On History

What is your history?

What do you know about where you come from? Your family, your community, your nation? How much of it do you trust?

I was a history major for a brief moment in college. I took a colloquium on Women’s History in the United States from the late colonial era to the civil war. Women’s history is a relatively new subject, rising to prominence with second and third wave feminism. Before that, there was just “History” which roughly translated to “History of White, Heterosexual, Cis Men. White women were primarily relegated to footnotes. Women of color could expect even less. The primary sources from men, if they mentioned women at all, recorded only the madonnas and the whores, women who exquisitely fulfilled their expected roles or deviated from them enough to require punishment. Primary sources from women weren’t studied. “No one was interested in Grandma’s old diaries,” my professor opined.

This is true across disciplines. Sources from people of color, Queer people, disabled and neurodivergent people, religious groups beyond Christianity, and poor people were ignored or actively suppressed. It’s unsurprising, given the worldwide bigotry that still plagues humanity, but it’s depressing. Before college, all I knew about Black history started with slavery and skipped ahead to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. We devoted a week or so to the Holocaust from sixth grade on, mostly in Language Arts, and Asian Americans spontaneously appeared to build a railroad and be interned a few decades later. Native Americans might as well have vanished after the Trail of Tears and the Deer Laws. Anything I learned about other groups, I learned in college or via my own research.

I went to the library recently. During Pride Month, books about Queer People and History are on prominent display. I picked up one called Gay LA by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, about Queer History in Los Angeles. They touched briefly on the habits of local Native Americans, declaimed as “sins against nature” by the Catholic missionaries. Then it was a history of drag performers slyly alluding to homosexuality, draconian laws banning men from dressing too feminine and the LAPD luring innocent men into then illegal trysts and arresting them. People lost their reputations, their jobs, their homes, their families, their body parts, and their lives, all under the guise of morality. I realized quickly that the only specific records of these people existing were in speculation or arrest records.

There was more to them than that. These people lead full stunning lives because of and beyond their sexuality and gender identity. They should be remembered for more than the worst thing that happened to them, but they are names in a book now, with little more than a sentence about their lives and their deaths. Most don’t even get that.

How many human lives have been forgotten because of ignorance and bigotry? I think about my family history. To my knowledge, I am the only Queer person among them because I was lucky enough to grow up in an era and location where open homosexuality was legal, rather than an automatic death sentence. I am fortunate to choose my own career, choose my own partners, or lack thereof, to talk openly about my mental illness without fear of being locked away or lobotomized. Yet, I know that these qualities don’t just appear out of nothing. Did my great grandparents really want to be married, or did they merely follow the rules that they had to? Is there a Great Aunt or Uncle that no one speaks of because they were “well… off”? How would my life have changed if my ancestors were allowed to live as their most authentic selves?

History repeats. Much as I hate to quibble with Jorge Santayana, History doesn’t care whether we learn from it or not, it just repeats. I am fighting the same battles my mother endured for my freedom. Queer children still risk violence and poverty, often sanctioned by their cultural institutions, to live as their most authentic selves. The news tells the same story again and again with only a change of the names.

History repeats but people can change. If the tragedy repeats, so too must the joys. I fight on a firmer surface because of my ancestors’ endurance, and so do you. Our history is one of triumph against incredible odds. Whether it was written down or not, you are the proof. You are here. You are reading this because people like you lived. Whether they died violently or anonymously, they first had to live. You have survived to this point. Given the frailty of the human body and the vast cruelty of our world and random chance, that is an incredible achievement. Relish it. History doesn’t end within the pages of books. History is happening now. There is more of it than we can possibly conceive. Learn as much as you can, and change your own as you can.