LGBT Museum Must Show Full Picture
To the Editor:
Justin Estoque is certainly correct that we need an LGBT history museum [Guest Opinion, March–April 2019]. In 2001, I designed and constructed such a museum for the grand opening of ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at UCLA. For this plan, I drew upon my earlier experience working in museum development of the Georgia Historical Commission. It is a pity that those exhibits later had to be dismantled due to space needs for the growing collection of the world’s largest LGBT library.
Estoque is also correct that museums and other institutions of memory are not only a means for solidifying self-acceptance and pride but also for challenging prejudice and promoting a more just society. However, there is a great danger in conceiving such a museum as a recital of past injustices and the present as a triumph to celebrate.
Some prominent Native American scholars have been critical of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which Estoque helped to plan and design, for precisely these reasons. This museum, prominently located on the National Mall in Washington, is a magnificent collection of artifacts that highlight indigenous artistic and spiritual contributions, but it is lacking on the present problems that afflict many native communities.
Estoque identifies the movement’s main accomplishments in the areas of legal recognition, healthcare, marriage equality, and military service. It is an oversimplification to suggest that such improvements, which are hardly radical goals that should be open to anyone, are great victories. Healthcare is improving in the U.S., but people with HIV still struggle to get adequate care in a country that does not have universal health coverage. Legal recognition is not adequate when persons in half the states can still be fired from their jobs because of their sexuality. As legal marriage is declining in the general population, is it accurate to see attainment of legal marriage as a pinnacle of accomplishment? Are we right to celebrate military service in a country that has so often abused its military might on the world stage?
Estoque’s rose-colored glasses are particularly glaring when he emphasizes the dark times of the past “when police and government officials would haul us away to prison for being our authentic selves” in contrast to today’s enlightened era of acceptance. The reality is that more LGBT people are in prison in America today than at any time in the past. According to an article sponsored by the UCLA Williams Institute and published in the American Journal of Public Health, based on the National Inmate Survey of that year, there were approximately 238,000 sexual minorities being held in prisons and jails. The overall incarceration rate in the U.S. is 612 persons per 100,000 adults, which is by far the highest rate of any economically advanced nation in the world. However, the similar rate of LGBT is 1,882 persons per 100,000 adults, which is over three times as high! Most such persons were never charged with an act of violence but instead are imprisoned on charges like prostitution, aiding prostitution, pornography, public sex, “illicit sexual conduct,” and other nonviolent, victimless behaviors.
Such a state of affairs will be hard to address in a museum that presents our struggles as a total success over the intolerant past. The reality is that a large portion of our history centers on intergenerational relationships (presently derided as pedophilia or pederasty) or transgender traditions. These practices were much more socially accepted in many past cultures (including aboriginal American and other indigenous peoples). Unless the museum presents this historical reality, based on much serious scholarship about traditions stretching from ancient Greece and medieval Japan to the present, it will not accomplish Estoque’s goal of being a “powerful jolt that launches one’s imagination in new directions.”
Because museums have so much potential to open minds and reduce prejudices, I hope he and others will build such a museum. But while justly celebrating the victories of recent decades, this institution of memory must also be balanced. It cannot succeed unless it is truthful about the prejudices and persecutions of our own era as well as the past.
Walter L. Williams, PhD, Palm Springs, CA
How Early Gay Writers Were Ripped Off
To the Editor:
Reading the article titled “The Diary of a Kinsey 6+,” by Dale Boyer (Nov.-Dec. issue), which is about Samuel Steward, aka Phil Andros, I was struck by the coincidence that Phil Andros was linked to another book that I just finished, The Song of the Loon, by Richard Amory. It’s a gay classic of an early genre of popular culture. The edition I finally got around to reading (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005) had some fascinating appendices from Vector magazine and The Advocate from 1970, about the struggle of a number of gay authors of pulp fiction, including Samuel Steward, to maintain their artistic integrity during the emerging era of gay-themed popular literature.
What was also revealing in the appendix was an article referencing a panel from a gay writers group convened by Richard Amory, Phil Andros, and Dirk Vanden, at the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) in San Francisco to focus on maintaining control over their works, responding to a sense of exploitation by publishers that made it impossible for them to derive a livelihood from their creations. In the case of Song of the Loon, it was even made into a movie without the author’s knowledge or permission, much less permission to take liberties with the content.
These authors were given a nominal amount in royalties for their work while being forced to forfeit artistic control to the publishers. They didn’t take it sitting down, and, as the article notes, they tried to contest the power of the publishing houses. While money was the motivation for exploiting the creative talent of writers like Richard Amory and Samuel Steward, this process also took a toll on the creative process, since very few of these authors were in a position to strike out on their own. They all had other survival jobs as well. It’s sad to think what they might have produced had they been properly rewarded for their output.
Connecting the dots personally was my friendship with Bruce Rodgers, another 1970s Bay Area author whose most important book was The Queen’s Vernacular (Straight Arrow Books, 1972). While the book was formatted in the style of a 1970s pulp paperback, it was a serious lexicon of gay slang. After the company that published the book was sold, Rodgers’ experience was similar to that of Amory and Steward. Mistreatment by the publisher dampened his plans and goals for other projects. I met Bruce in the 1980s. He was a serious student of slang, had correspondences with researchers worldwide, and had several other pieces of research on the drawing board. But the experience of losing control of his work really affected his productivity, which was a major loss for the gay community.
Ken Borelli, San Jose, CA
In the March–April 2019 issue, Chris Freeman’s academic affiliation was identified incorrectly. He teaches at the University of Southern California.
The editor regrets that David Thorstad’s last name was misspelled on the cover of the March–April 2019 issue.