Why LGBTQ History Matters (To Queer People and Everyone Else)
By Lee Wind
Imagine that every single important thing in history, across time and around our world, was done by a man. In our mind’s eye, let’s make him white. Rich. Cis. Hetero. Able-Bodied. From Europe.
Every. Single. Important. Person.
Oh, wait, you don’t have to imagine it. It’s basically how history has been taught in the United States. And it’s as untrue as it is implausible.
History’s false facade was built for the protection of the people in power, and it’s shut out so many stories. The stories of women. The stories of people of color. The stories of indigenous people. The stories of disabled people. And the stories of men who loved men, women who loved women, people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside gender boundaries.
Knowing even one story from those last four categories, for me, would have changed everything. As a closeted gay 11 year old, I really thought I was the only guy in the world who like-liked other guys. As a closeted gay 15 year old, I was sure I couldn’t be gay because I believed all the stereotypes that told me being gay meant I wanted to be a girl. As a closeted gay 21 year old, I cringed at the flamboyance of drag queens, not understanding their defiance and beauty was a legacy of its own.
I didn’t come out fully as a gay man until I was 25 years old. And I look back at the fourteen years of actively hiding who I was with such a mix of emotions. Anger. Sadness. Frustration.
I look at that wall, that false façade of history, and I think, we have to take that down.
The first crack in that wall, for me, were the letters Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed. Most historians dismiss their relationship as nothing more than a friendship, but when I read the letter Abraham wrote Joshua eight months after Joshua married a woman named Fanny, asking, “are you now in feeling, as well as in judgment, glad that you are married as you are?”1 I saw a reflection of myself in history. Because back in high school, and college, and even grad school, I judged dating girls the right thing to do, but I didn’t feel what I knew I was supposed to. The more I read, the more convinced I became – Abraham Lincoln was a guy who like-liked other guys. Like me!
I started to do more research, and found more stories.
Like Eleanor Roosevelt and her decades-long romance with Lorena Hickok – a relationship that bloomed when Eleanor took on the role of First Lady and Lorena was assigned to cover her as a reporter! Many of their letters were burned (by Lorena and a mutual friend after Eleanor died) for not being sufficiently “discreet”, but there are thousands that survive, including a 1933 letter where Eleanor wrote Lorena, “Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!“2
And Christine Jorgensen, who became world-famous in the 1950s for changing her physical body to match her gender. Christine wrote to friends in 1950, “I think we (the doctors and I) are fighting this the right way–make the body fit the soul, rather than vice-versa.”3
By going back to the primary sources, I was able to hear their voices. To discover the heritage I was searching for. Each story was another crack in that false façade, but the wall was still there.
All along I’d been thinking that being queer was a footnote to the accomplishments of these people from the past. But reading Mohandas Gandhi’s letters to Hermann Kallenbach, the German-Jewish architect who was the soul mate of his life, I started to think, maybe Gandhi had this breakthrough of human insight – “You worship facing one way and I worship facing the other. Why should I become your enemy for that reason? We all belong to the human race…”4 – because he was a man who loved another man.
Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt championed the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights because she was a woman who loved another woman.
That was the moment, for me, that the false façade crumbled – and all this beautiful, rainbow light of history shone out. That’s why I wrote No Way, They Were Gay? So kids and teens today would have what I didn’t have when I was their age – the tools to tear down that false façade for themselves, and let the beautiful diverse light of our true heritage shine on them.
Knowing our Queer history is incredibly empowering. For all of us who identify as LGBTQ, and everyone else, too. Once that wall is down, it’s down for all of us. And we can hear the stories of women, and people of color, and indigenous people, and disabled people, too.
Because knowing we have a place in the past assures us we deserve a place at the table today. And knowing we have a place at the table today lets us know that our future is limitless.
Lee Wind writes the books that would have changed his life as a young gay kid. His Masters degree from Harvard didn’t include blueprints for a time machine to go back and tell these stories to himself, so Lee pays it forward with a popular blog with over 3 million page views (I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I read?) and books for kids and teens. In addition to the nonfiction “No Way, They Were Gay? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves” he is the author of the award-winning YA novel “Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill” and the upcoming picture book “Red and Green and Blue and White.” Visit leewind.org to discover our past and live your future.
1 Abraham this to wrote Joshua in an October 5, 1842 letter: Robert L. Kincaid, Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend (Louisville: Filson Club, 1943), 54-55; Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy P. Basler (Cleveland: De Capo, 2001), 161-162.
2 Eleanor wrote this to Lorena in a March 7, 1933 letter: Rodger Streitmatter, ed., Empty without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (New York: Free Press, 1998), 19-20.
3 Christine Jorgensen wrote this in a letter to friends, and published it in her autobiography: Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography (New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1967), 109.
4 Mohandas Gandhi wrote this in his “Triumph of Satyagraha,” published in Indian Opinion on October 28, 1911: Mohandas Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book, 98 volumes), (New Delhi: Publications Division Government of India, 1999) Vol 12, 81-82, #63.
Text and images are courtesy of Lee Wind and may not be used without expressed written consent.