Bringing Queer History to the Public (Excerpt)

Author: Marc Stein, History News Network
April 17, 2022

Marc Stein is  the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University, is the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe, Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement, and The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. He is most recently the author of Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism, published in March by the University of California Press.

HNN and its founding editor Rick Shenkman are discussed in several sections of contributor Marc Stein’s new book Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism, published in March by the University of California Press. What follows is an excerpt, presented with permission of UC Press from the introduction to Part 4, “Queer Historical Interventions” (pages 131-134).


HNN proved to be an outstanding platform for reaching broader public audiences. My HNN essays have been shared more than one thousand times and many thousands more have read these articles. That said, I have not always been happy about the changes HNN made to my proposed titles. My discussions about this with HNN’s editor illustrate some of the complications that can arise when academic scholars try to write for public audiences. I may have been sensitive about this because I had written hundreds of headlines for the Wesleyan Argus and GCN [Gay Community News], so thought of myself as knowledgeable and experienced in this area. The first conflict occurred in 2003, when I suggested “Alienated Affections: Remembering Clive Michael Boutilier (1933–2003)”for an essay reprinted in part 5. HNN initially used a headline (now lost) that I criticized for emphasizing that gay activists had neglected the case, which was not my point. HNN editor Rick Shenkman responded, “On the Internet you can’t be subtle. Titles have to tell people what they’re getting. Otherwise, they won’t bother with it.” He neverthelessagreed to change the headline to “Forgetting and Remembering a Deported Alien.” In 2004, “In My Wildest Dreams: Advice for George Bush” became “Mr. President, I Am Glad You Called.” When I expressed concern about removing the reference to queer writer Oscar Wilde, whose voice I was attempting to channel, Shenkman responded, “My title will draw more readers. Yes, it’s less literary but on the Internet titles that work best are those that hit the reader over the head with an idea. Can’t be too subtle.” In 2005, “Recalling Dewey’s Sit-In” (reprinted in part 3) became “The First Gay Sit-In.”

In this case, I complained that while one of my sources had referred to the Dewey’s protest as the “first” gay sit-in, I had avoided endorsing this, “because claims about ‘firsts’ are always subject to criticism when new research uncovers new evidence.” I also noted that “the headline was especially awkward because around the same time I was quoted in some Philly newspapers as challenging the claims of Philly Pridefest organizers who were claiming that the Independence Hall pickets were ‘firsts,’ and the piece itself criticized the type of urban boosterism that leads to hyperbolic claims about ‘firsts.’ ”

My conversations with HNN about titles continued over the next several years. In 2005, I suggested three titles for an essay about Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas: “Find the Fortas File!” or “Queer Eye for the FBI” or “Queer Eye for the Supreme Court Filibuster.” Shenkman responded, “I like titles to be plain, meaning that they tell the reader what they are going to find out.” He added, “My experience has given me a pretty good feel for titles that work on the Internet. Most writers want titles like they see in the Atlantic, which don’t work on the Internet.” In the end, he titled my essay (reprinted in part 6) “Did the FBI Try to Blackmail Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas?” In 2014, “From the Glorious Strike to Obama’s New Executive Order” became “The Long Struggle to Stop Employment Discrimination against LGBT People Is Even Longer Than You Think.” In this case, Shenkman’s original title used “gays” instead of “LGBT people,” but he relented after I explained, “Saying ‘gays’ is problematic here given intense sensitivities about including trans people. After all, the exec order is careful to include gender identity along with sexual orientation.” In 2015, “Constitution Day Loyalty” became “Did You Know California Requires Professors to Sign a Loyalty Oath?” In 2016, “In My Mind I’m (Not) Going to Carolina,” which referenced a popular song by James Taylor, became “North Carolina’s Brutal Tradition of Sexual and Gender Discrimination.” In 2017, “Defectives of the World, Unite!” became “50 Years Ago the US Supreme Court Upheld the Deportation of ‘Homosexuals’ as ‘Psychopaths.’ ”

In 2017, Shenkman and I had an extended conversation about language after he proposed titles referencing immigrant Clive Boutilier as “gay” or “homosexual.” At one point, I wrote,

Yours is a news network that works to bridge the academic/public divide. That’s why I love it. Isn’t one of the points to figure out how to translate complex academic scholarship for more public audiences? I try to do that in the pieces I submit. . . . We don’t know that he *was* gay. We know that he engaged in same-sex sex and the government labelled him “homosexual” and “afflicted with psychopathic personality.” Names matter. I’ve been very careful in my work about Boutilier in terms of referring to him as gay. When I’m talking about how the government labelled him, I use homosexual and I generally put it in quotation marks to mark my distance from an outdated and offensive term. But note that one of the options I offered used gay differently: 50 Years Ago the US Supreme Court Upheld Anti-Gay Immigration Restriction. That solves the problem by not calling him gay but referring to the law as antigay. You might regard that as semantic or pedantic, but it’s a meaningful distinction.

My 2017 dialogue with Shenkman was particularly complicated because at some point in the previous fifteen years, he had revealed to me that he is gay. He would be the first to admit that he is not a specialist in LGBT history, but in our exchanges, he drew upon the authority of personal experience in emphasizing that he does not mind being called a “homosexual.” Ultimately Shenkman’s headline for the 2017 essay used “homosexual,” but put it in quotation marks. More generally, I think our conflicts about headlines point to some of the possibilities and pitfalls of packaging and promoting academic scholarship for broader public audiences.

Three years later, when I wrote to Shenkman to request permission to identify him as gay and quote from our correspondence in this book, I asked him about whether he saw a relationship between his gay identity and his work as a public historian. He responded that he did, explaining that being gay gave him “an outsider’s perspective,” which “affected everything” he did, “including history.” Taught by a mentor who had emphasized the “value in addressing issues of public concern from a historical perspective,” Shenkman came to view public history as a “perfect marriage” of his “two great intellectual loves, history and journalism.” As for being gay, he observed, “It shaped what I looked for anytime I examined a subject. Being gay made me acutely aware of the difference between how we as humans present ourselves in public and how we behave in private. I knew many gay men, for example, who passed for straight: the young gay seminarian preparing for the priesthood, the gay actor playing Jesus in plays put on by the Mormons. This knowledge shaped the lens through which I looked at people. It mademe skeptical. I always wondered when I met people what secrets they might be hiding.” Shenkman specifically referenced his work on political history: “When I wrote about presidents I assumed there is a great deal of difference between how they appeared in public and what they must be like in private. When, for example, it was reported that Bill Clinton was a less than faithful husband, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t think any gay man was. Gay men know by experience how often many people stray and how powerful the lure of sex outside marriage is.” In more general terms, he added, “Being gay enlarged my expectations about human behavior. Humans are complicated. They don’t conform to stereotypes.” Shenkman’s reflections raise the provocative possibility that historians who identify as LGBT, whether or not they study the queer past, might have distinct relationships to public history.