My path to queer remembering started with simple curiosity.
From ninth grade through the early years of my first stab at college, I worked at the Flint Public Library. In one of my jobs there, I staffed the Clerk’s Desk, which involved retrieving bound magazines from basement storage, helping people with microfilm readers, and sometimes taking ID for certain publications that might be stolen. One such publication was the Flint-Genesee County Legal News, a local court newspaper that I noticed listed criminal arraignments each week on its front page.
By that time in my life, my early 20s, I’d heard that police in the 1950s had arrested gay people. Could it be true? Feeling curious, I pulled a reel of microfilm of some old issues of the Legal News to see. Lo and behold, on the first random reel, I found men charged with sodomy and, more often, something called gross indecency. There were names and dates and case numbers. Before long, I examined more reels and started a list, identifying dozens of arraignments from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. I was deeply hooked into a bona fide project.
The names and case numbers led me to the Genesee County Court House to see if the files existed. Indeed they did. Each aging manila slip folder contained various documents that told fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking stories long hidden away. The files had to be retrieved from the attic, so the staff restricted access to only five at a time. One clerk, once she realized the sorts of cases I wanted, started slamming the files on the table in front of me as if in disgust. This made me more determined to continue on and delve into all the cases available. Thus went my summer of 1988.
As captivating as the cases were, I knew they told only part of a larger story and told it from the perspective of the police and courts (the “oppressors,” in more militant parlance). I discussed my project with one of my professors at UM-Flint, Dr. Nora Faires, who urged me on and suggested I start doing oral histories. I confronted my shyness, but not so well. Over the next few years I managed to interview only a few people.
Then, in early 1995, I heard about a collection that was in the works gathering together lesbian and gay community histories, with essays about New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, and Detroit—all the big cities. “Hey, my smaller hometown of Flint has a story to tell, too,” I thought. I guess I had a chip on my shoulder.
I contacted the editor, a University of Iowa grad student named Brett Beemyn (now Genny Beemyn), who invited me to send a submission. What I sent was the worst possible rough draft. I poured six years of research onto the page. For half of the draft, I managed only sentence fragments with footnotes to show my sources, the depth of my digging. “Obviously, this isn’t finished,” Beemyn replied in charitable understatement, giving me until the end of the summer to complete a genuine article.
The Friday before my Tuesday deadline for getting a completed draft in the mail, the lightbulb-in-the-head thing hit me. Most of the court cases I’d found involved men arrested in cars. Many of them manufactured cars for a living. The car, Flint’s celebrated product of industrial mass production, helped create gay culture in Flint. I had a hook, a theme to explore, an argument to make.
The editing process was its own valuable torture. Without knowing such was a routine and key part of the process, I sought feedback from University of Chicago historian George Chauncey and University of Pennsylvania graduate student Marc Stein, emerging scholars who I’d met in my quest to learn about the queer past. They both offered their generous comments. Nora Faires also guided me through crafting a solid narrative and cutting the chaff.
Creating a Place for Ourselves came out from Routledge in 1997. My “Cars and Bars” essay was there among so many established and up-and-coming stars in the field of LGBTQ history. By then I was a college dropout, still nine years away from getting my B.A.