October 23, 2018
October is a month assigned many causes – Domestic Violence Awareness month, Breast Cancer Awareness month, Pregnancy Loss Awareness month, and – you guessed it – LGBT History month. It seems quite fitting to me that so many causes and concerns all fall under the umbrella of just a single month; after all, the Queer umbrella itself houses a plethora of different people, issues, and concerns – so many that they cannot be quantified.
Yet, here we are, with October, LGBT History Month; first imagined by a teacher by the name of Rodney Wilson in 1994, October was chosen based on events such as National Coming Out Day, which takes place on October 11th. LGBT History month is now in its 24th year. Twenty-four years is a long time, and it’s worth noting!
A Complicated Past
Here’s the rub about history: it changes. Constantly. It’s changing right now. It’s changed drastically even since I first dared approach my own internal rumblings of queerness. This can make reflections on history more than complicated. One of the reasons is a problem you’ve probably heard of: history is written by the victors.
Of course, in American culture prior to 2016, to secure the position of victor often required strategy and subtlety. If, for example, there is no enemy, there can be no victor. Thus, throughout time there have been various divisions – by nationality, religion, race, ethnicity, skin color/tone, sexual orientation, gender, and frankly just about any shared, minority-assigned identity (which have been themselves divided, pitted against one another, and scapegoated for the benefit of various religious, social, political, cultural, and other institutionalized systems).
If you assign an “enemy” to righteously defend against, a group that will supposedly swallow goodness whole just by existing, one can then claim the position of “victor” while (and after) killing, scapegoating, and erasing the truth(s) of the group under fire – and as another common saying goes, “to the victor go the spoils”.
This kind of division is counterproductive and an oversimplification of the actual history that occurred, and which continues to be shaped today. Simplifying the narrative of LGBTQIA+ month to histories under the premise that they come from homogeneous groups does no justice to the past as it actually happened; or rather, what little of what actually happened that we have left. Our communities are, by necessity, intersectional; queerness does not exist in a vacuum, it is shaped by the context of other identities and experiences a person or group has experienced.
Why not focus on progress and celebration?
I’d guess that at least some of you may be thinking something along the lines of “What about Stonewall, or all our other victories? Why aren’t you focusing on some of the great strides we’ve made, why aren’t you focusing on all the positive changes we’ve made?”
My answer is somewhat paradoxical, both simple and complex: the use of a scapegoated group, such as LGBTQIA+ individuals, often lends itself and these “small victories” then being utilized by those in power to say “look, look what we’ve let you have”. Landing small victories then actually plays into those in power more often than not. After all, everyone loves an underdog.
More seriously, I believe it is because LGBT History in itself is a somewhat paradoxical idea, at least if taken at face value. It is vital to highlight our successes, our battles hard fought, our continued struggles (and sometimes gains) for our rights to exist, absolutely. Most things you read dedicated to celebrating LGBT History month are probably much more oriented to that perspective, and should be both written and enjoyed. We must celebrate the small things, especially in times that are particularly trying. Times like now.
At the same time, however, here’s what I think about: even if we consider only the history of America within the past fifty or so years, we are missing an entire generation of histories, at the least. Not to mention the lack of a significant, accessible history even further back, as we then were often forced to live our lives in secrecy and shame.
What falls into the crack formed – like the stereotypical Hollywood image of an earthquake rending the ground violently apart – never to be heard from again? What voices were silenced, what minds were murdered, as a result of the AIDS crisis? What history is lost when you lose a generation?
The answer is that we simply can’t know. I grew up in a generation that, yes, had some distinct queer role models in the culture at large. Distinct knowledge of some historical events, like Stonewall, even. It’s when the concept of elders – those who love and guide those with less life experience – arises that this becomes both a poignant and painful problem.
Our history will always be incomplete
Not every queer person died in the times before sociopolitical change began to create movements, and clearly even if they had, more of us would have sprouted up; but without any language, any sense of belonging. No life without fear, whether of violence, or silence, or ourselves. There are decades in our history when LGBTQIA+ people had no accessible history to connect to, no elders or role-models to show us that we were not alone.
There were those who survived the AIDS epidemic, and who stood up and refused to back down, who never stopped speaking up, or fighting. Exhausting work for people in any capacity, especially with so little support, so many lost opportunities for guidance from elders. How much more weight were those relatively few individuals left forced to carry on their backs? Lost friends, lost family, lost children, lost lovers – a gap, no, a chasm, in our history that has surely changed our context more than we will ever know. How many more small victories, or even outright victories, might we have had to celebrate this month if our histories and our lives had not been so thoroughly eradicated? How much difference might the life of even one person lost to that devastation, during that time, have made in the world we live in today?
To talk about LGBTQIA+ history (personally, I like Gender and Sexual Minorities as a more inclusive term, but apparently folks are reluctant to take up the acronym “GASM”), we have to talk about everything that it isn’t. We must acknowledge that it has been dismantled so completely that it has been unable to act as a guide to our future; cannot even act as a reliable sign post towards our histories. We must acknowledge the knowledge that we will never even know what has been lost to us, even while celebrating what we do have of our history. We must be very aware of the history that never was, was never allowed to be.
Our history is not complete, nor static; we are writing it with every step we take, every time we bring someone to awareness that we have, in fact, just been grossly misrepresented as a convenient political scapegoat to distract from very serious realities and horrors in the world that we currently occupy, and which will one day be our smothered past. When the dust settles, will we have yet more fractured histories for future generations, or will we have managed to push and shove our way into a future where those who come after us have a solid base on which to be uplifted by those of us who came before? We are still not the victors, but we are still here, still writing our histories, despite the cracked and broken foundation we have been left to build upon.
It is our job to realize this, and to conscientiously create new histories, work for new victories with even larger implications, and to act as the elders and protectors of those who are, at this very point in time, growing into our future generations; all of us should understand that this future is already here, these generations already growing up in vastly different circumstances than my own. This process, I believe, would be entirely different if my generation and those nearest to it had had more elders to support and guide us.
Our lost generation, lost so shortly after finally beginning to shove our way out of the closet, has allowed our necessarily intersectional communities to exist primarily as discrete, small, independent, and isolated groups. Without elders to guide us, to remind us how we are all connected (not just in our current time, but with all of those who came before, and all who will come after), we must figure out how to bring ourselves up to the standards of the generations who are now growing and proud – and threatened again on so many fronts.
But this is our history and our past, as well as our current responsibility to those who are already coming into their own, and doing so proudly. In a time when our communities are actively attacked and villainized by the current sociopolitical atmosphere, we must stand firm – not only to take back and write our own histories, but to protect the ability of those who come after us to more safely and completely create their own histories.
For this LGBT History month, I hope that we all find our own ways to support those of us who are not yet born, and those who are already growing into themselves. To ask ourselves how we can come together to lift one another up in a time which exerts a great deal of effort to discount, erase, and often to kill us. History has often been, and certainly is now, a war of, and against, erasure.
But we’re still here.
About the Author
Finley Terhune (they/them/their) is an AMFT and APCC who splits their time between managing the counseling program at Gender Health Center, providing a wide variety of trainings regarding transgender and gender non-conforming individuals (from small non-profits to State departments), as well as working in private practice under well-known Narrative therapist Dr. David Nylund. Finley identifies as non-binary and transmasculine, and has been facilitating and working in transgender and gender non-conforming peer support groups since 2011, and working professionally in non-profit mental health settings focusing on transgender and gender non-conforming individuals since 2015. Finley works primarily from a Queer Informed Narrative Therapy lens, but focuses their work on client-centered direction and feedback during therapy, as one of their primary beliefs is that the only expert on any one life is the person who has, and is, living it.