Obits as Primary Sources

It’s back to school time and I am in teacher mode.

One of the ways I have prodded students over the past several years to understand how historians study the past is to have them analyze primary sources.  Put simply, primary sources are documents of some sort that provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence.  Examples include personal journals, legislative hearings, census records, emails, newsletters, photographs, and oral histories.

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Gay Funerals

So far as I can remember, the first gay funeral I ever attended was for Ralph Wilson.

I knew dear Ralph from the University of Michigan-Flint, where he was one of the few semi-out gay students on campus in the early 1990s.  He got a job with the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project in Ferndale after he graduated and was killed in a freeway accident driving home from the Timesquare nightclub.

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Queer Expats

Remembering Michigan’s LGBTQ past needs to take into account its queer expats.

Born here, these former Michiganders ended up elsewhere.  Some fled to escape family rejection or local hostility or sexual boredom.  Others moved away in pursuit of new kinship or some semblance of local tolerance or sexual opportunities.  Some left early on in their lives.  Others resettled in retirement.

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Writing LGBTQ Obits

Jason A. Michael has been writing for Michigan’s statewide newspaper Between The Lines since 1999 and over his eighteen years with the paper has written nearly fifty obituaries.  I met with Jason on June 21st for lunch at the Traffic Jam in Detroit to discuss writing LGBTQ obits.  The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity.

TR: I thought I’s start by asking if you remember the first obit that you did.

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Our Queer Sites

Commemoration is an act of deliberate remembering.  We place markers, we assign designations, we erect statues (and sometimes take them down) to show what we find important to collectively remember.

This week, Americans of every gender and sexuality head to visit National Parks and National Monuments for the Fourth of July.  The famed Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 uprising that helped spark a new wave of mass activism known as Gay Liberation, became one such National Monument in 2014.

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Familiar Faces, Hidden Lives

The title of Howard Brown’s posthumously published 1976 autobiography captures the prevailing experience of LGBTQ people born to a certain era: Familiar Faces., Hidden Lives.

In early 1991, in the early stages of researching the gay past of my hometown of Flint, I met Al Kerr, an 86-year-old local travel agent who had, in the late 1950s, lent his mimeograph machine for the Detroit chapter of the Mattachine Society to print its newsletter.

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The Silences of Leo Janas

The first issue of the pioneering magazine ONE hit newsstands in January 1953.

Begun by an offshoot group of the Mattachine Society, ONE bravely offered “the homosexual viewpoint” to its readers, addressing such topics as gay bars, blackmail, and same-sex marriage during the conformist and repressive McCarthy Era.  In 1958, the Supreme Court upheld the right under the First Amendment for ONE to publish and to be distributed through the mails.  Thereafter, mere discussion of homosexuality in the U.S. could no longer be deemed obscene.

Among those on the staff of ONE were former Michiganders W. Dorr Legg and Irma Wolf.

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