My grandfather, who in conversation would often ask “Why should I give a rat’s ass?” as if out of the blue, loved to tell stories of yesteryear. Although I was never sure if his salty language came from growing up in the Thumb or working in Flint’s factories, I came to understand his storytelling as a significant means of conveying personal values, culture, and history to his grandkids.
While queer folk do not typically have the same biological lineage as blood families, we too have histories to pass on to new generations. But are they important? Why should we give a rat’s ass about our collective queer past?
The importance of the past goes beyond mere nostalgia. It helps explain our varied roots as a community: flirting on barstools, writing manifestos, nurturing the sick, playing softball, lip-syncing to Aretha, marching in protest.
Ken Collier, Ruth Ellis, David Krumroy, Rick Rapaport, Alma Routsong, Bookie Stewart, Gay Whiteside, and Irma Wolf are all names we should not forget. How many of us know that the Woodward has been around since 1954, that the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit has its roots in the Detroit Gay Liberation Front, that the Lesbian Connection began publishing in 1974, or that the Ellen Bommarito LGBTQ Center at UM-Flint was established in 1994?
The past can suggest vital lessons about struggle, pride, and unity. Local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have long experienced similar oppressions, which in turn sensitized them to their commonalities. For instance, important bonding across the racial divide showed itself not only with the 1981 founding of Detroit’s Black and White Men Together, but back in the olden days of 1955, when gay white patrons used to gather at the Blue Crest to watch flamboyant African American preacher Prophet Jones on his weekly television broadcast.
History also provides valuable connections to the present outcry over transgender bathroom use in Grass Lake and Williamston echoes back to 1977, when Rep. Mark Siljander introduced a resolution in the state House of Representatives praising Anita Bryant for her so-called “Save Our Children” crusade. Dana Nessel’s campaign for Michigan Attorney General comes forty-four years after Connie McConnohie ran for Detroit City Council as an out lesbian.
Beyond direct correlations, the past helps us understand larger social patterns. The push for sexual orientation and gender identity protections in Burton, for example, can be seen as part of a longer history of growing gay visibility in the suburbs.
Another reason we should care about queer history is that so much of our heritage is in danger of being lost. Each year recollections of countless lives vanish as we lose our elders. In 2017, we saw the passing of Male Box owner Bill Beetham, longtime LGBTQ and Jewish volunteer Peter Cooper, and transgender activist Arlene Kish, among others.
Oftentimes the loss of individuals can also mean the loss of their personal papers and photographs because survivors do not know or do not care to preserve such materials. As I wrote in October with regard to the purging of Washtenaw County Court files, even government records thought to be permanent can perish.
Fortunately, efforts to save our local queer past have gained steam in recent years. Students of Kim Schroeder’s graduate course on oral history have included LGBTQ people among those they’ve interviewing for class. Various archives have continued to actively gather materials about sexual minorities.
Just this year, the Reuther Library has processed the LGBT Detroit records, which document Detroit’s premier African American LGBTQ organization; the Bentley Historical Library has acquired the Christopher Armstrong papers, kept by the openly gay University of Michigan student leader who was stalked by a former Michigan assistant attorney general; and Special Collections at the MSU Libraries has welcomed the Emily Dievendorf papers , comprised of materials from her tenure as executive director of Equality Michigan. MSU is also currently processing the records of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
One of the favorite tales my grandfather used to tell was about the time he, my grandmother, and their best friends took their visiting aunt to a drag show at Flint’s State Bar in the 1960s. The elderly Scottish woman was scandalized at how bawdy the performers were, not knowing they were actually female impersonators. It’s a story I long ago learned to give a rat’s ass about.
Updated from a column published in Between The Lines, October 16, 2003