The Importance of Knowing History

As an historian, I am constantly thinking about historical events and matching them up with current news.  For example, I am reading A Different Mirror:  A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki.  It is a fantastic book about how America was built, and most of the time it isn’t pretty.  The story of what happened to the black slaves mirrors what happened to the Native Americans.  If people think the current immigration debate is a new one, then they need to think again.  America is a land of immigrants–some forced and most not.  We can’t deny it (although some can, but they are living in a white fantasy land).

Knowing history can also help us to understand where we are today.  I always get a bit irked when I hear women, like those at the Concerned Women for America, slam the feminists for creating nearly all the problems of this country.  Someone needs to sit down with these CWA (and their male admirers) and explain to them that the only reason that women today are allowed to vote and allowed a place of equality in the workplace is because of feminists.  Women like the Concerned Women for America don’t know their history, or if they do, they choose to ignore it.  They are where they are because of these ‘radical feminists’ like Susan B. Anthony.  If it weren’t for people like here, there would be no Concerned Women for America.

The same goes for the history of gays and lesbians.  I am always shocked when some people today seem to think that the few rights they have today just appeared, as if by magic.  They refuse to take part in the fight to gain true equal rights because they think they are satisfied where they are.  Or they criticize those who actually do fight for true equal rights.  Pride Parades are a good example.  There would barely be gay and lesbian rights in this country today if it weren’t for Stonewall and those drag queens that finally stood up to police and community brutality.  This took place on June 27-28, 1969.  For some information on this dark period, see here and/or here.  And here is another description of what happened that night:


Later that night and into Sunday morning, a crowd again gathered in front of the ravaged bar. Many young gay men showed up to protest the flurry of raids, but they did so by handholding, kissing, and forming a chorus line. "We are the Stonewall girls," they sang, kicking their legs in front of the police. "We wear our hair in curls./We have no underwear./We show our pubic hair." Police cleared the street without incident this time, but another street altercation occurred a few days later.

Look what these gay men did–they held hands, the kissed, they sang songs.  And what happened to them? They were beaten.  They were jailed.  Riots broke out the next night.  They were the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian movement in this country.  Soon after that there sprung up numerous Gay Liberation Groups.  If it hadn’t have been for those drag queens and transsexuals and those gay guys protesting police brutality, we would have no gay rights in this country.  So when I hear people complaining about the inclusion of drag queens in pride parades, I get angry.  They SHOULD be there.  They were THERE in the beginning.  Guys without undies should be there, since they were there in the beginning.  Transsexuals should be there, because they too were there from the beginning.  We owe everything to those people.

Pride marches aren’t just stupid displays without meaning.  People who celebrate by dressing up as drag queens and kings are not ‘perverts.’  They honor those who came before.  They are having fun because THEY CAN.  They are to celebrate those original people from Stonewall and to celebrate the victory they had against police brutality and against community brutality.  If people think that celebrating at a pride parade is about being arrogant or that pride is a bad word, then they are sadly mistaken. 

And what is the result of the actions of these drag queens, Gay-boys and transsexuals?


The changes were far-reaching. Over the next two decades, half the states decriminalized homosexual behavior, and police harassment was sharply contained. Many large cities included sexual orientation in their civil rights statutes, as did Wisconsin and Massachusetts, first among the states to do so….[In 1975] the Civil Service Commission eliminated the ban on the employment of homosexuals in most federal jobs. Many of the nation’s religious denominations engaged in spirited debates about the morality of homosexuality, and some, like Unitarianism and Reformed Judaism, opened their doors to gay and lesbian ministers and rabbis. The lesbian and gay world was no longer an underground subculture but, in larger cities especially, a well-organized community, with businesses, political clubs, social service agencies, community centers, and religious congregations bringing people together. In a number of places, openly gay candidates ran for elective office and won.

And who can you thank?  Those outrageous drag queens.  Those outrageous transsexuals.  Those outrageous gay-boys.  The San Francisco Pride Parade just celebrated its 37th year.  The name of the parade was Pride, Not Prejudice.  The mission of the S.F. Pride Parade is:

The Mission of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Celebration Committee is to educate the World, commemorate our heritage, celebrate our culture, and liberate our people.

Educate, Commemorate, Celebrate and Liberate.  Whether you like it our not, gay and lesbian heritage and culture is based on those heroic drag queens, transsexuals and gay-boys.  When you see people like these in the parades, people need to think about their own history.  Some don’t like to be associated with people like that.  That is fine.  But to call them names and worry about ‘how they might look’ to others is to ignore their own history. 

So the next time you are sitting at your computer complaining about those ‘perverts’ and ‘low class pervs’ who dare to march in Pride Parades, know that you CAN complain about them because of these very same people.  The next time you are sitting around with your partner discussing wills and financial arrangements and medical insurance and your expectation that you will not be fired because you are gay/lesbian or your expectation that you will not be kicked out of your apartment because you are gay/lesbian, or if you are lucky enough, to discuss getting married, then thank your lucky stars for those drag queens, transsexuals and gay-boys who had the guts to stand up to the police and to stand up for the community.  The only reason we have the rights we do today is because of them.  The only reason we have pride parades and pride month in June is because of them.  It is to celebrate their sacrifices and to celebrate the fact that we are proud to have overcome the prejudices of the past.  If you can’t understand that your rights today which you take for granted come from the bravery in the past of drag queens and transsexuals and gay guys, then I feel sorry for you.  (However, that doesn’t change history.)


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