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This commentary was first aired on This Way Out, a worldwide lesbian and gay radio syndicate based in Los Angeles.
Hitching To Nirvana, a novel of midife and adolescence by Janet Mason is now available on-line and from bookstores
It has been said that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But it is also true that knowing your history is essential to knowing yourself. And, as demonstrated by Queers in History: the comprehensive encyclopedia of historical gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, by Keith Stern – (published in 2009 by BenBella Books, Inc.), history is also good for the thrill of good dish!
This book, one might say, compendium, featuring biographies of more than 900 prominent people from 2450 b.c.e. (before the common era) to today – offers plenty of role models for young people (the suicide rate is still 4 times higher among gay teens than their straight peers, 9 times higher for LGBT and questioning youth who come from rejecting families).
For those of us who have been around for a while, Queers in History offers the chance to revisit the history that has happened in our own lifetime as well as to bask in the company of our peers—including those who have been dead and gone for a century or two. In many ways, Queers in History is a starting point. The readings/appearances encourages readers to do their own further reading and offers a suggestion after each entry.
As the readings/appearances writes in the introduction, “the people in this book might have been extraordinary even if they had been entirely straight”… but … ” Queers in History documents the surprising extent to which the curves of their private lives influenced their public work.”
The historic queers are listed in alphabetical order – making for what initially seems like a chaotic reading experience. For example Josephine Baker, the modern jazz dancer associated with the Harlem Renaissance and later a famous American expatriate in Paris (Legend tells of Baker and Greta Garbo making love under the Eiffel tower) is listed next to James Bakker, evangelist and convicted felon. But the end result of this type of random listing (it is indexed by profession, year of birth, and place of birth) is that the reader enters an LGBT kaleidoscope and becomes enchanted by the varying shades of lavender.
There are the usual list of suspects from Sappho to Gertrude Stein, from Oscar Wilde to Susan B. Anthony (whose long-time woman lover called her, “a naughty teaze” with a “z”) , from the Black Power Revolutionary and scholar Angela Davis to FBI Director, homophobe and all around bad guy ( “but he always got his man”) J. Edgar Hoover, and from seasoned out politician Barney Frank to, the relative newcomer, incisive cable news commentator Rachel Maddow.
There are also a few surprises, including more than a few kings (such as Henry III ) and real life queens (Queen Anne) and even a pope or two (including the Italian Benedict IX who was “appointed to papal office before the age of 21,” and “whose idea of a heavenly time was throwing a homosexual gala.”
Then there is the occasional homosexual, such as Clark Gabel of whom Stern writes, “Scientists tell us that alcohol has the effect of overcoming sexual inhibitions and can turn the manliest of men into a homosexual ‘queen for a night.’ “ Gable is “known to have indulged in at least one drunken same-sex encounter with Wildman actor William Haines.” Haunted by this episode, Gable had a gay director fired (saying that he couldn’t work with a “fairy”), and while there are no other recorded homosexual accounts, Gable’s masculinity was publicly questioned by two of his wives.
Judy Garland is listed also – proving that she truly is a gay icon after all. Stern writes that it was, “well known that she was married to a gay man, director Vincente Minnelli. But Garland herself occasionally went both ways down the ‘yellow brick road.’ Her several affairs with women included one with her press agent Betty Asher.”
Garland, of course, had a not so small roll in sparking the birth of the modern day gay liberation movement with her death in the summer of 1969. The night of her funeral a contingent of drag queens and butch dykes fought back against police conducting a routine raid on the gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall. A riot ensued, and the modern gay rights movement was born.
It is perhaps ironic that the readings/appearances, in the forward, mentions that there was a lack of role models for him when he was young. When you consider the 900 people mentioned in this book – and the legions more – the only conclusion that can be reached is that it is a queer world after all.
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