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Dead Ends and Discoveries:
The search for our GLBT ancestors
by Victor Salvo
2011-06-08

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The notion of a collective tribute to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender ( GLBT ) people who have been overlooked by history ( or obscured by historians ) is not new.

Numerous works of scholarship, with meticulously researched detail, have been written; they are the cornerstone of GLBT studies coursework in college, serve as source material for additional research by other historians and, as is often the case, inspire people who like to explore history on their own—which is how The Legacy Project got its start in Chicago.

With many of the people who are encompassed under "GLBT history" there is ready agreement as to who was who, who did what, and when they did it. And, in many cases, why they did what they did is readily discernable, as well. But, in some others, when motives and intentions are less clear, speculation ( or complete avoidance ) often takes over where the facts leave off. When it comes to non-hetero-normative sexuality, history itself can become quite subjective, no matter how many potentially influential factors are otherwise uncovered.

As a result, our concept of historical "accuracy" necessarily becomes fluid, as greatly influenced by the methods, personality, disposition and beliefs of the person doing the research—and the era in which it was done—as it is by the aims and interests of the people who judge whatever conclusions are drawn. The only thing one can be certain of is that new revelations inspire new scholarship and, as a result, one must never rely on any single source. Nowhere is this more important than when discussing GLBT historic figures.

At the risk of being deemed facetious, it seems that without direct video confirmation of sexual activity there is a curious propensity on the part of many historians to regard individuals rumored to be homosexual as being most likely non-sexual. This is usually justified because the individual in question left no written declaration that they were actually homosexual, no personal, unambiguous manifesto, without which numerous corroborating aspects of the individual's personal relationships, social habits and anecdotal information are dismissed as circumstantial.

Even inarguably romantic missives between persons of the same gender, when uncovered, are deemed "inconclusive" if they lack graphic sexual content ( not a common feature of 18th- and 19th-century correspondence ) . Leaving aside the observation that no one is expected to declare their heterosexuality to be regarded as such, operating under these assumptions, any hope of gleaning some truth about these complex lives is lost if an historian fails to at least acknowledge in their accounting that same-sex relationships—which existed quietly ( and, in many cases, openly ) within the matrix of older societies—could not be "documented" without the benefit of institutionalized marriage available to them … making it impossible to arrive at any realistic assessments, even when faced with the evidence. Hewing to the academic rigors of their profession, many historians sum-up their forays into such undocumentable terrain with an obfuscating declaration that the individual had "no known romantic attachments"—a conclusion drawn with alarming alacrity—and, thus, "history" is written.

Some regard this reluctance to apply labels as acting with restraint, foregoing the temptation to impose contemporary behavioral suppositions out of context. Though, on its face, such restraint may seem reasonable, drawing a conclusion of non-sexuality—instead of the more likely one—has led to a bias ( be it intentional or benign ) that has colored historical interpretation for centuries. This trend is most noticeable ( and disturbing ) when the historic significance of the individual in question makes any intimation of their being homosexual problematic for those who would seem to prefer certain individuals' accomplishments not be used to validate homosexuality by association. The safest away around this is to minimize—or, in some cases, delete altogether—any reference to behavior that is not certifiably heterosexual; or to consider only the individual's few known opposite-sex coupling ( s ) to support the conclusion of an exclusively heterosexual life, rather than suggest they may have been bisexual.

To compound matters, those whose homosexuality cannot be denied ( Bayard Rustin, Alan Turing and Dr. Margaret Chung come to mind ) are routinely relegated to obscurity instead of being given proper recognition in the pages of America's textbooks where their good works might be known. This practice has gone largely unchallenged until recent times. And, since virtually all historical research builds upon previous research, an endless loop of oversight and dismissal has been set up that argues for a more logical and enlightened treatment, without which substantial misinformation about GLBT people will continue to be recycled.

When one considers that, for the average person, their only awareness of history comes from what they can recall of their high school education, it is small wonder GLBT people have remained so easy to marginalize as a modern social aberration—willful "deviants" who consciously eschew heterosexuality—instead of being accepted as fully integrated, whole people who, though somewhat different, have been around for a very, very long time.

Historical Context

Being GLBT cannot be understood without considering the era and cultural context of the lives we celebrate—the term "homosexual" wasn't even coined until 1869.

The Legacy Project has taken this into account. Though we can never fully know the particular sexual proclivities of many of the people whose lives we honor, we are adult enough to allow that they were, indeed, sexual beings, as all people are entitled to be, whether or not we ever know the graphic details. For there is much more to human sexual identity than the sex act itself: the totality of one's interests, their personal writings, their life's work, the company they kept—and deep personal relationships that endured for decades—all help define a person, even if they chose not to have sex at all.

We extend this logic to those who, once all aspects of their life story have been considered, were most likely not exclusively heterosexual, even if the appellation "GLBT" ( so infused with contemporary political meaning ) would not correlate given the era in which they lived. This is especially important if their discernable circumstances kept them understandably closeted or if the social conventions of the time dictated marriage was the only way to produce a legitimate heir or establish property-rights—a path chosen by GLBT figures as diverse as Alexander the Great, Oscar Wilde and Vita Sackville-West—the latter of whom lost her family's ancestral home because England's laws of Primogeniture denied inheritance to unmarried women.

To ignore these subtle—but significant—factors is to disavow the realities of these lives, rendering all people generically heterosexual in the process. This is a serious presumptive oversight that perhaps one has to be GLBT themselves to fully understand and appreciate. Invisibility is a life-crippling, legacy-stealing thing—particularly when there are so many who deliberately capitalize on it for their own benefits.

This is of gravest concern when addressing the environment our children are forced to endure in our nation's school systems. The lack of historically significant GLBT role models—and the complete absence of GLBT contributions to world history and culture in today's textbooks—forces GLBT youth to grow up in a void, without historic relevance, subject to the political and cultural biases of our society, vulnerable to the violence such ignorance can incite.

It is precisely because sexual minorities have so often been rendered invisible by historians that a new paradigm must be adopted by any researcher who expects to effectively study a people whose only hope for living in peace through much of the last few centuries required them to conceal evidence of their own existence.

However, the challenges facing those who must cull through vast resources of varyingly accurate and often incomplete data to find GLBT role models are huge:

1 ) Selective editing done by many historians whereby certain individual's non-hetero-normative sexuality has been minimized, altered or deleted has resulted in gaping inconsistencies in the historic record;

2 ) The bulk of GLBT history, having been written from a Western-European/U.S. perspective, has made information about Asians, Hispanics/Latinos/as, Eastern-European/Russian, Middle-Eastern and Native/Indigenous peoples more difficult to come by, skewing the tenor of the available scholarship toward the dominant culture;

3 ) The general obscurity of many GLBT individuals ( especially those who were transgender, about whom little has been written ) , because they either kept a low-profile during their lives or were overlooked ( consciously or unconsciously ) by historians, has meant that there is, over all, less scholarship to consult;

4 ) A lack of explicit personal writings or the willful editing or outright destruction of what documentation did exist at one time—either by the individuals themselves ( such as Lorena Hickok ) or on the part of family members who tried to control what information was allowed into the public realm ( as was the case with Michelangelo ) —has contributed to false information being taken as fact—in some cases for centuries;

5 ) Long-held cultural biases, which continue to dictate that deep religious convictions and homosexuality are somehow mutually exclusive, have led many historians to conclude that individuals who were renowned for their religious devotion ( such as George Washington Carver ) could not also be gay—summarily resulting in evidence to the contrary being ignored; and

6 ) The unavailability of marriage across all cultures, which has prevented same-sex relationships from being socially codified alongside opposite sex couplings, has made it impossible to draw a clear-cut conclusion about whether an intense, decades-long relationship between two persons of the same gender was sexual—even when all the evidence points in that direction—a burden which is borne by gay people alone.

Taken together, the bar to "prove" homosexuality has been set vastly higher than that required to support the common assumption of heterosexuality made of everyone. Also, because over much of the last two centuries, any suggestion an individual may have been anything other than heterosexual would have been considered libelous, few researchers have been willing to make the claim or include the inference in their work—especially if the historic figure still had living decedents who were prone to denial, as is the case with Federico Garcia Lorca and Langston Hughes.

Thus, it has become exceedingly difficult to see through biographical data that, quite often, serves to obscure the truth rather than to illuminate it … leaving the general public to believe that everything good and decent and important that has ever happened in this world was accomplished by heterosexuals alone.

That there may be difficulty ( or potential controversy ) in any effort to identify our GLBT ancestors is no reason not to do it, however. The explosion of a collective "Queer Consciousness" that has come about since the days of the Mattachine Society in the 1950s has produced an understandable yearning to learn the unwritten history left by our exclusion from humanity's story: from Alexander the Great, who established the Ottoman Empire, to Baron Friedrich von Steuben, whose military strategy during the American Revolution led to the birth of a nation … from John Maynard Keynes, whose economic policies became the road map out of the Great Depression, to Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazi's "Enigma Code" to bring down Adolph Hitler … from Benjamin Sumner Welles, the founder of N.A.T.O., to Dag Hammarskj√∂ld, the Secretary General of the United Nations who invented the use of "U.N. Peace-Keepers" during the Cold War … from social justice pioneer Jane Addams, who founded the A.C.L.U., to renown First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who co-wrote the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights … from Pulitzer-Prize winning author James Baldwin to Bayard Rustin, Dr. Martin Luther King's speechwriter … from the tragic life of Sister Luc-Gabrielle, "The Singing Nun," to the heroic death of Father Mychal Judge, the first recorded casualty of 9/11 … everywhere you look in history—every era, every milestone—there is a GLBT person whose story deserves to be told.

We may never be able to fully certify the non-hetero-normative sexuality of some historically sensitive people to everyone's satisfaction—for some no amount of evidence will suffice. But to stand by and quietly continue giving credence to conclusions that routinely ignore the latest research which—were it any other subject matter would at least be talked about in today's classrooms—is an intellectual dishonesty that can no longer be indulged simply to avoid controversy.

The price of our invisibility is too high to sustain. And the truth of the matter is there are dozens of books gathering dust on library shelves that contain within them all the information needed to illuminate the duskier corners of our history—the problem is most people don't know they're there to look for them and, as a result, their knowledge remains inaccessible to the average person.

The Legacy Project intends to bring that information down off those shelves—cast it in bronze—and put it right out on Halsted Street. THE LEGACY WALK, the only outdoor museum in the world to celebrate the many roles we have played in the advancement of world history and culture, will give to us what our high school text books could not: the knowledge that people like us matter—and always have—even if no one bothered to tell us. GLBT people have started charitable foundations; served in the military with distinction; discovered technological breakthroughs; created magnificent art and sculpture; penned renowned literature and music; won Olympic gold medals; and helped shape world diplomacy. We have made an immeasurable difference in the world we share. It's about time everybody knew it.

Victor Salvo is the Founder and Executive Director of The Legacy Project—a non-profit corporation committed to the creation of public memorials recognizing the contributions of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people to world history and culture, beginning with "The Legacy Walk" on North Halsted Street in Chicago, which will be dedicated on October 11, 2012. To learn more, to volunteer, or to donate, please call 312-608-1198 or visit www.legacyprojectchicago.org


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