, and spent his remaining years as an activist until his death at 45 in 1988. He was given full military honors and a 21-gun salute at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington. His tombstone sits as a memorial to all gay and lesbian service members, reading “A Gay Vietnam Veteran” in place of his name. Another famous line adorns the stone, one that echoes in the gay and military communities still today; “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Troy Perry


Troy Perry founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches as an outlet for gay and lesbian individuals who wanted to maintain and expand their faith.

The first, 12-member congregation of the MCC met in Perry’s Los Angeles living room in 1968, expanding to more than 300 congregations across the world today with a message of unconditional salvation.

The church addresses the needs of LGBT Christians and has served as a beacon for Perry to become one of the world’s leading gay activists.

A religious individual all his life, Perry felt that despite being excommunicated from the Church of God and other Pentecostal denominations due to his sexuality, God still loved him. He became inspired to start his own church after a rejuvenation of his faith, including divorce, estrangement, and a failed suicide attempt.

The unique idea of gays and lesbians sharing their religious faith has been covered by a plethora of media outlets across the world, launching Perry as a spiritual leader in the 16 countries with MCC congregations.

Along with leading the church, he served as an official delegate to the White House Conference on Hate Crimes and the White House Conference on AIDS during Bill Clinton’s administration, and was among the first group of individuals to be invited to the White House to discuss LGBT civil rights in 1977 under Jimmy Carter. He also protested against the Los Angeles Police Department harassment of gays, and helped organize marches on Washington in 1979 and 1987. The 1987 march called upon President Reagan to change his lackluster response to the AIDS epidemic, which had caused the deaths of many church members. Perry retired as moderator of the church in 2005, but continues to speak on the gay rights movement, HIV/AIDS and equality, all the while maintaining his faith and encouraging others to embrace their own

He has written three books, including his autobiography “The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay.”

Matthew Shepard


When Aaron McKinney was awaiting sentencing for the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, Shepard’s father, Dennis, asked the court to spare McKinney the death penalty and instead impose a double-life sentence without parole.

The elder Shepard said in his statement to the court: “Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”

In the same spirit of compassion, Dennis and Judy Shepard have become noteworthy allies of the LGBT community, rallying behind hate-crimes legislation across the country, and establishing the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which educates and informs the public on discrimination and on promoting diversity. The foundation also serves as the vehicle for Judy Shepard’s public speaking program, which educates individuals about the development and elimination of hate speech and behavior.

Her son has become an icon for the worldwide LGBT community and a symbol of how discrimination can undermine the very fabric which brings humanity together. Matthew Shepard cared about people, and strove for equal judgment and equality with everyone he met.

According to his father, “He didn’t see size, race, intelligence, sex, religion, or the hundred other things that people use to make choices about people. All he saw was the person.” Indeed, Shepard’s story has inspired communities of all kinds, and along with his parents, several notable individuals have commended the youth’s ideas and created numerous tributes to him. Melissa Etheridge wrote the song “Scarecrow,” a reference to the jogger who originally found the beaten Shepard tied to a fence, thinking the young man was a scarecrow at first. Playwright Moises Kaufman wrote “The Laramie Project,” which has become a staple of American theater and spawned an HBO movie. And MTV released the film “Anatomy of a Hate Crime” followed by 18 hours of dead air, a tribute to the time Shepard spent on the fence, suffering from brain trauma, head fractures, and hypothermia. The image of the fair Shepard has become ingrained in gay history, and the tragedy of his promising life cut short by such brutality has inspired not just a nation but a world toward hope and tolerance.

A WORD ABOUT DIVERSITY

The list has one obvious flaw: diversity.

The early stages of the gay rights struggle lacked minority activists for numerous reasons, chief among them being that people of color were waging their own, equally important, battle for civil rights. And in many cases the gay community mirrored the social partisanship of the non-gay world until the cultural shift of the 1970s.

“The Gay Militants,” the first book published discussing the early gay rights movement, lists 60 early activists, with only a handful of minorities present.

Starting in the mid-70s, that list would become more diverse, with more groups taking part and opening up to the idea of a gay rights struggle.
But there are notable individuals who have contributed to both gay rights and advancing their own roots.

Women in our community have had a long history of leadership, and since our social activities were limited up until the 1970s, the few existing bars and clubs welcomed all individuals regardless of gender.

Many of those places were located in black neighborhoods like Harlem, whose similarly discriminated communities provided a safe haven from the police where gay men and women could discuss issues and relationships with mild freedom.


One great example is Bayard Rustin. Rustin acted as key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60s, educating King on pacifist resistance and co-organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Council. He felt compelled to be open about his homosexuality, and informed King that he would resign if it hindered their work.

King refused his offer, though the issue was kept quiet and was a feared secret in both the NAACP and the SCLC.

Rustin was forced to resign his seat on the SCLC in 1960 to avoid a morals charge in Congress, and was furthermore scrutinized by the Strom Thurmond in the Senate, who alleged that Rustin and King were intimately involved.

Following King’s death, Rustin continued his work as an activist for Freedom House, and promoted ties between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party. In 1986, he spoke on behalf on New York State Gay Rights Bill, and urged gay and lesbian outreach towards all minorities, to promote unity throughout the entire civil rights struggle.


James Baldwin, another noteworthy individual, made his mark on the literary industry long before the budding civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
Growing up in Harlem from his birth in 1924 until he moved to Paris in 1948, Baldwin took both the gay and black communities under his wing as a writer. He published many essays discussing homophobia as well as racism, linking the two as a byproduct of humanity’s severe fragmentation.

His most noteworthy books, including the novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” deal with his experience and reactions to the racial and sexual prejudice which plagued him during his youth.

Even after his death in 1987, Baldwin continues to be a leading literary figure throughout the world, and an inspiration to the gay community, in which he bravely took part.


Finally, we have Sylvia Rivera, one of the earliest and most influential members of the Gay Liberation Front, and a vocal presence during the Stonewall riots. Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a direly needed resource for the transvestite community, which had often found itself shunned and excluded from the traditional gay and lesbian community. As one of the earliest trans activists, Rivera is one of the few transvestites who made a impact on the early rights movement. From her beginnings as a young Puerto Rican drag queen to her death in 2001, Rivera is a loud exception to the white-dominated GLBT movement.

Similar attitudes in the Latino and Asian communities and in several religions have spurred groups which cater to previously ignored minorities within the community. With the support and strength of past and present pioneers and all parts of the gay and lesbian landscape, we have proven that the rainbow which defines our community holds true today, a testament to our unity and our achievement.

Jason Villemez

Racism and misogyny were more prominent in the gay community just as they were in the mainstream community in earlier years, which is one reason LGBT people of color, lesbians and transgenders are often conspicuously missing from both gay history and history in general. But people like, from left, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin and Sylvia Rivera still made their mark in the early gay rights movement, despite the prejudice they face.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, October 6, 2006.

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