My grandfather loved to tell stories of yesteryear. In conversation, he would often ask “Why should I give a rat’s ass?” as if out of the blue. Although I was never sure if his salty language came from growing up in Michigan’s Thumb or from 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. How important are they? Why should we give a rat’s ass about our collective queer past?
The significance of the past goes beyond mere nostalgia. It helps explain our varied roots as a community: flirting on bar stools, writing manifestos, nurturing the sick, playing softball, lip-syncing to Aretha, marching in protest and solidarity.
Ken Collier, Jean Kinnear, Billie Hill, Harry Kevorkian, Jim Dressel, Terri Jewell, Michael Crawford, and Vickie Marlane are all names we should not forget. How many of us know that Saugatuck has been a gay destination since the early 20th century, that the Spectrum Center at the University of Michigan opened in 1971 as the Human Sexuality Office, that Gigi’s was a lesbian bar even before Tony Garneau and Joel Casman bought it in 1973, or that Saginaw passed an ordinance in 1984 prohibiting discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation?
The queer 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 also in the late 1940s a mix of black and white together cruised each other at Detroit’s Telenews Theater, which showed news reels around-the-clock back in the pre-television days.
History also provides valuable connections to the present outcry over transgender bathroom use in 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. Jeremy Moss’s landmark election to the Michigan Senate as an out gay man last month comes eighteen years after Chris Kolb became the first openly-gay member of the state House of Representatives.
Beyond direct correlations, the past helps us understand larger social patterns. Polestar in Traverse City, the Jackson Pride Center, the Outcenter in Benton Harbor, and the Jim Toy Center in Ann Arbor all have ties to earlier efforts to provide queer-specific community services in Detroit during the 1970s by Green Carnation, Dignity, ONE in Detroit, and the Michigan Organization for Human Rights.
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 2018, we saw the passing of Flint Gay Pride founder Deon Johnson, onetime Wayne State phys ed professor Pearl Berlin, and J.L. Hudson’s interior designer Gilbert Wheldon Jr., 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 2017 with regard to the purging of Washtenaw County Court files, even government records thought to be permanent can perish.
Fortunately, local efforts to save our queer past have gained steam in recent years. Some students in Kim Schroeder’s graduate course on oral history at Wayne State continue to interview LGBTQ people as their final class assignment. Last spring the Salus Center in Lansing initiated a project to save the stories of local elders. And various archives have continued to actively gather materials about sexual minorities.
Just this year, the Reuther Library at Wayne State has processed the papers of Marvin Marks, longtime Detroit-area gay activist and a co-founder of the Motor City Business Forum; the Reuther has also acquired the Andrew Agelink papers, which document Agelink’s involvement in the LGB student group at Wayne in the 1990s; and MSU Libraries Special Collections is now home to the Goldenrod Music records, which will provide current and future historians with insight into the distribution of women’s music.
One of the favorite tales my grandfather used to tell was about the time he, my grandmother, and their best friends Bob and Jessie Chittle took a visiting aunt from Scotland to a drag show at Flint’s State Bar in the 1960s. The elderly woman was scandalized at how bawdy the performers were, calling them “those dirty bitches.” She did not know they were actually female impersonators. It’s a story I long ago learned to give a rat’s ass about.
Updated yet again from a column published in Between The Lines, October 16, 2003