In beginning to research the gay history of my hometown of Flint back in the late 1980s, I realized I needed a grasp of the queer past of Michigan and the United States.
For the U.S., I devoured whatever books I could find, which then consisted of Gay American History and the Gay/Lesbian Almanac by Jonathan Katz, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities by John D’Emilio, and Surpassing the Love of Men by Lillian Faderman. A bibliography by Jennifer Terry, “Locating Ourselves in the History of Sexuality,” in a new quarterly called Out/Look, suggested more books to read and provided another beacon of encouragement.
I thrilled at seeing a cover story in Mother Jones showcasing the research by Allan Bérubé about gay members of the U.S. military who served in World War II. I eagerly awaited his book, Coming Out Under Fire, which I had to special order when it came out in 1990. Young and Welshan’s, the best bookstore in Flint, had at that time only recently added a small gay section, actually better described as a gay shelf.
Soon I made my first visits to the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan and to Michigan State University Libraries’ Special Collections. At MSU, a middle-aged woman peered over my shoulder as I flipped my fingers through the drawers of their old card catalog. I was terrified to tell her my topic, stereotyping her as a disapproving librarian. She was Anne Tracy. She turned out to be anything but disapproving.
When I told my UM-Flint political science professor Peggy Kahn about my research, she got me recruited to write a chronicle of gays and lesbians at the University of Michigan for the 1991 report From Invisibility to Inclusion, commonly known as the Lavender Report, a landmark study of the climate for queer people at all three U of M campuses. It was my first paid history gig, the earliest scholarship listed on my c.v.
In March 1993, I began to write for the newspaper Between The Lines, a welcome outlet for articles on Michigan queer history. Besides a few history pieces, I wrote news and features, which greatly expanded my sense of our LGBTQ community.
Meanwhile, I became a college dropout. I moved to Ann Arbor. I plugged away at my queer history diggings.
Around that time, a couple people told me that, at thirty, I was pretty much where I would always be, implying that I’d never really amount to anything. I should be content with my lot in life. This “advice,” this active discouragement prompted considerable self-doubt and inertia, feeding mental and emotional block.
Fortunately, it also kind of pissed me off. These supposed friends and colleagues were clueless to the class challenges I faced, oblivious to how my family background never prepared me for college. (To this day, I grow impatient with those who pay lip service to giving opportunities to people from “disadvantaged” backgrounds yet too often fail to understand what truly helping them along might entail.)
Despite the random naysayer, I also had many people whose kind support cheered me forward. I owe thanks to them all. Each nudge of enthusiasm meant so, so much to me.
And each discovery, each morsel of evidence I’d find, tugged me along as well. Avery Hopwood of the Hopwood Awards was queer?!? Whoa!!!
Then came the push-pins.
For the 30th anniversary of Stonewall, I served as co-curator with Julie Herrada of an exhibit about Michigan’s LGBT Heritage displayed in the front lobby of the Hatcher Graduate Library at U of M in the summer of 1999. As I carefully pressed push-pins into construction paper to hold up a vintage photograph, I thought about how the exhibit represented more than ten years of work and about how it would be gone in two months. In that very moment, it occurred to me that maybe I wanted to write a dissertation.
Our display, by the way, became the basis of an online exhibit called Artifacts and Disclosures, the original site hosted on the School of Information server, its current incarnation featured on the U of M Library web portal. The glorious David Halperin, newly arrived to U of M in 1999, invited me to write about our project for the journal GLQ.
In April 2000, I met John D’Emilio. Over lunch in Chicago, he offered guidance that proved pivotal in my path to queer remembering. Prof. D’Emilio praised the work of Jonathan Katz and Allan Bérubé, but cautioned that the opportunities for publishing independent scholarship such as theirs were dwindling fast. Graduate school, he said, would give me credentials and also provide a broader understanding of history to put my work in context.
Before embarking on grad school or a dissertation, however, I needed to finish my undergraduate studies.
Because of the dreadful GPA that I carried with me from my bungled time at UM-Flint, I was admitted to U of M in Ann Arbor on a probationary basis.
I put in the toil and stuck it out. Working full-time in the Circulation Department at the Hatcher Library, I took a class or two a semester, fortunate to have courses taught by Sidney Fine, Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Stephen Ward, Gayle Rubin, Esther Newton, Larry LaFountain-Stokes, Tatita Calixto, and my extraordinary thesis adviser Matt Lassiter. In classrooms filled with traditional undergrads, I was the geezer.
In addition to attending U of M, I also started presenting at academic conferences such as the Future of the Queer Past conference at the University of Chicago in 2000 and the always daunting American Historical Association Annual Meeting.
Through the AHA, I met a number of other devoted historians and grad students who were involved in the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History (since renamed the Committee on LGBT History): Ian Lekus, Marcie Gallo, Horacio Roque-Ramírez, Margot Canaday, Tim Stewart-Winter, and others. Their example, their support, and their friendship gave me a sense of welcome, despite my unusual path to queer remembering.
In May 2006, at age 42, I became the first of my mom’s four kids to get a Bachelor’s. The “baby” in my family was headed to graduate school.