I didn’t know that the author of the poem “America,” Katherine Lee Bates, whose work was later set to music and became “America the Beautiful” was probably a woman who was a lesbian.
Or that the origin of the high five in 1977 was professional baseball player Glenn Burke, who was the first to come out as gay.
Or that Sally Ride, the first woman in space and the youngest American in space, was survived by her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy, who accepted her Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Or that as many as 1,000 people born as females served as men in the civil war, including Albert Cashier, who lived as a man but was forced to wear a dress until he died, with his authentic name on his headstone (“Albert D.J. Cashier”).
I was introduced to this book by its author, Jerome Pohlen, who asked to use a photograph I took on its back cover (the answer to these questions is always yes).
The book is full of stories of the shaping of much of the world’s art and literature by LGBT individuals, as Pohlen describes. From pieces and works of beauty and social importance (the outlawing of child labor) to the ridiculousness of bias (the US Postal Service regulations that only gay and lesbian themed books could be mailed if the subjects in them came to an unhappy end), there’s a rich accounting of the history of this minority population.
The importance, challenge, and responsibility of struggle
‘Why are we being intimidated by a bunch of jerks who don’t know anything about life? Who are they to tell us what we feel and how we’re supposed to behave? … Why not sort of dish it back and start talking openly?’ – Allen Ginsberg
And yet, within the community there was tension over how much was reasonable to ask for, how much of a group’s destiny should they be able to control. We know now that the answer is “everything” and “all of it.”
Pohlen, I think, describes well that it was the less comfortable, more vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community who led the fight (and win) for equality. It’s an important lesson for all people who seek authenticity and livelihood – connect with all members of your community, there’s always something to learn.
I paid close attention to the way in which transgender people were described in the book, and sensed an acknowledgement and respect of the contribution.
At the same time, I was not reading the book to make sure this or that organization or event was captured – in my mind this is not supposed to be a reference. It’s an educational guide, that stimulated me to do research on my own and revel in our history. I probably need to come out of the closet about the fact that I am a history geek – can you tell from the pages of this blog… 🙂 .
A journey that is not yet over
The next wave of equality has only just begun, today’s contemporary heroes aren’t being written about yet in books (which Pohlen acknolwedges), but they will one day.
As I read the book, I can’t believe that I have been in some of the places where history happened, and met some of the heroes described. The photograph used on the back cover was a moment that will live forever in time – a place, a house, THE home to so much exclusion that suddenly bore the colors of acceptance, made people gasp in silence.
I am posting a few photographs that I’ve either collected or taken in the places where the world learned to love better below. As it was said in this documentary of Marsha P. Johnson:
History isn’t something you look back and say it was inevitable … it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities…
The cumulative realities are breathtaking.
There are so many untimely deaths and painful tragedies described in the lives of the people who made such a difference for others. Glenn Burke, the originator of the High Five, had his career cut short (age 27) and died homeless of AIDS in 1995, one of millions who had and have so much potential to help the human race thrive.
However, the only change I would make to the book is to put one of the last passages in as one of the first passages:
First, the LGBT community has never given up on a struggle, even if it took decades to achieve. And second, in the end, they always win.
Thanks for the great book – it’s for adults, too.