Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg and you are listening to the I’m From Driftwood podcast. If you just can’t get enough of I’m From Driftwood, go check out its YouTube channel. The stories have tens of millions of views and over 100,000 subscribers and a new story is uploaded every week. You can also browse every story its ever published since it launched in 2009. Speaking of stories, let’s get to today’s episode.
Phil: So on today’s show, we’re talking at about LGBTQIA+ history. The first storyteller we hear from is Leona, a longtime activist in Philadelphia.
Leona:When I first came out in ’85, I came out into a fairly supportive area, community. Looking back I now know how many of these things were the first of type of things. Like my first gay pride was in ’86. I was at New York gays Pride. And then something that year you could start hearing bubbling up shortly after Pride, a lot of people talking about what was going to be a March on Washington that it was time to stand up and speak out for rights and to really demand.
It very much like the civil rights March had happened years prior in the ’60s that we were going to do a similar type of things. And it was initially, almost like this slow, you could hear scurrying and people talking about it. And then all of a sudden you just fell out this huge wave of people saying, yeah, we’re going. Yeah, we’re going to go, let’s do this.
A few of us originally said, well, we have a bunch of us who want to go, why would we not get a bus? Let’s see if we can’t get a bus and fill it. And we were thinking one bus and so did some research, we found one of the bus companies, we hired a bus, started selling tickets. This was before the internet. So there was no way to broadcast and advertise it to the general population. Within 24 hours that first bus was full.
So we called and got a second bus and that bus filled almost immediately. And we called and got a third bus and we got a fourth bus. And every time we called another bus and people would buy the ticket for it, we’d call and get another bus. And eventually, before it was all said and done, we had over 20 buses coming out of Philadelphia.
When we got there and they were lining up the buses in RFK old stadium to be able to get over and get people over to where the marchers going to start. And everywhere you looked around, there was nothing but buses. And it is a feeling of one of the first times I think that that many of us ever got together. I know it ended up being one of the largest marches on Washington anywhere but just that feeling, first of getting there and seeing that many buses coming in and the logistics challenges we were having about getting everybody to where they needed to be.
It’s one thing to, to try and get many people there. But then we had to get everybody from the buses through all the Metro systems and to the start of the March. And one is, it was just a matter of cooperation and everybody helping each other get where they needed to be. But just everywhere you looked around, there was this sea of LGBT folks and at that time we didn’t use LGBTQ+, it was gay and lesbian. But there was just everywhere you could see. There was every walk of life you can imagine was coming over those hills.
Every walk of life was showing up and lining up at the beginning of the March to get everything together. As we stepped off and Philadelphia marched off as a collective group, somebody had brought down a banner that said Philadelphia Marches on Washington. And a large part of our group grabbed that banner and took off down the roads together.
Not only were we taking over the streets, there were so many of us trying to walk together. There was so much going on. We were spilling over into the sidewalks. We were literally just coming down and it was just this huge force of people that just kept moving. We were starting to push into crowds. We had people starting to show up who weren’t expecting to have an LGBTQ March happening that day.
And instinctively those of us who were a little larger, particularly those of us on the rugby team started to step out towards the edge of the sides and really to form that barrier to make sure that if somebody tried to come make a run or try to cut through the March, that they were directed in another direction and help keep people’s space. But really, just that whole feeling of just getting everybody to the March, getting everybody down there, it was a long day of activities, but it was just really one of cohesive support as a community of showing up.
We got out to the end of the March and we’re able to get to the capital and to the areas at the end, out on the constitutional out the mall. And seeing that mall just filled with that many people was one of those amazing sites and the speakers and things that… The day was so intense, I honestly don’t remember necessarily what anyone speaker said or when we were done. It was the feeling of the eclectic group, the energy that was there of one that you knew it was making a change, making a difference that this was somehow different than anything that had happened before.
This was one of those things aren’t going to go back. They’re not going to go… It’s a step forward and it’s a permanent step forward. There were too many of us who are willing to basically show up and stand up and say, this is who we are. This is what we’re doing. We don’t care who’s around. We don’t care who sees us. We are going to say that you really need to treat us like human beings.
One of the really great things that came out of it is, a year later, they decided to create National Coming Out Day in October. And it is absolutely one of my favorite holidays. Basically, as that first celebration of National Coming Out Day was coming together with the different cities. Philadelphia, we put together a small gathering in front of Giovanni’s Room, which was about three quarters of the block in front of a Giovanni’s room, which is the LGBTQ bookstore that was there and was able to have our organization from the student organizations come together, many other organizations were there and people started to show out.
That was the first of the out the National Coming Out Day celebrations and in Philadelphia, that’s now to become Outfest, which is the largest celebration in October of National Coming Out Day anywhere in the world. One of the things that was really cool is much later, there was an exhibit in the national archives, which was the first ever LGBTQ exhibit ever in the national archives called speaking out for equality.
And the very first thing you saw when you walked into that national archives at the constitution center, and [inaudible] was a picture of the group in Philadelphia with a big sign that said Philadelphia Marches on Washington. And at the very edge, there’s a woman who’s there with a maroon and keel blue rugby shirt on who isn’t me, but it’s one of my teammates who was there. And that was the start of our group, where we had formed up to put all that set there.
I know I was within five feet of that picture. It was one of those things that you just will never forget the site of seeing that many people show up after being told for so many years that we didn’t exist. We were the outcasts, we were the ones that were going to be scorned on, never be able, accepted anywhere. And to see hundreds of thousands, I believe they ended up with almost a million. I don’t remember the exact count of people but it was one of the largest marches in Washington ever.
And to see that there, it didn’t surprise me be because what I saw was, just this huge wave of energy of people saying, it is time for us to stand up and come together and make this a part of, we are part of this country, we are part of this community. We are part of who’s here. And that it is definitely time for a change.
Phil: I mean, Alex, this story building you with pride. I was welling up with a pride as I listened to this story, because you can feel it coming off of Leona as she was talking and you could just see her being like, I was there while this happened. This is a part of history. This has been documented. And I was literally five feet from this amazing exhibit.
Alex: Well, I think the thing that really crystallized it all was when she said she doesn’t even remember, it’s such an extraordinary breathtaking moment that she couldn’t even absorb all the speakers. To me, I understood that kind of visceral reaction to something that it’s all just happening around you. And it was also just a reminder that we’re at a stage where I think to a certain extent, we almost take something like Outfest for granted.
Even she was, the turnout for the March was unexpected to her and that these things aren’t institutionalized and that they’re carried on because there is the momentum and investment from the people who are part of them. So it was just really cool to hear it come together. And then also, a reminder that as she was describing the different buses, when you’re in the midst of something, you don’t know how big it’s going to be, or how much of an action it’s going to be, or you don’t wake up in the morning and you say, I’m going to be part of this huge historical event when you’re participating in these marches and such. And so it was really cool to get to go to the front lines through her perspective.
Phil: Yeah. I think the other thing that was amazing was, she talks about how there was so much of a cohesiveness amongst the group because they were all there with this common cause in their hearts. So they just found a way to make it work and to make sure that everyone got from the buses to where they wanted to go and where they were marching. The amount of cohesiveness amongst the collective was, I just think it’s fascinating.
Up next, we have Richard, a New York City-based activist who participated in a number of public demonstrations in the ’70s on behalf of queer and trans rights.
Richard: It must have been about 19, probably 71, maybe ’70 I’m bad at dates but in that time period. And I was a part of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York and the mayor of New York at that time, John Lindsay was very much a liberal but liberals even at that time were people who would quietly try to help but would never be public. And we knew that it was important for gay rights, that it’d be public, that, that little quiet sh on the side wasn’t sufficient.
So the Gay Activists Alliance had a many month campaign to do that to John Lindsay. And on one of these occasions, it was gay pride week of that year. And we decided to harass him, I think is probably the right word for that entire week. John Lindsay at that time was, it was early primary season. John Lindsay was going to run for president. And so, he had this big fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall.
We were going to do two things. We were going to certainly have tickets outside loud, pickets, shouting, screaming, but we also had managed to get a half dozen or five or six tickets to the event itself. We were going to do a disruption inside Radio City Music Hall as well as this demonstration outside. The way this was going to work. It was the world premier of the film Hot Rock. So it was in conjunction at that at Radio City Music Hall.
So of course, before the film though, they were going to do speeches. So first, out on the stage was a very popular liberal comic, comedian at the time by the name of Alan King. So he came up to the mic, did a few jokes and then introduced mayor John Lindsay. He steps to the side, John Lindsay comes out, steps up to the microphone. And as he begins to speak, not all of us inside but one person, the first one being, I believe Cora [inaudible 00:12:10], stands up and starts yelling “John Lindsay, what are you going to do about the oppression of gays in New York City?”
Of course, there are cops and security people who are going for her immediately to get her out of there. We all had very popular at the time for some really ridiculous reason was these handheld sirens, which somehow were supposed to protect you from a mugging or something. You could pull pin on the siren and it would go off. Each of us had one of those. So as they’re almost about ready to grab Cora, she pulls the pin, throws the pin in one direction and the siren in another, and of course gets led out of Radio City Music Hall.
John Lindsay comes back and starts again. The second person, stood up and did the same routine. And there were four or five of us who were able to do that. It forced John Lindsay off the stage to replace by actually a cartoon, which was preceding the film that they were showing. So a bunch of our people also wound up being in the balcony. And as we were doing this down below giving John Lindsay a hard time, they just took a bunch of flyers and went over the seats and that raining down from the balcony.
I think I remember Radio City Music Hall in particular, among a host of other actions that we did because it just had everything in there. It certainly had a just cause. It had a sense of power in it. It had theatrics in it. It had a certain cleverness in how we did it. When I tell stories about that as we call them various actions, I think what I’m trying to say is, aside from the fact that it’s a lovely memory that I like to remember, what I’m trying to say is that we had a great deal. There’s a great deal of fun in standing up for yourself for any of the issues today, whether it’s LGBT rights or others, do it, it sets up your life in a way that you will enjoy and be proud of. So get out there and do it.
Phil: What struck me about this story was this, talking about John Lindsay and some of the allies or the LGBTQ community at that time and how they were quietly, they were stealthy being allies. They weren’t outright in their actions, in their words, with standing with the community. His thought was, that just won’t work. In order for us to really have change, we need outright displays. We need you to actually publicly support the community and come out and say that you’re with us.
It’s not okay for you… it’s like being with somebody on the down low. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s like, I’m going to love you off to the side. I am not going to love you publicly. And it’s the same thing it’s like, love me publicly, love me so that everyone knows that you’re with me. And because that’s where change is going to come. We know how important it is to have allyship. And that allyship it needs to be public and it’s support. It’s just…
Alex: It just too all reminds me so many of the issues that we have fought through for throughout history, it’s sort of they keep on iterating. We’re still people who are to the left, who purport to be allies. We’re still trying to push them further. And so it reminded me of that. And obviously, today we have the most perfect guest to continue talking about the amazing moments in history.
Phil: And here to help us with that is a host and the founder of the wildly popular podcast, Making Gay History. Please welcome Eric Marcus.
Eric: Hi Phil. Hi, Alex. Delighted to be with you.
Alex: Well, the delight is ours because we’re so excited to talk to you.
Phil: I totally agree, you cannot take the delight, Eric [inaudible 00:15:50].
Alex: Okay. There’s none left for me.
Phil: It’s none. So first things first, Eric, how are you doing right now in these crazy times we’re living in?
Eric: That’s such a good question. I would say pretty discombobulated. We just wrapped up a season of the podcast and it really helped to be totally focused on my work because there was just no chance to think about how discombobulating things were and how frustrated and angry I was feeling about people who’ve not gotten vaccinated and about the politicians who are encouraging people to not get vaccinated, even though they’ve been vaccinated.
It just feels like we live in very crazy and depressing times in this country. And even as positive as I feel about our current president and many of the progressives elected to Congress, there are such strong forces working against the greater good. And I don’t feel very hopeful. I think I would feel differently if I were at the beginning of my life in my ’20s or ’30s. But at this stage of life, it feels like I have seen some these cycles before. This is worse than a lot of what I’ve seen in the past. And it’s hard to feel hopeful.
Alex: Yeah. I like the word discombobulated because I feel like that just speaks to everything. Sometimes I say, I feel very scrambled because that’s the feeling. Well, for our listeners who may be new to you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and exactly what you do on Making Gay History?
Eric: What we do on Making Gay History is we bring LGBTQ history to life through the voices of the people who lived it, drawing mostly from an archive of more than 100 interviews that I did over 30 years ago for a book of the same name. That was an oral history book. I used broadcast quality equipment of the time, assuming that someday someone might want to mine my archive. And in 2008, I had an opportunity to turn my collection over to the New York Public Library with an agreement that they digitized the entire collection.
And in 2015 when I was trying to figure out what to do next as a 55-year old journalist who needed a job and nobody wants to hire a 55-year old journalist, I read a wonderful book called Life Reimagined by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who was one of my favorite NPR correspondence since Left. And it was a li a book about how to reimagine your life when you’re having to make a change. And it was really helpful.
And one of the things she recommended was look at your assets, whatever they’re. And I had this huge asset of a large collection of audio tape, 300 hours worth with amazing people. Many of whom were at the very start of our movement in 1950 and even earlier. And so, what started out as a small education project, we were going to provide short clips of my audio recordings to anchor lesson plans and resources for K through 12 educators turned into a podcast. We launched in October 2016. So it’s nearly five years.
We have produced more than 90 episodes, over the course of nine seasons, we’ve had 4.5 million episode downloads in 200 countries and territories around the world. Now, compared to big podcasts where a little podcast but compared to what we anticipated, we thought by the end of our first season, we had 25,000 downloads. We were so excited. So to be at 4.5 million downloads its pretty exciting. Also, the feedback we get from all over the world is really something.
So I’m a journalist principally, I’ve written a dozen books. Most of my career was in print until I switched over to audio but what I do is tell stories, mostly other people’s stories.
Phil: And you do so very well, I have to say.
Eric: Thank you.
Phil: 4.5 million downloads, okay, that is fantastic. I mean, Making Gay History, this podcast is a huge success, I mean, we here at I’m From Driftwood are massive fans of it. It’s an incredible podcast. And I know it’s based off of the book you originally wrote. How did the idea for turning your book research into a podcast really come about it?
Eric: It wasn’t my idea. A lot of my career, wasn’t my idea. I was commissioned to write the original making history book, we didn’t use the word gay in the first edition. I was commissioned by an editor at Harper and Rowe who asked me to write an oral history about the gay lesbian, civil rights movement about which I knew almost nothing. I thought our movement began in 1969.
Having no idea that the first gay rights organization was founded in Germany in Berlin in 1897. And that our US history dates back to 1924 when there was an organization founded in Chicago. But I really dated to 1950 when the Mattachine Society was founded and the movement slowly took off in the US. So the book wasn’t my idea, so the podcast began as this small education project.
I met with Deb Fowler at History UnErased, which is a nonprofit organization that develops K through 12 LGBTQ inclusive American history resources and does a lot of trainings with educators. And they had asked if they could use short clips from my archive. So, I hired my next door neighbor, who is a audio journalist, radio journalist Sarah Birmingham because I knew saw, had done this work. She worked for the BBC and for NPR in Arkansas.
So I said, “Can you cut tape?” She said, “Sure.” She said, “What do you got?” So she started working on a couple of pieces. My goal was to get down to about six minutes for each piece. And when she got to 18 to 20 minutes, she said, “I think this is a podcast.” So she said, but I don’t know enough about podcasts to do a podcast. So I’m going to go to podcast school. So over Labor Day, 2016, Sarah went to podcast school five days and at the end of the weekend of classes, there were a couple of experts who were brought in to listen to the student’s work and to comment and give them advice.
And one of those people was Jenna Weiss-Berman, who was a partner in one of the hottest podcast, production studios anywhere, Pineapple Street Studios. She’s also a lesbian and she absolutely loved the two pieces that Sarah shared. She shared a clip from Wendell Sayers and a clip from Dr. Evelyn Hooker two key people in the early… Oh, well, Hooker is very key in the early days of the movement as an ally.
Eric: And Wendell Sayers just has an extraordinary story, an African American man who was in his mid 80s when I interviewed him in the story that he told me, it was about going to the Mayo clinic in 1919 to be diagnosed as a homosexual. That’s how his story starts. But he also went to the Mattachine society convention in Denver in 1959. And so, Jenna heard these pieces and she said, “What can I do?”
And she took us under her wings and because we had a deadline tied to a grant, a Kevin Jennings from the Arcus Foundation, he’s now the executive director of Lambda Legal, was the founder of GLSEN. We had to have something out by the end of October. So these are the challenges of the grant. So we had been planning something else, which were these short clips, which were going to also have on the website for our magazine.
But I asked Kevin if we could shift directions and do this as a podcast, but we still had to have something about the end of October. So we launched the Making Gay History podcast with a fully fledged website in five weeks, which is crazy. But I really wanted this website, a fully fledged website where the episodes could reside besides being available, whether podcasts are available so that we could provide additional information in archival photos.
So that students who wanted to learn more or educators who wanted to use it would have a place to go. I don’t recommend starting a podcast in five weeks, I produce another podcast, it’s called Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust for Yale University, fortunate enough video archive for Holocaust testimonies. And we took two years. I don’t recommend launching a podcast in five weeks because then you have to keep doing it. Although we didn’t expect to go beyond the first season, we had no plans. It may look like we did but we didn’t have plans.
Alex: It’s really something to hear that you had no plans and I am just so struck by the foresight that you had also to record everything at broadcast quality, just to be thinking so far in advance and also about preserving these stories that otherwise we would not have these voices. I mean that to me, it blows me away.
Eric: It blows me away too. But I think back to my 30-year old self and what was I thinking? But I remember vividly asking my former boss at CBS News, a guy named Jake Curtis, who was a creator of weekend edition and morning edition for NPR. I asked him what his colleagues at NPR used and he referred me to one of his colleagues and I bought what they used.
I must have thought that these stories and I’m not 100% sure but I must have thought that these stories would have value one day. I didn’t realize how rare some of these interviews would be because many of the people I’ve interviewed died soon after. Chuck Rowland, for example, one of the co-founders of the Mattachine Society. I think there are two extended interviews with Chuck Rowland, and mine is one of the two.
But there are some people who I didn’t get to interview and I just want to tell you about one of the people I didn’t get to interview but we got to uncover a recording, the only recording of her Ernestine Eckstein you may not know her name. But if you’ve seen any of the photographs of the protests in front of the white house in 1965, there was an African American woman wearing white cats eye framed sunglasses. Her hair is done up in a [inaudible 00:25:13] like Audrey Hepburn.
She’s wearing a white blouse, a dark skirt and pumps and she’s carrying a protest sign. It was in March organized by Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen and Kay Lahusen was taking photographs. So I tried to find Ernestine Eckstein and could not find her. It turns out she was still alive but she had left the movement, the homophile movement in the late 1960s, moved to California and got involved with the black feminist movement. But Ernestine Stein, wasn’t her real name.
So I didn’t know that, most people in those days used pseudonyms for their gay rights work or their homophile work. But my executive producer, Sarah Birmingham found in the bowels of the New York Public Library, a 1965 interview with Ernestine Eckstein. She was 25 years old, it was conducted by Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen and it is extraordinary. So we did a podcast episode drawing on that interview with her Ernestine Eckstein.
And just a few weeks ago, Ernestine’s niece contacted me. She didn’t know anything about her aunt until she started researching and she wanted to know why the family never spoke about her. And she found the interview from the podcast and listened to her aunt’s story and was so excited to learn that she had this aunt who had done this important work.
I called her the prophet of the movement but she talked about how she thought the movement needed to unfold, how it was similar to and different from the black civil rights movement and what our movement, the homophile movement, could learn from the black civil rights movement and how it had to change before it could take inspiration from the black civil rights movement, that we first needed to be visible.
So, as you talked about coming out and I had not heard anyone from that period, talk about the importance of visibility in coming out until I heard that interview with Ernestine that we thought might be out there. And one of the other things was an interview with Bayard Rustin. So we knew that Bayard Rustin who was Dr. Martin Luther king Jr’s mentor, and was the principal architect of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom in 1963, we knew he was gay. We also knew that he gave a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987, where he talked about his sexuality. We couldn’t find it.
But through a series of coincidences, our executive producer, Sarah Birmingham knew a woman who had kids the same age as Sarah did and they were at the same elementary school down the block from where we live. And she had grown up in the same building as Bayard Rustin and his partner Walter Naegle and was in and out of their apartment as a kid.
Well, Walter Naegle is still alive, Bayard surviving partner. And it turns out that Walter Naegle had recorded all of Bayard’s interviews and speeches during the 10 years they were together. So we did a whole episode of Bayard Rustin talking about out his sexuality, its impact on his involvement to the black civil rights movement, how he was thrown out twice, how he found his way back and planned the March on Washington, what the FBI tried to do in blackmailing them, suggesting that he was having a relationship with Dr. King.
It’s so interesting. And it’s history that we’re not taught in no small part because he was gay. He was kept in the background. But I think about what it would’ve been like when I was an eighth grader or 11th grade, when American history is taught, if that had been included as part of the civil rights story. Now that’s an interesting story and kids would love hearing that story.
So, as a short gay Jew from Queens that I’ve had the chance to bring forward the story of one of the most important black civil rights leaders in history. Feels me about such a sense of pride and I feel so privileged to have done it.
Phil: I’m blown away right now. That’s just incredible. What you’re doing it’s just simply incredible.
Phil: Most of the world knows about Stonewall, there’s been a lot of focus put on that. And in your opinion, what event in queer history should get as much coverage as Stonewall would you think?
Eric: Well, Stonewall is a seminal event. It is an important, it’s a key turning point in the movement. No question about that. It didn’t spark a movement. What it did, one could say it sparked a movement, what it did is it sparked the gay liberation phase of the movement because the movement has had a number of phases. What it did most importantly it was, it blew open what had been a small, mostly localized movement and made it a national movement.
So at the time of Stonewall there were between 40 and 60 homophile organizations across the US with maybe 400 active members in those organizations, people who would call themselves activists. But by the end of 1970, there was somewhere between 1200 and 1500 organizations with thousands of young people in particular, who had been drawn into the movement from the women’s movement, from the black civil rights movement from the anti-war movement.
But if not, for all the organizing that had taken place before Stonewall, it couldn’t have happened because the first two meetings that were held right after the Stonewall uprising were organized by the president of the local chapter of the Mattachine Society, dates back to 1950 and the local president of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization that dates back to 1955.
So I always say that it’s the organizers who will inherit the earth, is if not for the intensive organizing that took place in the months and years after Stonewall, Stonewall wouldn’t be what its become. The other key turning points. So when we look at starting points, turning points, it’s always more complex than a simple moment in time because we can actually trace even the Mattachine Society’s founding in 1950 back to 1924 in Chicago, where there was a short lived gay rights organization.
And then all the way back act to Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany, because the guy who started the organization in Chicago was a German immigrant who knew about Magnus Hirschfelds sexuality Institute and his gay rights organization. And the guy in Chicago inspired Harry Hay, who was one of the founders of the Mattachine Society in 1950.
So, it’s very hard always to identify singular events. But if we had to, Stonewall is a key event, the founding of the movement to 1950 is a key event. Another one on the order of Stonewall but very different is the AIDS crisis. We would not be where we are without the experience of the AIDS crisis, because one of the most important aspects of our movement has been visibility. And what the AIDS crisis did is that it made hundreds of thousands of gay men in particular visible, and then also lesbians very visible since many lesbians wound up running organizations and taking care of the men who were dying.
And it showed the world that we were human beings. We weren’t critters that lived under rocks. And we organized in very important ways and learned all kinds of things about raising funds, starting organizations, mobilizing the public, being out in the media. So the AIDS crisis was as key and as pivotal in some ways as Stonewall. But each is very different.
Alex: As you were talking about Stonewall, I was thinking, I’m also a journalist and we love to find a neat package for stuff, we love to treat things like they are so perfect and linear. And I always think about how a lot of times when I’m talking to editors or especially pitching straight editors stories about LGBTQ topics, they always want to talk about who’s the one person who set off the entire movement. There’s something, so I guess, seductive about the idea of there being one person.
Eric: Yeah. It’s seductive and reductive.
Eric: Black civil rights, mark Luther king and Rosa Parks. And those stories are reduced to shorthand sentences like Stonewall where pride began. Well, there was an organization called Pride founded in LA in 1966. So Pride didn’t begin at Stonewall, I’m sorry, Stonewall. Stonewall. Wasn’t the first time there were conflicts between the police and gay people, there was competence, cafeteria, and any number of other things that were never documented. It was Barney’s Beanery in LA, it’s just…
You’re right, we do want to simplify things. And if we were to explain the history of the movement in all its complexity, you wind up with a book like mine, making history was 550 pages and that was already reductive, it’s just a sampling the stories. But I do think that it’s important to emphasize how messy history is, how complex it is and that no one person started.
They may have had the idea to start something but it wasn’t one person who through the first brick at Stonewall or Harry Hay, was somebody who came up with the idea for the Mattachine Society. But there were other people who inspired him.
Alex: Well, on that note, what is the biggest myth or misconception about LGBTQ+ history that you hear? I mean, it could be a platitude like how we reduce stories and people into these linear tellings, or it could even be a misperception of an event that happened.
Eric: I think we have to talk about Stonewall. That is the one event that is often misinterpreted, misunderstood. I’m involved with another organization that I founded and chair it, it’s called the Stonewall 50 Consortium. It’s an organization of organizations that develop programming, exhibitions and education materials related to LGBTQ history and culture.
We started it for Stonewall to organize all of the cultural and educational institutions here in New York who are planning program. There were hundreds of events and we helped organize that or at least inform everybody of everything, we weren’t actually organizing the events. And one of the things we did was produce a Stonewall fact sheet, just a several pages, it can be found at stonewall50consortium.org is a Stonewall fact sheet on the basic facts around Stonewall.
Because so many of the journalists during Stonewall 50 were writing stories about Stonewall that were just… they were fiction based on early accounts that were fiction in and of themselves. So there’s so many myths that grew up around Stonewall, but I’ve almost given up trying to counter those myths. I’ve been writing about it since my book was published in 1992, but I feel like I’ve had some success with the help of one of my friends at the New York Times, got them to stop talking about Stonewall, being the start of the modern gay rights movement.
I mean, what was not modern about protests in front of the white house in 1965? What was not modern about taking a case to the US Supreme Court in 1959? So the biggest myth that I’ve had to counter is that Stonewall was the beginning of our movement, because what that does is, it discounts all of the courageous things that hundreds of people did in the years prior to Stonewall.
What most kids learn at school now, if they learn anything about our history, Stonewall, Harvey Milk, gays in the military, marriage equality and that’s it. Did I mention AIDS? Maybe AIDS but that’s it, that’s all they learned and that’s if you’re lucky.
Phil: I have to ask, is there something or someone that you want to cover that you haven’t covered yet for Making Gay History?
Eric: That’s a really good question. I was just thinking we’ve just come off a season where we covered me six part audio memoir of the first dozen years of the AIDS crisis through my personal story, didn’t expect to ever do that. So, no, at this point I deal in the past. I don’t… My last interview for the book was done in 2000. I’ve done some recent interviews for a recent season of the podcast. So there were a couple of people I really wanted to find.
So, I mean, they’re not famous. They were people whose lives intersected mine. There was a woman, a social worker who gave me my test results for my first HIV test in 1988, up the block from where I live at the Chelsea New York City Department of Health clinic. And when I got my test results from her I was very surprised to find out that I was negative. She gave me a slip of paper with her first name and my code number. It was an anonymous test and there were good reasons to get anonymous tests back in 1988 because of the stigma around AIDS and the danger of losing your job or insurance.
I didn’t know that I say… It was a huge moment in my life to find out that I was going to live at age 30 when I thought I might very well die. And going through some of my files, I found that slip of paper just a couple of years ago with my birth certificate and my old passports. So, I must have thought that was important. And the name that was written on that slip of paper was Solveig S-O-L-V-E-I-G. I didn’t know if it was a first or last name.
So I started looking for Solveig two years ago when I found the slip of paper. And I wanted to find her for this current season of the podcast because I wanted to interview her to let her know how important she was to me. There’s this beautiful moment with her, with me and my then partner that has always stayed with me. And I found her, I used social media. I tweeted out for my account I’m looking for a woman named Solveig who worked at the New York City Department of Health clinic in Chelsea in 1988, who gave me my test results. Can you help?
And someone came back with a person named Solveig in an article who turned out not to be her. And then a couple weeks later, I tweeted again and the researcher who works with History UnErased my education partners contacted me. He said, I found her. And he found an article from this magazine in 1988 that she’d been interviewed for, with her full name, about being the person who gave test results at a clinic in New York City.
And then I asked my genealogist, because we worked with a genealogist if he could track down where she was because she married and she’d moved. One of the two numbers he gave me was her cell number. And I left a message. And within three seconds she called back and she said, “How did you find me?” She was living in Florida. She’d just moved there three months before. And we had this incredible conversation.
So that was a really important person for me to find from my own personal history, because she meant so much to me. And I included the interview in the final episode of the six part series that we just concluded, which can be found at makinggayhistory.com or wherever you get your podcast.
Phil: Yeah. Don’t worry. We’re going to let you plug.
Eric: No, I’m not [crosstalk].
Phil: Yeah, you should plug. It’s just such incredible work.
Eric: Thanks. But in terms of famous people or people from the past, I wish I gotten the chance to interview Leonard Bernstein. He died, well, I’ll tell you the story. I had tried to interview him for Making Gay History. I knew about his support for the gay rights movement. He conducted this, so in 1983, I’m jumping around, you’ll forgive me. In 1983, there was a big fundraiser. The first fundraiser, big fundraiser for the gay men’s health crisis at Madison square garden in New York City.
Gay men’s health crisis bought out 17,000 tickets for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. And Leonard Bernstein conducted the circus orchestra for the Star-Spangled Banner and then a famous opera singer sang the Star-Spangled Banner. Harry Labone the Broadway star was the MC. In there’s videotape of Leonard Bernstein walking across the floor of Madison Square garden and being cheered.
So, one of my neighbors on 69th Broadway where I lived, worked with Leonard Bernstein, she was a [inaudible 00:40:49] and she produced his records. And I said, “Alison, do you think we could get to Leonard Bernstein?” And said, “Let me try.” Because he was closeted and she got back to me and said, “No, he doesn’t want to do it.”
So around the time I was just finishing up the manuscript in 1990, ’91, she called me, she said, “He’s thinking he might do it.” She said, “Is it too late?” I said, “No, it’s not too late.” Because I was also thinking it would be making news by him coming out in my book. I’m not beyond thinking about marketing and he died two weeks later. So I missed him and I don’t think he… he didn’t give an interview to anybody about his life.
So I’m sorry I missed that one. I also think there must be lots of other interviews out there with people I don’t know about that I hope we can discover.
Phil: Yeah. You somehow have a knack for finding all of these stories, the obscure ones, finding out more about the ones that we know. I mean, so I don’t doubt that you’ll find more that you didn’t realize you were looking for-
Phil: -dropped into your lap. It’s pretty incredible. I found this article in Time Magazine and it was written in 2019. It was talking about the importance of teaching LGBTQ history in schools. And you were quoted in the article saying, I see education as leading the edge of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. And I know that the podcast is being used to teach queer history in school. Can you expand on what you know about how it’s being used and what do you think about how it’s being used?
Eric: It’s being used in all kinds of different ways. Some teachers assign specific episodes of the podcast to their students. Some of them have me in their classes as a special guest. They sometimes supplement their education about the black civil rights movement for example, with the interview, with, Bayard Rustin. They draw on materials from History UnErased which can be founded UnErased.org. They’ve created materials that use Making Gay History audio to anchor these lesson plans and resources.
So it’s being used in a variety of ways. In New York City, we’ve just been given an allocation from the city council to develop a pilot program for middle school students. That’s eighth graders who are learning American history. We’ll do that in two parts. I will do presentations, especially tailored presentations for eighth graders. And we’ll also do professional development training with the educators. One thing about our history is that you can’t just dump it in the lapse of educators.
Most have no background in this history. So for example, let’s say you want to expand on teaching the black civil rights movement to include Bayard Rustin. It’s not introducing an entirely new history and it’s also one that’s not fraught in the way that LGB well, it is these days because of the crazy people but that’s a whole other story.
Other story, but related, teachers are often very nervous and principals as well and superintendents are very nervous about teaching this history because they’re afraid of the blow back they’ll get for religious reasons and from the conservative right. So they need education about how teach this material. For example, what happens if you’re teaching the history and a kid comes out in class and another kid says, “That’s disgusting, I hate gay people.” Or you get a parent who says, “I don’t want my child learning this it’s against the Bible.”
So, teachers have reasons to be nervous or they don’t get full support from their administrators. So there’s a huge professional development piece that needs to go a little along with providing these resources. And there are efforts going on in organized ways and states where there have been laws passed, requiring teaching LGBTQ inclusive American history like California and Illinois, Massachusetts as well. So there’s a long way to go. I think we’ll see more and more of this.
But why I say it’s the cutting edge of our movement, is that it’s teaching a whole generation of kids, not just the LGBTQ kids but all kids that LGBTQ+ history is part of the American story. And I know anecdotally it’s a more effective tool to reduce bullying, to teach kids about LGBTQ+ history and to teach them not to bully. They know it’s wrong. I mean, you can do as many lectures as you want on not bullying kids but how do you teach them to have respect for their LGBTQ+ classmates? If you know that they have a rich and proud history, it makes them human.
So that’s why think education is so important to go along with all the other things we’re still fighting for but you start with teaching American history the way, well, if not the way it happened exactly because so hard to know exactly what happened. If we start by teaching some of our history, it will have a huge impact.
Alex: The work that you do, it sounds so fascinating to be immersed in all of these stories. It also sounds very personal. And certainly your ninth season, which you mentioned about your own coming of age during the AIDS crisis sounds incredibly personal. Is it therapeutic to certainly revisit stories about yourself and your own life, but is it therapeutic to revisit all of this history?
Eric: Well, when I first did the original interviews, it was therapeutic because it made me feel better about myself to know that I had a proud history. I didn’t know when I started my work and it certainly has inspired me. Any number of stories have inspired me when I don’t feel confident, I can fall back on the stories of my ancestors.
In terms of revisiting my personal history, it’s a mixed bag. Some of it’s very painful. I have been having wild dreams now that I stir the bottom of my brain and some of it’s rough, it’s painful to revisit some of its helpful, I’m still in therapy. So I’ve had a chance to talk with my therapist about some of it. And certainly, no one gets to the stage of life without having regrets. And it was, I’ve had a chance to talk about regrets and put them in context in a way that I might not have if I hadn’t been in therapy and if I hadn’t revisited the past.
So, it’s doing this recent season has helped me reflect on my own life. And a sad aspect of it is how many people are gone and how much I miss some of them. I had a chance to talk about my grandmother in the season of the podcast, who I was closest to than anybody in my family. And it just makes me miss her more. She’s been gone for 15 years or 16 years, but also thinking about all of the men in my life and boyfriends who died and thinking about how young we all were and how they didn’t get to have lives beyond their 20s and 30s.
So I’m glad I did it. I have no regrets about it. I’m not keen on the idea of revisiting my past anytime soon other than in my dreams. And even then, if I could take a pill that would give me dream free sleep, I might very well do it.
Phil: Understood. I understand that sometimes that processing in the dreams is just not a restful night.
Eric: No, it’s not. It’s like I said, whoa, where did that come from?
Phil: It’s like, please, I just want to sleep. I just want to be knocked out.
Phil: I totally get you on that. So I hear from our producer that Making Gay History is being made into a play. And that it’s amazing. So can you tell us a little bit about that?
Eric: Well, the Making Gay History play exists already. We had our premier just before the COVID shutdown. We had 10 performances at the Provincetown Playhouse. It was adapted by Joe Salvatore, who’s a professor at NYU who specializes in documentary theater and he adapted the Making Gay History podcast and book into a one-act play, it’s called Making Gay History before Stonewall, 20 characters from the book and podcast and one additional character that’s me.
So the 21st characters and me and all the actors in the play that I saw, all the actors played me. They rotated. So I’ve been an African American lesbian, a straight white boy, an Asian American, a gay boy, it was fascinating to watch. It was thrilling. It was… I cried to see these people come to life and because its documentary theater, it comes from their actual transcripts with all of the inflections and breaths and they studied the tapes.
So, I had the chance to work with the students on characterizing them physically because I met all of these people and it was beautiful. We were sold out for the public performances. And then we did two performances for high school and middle school students. And the students were fascinated. There was one of the questions we asked the students was, who would you like to know better? And there was a young African American middle school student in the front row and she said, “I’d like to know more about that black guy.”
I said, “Which one?” She said, “I don’t…” I said, “Bayard Rustin?” She said, “Yeah.” And I asked them how many of you studied the black civil rights movement? Every hand went up in the room. I said, how many of you knew who Bayard Rustin was before today? Not one of them. So I see the play as well as an educational tool. For one thing, it has lots of characters. So for a theater department, it means lots of kids can be in the show.
And our hope had been before COVID hit, was to license the play to one of the big Broadway licensing houses. And then they would license it to high schools and community groups and organizations across the country. We’re just re-engaging in that process now because all of those licensing houses essentially shut down because of COVID because nobody was performing anything.
Eric: But we did have our first high school premier at Deerfield High School and Deerfield, Illinois outside Chicago. And it was during COVID last November and the kids all performed socially distanced wearing masks and they were amazing. They were just amazing. And to see these people come to life who I knew and then to see myself, my 30-year old self portrayed on stage, that was bizarre, but it made me feel I can die, that I have left something that will be of use.
I hope to future generations and that I’ve carried forward the stories of these people who entrusted me with their stories. But so many of the people I interviewed, were afraid that no one would ever remember their contributions to the movement.
Alex: Wow. I mean, that just sounds surreal and just watching your own story and the work that you’ve done playing back at you, I mean, it sounds almost immeasurable.
Eric: It was and I had friends and family come to every single performance. I went to every single performance and also to have it happen, we closed on March 8th and the city shut down the following week. Really New York should have been shut down the week before at least but then the play wouldn’t have happened but it would’ve saved many lives.
So in any event, we’re just moving forward with this again and I hope that the play gets to be performed all over the place. So I interview the kids, I talked to the kids at Deerfield High School to ask them what it meant to them and it was mostly straight kids and they were outraged that they hadn’t learned this history.
Alex: Well, it sounds like obviously one of the big things that you hope for your work in the future is that it makes this educational impact. What about the legacy of your podcast? Have you given that any thought, what do you want the legacy to be?
Eric: The legacy is the stories themselves that they will reside somewhere. Right now, the original recordings are at the New York Public Library they’ve been digitized, so they will exist as long as the New York Public Library does. Our podcast, I believe our website, which includes our podcast is categorized with a library of Congress and ultimately, we have a new LGBTQ+ museum that will be opening here in New York, I serve on the founding board.
And I would like for a copy of my collection to reside there along with the recordings of all the podcast episodes so that they’ll be available to people to listen to for as long as this technology and our society supports the technology because God knows where we’re going.
I made all kinds of assumptions about people going into this work. I walked into a room with Shirley Willer, who was the president of the Daughters of Bilitis in the mid 1960s. She was a mountainous, she was huge, sitting in a wheelchair, chainsmoker, a close cropped hair, thick glasses, butches Butch could be self-describe big Butch. And I thought, how am I going to interview this person? And she was dear and there were tears. And she was so human and I made assumptions about her.
The first time I met Sylvia Rivera, I thought, oh my God, I’d never met a self-described drag queen before. And Sylvia was in scare drag, partial drag. And I thought I can’t do this. And then she invited me into her warm kitchen where she had potted chili on the stove and her boyfriend was in the next room. She introduced me and then her friend Rennie, who was as butch as she was fem introduced herself. And again, humans.
So I went in with all sorts of my own prejudices and assumptions about people and what they were like and learned to listen, to listen to people’s stories and to listen to their hearts. I’m very quick to judge. I’m very much my grandmothers grandson. Oh, she was judgemental. And I had to set that aside and just listen to people’s stories.
Alex: You’re here. I feel like I always have to check myself about making assumptions about people. So that resonates with me a lot. So where can our listeners go to find out more about you and all things Making Gay History?
Eric: Well, Making Gay History the podcast is available wherever you get your podcast, you can also find it at makinggayhistory.com where you can listen to the podcast and also see archival photos. And there are links to lots of additional information from each of our episodes. You can also find me at Making Gay History on Twitter at Making Gay History, spelled incorrectly so we could fit the whole name in. I’m at Twitter @EricBMarcus. We are also on Instagram at Making Gay History podcast on Facebook, Making Gay History.
And also my other podcast, Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust, you can find us at thosewhowerethere.org or wherever you find your podcast. We also did a documentary, we did a couple documentaries, one, drawn from the Holocaust podcast called The Last Time I Saw Them about the experience of people being separated as children from their parents. Tough documentary to do. And also worked on the documentary with the brilliant Cheryl Furjanic, which is a New York Times Op-Docs documentary called Stonewall: The Making of a Monument.
So all kinds of things, and you can find the Making Gay History play information about it on the website at makinggayhistory.com and my Wiki page and just Google Eric Marcus. And that just blows my mind, again, coming from the background that I do, my grandparents are all immigrants, I grew up in a very modest household and to have done work that now is so available and so used and accessed is thrilling.
Phil: Well, Eric, if they can’t find you, they’re not looking and they should be looking. That’s insane. What a pleasure to have you on today.
Alex: Thank you so much.
Phil: Such a fantastic conversation.
Eric: Oh, thank you, Phil. Thank you, Alex. I really am delighted. And I so respect the work that you do at I’m From Driftwood.
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And Alex Berg and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, the LGBTQAI+ story archive.
Phil: Its mission is to send a life saving message to queer and trans people everywhere. You are not alone.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. Its program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
Phil: Our score is provided by Elevate Audio.
Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety plus thousands more at imfromdriftwood.org.
Phil: You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.
Alex: Or subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
Phil: This program is supported in part by public bonds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Alex: In partnership with the city council.
Phil: Additional funding is provided by the Humanities New York SHARP grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.