Remembering LGBTQ Strangers

I did not personally know Betty Jo Hudson or Vielka Holness.  I never met Rexford Palmer or Duane FroelichKatharine Coman died before I was born, before my grandma was born.  Still, I seek to remember them.

These deceased individuals recently joined the gallery of lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer Michiganders commemorated on the home site of this slowly growing project, now up to 213 and counting.

In my last blog entry, I reflected on remembering acquaintances.  Here I would like to consider what it means to remember LGBTQ people whose paths never crossed with mine.

The desire to recognize the lives of so many strangers stems from a sense of shared identity and shared experience, or identities and experiences presumed to be shared.  Maybe they’re merely imagined to be shared.

To remember strangers is to somehow know them, yet know them in a way different from witnessing them first hand.  We can come to know them through accounts of those who knew them one-on-one, through writings left behind, through the surviving legacies of their actions.

Remembering strangers and knowing them only second-hand is much like how we know history.

Statues, monuments, holidays, historic sites, exhibits, and written histories serve to remember a shared past of strangers.  We commemorate anniversaries and hold candlelight vigils to acknowledge a connection to past strangers.

History pushes beyond personal recollection.  Through various ways of doing history, specifically doing queer history, we seek to understand change over time.  We seek to understand how we got here.

When we enter a lesbian bar or participate in an LGBTQ organization or visit a queer website or kiss our loved one in public in 2018, we follow the footsteps of those who came before whose path we share.

Such sharedness involves an often-unarticulated sense of belonging.

Artist/cartoonist Alison Bechdel captures this sense of belonging in her graphic memoir Fun Home.  In a scene early in the book, having lunch in a diner with her father as a pre-teen, she spies a butch woman making a delivery.  The woman’s heft, close-cropped hair, plaid shirt, jeans, and keys dangling from her belt spark a flash of recognition.  “Like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy,” Bechdel writes (page 118).

The past is a foreign country, a strange land populated with strangers, with its own language and norms that need translating and deciphering.  In exploring that strange land, in meeting past strangers, we can become acquainted.

We can discover people who once navigated the world in deeply familiar ways.  We may discover kinship and community.

No one alive personally knew Oscar Wilde, who lectured on the “Decorative Arts” in Detroit in 1882.  Few still living knew Gertrude Stein, who spoke at UM’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in 1934.  A greater number of us may have had contact with Harvey Milk, whose friend and aide Cleve Jones spent his childhood summers with his grandma in Birmingham outside Detroit.  Yet we are drawn to these historical figures in part out of an awareness of commonality.

As a trained historian, I work to piece together the stories of past strangers from archival evidence carefully scrutinized and interpreted in order to find new layers of revelation and understanding.    What were the queer practices, identities, and institutions of yesterday?  How did we come to the queer practices, identities, and institutions we share today?

The gall of wanting strangers  and inert documents to yield answers!

Meanwhile, from my professional perspective, I strive to keep in mind that definitions are slippery and fluid, that histories are exploratory and tentative.

A quest for knowledge leads to trying to parse out who we were, who we were, with an emphasis of trying to grasp some understanding of “people like us” (the wonderful name of a store stumbled upon in the Castro District on my first visit to San Francisco).

People like us who came before, with similarly marginalized sexualities and gender expressions, however much they might not match up exactly, can help reveal our own origins and commonalities and diversities.

At the same time, LGBTQ history also consists of battling to ensure the stories of LGBTQ strangers get told, that their presence in our state, in our world, lives on.

Remembering strangers helps distinguish personal memory from collective memory.  It provides a counterweight to those who would hide who we were, those who would deny our past.

Remembering LGBTQ strangers is a fight against forgetting.

Tim Retzloff

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