We Were Everywhere

“We are everywhere!”

The banner, carried by participants in the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, conveyed a claim of ubiquity that has been a recurrent message among LGBTQ people and our allies in the decades since.

Yes, we can be found in every walk of life, from doctors and lawyers and teachers and artistes to sales clerks and mechanics and fast food workers.  Some live open lives of wild flamboyance, others remain deeply closeted about their sexuality.

We live in cities large and small.  If not where we belong, cities have been where many of us have felt most welcome, connected, and invigorated.  As scholar Mary Gray shows, we can also be found in the countryside.  Imagine high schoolers prancing in drag at Walmart in the middle of the night in the middle of Appalachia.

According to a study by the Williams Institute based on the 2010 Census, 74 of 84 Michigan counties are confirmed as having same-sex couples, this before the landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision that extended marriage equality to all fifty states.  (Please note that the data doesn’t include LGBTQ people who are single or perhaps pansexual, nor couples who chose not to reveal themselves to government census takers.)

A premise of Michigan LGBTQ Remember is that we not only are everywhere, we were everywhere.  Just as LGBTQ people are part of the present, they have been part of the past, a degree of collective consciousness going back at least to the nineteenth century, if not earlier.  Homosexual conduct and expression certainly goes back millennia; gay people, as we understand them, do not.  It’s a question of behavior versus identity.

(Here is where I’m supposed to quote Michel Foucault, who famously dated the emergence of a homosexual personage to the nineteenth century, writing in his The History of Sexuality: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”)

Since the early twentieth century, we’ve recognized, under different labels, people who fall into categories familiar to us in the twenty-first century: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer.

Work by pioneering historians of the queer past has beckoned as an invitation to do some digging—Jonathan Ned Katz, John D’Emilio, Lillian Faderman, Martin Duberman, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (who finished out her career at the University of Michigan), Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Barbara Smith, my dissertation adviser George Chauncey, and so many others

From more than twenty-five years of researching Michigan’s LGBTQ heritage, first as an amateur sleuth, then as an independent scholar, then as a formal student, and now as a credentialed historian, I have learned that evidence of queer lives is there to be uncovered.  I’ve learned about people who were active in organizations, who were involved in bar life, who participated in recreational activities, who died from AIDS, who were targeted for arrest, firing, and brutal attack, and who discreetly  lived amongst unknowing neighbors, friends, co-workers, and family (though perhaps some were not as unknowing as we have presumed).

Since 1990, I have interviewed more than 130 Michiganders and former Michiganders about their experiences with LGBTQ life, each with a story to tell.  About 20% of those whose tremendous lives I’ve helped record have passed away.  The lives of hundreds and hundreds others have been documented through stories and obituaries published in the newspaper Between The Lines and in Metra, Cruise, OutPost, the Lesbian Connection, and other local LGBTQ magazines.

Growing up and coming out in Flint, I engaged with the LGBTQ community in a more intimate way than scholarship can afford.  Through countless personal contacts and relationships, I have a different and deeper sort of knowledge of queer folk that can only come from immersion into a gay world that, as a lonely adolescent seeking to find my way, I didn’t imagine existed.  No doubt others have an understanding of LGBTQ life in their own cities and towns that comes from living day to day in their specific locale.

I am old enough to remember a stinging fear of public exposure that permeated local gay life in the 1980s and into the 1990s, so I find it a bit astonishing how many people in recent years reveal themselves in their obits published in mainstream newspapers from Adrian to Holland to Port Huron to Ironwood.

Finally, I anticipate learning about individuals that visitors to this website may suggest in the coming months.

Until only recently, queer people were not in any manner tallied in census statistics.  The wider population has often been clueless about queer lives in its midst, sometimes willfully so.  Indeed, some who frown on sexual transgression and gender difference have engaged in politically motivated silencing and erasure.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ people have long been a part of Michigan’s past, and abundantly so.  As names accumulate here week after week, I hope to covey some sense of the diversity and wide presence of our queer forebears.  They deserve no less.

— Tim Retzloff

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