So much of our gay history, even from gay activists, comes from a touchstone that the past was a horrible place and that only after 1969 did things improve. This is not so dissimilar from our popular history of sexuality. Both on both counts, the history is much more complicated and if the 1950s and early 1960s were a period of repression of gays (and sexuality more broadly), before World War II, it’s a whole other country out there.
I think we have this idea that once upon a time it was just GREAT to be a racist, bigoted shitbag of a human being. Like once upon a time it was EASIER, I get that. Fewer people looked askance if you used racial slurs or called the company secretary Sugar Tits. Generally the law of the land backed you up if you wanted to mistreat people who were different.
But some people have always felt differently. Some people have always understood racism, bigotry, general misery and the futility of punishing someone else for being different. We didn’t ALL wake up in the 1960s and discover that women were people and blacks and whites could go to school together without the earth caving in and being gay was nobody’s business but yours.
Some people were never asleep, and erasing the moments of decency that may have existed in the past so we can celebrate the present creates the impression that it was merely the passage of time that made bigotry suspect. As if change was an inevitability of the clock, and not the result of the hard work and heart’s blood of so many.
Yes, there are events that changed the tide of public opinion and there are moments that reversed the river of shit we tend to send at those whose lives are strange to us, but in the rush to celebrate where we are, we should remember that it’s where some people have always been. This is from the New York Times, circa 1883:
If Mrs. Dubois chose to marry a woman, whose business was it? Such a marriage concerns the general public less than the normal sort of marriage, since it does not involve the promise and potency of children. It has been well established that if a woman chooses to wear trousers she has a right to wear them, and no one will venture to deny the right of any two women to live together if they prefer the society of one another to solitude. Why, then, has not Mrs. Dubois the right to live with another woman who wears lawful trousers, and why should so much indignation be lavished upon Mrs. Dubois’s female husband? There are many women who, if they had the opportunity, would select other women as husbands rather than marry men.