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Wait, How Did I Become an LGBT Historian?

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

GUEST POST: 3 Chicks After Dark


June 2014



June is Pride Month, a time originally set aside to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. In modern day, Pride Month has morphed into a month-long celebration of parades, parties and events recognizing the significance of the LGBT community and how LGBT individuals have helped shape history. In correspondence recently with Wilde City Press author Owen Keehnen, we discovered he too is doing his part to recognize the impact LGBT individuals have had over time. Because of his work with The Legacy Project, we asked if he’d be willing to share his experience with our readers. He graciously accepted, and we’re thrilled to bring you just a bit of the remarkable work he’s done to help preserve and protect this part of the legacy so many amazing LGBT people have left behind.

Thank you, Owen!

Wait, How Did I Become an LGBT Historian? By Owen Keehnen

June is Pride Month, a perfect time for celebrating the evolution of LGBT history. Years ago I never expected to be writing a column like this. It is so strange to take an overview of your life and realize that somehow, it miraculously makes sense. That’s happened with me. I wanted to write books, I liked history, and I knew I was gay; but I never thought LGBT history and literature would be an option as something I could do or contribute.

As an English major in college in the late 70s/early 80s, I was taught that Walt Whitman simply never found the right girl and that Alice B. Toklas was just a really dutiful secretary to Ms. Stein. Tennessee Williams was artistic and Truman Capote was “going through a phase.” Sexuality just was not part of the “pertinent” message about their work, even when that was a large part of the author’s work. In those days academia was actively closeting the sexuality of gay and lesbian historical figures.

After college I backpacked it to Chicago to write the great American novel. I envisioned myself a beatnik even though I was a couple decades late for the party. After a few knock-around jobs in the mid 80s I was hired at Unabridged, an independent bookstore with an “extensive” GL section. By 1985 standards “extensive” meant a gay section that was a few shelves and a lesbian section that was half that. In the year after I started, gay and lesbian books began to be published at a greater pace. Soon those sections doubled, then tripled and quadrupled. Eventually the B and T came into the equation. Soon the LGBT fiction/non-fiction sections were subdivided with mysteries and health, coming out and memoir/biography, erotica, history and even YA/Childrens. GL presses flooded the shelves; Naiad, Spinsters Ink, Stonewall Inn Editions at St. Martin’s Press, Alyson, Cleis, Amethyst, Winston/Leyland, Gay Men’s Press, Firebrand, co-ops like The Gay Presses of NY, etc. In that era publishing was a political act. We were telling our stories and making our voices heard. As we became a proven and profitable market, big presses like Harper Collins and Random House and Simon and Schuster began including gay and lesbian titles in their catalogues.

One of my Unabridged tasks was hosting many of our in-store events. Sometimes scheduled readings/signings would have regrettably small turnouts. In Chicago there are so many factors – the Bears, the weather, the Cubs, the traffic, the Bulls, the parking …whether that night’s ‘Dynasty’ was a rerun … like I said, it was the 80s.

One of the first times I was scheduled to host an author event the turnout was nil, an embarrassment for all involved. To mask the awkwardness of the situation I pulled out a notebook and asked the author if I could interview him for a local paper. As we chatted a few people arrived and then a few more. The previous awkwardness faded and the program began. Later that week I sold the interview to a local gay paper at the time.

Being OCD by nature, I was soon interviewing every author who came to the store and calling publishers and asking what LGBT authors were coming through town or appearing elsewhere. Soon publishers and publicists began calling me to get word out about this author’s book or appearance. I started moving beyond authors into LGBT and HIV activists and other folks of interest to the community.

Over the next few years I did dozens of interviews with writers and activists. In time I cultivated a network of LGBT newspapers that were carrying my pieces. A geek to the core, I enjoyed the pre-interview research and always read the book. I didn’t necessarily ask the tough questions, but I did ask informed ones. Talking ideas and art, history and politics, writing and whatnot to this amazing roster of writers, activists, and celebrities was a complete thrill as well as an unparalleled education.

I was getting to ask Michael Cunningham how he knows when drama is becoming melodrama, or Edmund White how he perfects his style, or quiz Paul Monette about his secret for connecting with readers, and ask Dorothy Allison what is the most important thing for her to keep in mind when she sits down to write. This was my grad school. I was learning about a lot more than writing. I was learning a great deal about our past as well. I was interviewing people like Harry Hay of the Mattachine Society and founder of the modern gay movement; Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon of The Daughters of Bilitis; and Jack Nichols – all  people who had founded organizations and fought for gay and lesbian rights for decades. I was meeting heroes and role models, having one on one time with them, asking things I really wanted to know, and getting paid for it. Since this was at the height of the epidemic, I was also learning a lot about life because there really is no better way to learn many of its secrets than to interview someone who is dying. The main lesson was to live bravely and never procrastinate.

A common topic in interviews was the evolution of our community – how far we’d come and where we were heading. In 1990 we marveled that in 40 years we’d gone from being non-existent, to being communists, to being 10%, to being declared “not sick,” to being liberated and soon after, to be stricken with disease. By the early 90s the landscape was changing yet again. ACT-UP and Queer Nation were in your face and in the streets. We were no longer docile and invisible. We had demands and there was power in numbers. Visibility meant survival and we were suddenly on the news, in your office, in your church, at your high school reunion, and in your family photos. Coming out and outing joined AIDS as our huge issues.

Things had changed on the academic front as well. We were now being seen as a lost tribe with centuries of unwritten history and herstory. Suddenly we were in university curriculums and had become a legitimate field of study.  In that window of time many stopped viewing us as outlaws. Gay periodicals became slicker. As our community grew increasingly defined, mainstream advertisers sensed a new demographic. We became an Absolut market with a large disposable income. We became a strong voting bloc worth courting. Suddenly lesbian chic was hot and Cindy Crawford was shaving k.d. lang on the cover of Vanity Fair. In some ways we’d arrived, but this arrival came at a cost. The gay and lesbian world of the past was being decimated by disease and changed with the influx of “legitimacy.” As this process began to happen it seemed critical to preserve the memory of the “outlaw” era we were leaving behind in order to better understand the transition. Understanding offered a greater guarantee that we would never go back. Never going back remains a motivating concern of mine.

During an interview, Edmund White said something that resonated with me. This was prior to his book of essays, The Burning Library, but he must have been thinking about it because he mentioned the proverb, “Every time an old person dies, a library burns.” The phrase means that when a person dies volumes of knowledge and experience die along with them. Hearing those words I began to see the interviews I’d been doing as an important means of preserving history. Many of the interviewees are still around, but many have died. Samuel Steward, Del Martin, Harry Hay, Quentin Crisp, David Wojnarowicz, Paul Monette, E. Lynn Harris, Jack Nichols, Robert Ford, John Preston, David Feinberg, and Dick Sargent (The second Darren Stevens from “Bewitched”).

Younger folks who came out after all this, after the “HIV cocktail” and post mainstreaming didn’t realize all that had happened to get us where we were. I wanted to help them understand, so that future LGBT folks would know their past. I wanted to help youth realize that the freedoms, privileges, and visibility they enjoyed were the direct result of the battles fought, many times on deathbeds, by previous generations. I figured a good way to do this would be a collection of my writer/activist interviews, but no one was interested.

Instead, publishers were interested in interviews with porn stars, so being a hungry realist; I did the Starz series, four books of interviews with gay adult film stars. I continued to write, publishing a lot of stories and erotica here and there. I was still interested in the history concept, and I still felt an obligation there, so I jumped at the chance to do some essays for the coffee-table history book Out and Proud in Chicago. Around this time I also published a horror novel Doorway Unto Darkness, was putting the finishing touches on my gay art novel The Sand Bar, and helped to co-edit Nothing Personal: Chronicles of Chicago’s LGBTQ Community 1977-1997 which is a selected compilation of work of the late local columnist Jon-Henri Damski.

Then fate intervened and Justin Spring released his biography The Secret Historian. I’d known Samuel Steward and had interviewed him a few times. He was one of those guys who was always home and always willing to chat. Back at the height of my interviewing, when I needed a quick last-minute interview, he and Quentin Crisp were the best ones to call.

Chuck Renslow had read the Steward bio and although he liked the book he was not pleased at being called a pimp in it. He said he’d set up dates with Steward and hustlers in the late 1950s when he owned the Triumph Gym, but since he didn’t make a dime off those introductions he wasn’t a pimp. He was doing a favor by connecting a buyer with a seller. At 82, Chuck wanted some things about his life clarified. Chuck wanted his biography written and he wanted it done in about 6 months. So Tracy Baim, the publisher of Windy City Times here in Chicago, and I set about doing it.

Renslow is a fascinating character. In the 1950s, he started Kris Studio which did male physique photography studies with posing straps. As a result “of his excessive strap delineation” he fought the strict postal obscenity laws during the Eisenhower administration. Renslow published magazines like Mars and Rawhide Male. His lover gained fame as the erotic artist Etienne, second only to Tom of Finland during that era. Chuck had celebrity stories, mob stories, gay motorcycle club lore, and was right in the middle of Chicago politics for decades. In 1960 he began the Gold Coast leather bar which became the longest continuously running leather bar in the U.S. and 20 years later started the International Mr. Leather contest. Chuck owned bathhouses and discos, was the publisher of Gay Life newspaper and danced with another man at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball in 1976. In 1992 he co-founded, with Tony DeBlase, the Leather Archives and Museum. Chuck Renslow’s story is key to gay life in this city, but tells a bigger story especially in the leather and BDSM community. His story also included a lot of very fragile gay history since much of it was oral history or in bar rags or in scattered interviews with various people. The leather community had been so decimated by HIV that the story of its development, underground, emergence, and impact needed to be told. Tracy Baim and I completed Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow in 6 months, in time for IML in 2011.

Writing Chuck’s story led Tracy and I teaming up again to write Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, another life story that told a bigger history and also involved a population decimated by the epidemic. Jim’s influence has been greatest in the transgender and female impersonation spheres. Jim was a high school dropout who joined the Navy at 17, worked in Chicago gay bars that were mob or straight owned until 1969 when he opened the female impersonation club, the Baton Show Lounge which is still in operation today. He opened other bars including a leather bar, organized a gay motorcycle club, and testified against the mob. He had a long-running Costumes on Review event which led in 1980 to Jim starting the Continental Pageant System. Jim was also one of the people who helped found the AIDS hospice Chicago House and pushed for HIV education in the early 1980s. He led a march against gay bar raids in Chicago and was instrumental in the development and expansion of the gay sports leagues. His life story was huge and colorful and another integral part of LGBT history.

Recently Tracy and I released our third bio, Vernita Gray: From Woodstock to the White House. This book provides another piece of the LGBT history puzzle which also includes a world larger than its subject. Vernita’s story includes the civil rights movement and growing up African American in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Her story also has a hippie edge to it. She was at Woodstock, and was a key player in the University of Chicago’s Gay Lib Group. Vernita ran the gay help hotline out of her apartment in the early 1970s. Her story also explores Lesbian Separatism (women formed communities outside the sphere of male influence), the creation and operation of The Lesbian Feminist Center in Chicago, the running of one of the first lesbian magazines, Lavender Woman, and the collective that published the periodical from 1971-76. Like the Renslow and Flint books, Vernita’s story captures another segment of LGBT history, both in Chicago and on a larger scale.

Collecting, documenting and organizing this material all feels like good work that hopefully serves to help us all better understand the connectivity and shared history of our tribe. This also attracted me to another fantastic history endeavor The Legacy Project, currently gearing up for its third year of installations. The Legacy Project is all about reclaiming LGBT history and is dedicated to researching and promoting the contributions LGBT people have made to world history and culture. The Legacy Project honors these individuals because many times their sexual orientation had been edited out of shared history by families, the Church, and assorted other influences.

This Chicago-based non-profit organization has created an outdoor “museum walk” to celebrate the contributions made by LGBT people. The Legacy Walk showcases an extensive series of bronze memorial plaques affixed to the Rainbow Pylons along the North Halsted Street corridor in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Each of the markers bears an image of the honoree along with a 300-325 word paragraph summarizing their life and contributions. All the nominees and their incredible stories can be found on the organization’s website at www.legacyprojectchicago.org

The Legacy Project is the brainchild of Victor Salvo, who has passionately brought his vision to life. I am thrilled to have served as one of Victor’s lieutenants and, along with Lori Cannon, was on the founding committee of the organization. I was honored to serve on the board and even more thrilled to have had a hand in the research and composition of many of the over 225 LGBT bios listed on the website. The nominated folks are all posthumous and of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. The nominees hail from 36 countries, represent 21 fields of contribution, span over 4 millennia and are truly L, G, B, and T.

The Legacy Walk has been endorsed by dozens of historians, community-activists, business leaders, educators and elected officials – including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. The project is co-sponsored by Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, and works closely with Prevent School Violence/Illinois, high school Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) advisors across the state, and Teach For America – all of whom recognize the struggles of LGBT youth who grow up in cultural isolation because LGBT role models have been redacted in one way or another from history. The organization has created lesson plans, study guides, and multimedia which are available free-of-charge on-line.  They have worked with numerous schools, regularly hosting guided tours of the museum walk and day-long symposia about LGBT contributions to history and the personal and social consequences of its redaction. Lastly, a growing number of college and university education departments have begun to include the Legacy Walk as part of their pre-service teacher training.  All of these factors contributed to the Legacy Project being honored by the American Historical Association in 2014 for its work in public/community history preservation and education.

A lack of awareness regarding the contributions of LGBT people is believed to be directly linked to the climate in which anti-gay bullying and LGBT youth suicide flourishes. The Legacy Walk was conceived to confront public ignorance directly through positive messages about extraordinary people like Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science whose work to break the Nazi “Enigma Code” brought down Hitler; Bayard Rustin, Dr. Martin Luther King’s speechwriter who was not permitted on the stage of the 1963 March on Washington which he organized; and Dr. Margaret Chung physician and patriotic icon of World War II whose celebrated legacy was swept away because it was revealed after her death that she was a lesbian.

Among the memorial plaques currently on display are those which honor the Two-Spirit People of North America, Frank Kameny, Lorraine Hansberry, Barbara Gittings, James Baldwin, Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, Christine Jorgensen, Ruth Ellis, Dr. Alfred Kinsey, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Barbara Jordan, Harvey Milk, Dr. Antonia Pantoja, Jane Addams, Alvin Ailey, Keith Haring, Dr. Tom Waddell, Harry Hay, and Reinaldo Arenas. Each year on October 11th – “National Coming-Out Day” – additional plaques are added to the growing exhibit – which is already the largest collection of outdoor bronze biographical markers known to exist in one installation. Scheduled to be unveiled at this year’s third dedication are bronze memorials to poet Audre Lorde, songwriter Cole Porter, Olympian Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, 9/11 hero Fr. Mychal Judge, slain Ugandan activist David Kato, astronaut Sally Ride, and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The Legacy Project is a community-driven endeavor whose time has come. By casting our once-hidden history in bronze and featuring it in an outdoor museum, the organization has made it an indelible part of LGBT culture’s internal landscape. The creation of the Legacy Walk is an audacious act – defying the forces that have kept these stories from the public in order to educate our young, reclaim our past, and share our history and our heroes. Its unprecedented permanence ensures we, indeed, will never go back.

Without our legacy, the LGBT community is nothing more than a group without historic relevance. The debt owed to those heroes and heroines who came before us is immeasurable. Their struggles have made our lives easier, our cultural heritage richer, our political voice stronger, and the mainstream a lot wider. We know greater acceptance today because they walked the earth, made a contribution, and cared about the future.  I believe it’s part of our collective responsibility to preserve their message for future generations, and to honor their accomplishments by continuing to work for the equal treatment of LGBT people under the law, and the defense of our dignity worldwide.

Whenever people say things like I don’t understand Gay Pride or Why Gay Pride Month, What is there to be proud of about being gay? The answer is simple: we are proud of the fact that, because of the efforts of those who came before us, we have triumphed over the forces arrayed against us for millennia and no longer need to hide in the shadows.