Book 7 of 2019: Lavender Los Angeles from Roots of Equality

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Roots of Equality Authors: Tom De Simone, Teresa Wang, Melissa Lopez, Diem Tran, Andy Sacher, Kersu Dalal, and Justin Emerick

Published in 2011, Lavender Los Angeles provides a brief overview of Queer history in Los Angeles, from the pre-colonial era to the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, including photographs and illustrations.

The history of Queer people in Los Angeles is rich and storied. Lavender Los Angeles provides an excellent starting point for those, like me, intimidated by more massive tomes. At 127 pages, the authors don’t have time for much-nuanced analysis of the events. Instead, they focus on the events themselves, the notable people, and how they fit into the overall narrative. Lavender Los Angeles is a history book for the people who hated history class.

Despite the page limit, Lavender Los Angeles makes a concentrated effort to include women, people of color, and trans people at all stages of the narrative. From the two-spirit healers of the Indigenous community in the colonial era to Margaret Chung, the first known Chinese Woman Doctor who boasted romantic affairs with Sophie Tucker and Elsa Gridlow in the 1920s, to Angela Douglas, founder of TAO (Transvestite/Transsexual Activist Organization) in 1970. In a field predominantly focused on white, cis men, I appreciate the intersectionality of Lavender Los Angeles.

However, that intersectionality would have been better served with color illustrations. Black and white pictures create a sense of distance to the events. Distance is fine when discussing the lavender marriages and police raids of yesteryear but Proposition Eight, banning same-sex marriage in California, passed a little over a decade ago. Monochrome photographs separate the reader from the immediacy of these issues.

Roots of Equality also managed to avoid the pessimism I usually find in Queer History. While never sugar-coating events, they focus instead on the victories and the sheer joy that the LGBT+ community achieved in Los Angeles. Lavender Los Angeles, despite the closeted connotations of the title, made me proud of my community and eager to participate more fully with my city.

Who Are We?

There are concentration camps in The United States of America. Human beings, many of them children, have been locked away without trial in horrifying conditions. They are sick, dying, and outright murdered by their captors. Their captors operate with no independent oversight, little press coverage, and the financial backing of The United States Government. Our tax dollars fund concentration camps.

The sun is still shining. I had coffee this morning and went to work. I played with my cat. Later, I’ll attend a class and call my mother. There are concentration camps in the United States of America, and I could very reasonably go through my entire day without thinking about them at all, let alone doing something to help. It’s both a privilege and a shame.

Who are we, as a nation, that we can allow such things? We are the same nation that nearly destroyed ourselves over the right to own other human beings. We are the Trail of Tears, Mexican Repatriation, and Japanese Internment camps. We tore people born on this land away from their families and their homes, why am I shocked at the treatment of refugees? If I am so shocked and horrified, why do I read books about liberation rather than taking to the streets against injustice?

Because it is easier. I feel safe with my doors locked, running the errands necessary to survival. Occupying my mind with creativity, petty desires, and tedious dilemmas feels better than confronting and dismantling my own privilege. I tell myself that it’s a different world now. I ask who would be served by risking my income or physical safety? Whose mind can I really change by arguing about fascism and human dignity? If we have been fighting the same battles for centuries, what hope is there for victory now?

There are concentration camps in America. It cannot be unknown. We can go about our lives, but there are concentration camps in America. We can quibble or sob or shake our heads in resignation, but there are concentration camps in America. There is a precedent for the concentration camps in America. This is who we are.

Who do we wish to become? Can I become the type of person I read about? Can I act, not for comfort or safety but because the action itself is right? Can we, as a nation, stare our crimes in the face and make honest recompense? If I recognize that the safety promised by silence is an illusion, will I break it?

Now is the time to find out.

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.