History is Personal:
A Queer Southern Boy & the Power of Books
As someone who has spent the vast majority of his life inside a classroom, I know firsthand the liberating power of knowledge. When you learn, the realms of reality expand, new possibilities arise, and doubts are swept away like dust in the wind even as new doubts blow in to take their place. Learning to think critically, to analyze and draw one’s own conclusions is a profound process of liberation, a process of casting off the chains of ignorance. The act of learning itself – whether from life’s experiences, the pages of a book, or from a teacher’s lessons – is empowerment, and if knowledge is power, then ignorance cannot be bliss. For me, history has always been more than an interest in past events; it has been a source of legitimacy, granting me the courage to explore the many facets of myself and boldly accept my identity with the knowledge that there have been countless others like me in the past.
As I grew up in southwest Georgia, I didn’t quite understand what it was that made me feel different from those around me. Let me rephrase that – I knew what it was that made me feel different, but, for the longest time, I didn’t understand the implications of that difference. As I got older, I knew that I was inexplicably attracted to other guys even though I never considered myself gay. In fact, I didn’t know what “gay” was. Plus, I never felt different enough to need a whole new identity or label for myself. I just knew that I could never really participate when my friends were checking out girls. I also wondered if my friends struggled with the same fleeting thoughts and desires as I did, if their gazes skipped over the chicks in bikinis on magazine covers and lingered instead on the muscled men that graced the front of fitness journals. I honestly thought that they must be dealing with the same issues, but just like I never mentioned it, they were keeping it a secret, too.
Even as I got older and my puberty-fueled fantasies became exclusively male-oriented, I never thought of myself as gay. I didn’t know that gay existed as an option for me to “be.” That’s because the knowledge wasn’t available to me, not yet. I knew that there were men out there who had sex with other men, but I didn’t know that they constituted some thing known as “gay.” In fact, the only things I knew about such actions between men came in the form of slurs, jokes, and – most powerfully for me at the time – from the pulpit of my Southern Baptist church. What I learned in those pews was that homosexuality was a sin…and if it was a sin, then it had to be a choice, and an erroneous one at that! Homosexuality, as I understood it, was just acts – something that some people did sometimes. I didn’t yet know that it was something that could be used to define – and segregate – a whole group of people as something fundamentally different.
And then I went to college. By that point, I had realized that no matter how hard I tried or diligently I prayed, these urges and attractions I had weren’t going away; they were something permanent. As early as my first year on campus, I became aware of people who openly identified as “gay” – that’s what they called it when a guy was attracted to other guys. I heard people say they were born that way. And they were fine with it. I instantly recognized that within me – I knew at that moment that I must be “gay,” too. It was the only explanation for why I had a crush on that guy in class, and why I couldn’t help it. But the idea of telling anyone that I was gay terrified me. In fact, it terrified me to even tell myself.
I vividly remember one evening in my university library: I was taking a break from writing a paper by perusing the shelves. As I was meandering along, the title etched into the spine of one book stopped me dead in my tracks: Growing Up Gay in the South. I remember my heart starting to pound as I looked around to make sure no one else was nearby. I contemplated pulling it from the shelf, but how would I explain it if someone saw me reading such a book? But, I did slide the book from its resting place and read it all there in the library that night. The entire book was full of stories about people like me and I was exhilarated as I flew through the pages.
That night I had stumbled into the “HQ” section of our university’s library, which is the Library of Congress Classification System’s call number for the section on “family, marriage, women, and sex” (I find it odd that books on family, marriage equality, sexuality, pornography, and rape are all located on the same shelves, but that’s a topic for another day.) I went back to that section often and read as much as I could, but was still too afraid to discuss anything I was reading – or even to check out the books – for fear of word somehow getting back to my hometown about my “dabbling” in gayness.
I eventually came out to family and friends, but I would have never had the courage if it hadn’t been for those books because they showed me that I wasn’t alone. And then when I entered grad school, I found out that there historians who only studied sexuality and gender! They wrote dissertations, articles, and whole books not just on life stories of gays and lesbians – but on what it meant to be “gay” or “straight.” I found books about how the ancient Greeks understood love between men, how the Native Americans accepted that there was a third gender in between men and women, and how science – and the search for a “gay gene” – wasn’t the only factor in defining gender or sexual identities.
With each book that I finished, I felt more empowered, more confident because I felt less alone. I was blown away by the intricate, not-so-sub-cultures that George Chauncey deftly uncovered in his classic Gay New York. Scholars like Jonathan Ned Katz and David Halperin taught me that words have power. Above all others, Susan Stryker revealed to me the important difference between “sex” and “gender” and that our gender and sexual identities are fluid and malleable. When I read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, I cheered on as working class lesbians in mid-twentieth century Buffalo, New York defied the odds and established their own bars and community by asserting power over their own lives. I cried when I read some of the poignant life stories that Patrick Johnson eloquently captured in Sweet Tea. And when I closed Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire after devouring it in a single sitting, I sat back in wonder as I realized that “gay history” is not on the margins of “real history,” like a quaint interest piece; it is absolutely fundamental to understanding the rest of history as we know it.
I no longer really identify as “gay” because I don’t feel connected to today’s gay culture. But, of course, I’m not straight either. I’m in love with a man, but I don’t accept all of the other baggage that comes with being “gay.” So, I think of myself as queer, something different with no need of a further definition. It’s more fluid, less confining, and I like that. Moreover, the study of history has taught me that it’s okay to throw off labels and come up with my own identity – or collect many identities. People have done it for millennia. That’s why, for me, history has never been just a hobby, never just a profession. It’s a path of reflection, a way to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to simply be. You can’t put a price tag on such a journey.
C.S. Lewis once said that, “We read to know that we’re not alone.” I believe that the truth of his words echoes throughout the ages.