As LGBT History Month comes to the end of its third week, Kent State faculty, staff and students involved with the LGBTQ community discuss how to address minority discrimination in LGBT history.
Roxie Patton, program coordinator of the LGBTQ Student Center, created the LGBTQ Student Center’s Queering History Series last year to bring up the issue of whitewashing LGBT history and help students understand the discrimination different minorities face within the LGBTQ community.
“The Queering History Series is my baby,” Patton said. “It’s my brainchild in talking about these multiple streams of oppression that we are walking in.”
Each event works to help students understand different minorities within the LGBT community by sharing their history, Patton said.
“Anybody who looks at the hierarchy of the LGBTQ community, the very, very top is gay white men, and the very, very bottom is transwomen of color,” Patton said. “And we aren’t talking about the fact that we are erasing the contributions of people of color to [the LGBTQ] movement, and many white people have kind of claimed this history as their own.”
Erasing people of color from history is called “whitewashing,” Patton said.
“So when we talk about whitewashing history as a whole, we don’t talk about people of color who have done really incredible things to advance our culture in numerous ways in the sciences, the arts,” Patton said. “When it comes to equal rights we kind of whitewash that and recognize the white leaders in those movements but not people of color who were really active in those movements.”
In the LGBTQ community African-Americans such as Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and organized the 1963 March on Washington, as well as transwomen of color involved in the Stonewall Riots are not fully credited for their contributions, Patton said.
“When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, most people don’t know Bayard Rustin was openly gay and that Martin Luther King knew this and was perfectly fine with it,” Patton said. “We erased his identity because it made it more palatable to us as a society, and that’s the same thing we do within the LGBTQ community. We sometimes erase the contributions of people of color to make it more palatable for [LGBTQ] society.”
Other supporters of the LGBTQ community explain the whitewashing of LGBTQ history in different ways.
“One way is to rewrite the narrative to make it look like we were always marching toward equality,” said Lauren Vachon, instructor of Introduction to LGBT Studies. “I think liberal-minded people especially look back and say, ‘We were always pursuing friendly policies,’ when that often is not true.”
In the Introduction to LGBT Studies class, Vachon said she discusses the rewritten narrative of history, with examples such as the former Democratic president Bill Clinton originally supporting the recently overturned anti-gay DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
“[Whitewashing LGBT history] literally can also seem white,” Vachon said. “Gay history is often looked at as white affluent male gay history, so another way that history is rewritten is to gloss over poor LGBT people or women or transgender people or anyone who is not part of this sort of white gay male history.”
For this reason, Vachon and others have challenged the idea of labeling historic figures.
“So, why I think it’s unfair to kind of be outing historical figures as that gay identity, especially if you go way back in history, is [the identity] didn’t exist, there was no gay rights, there wasn’t activism,” Vachon said. “So it’s difficult to put an identity on someone who may have engaged in homosexual activity but may not have not have been gay.”
Outing gay figures in history can be a double-edged sword because it can hurt someone in hiding or inspire others in the gender and sexual minority community, said Brandon Stephens, president of Pride! Kent.
“When it comes to figures in history, more notable figures in history, I think it can give the community a little bit of hope seeing these figures who society now believes were gay,” Stephens said. “It can give people hope because they were famous and their sexuality didn’t matter.”
At Pride! meetings, Stephens said he and other members try to spread knowledge of LGBTQ discrimination and make sure that every minority within their community has a voice.
“We try to spread knowledge and awareness and acceptance in everything that we do, and we try to make sure that [people know] everyone in society has been involved in this struggle,” Stephens said.
The LGBTQ Student Center welcomes everyone at the university to attend their Queering History Series, not just people who identify with the LGBTQ community, Patton said.
Earlier in October, Latino Queering History discussed the struggles of LGBTQ Latinos; on Oct. 23, Access Denied will discuss disability and sexuality in relation to LGBT History Month; and during Native American Heritage Month in November, Two Spirits One Community will discuss the Native American history of sexuality and gender.
“I think when we look at how history is passed down often the history of a people is passed down from families. It is passed down from generation to generation,” Patton said. “[LGBTQ] history is not being passed down that way, so we are losing our history and we are losing our culture, and so it is really important to me that we find ways to look at our history constructively and share those stories with each other.”
Contact Carley Hull at firstname.lastname@example.org.