“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
This quote from Chinua Achebe is the epigram for The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism, Adrian Brooks’ new collection of essays and interviews from a fantastic mix of queer historians, activists, novelists and politicians. The book, historian Jonathan Katz explains in the introduction, “abandons the grand, synthetic master narrative for a sequential series of revealing close-ups: snapshots of some of the countless personalities that shaped America, even as America did her level best not to acknowledge them or their queerness . . . The book is willfully cacophonous, a chorus of voices untamed."
The book is split into two halves: “Before Stonewall” and “After Stonewall,” giving full respect to the pivotal nights in June 1969 that forged the modern gay rights movement in America, but focusing on the fascinating stories of the work being done long before and the growing political successes in decades since. This approach, however, makes this not a book for queer scholars (who’ve heard most of these stories long ago) but for general readers, especially younger ones, who may not know how rich the queer landscape was before the New York riots that sparked Pride Day, and it reminds me of the great work being done right here by our History Boys columnists.
There are great pieces honouring Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Alfred Kinsey, Josephine Baker and “the Beats” but it’s the celebrations of lesser-known figures like Henry Gerber, Isadora Duncan, Jill Johnston (“the face of in-yer-face radical lesbianism”) and Sultan Shakir that really delight. There’s a challenging interview with the famously blunt Barney Frank, a celebration of queer newspapers and bookshops, and chapters that reveal the 1930s to be a surprisingly vigourous time for queer activism, with the 1934 longshoreman’s strike in San Francisco and the furor over Orson Welles directing a boldly left-wing Broadway play that featured gay characters.
Ultimately, what’s most impressive about Brooks’ book is the diversity of voices. While books like Martin Duberman’s Stonewall or Eric Marcus’ Making History remain vital, most of our queer history has been told by white, middle-class men and women, which this new book attempts to shift. How successful it is at this will be up for debate — and this book of American history is frustratingly limited in its Americana — but the chapters on Max Wolf Valerio’s FTM transition in the ’80s, Merle Woo’s battle with the University of California, intersex people, and Jack C Jackson Jr’s meetings with Navajo transwomen are new and fascinating.
This is the kind of book that chooses to address the 1980s AIDS crisis not through the now-typical prism of politics and activist die-ins but through one touching personal story from blogger Matt Ebert. It’s a book that aims more for the heart than the brain but hits them both anyway. Any other month, it’d be highly recommended but in this last week of June, it’s essential.