by Matthew Riemer & Leighton Brown
c/o them, Sept. 13, 2018
We started the Instagram account @lgbt_history when we realized we didn’t know anything about queer history.
In November 2015, we — Leighton Brown and Matthew Riemer, a D.C.-based couple, both of us attorneys by training — attended the unveiling of a headstone for the activist Frank Kameny, perhaps best known for coming up with the slogan “Gay Is Good,” at Congressional Cemetery. At the time, the extent of our knowledge about gay history was limited to some disconnected factoids about a scared group of conservatives called “the homophiles” (we owe everything to the militant, vibrant homophiles!), a mythological account of Stonewall (no one threw a shot glass!), an incomplete version of the AIDS story (hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone still lack access to prevention education and treatment!), and a woefully overhyped sense of “equality” in the form of civil marriage rights (there are many queer people, trans activist Riki Wilchins wrote, who “couldn’t say it was just about who we loved”).
We knew so little about Kameny’s life, yet during the memorial, we were inundated with details about the man who served as the moral and logical compass in the fight for queer rights for nearly six decades. We were overwhelmed by how much we didn’t know, isolated by our ignorance, and furious at the forces that had kept our history from us. From there, we set out to learn what we could. There was no real plan; we just wanted some sense of our story.
After months of research and collecting images, and as our understanding of queer history grew, we both started to feel more complete, more connected, more confident, and truly and proudly queer. Every day brought discoveries about our people — your people — and stories that we all need to know. History became an obsession, with every picture, name, and event leading to exponentially more pictures, names, and events. We started @lgbt_history in January 2016 because we wanted others to see what we were seeing, to learn what we were learning, and to feel what we were feeling.
While there always has been a great deal of joy in our work, we are ultimately propelled by an angry determination to learn the details of queer history, as well as to expand, add nuance to, and correct the public record of that history. Being denied history is a fundamental part of queer persecution; dominant cultures work very hard to diminish the importance of our lives and our stories, and that absolutely includes the erasure by queer people of women, people of color, trans people, disabled people, those with non-normative body types, femmes, butches, radicals, undereducated individuals, and anyone else who doesn’t “fit the mold” cast by heteronormative forces from within and outside the queer community.
Despite the incredible work of many academics, archivists, photographers, and grassroots historians, the community has only begun to understand its own story. We know what we’ve sought out and we know what we’ve heard (the former tends to be that which the individual wants to hear, and the latter that which people with access to the machines of power want us to hear). But it’s nearly impossible to find broadly inclusive, accessible guides to queer history, ones that present the interrelated stories of the countless subcommunities that make up our past, present, and future.
That should piss you off.
It’s infuriating that popular accounts of our history, to the extent they are even available, have been so sterilized that many within our own community truly believe that we somehow have to “win over” our enemies — i.e., anyone who in any way opposes the full liberation of the entire queer community. “We ARE right,” Frank Kameny wrote in 1965: “Those who oppose us are both factually and morally wrong. We are the true authorities on homosexuality, whether we are accepted as such or not. We must DEMAND our rights, boldly, not beg cringingly for mere privileges, and not be satisfied with crumbs tossed to us.”
Equally if not more infuriating is the impact of not knowing or not appreciating the diversity of our past. So many queer people believe that if we just get this or win that, if the courts tell us it’s OK when we do y or other people vote in favor of our right to x, then everything’ll be better. Legal and political victories are great for what they are, but they only make a dent in the deeply ingrained social norms that constantly force queer people into closets. And, as we negotiate small steps that only benefit certain segments of the community, we rush to distance ourselves from the tougher issues, the more radical queers, and ultimately the possibility of a truly inclusive liberation movement. But as Stone Butch Blues author and trans activist Leslie Feinberg wrote, “A timid denial that ‘we’re not all like that’ only serves to weaken the entire fight-back movement. We can never throw enough people overboard to win approval from our enemies.”
With our work, which soon will include our first book, We Are Everywhere, we want to prove — using incredible images and accessible, well-researched summaries of history — that the strength of the queer community is its diversity and that assimilation is spiritual erasure. Whoever you are, YOU are an authority on being queer. And, no matter what, you are not alone in the grand scheme of history. The battles for queer liberation have been waged by people of every background, with every body type, of every color, educational pedigree, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and physical and mental ability.
Learn about these people; learn from these people.
And take comfort in knowing you have every right to express your frustration, your anger, your fears, and your pride.
If you believe, as we do, that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, then there’s no question that we all are under attack right now. There are times when that’s overwhelming, but your history shows that you’re part of a community that can and will overcome. We’ve fought travel bans before, just as we’ve fought discriminatory policies that would exclude us from serving openly in the military. We helped slow an epidemic, and we’ve been fighting Donald Trump for decades.
With that knowledge, though, comes personal responsibility. Everyone who is now in a position of power because of those who fought before has an obligation to fight for those who have not achieved that same power. And we have so much work to do before the fight is over. “To accept one’s past — one’s history,” James Baldwin wrote, “is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
It’s not all pretty, it’s not all inspiring, it’s often troublesome, and it’s always complicated, but our history is what makes our community such a remarkable force for liberation.
In addition to promotional events for We Are Everywhere, Matthew and Leighton are available to speak, write, or consult on a wide range of topics related to queer history, queer culture, queer politics, and social media. Whether the setting is a queer youth center, a college campus, a writers' room, a corporate conference, or anywhere in between, the team behind @lgbt_history offers engaging, challenging, and enlightening perspectives on yesterday, today, and tomorrow.