Hidden Gay History

Chevy Chase LibraryRead Feed

Hidden Gay History

Gay History can be gleaned in history books, biographies of gay people, books about how religion treats homosexuality, and countless other materials. This list is intended to help you find some fascinating sources you might not have seen.
 
I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual may have the oddest book title you will ever find, but what an amazing (and terrifying) story it tells. I can not recommend it highly enough, and it grieves me to imagine how many people have passed on reading it because of its odd title. This memoir by a World War II prisoner of war is the most astonishing war memoir I have seen, and one story in particular will haunt you for the rest of your life.  It describes how the Nazis put a bucket over the head of Seel’s lover so that when he was ripped to shreds by dogs his screams would echo in the bucket, and Seel was forced to watch this grotesque murder of his lover.
 
The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies by Vito Russo is one of the most important books relating to homosexuality, I believe. It’s only about one topic: movies. But that one topic tells us so much about how gays were thought of in 1890, 1950, and 1990.  There’s an award-winning documentary of the same name in the DC Public Library collection, too, which I highly recommend. The early 1930s brought on the Hays Code, which sought to restrict “immoral” behavior in the movies.  As a result, gays were never seen in American movies for many years. When they finally did start to sneak in a rare gay or lesbian character, they were always characterized as murderers or miserable people doomed to a horrible death.  The Celluloid Closet shows how these wretched portrayals of gays in Hollywood films shaped negative attitudes about gays for decades.  A nice companion book is Emanuel Levy’s Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodovar, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Todd Haynes and Terence Davies, which chronicles the arrival of film directors in the late 20th Century who finally began to break through the harm done by the Hays Code.
 
Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by the great historian Allan Berube is a story that most people still have not heard to this day.  The story of how dedicated men and women from across America served their country, very often heroically, only to be returned to America, dishonorably discharged, made unable to find work as a result, and some were even put in dog cages.  For all their heroism, they were never able to get any veterans’ benefits at all. This story is important history because it details how gay veterans were forced to find communities (such as San Francisco and Greenwich Village NYC) which would accept them and allow them to live there after World War II.  The first “gay neighborhoods” were born of necessity and survival. World War II changed the world for African Americans, for women, for gays & lesbians, and for others. This book shows how so many gay recruits to the war went in thinking they were the only gay on earth, only to find out in the military that gays are truly everywhere, thus revolutionizing their expectations.
 
The Mayor of Castro StreetYou may have seen the Sean Penn movie Milk, about the first gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk.  It’s a remarkable movie but it is a shame if you never see the documentary that inspired it.  It was based on the award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the book The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts.  Shilts also wrote the definitive history of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic.  Both books take a good look at the early days of the gay rights movement (the 70s) and the AIDS epidemic (the 80s).  The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the most emotionally-wrenching documentaries ever made.  Only by seeing the real Harvey, not Harvey as portrayed by an actor, with the real people who actually worked with him, can you grasp just what Harvey meant to people. The interviews with Sally Gearhart and Tom Ammiano alone make this documentary a must-see to capture the essence of that era.
 
Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard RustinI always call Bayard Rustin the most important man in American history that nobody ever heard of. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio tells his story. He was a gay man in the African American civil rights movement who became Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mentor as well as the man who organized the famous 1963 March on Washington where King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. He had to stay in the shadows, unrecognized for his immense contributions to the civil rights cause, because he was gay. He understood that at that time, if he had spoken freely about his homosexuality, it could have been used to destroy the civil rights movement. It’s very tragic, of course, especially when you see what a brilliant and joyful man he was.
 
The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman is an excellent overview of the gay civil rights movement in America since World War II.  All the highlights are listed, including the earliest attempts at organizing and the landmark events that re-shaped the world. Faderman’s book also includes lots of unknown persons and events which also shaped the movement. It’s a great book to read to become familiar with the fight for gay civil rights in America.