LGBTQ Diaries

For historians of the LGBTQ past, having access to a personal diary is akin to striking gold.

The surviving diaries of Charles Tomlinson Griffes add enriching detail to Gay New York by George Chauncey.  Diaries of Anne Lister and Mary Benson were invaluable sources for Intimate Friends by Martha Vicinus.  The extensive diary of Carter Bealer proved indispensable to understanding the early gay geography of Washington, DC in A Queer Capital by Genny Beemyn.

Daily or regular jottings of individuals we might now classify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer from years gone by give us rare entry into worlds of sexual and gender difference that preceded our own.  Diaries give voice to lives long kept silent.

They can be all the more wondrous because of all the queer diaries that have been destroyed.

I have had the great and profound fortune of tapping two diaries in my research on the queer past of Metro Detroit.  Both remain in private hands.

I did an oral history interview with Stuart Itzkowitz in October 2005 at the home he shared in Grosse Pointe Park with his longtime partner Larry Zimmerman.

Stuart moved into a Palmer Park apartment in 1974, when the neighborhood was bustling as the gay epicenter of Metro Detroit.  He was active in the Wayne State University Gay Liberation Front, attending rap sessions and helping to staff its gay phone line.  Stuart was also vitally involved in early planning for the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, launched in 1977 in response to Anita Bryant’s anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign.

At the end of the interview, Stuart casually noted that he kept a diary from 1972 to 1985.  “Would you have any interest in seeing it?”

As I felt excitement and disbelief ricocheting inside, I mustered a casual tone to reply.  “Sure.”

Not long after, I was in temporary possession of fourteen National Blank Book texthide volumes, each 300 pages, measuring 8 3/8” by 10 3/8”, and filled with Stuart’s distinctive cursive.

Here is an edited sampling from mid-March to mid-April 1975, when Stuart was 26.

Mon 3/10: “Bill just left.  We worked at the GLF office today…”

Wed 3/12: “I called Brian.  He was also a bit bored so he came over.  1st Tiffany’s.  Saw John from the building.  Also (I think) Bill’s friend Doug.
There were a bunch of hustlers out.  Brian refused to stand and watch.  I got off on it…
Then Menjo’s.  Some familiar faces – incl. Bill J (orig from Marquette – I slept w him twice 2 years ago this month).  He recognized me.  I had nothing to say to him.  He lives in Detroit now.”

Sat 3/15: “Brian, Greg, & I hit Menjo’s – but Greg didn’t have ID so – So we went to Gigi’s…
I had a marvelous fantasy of taking the waiter at Gigi’s home so that in the a.m. when Bill comes here…”

Sun 3/16: “Bill called.  He’ll be over soon.  He went to Menjo’s last night – so it did work out for the best.  (He said he was cruised heavily, but didn’t go home w anyone)”

Fri 3/21: “A Gay Pride meeting called tomorrow by Greg.  It sounds like he’s trying to sabotage WSU-GLF.  So I told Art perhaps we can do w/out him.  I’ll loan GLF the money.  That’s our trump card.”

Tues 3/25: I feel that the depression may be lifting…

Wed 4/2: “Spoke w Debbie.  She suspected it (Judy thought It when she first met me).  She’s afraid that I’d lose my job at [Marygrove] if it were known.”

Wed 4/9: “Group was fun last night.  I got the role of a screaming queen & think I understand them a bit better.  (Someone said I’d be stunning as one)…
Went to Tiffany’s.  Saw the redhead in the brown leather jacket I saw at Gigi’s & then at Breakfast at [Tiffany’s].  Sigh – maybe some day.”

Sat 4/12: “I do regret the loss/lessening of the sexual dynamic w Bill although the other part of the relationship (i.e. verbal communication & non-sexual touching) is perhaps (?) better.  I also feel envy for the one he “made” last night.  (I wonder where they did it).
And I feel a sense of undefined loss for something I can’t totally define.”

In a recent phone call, Stuart explained that he started the diary when he was taking his first grad course at the University of Michigan and he was initially coming out.  Asked how he feels about having kept it back then, he replied, “I’m actually very glad.”

He is especially pleased to have a record of major turning points in his young adulthood.  “I did have a life and things did happen.”  The diaries capture details he might otherwise not be able to recall.

Much of what he wrote dealt with his quest to find love, so it makes sense that his writing tapered off when he began his life with Zimmerman.

Stuart Itzkowitz ca 1975
Stuart, ca. 1975. (Personal collection of Stuart Itzkowitz)

I interviewed Miriam Frank in New York in February 2005, several months after meeting her at the North American Labor History Conference held at Wayne State University.  While living in Detroit during the 1970s, in the midst of ending a heterosexual marriage, she came out as lesbian.  She shared stories of the Detroit Women’s Health Project, teaching women’s studies at Wayne County Community College, and visiting Geneva House, a lesbian commune in Highland Park.

Miriam mentioned the diary she kept in the 1970s in passing during a conversation we had well after I’d finished and filed my dissertation in 2014.

Miriam has been tireless in her enthusiasm for my research post-World War II lesbian and gay life and politics in Metro Detroit.  As a scholar of queer labor history, she has given astute criticism of my work-in-progress.  And as a friend who knows the journey I’ve taken from being a college drop-out to earning a Ph.D. (my path to queer remembering), she has given me encouragement in some of my lowest moments.

So, I felt it a true privilege when she let me spend an afternoon in her home reading her diary and jotting notes for my book manuscript and for purposes of including brief excerpts in this blog.

These edited entries from Miriam’s diary cover roughly the same span as the above entries from Stuart, mid-March to mid-April 1975.  She was 28 at the time.

Per Miriam’s request, names have been changed.

March 10, 1975: “The party at Poor Women’s was great.  I was very high w Charlotte & Karen & Sara & Alice especially.  Pigged out w the food.  Danced a lot with Marge.  The atmosphere at the coffeehouse was especially bright and cheerful…”

March 11, 1975: “Julia agrees with me that heterosexual romantic love is like fascism: masochistic…”

March 14, 1975: “Lisa & I saw Ivan Denisovich at the movies tonight.  I have a crush on her…”

March 20, 1975: “Tuesday night – Geneva House.  Took Kathy out to dinner & slept with Nora to say farewell before her trip.  Once again, one of our silly conversations about how some day we’ll be lovers.  High & whooping w/Geneva House ♀.  Kathy was radiant…”

April 4, 1975: “I read the journal and will keep on keeping them.  I told so much of my life to people.  But I lose people … I feel badly for all the personal stuff I confided to Ron and then he never wanted to see me again.  I am angry that he has taken away all that we shared and where is it now, besides a line in my memory, except that I don’t remember much of it, I just let it happen…”

April 5, 1975: “The Lesbian Literature workshop turned me on…”

April 13: “Marge told me she had spotted me for gay long ago – by my aggressive manner.”

April 14: “I’ve been thinking about this journal in comparison to my teenage journal: How different/how the same.  I am bored & embarrassed w the teenage journal about the enthusiastic chatter/gossip, lack of introspection, leaving out of details (I don’t describe my angers at my parents) plain lying to myself about what is important.
This journal is also full of details and gossip.  I wonder which of the people I deal with in the journal will even remember or be relating to [me] in 5 years.  Where am I kidding myself here, how will all this read back to me.  I am writing because I need the herstory … & the release & continuity of nightly writing.  I want a record too of this time in my life when so much is happening and I am trying to be receptive to it all.”

“They always make me smile and cringe a little,” Miriam says about reading the entries now.

She recalls “inhaling” The Diary of Anne Frank when it was published in English.  As an adolescent daughter of Holocaust refugees, Miriam says she felt a special connection with Frank’s account.  She notes that her mother was also named Anne Frank.

Miriam started her 1970s diary keenly aware of big changes in her life, changes she wanted to put in writing and reflect on.  Reading it now, forty-plus years later, triggers other memories of the same era, sitting on the porch watching cars go by, taking a solo canoe trip starting at Gaylord down the Au Sable River, coming into her own.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam
Miriam’s diaries.

The edited excerpts of Stuart’s and Miriam’s diaries here are only glimpses, textual snapshots from the many volumes of writing that they did.  The extensive personal documents convey their sexual discovery, as well as finding community as they navigated stigma.

Their diaries have intimacy and immediacy and intricacy.  It is a private witnessing meant for a future self or for posterity or simply to save snippets of life for the sake of saving snippets of life.

It is a curious form of queer remembering where the remembering is only hours or days later.

“I’m very glad I lived through that when I did and where I did.”

We can be glad, too—glad that Miriam and Stuart recorded in words on a page their fleeting impressions of people, places, experiences, and feelings that are part of our collective LGBTQ past.

Tim Retzloff

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