The past. It’s important because of us. That is, whenever the LGBTQ community gathers, as it does on Boylston on Pride Day, we have around us men and women who came to adulthood—and frequently to their sexuality—in all the different decades since World War II. And some men and women may even represent decades from before World War II, though they may not choose to come to Pride any more. To know the people who are walking down Boylston with us, and the ones who are at home, to have some idea of their human reality, some idea of what they are, we have to know something about what has happened to them. For our fellow walkers on Pride Day, the events of all those decades since the Second World War are not the past so much as they are what many walkers might want to call, simply, my life.
So, we folks—the LGBTQ world of folks—have to know the lives of gay people. They can’t say that the only people who matter are the ones whose experience has been solely during the last decade or two, or that the only past that matters is the time since 2000 or maybe 2013, when United States v. Windsor was decided, and that the events of earlier decades are really no longer important or even remembered because we don’t do things that way any longer. As long as the events of those decades are still in the living memory of people walking on Boylston on Pride Day or at home watching on TV, the only way to get to know them is to learn what they have experienced. It’s the people of the LGBTQ communities, that is, all of us walking down Boylston on Pride, that require that we know their histories.
Life gets complicated. Two seventy-year old gay men can remember the “lavender scare,” which is what David K. Johnson calls his book (published 2004) about the “cold war persecution of gays and lesbians in the federal government.” These two old gay men may have shared that experience, but because they lived in different parts of the country, came from families on different socio-economic levels and got different kinds of education, they had different prospects. The experience of the lavender scare was hardly noticed by one gay man and was crippling and life-destroying to another. It happens all the time that two old men are on Boylston Street in Boston at the same time on Pride Day, under the cloudless sky in the warm sun, holding hands. Same age, same gender, both gay, in love with each other, totally different experience of the “lavender scare.”
At a concert by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, the men on the stage—all sorts and conditions of men—have individual memories but they are also the individual depositories of our collective memory, and when they get to know each other, they learn about what happened to each other, what mattered and what didn’t, what is unique. But they also learn about our shared history. They can sing the same song.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” [William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun. Random House. 1950. 288 pages, English. Available in print and digital editions.] Faulkner could have added, The past of each of us is different, and there’s no such thing as“the past,” except as a kind of myth or legend that all of us agree on. This is what is happening now to “the Stonewall Riots.” They are not the past any more so much as they are becoming our myth.
I study my past to discover what I did and why I did it. But, because we are brothers and sisters, I seek out what the past means to my brothers and sisters, which is what we share. Our learning goes in two directions at once, toward the particular—What happened to me?—and toward the universal. What happened to them? We seek a collective memory, a myth that we can believe in, one song that all of us can sing.
David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004, available in print and digital editions.