History plays a crucial role in defining individuals and communities. It reminds us how we arrived at our current position with society and reinforces the cultural uniqueness individuals within groups share, whether good or bad. It is important to know how our roots because without understanding the past we cannot appreciate the present. An unlikely person reminded of that.
While my manager and I sorted through receipts in the back office, mindlessly conversing, books and history entered our conversation. She told me of her shock at ex-boyfriends of hers who has never read Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison. Then she opened up and revealed a little of her past to me.
"I'm half-black and half-white," she started. "And growing up in the sixties and seventies wasn't easy as mixed-race child. In school they didn't teach nothing about black history or literature but my father," she took a swig from her water bottle and tossed her dreads to one side, "he was the one that showed me black history." I remained seated, receipts in my hand.
"Whenever I had a paper for school and I could choose the topic, he'd show me this black historical figure or that black author," she told me."That's how I learned."
A part of me shares a similar experience. As a Peruvian immigrant, I can rely on my family to pass down Peruvian history or culture through the many stories of earthquakes, coups, and terrorist attacks my family repeatedly recites. But, as a gay man, my chances of learning gay history dwindle. My family provides no mentor, no blood relative handing over a fluid link between the historical and cultural achievements of my people and me.
As gay men, we fend for ourselves.
Trying to figure out what it meant to be gay, I stumbled upon gay history* and its cultural contributions through films and texts, starting with teen novels and graduating to complex films and stories that revealed a not-so-distant past that intrigued me in its backwardness, secrecy and oppression. My aroused curiosity pushed towards authors and personalities I didn't know existed and who I still have yet to learn about. I'm aware this fascination pervades only mine and a few others' minds in my generational cohort
My friends can confirm that my quest to 'teach' them gay history and culture by shoving Edmund White down their throats can be quite tedious - though I'm sure Edmund White wouldn't find it so. However, when one looks at my generation, myself included, one sees a disrespectful and aimless group of young people. At least, that's what everyone older than us thinks.
Yet my generation, gays included, participates in political, social, and cultural issues, lending their voices and bodies to protests.
"Fuck Chick-Fil-A!" My friends shout and then have no problem joining a kiss-in at the local mall, overlooking the freedom they have to be able to protest via kissing or even hold hands in public. Without those who came before us, those who lost their jobs, loved ones, and their lives fighting the struggle I wouldn't be able to wear a Legalize Gay shirt without going to jail or worse.
Of course, no one likes learning dry and analytical history. Even I will concede to this 'truth.' Though just because it bores us it doesn't mean we can't learn from it. What our predecessors did remains murky and others of my generations. What did Frank Kameny do that his name's on a street sign? How did our struggle during the AIDS crisis shape the community we are now? The past holds the answers to those questions and much more. In this past we'll find youthful beauty as well as the beauty of camaraderie and historical and cultural blossoming.
By culture I don't mean the way we behave with each other - though that's the historical result - but rather the cultural achievements we've accrued over time. Reading gay men's struggles to define their identity, come out, find love and live a life through the pages of Isherwood's, Maupin's, Baldwin's, and various others' novels resuscitate lives unfathomable now yet crucial to our present.
Another friend of mine, a freshman, countered my compulsion to throw novels by gay authors at them, leading to larger discussion about pride.
"I don't see the need for us to have an LGBT Awareness month or whatever," he said. "It's not like straight people have straight month."
"They don't have one because every month is straight month," a second friend and me rebutted.
If we are to be proud during those Bacchanalian weekends in summer, then we must know why. It isn't only to celebrate the victories from the last months or years but to commemorate a history of struggle with defeats and victories. Death and life. Art and Passion. And, of course the love that dare not speak its name.
We must find a way to pass down our heritage from one generation of gay men to the next. I'll continue forcing books and movies onto my friends like my manager's father did with her. But it should be all of our collective responsibility to preserve a little piece of the past within us, living in the present, so that it can be passed down and survive for the future.
* I say gay history rather than LGBT history because I don't claim to know the whole spectrum of queer history or culture but I'm in the process of learning.
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