When I came out (almost 50 years ago), I learned much about being gay from older gay or bisexual men, Hispanic and Anglo, who I met in Miami’s then-flourishing gay bars.
(There were more gay bars in 1974 than there are in 2022.) Some of those men told me tales about being gay in the '40s, '50s and '60s; in the United States, in Cuba, or in other Latinx countries. From them I learned how difficult it was to be gay back then; how far we have come since; and how far we had to go. As the son of heterosexual parents, I did not learn about my community’s history from my family, not from my teachers nor from my straight peers. My education as a gay man came from gay sources, from books written by LGBT people and from the stories told to me by other gay and bi men.
Fifty years later, I still remember the lessons that I learned from those men, especially those who are no longer with us. Now that I am an elder gay myself, I want to continue that tradition and teach younger generations about our past, either in person or through my writing. I find this tradition to be especially relevant in this month of October, otherwise known as LGBTQ+ History Month. LGBTQ+ History Month began in 1994 when Rodney Wilson, a high school teacher in Missouri, decided to do something about the lack of queer voices in history books. He organized other educators and community leaders for the purpose of educating students and the general public about our history; the history that many of us learned from older LGBTQ people when we first came out.
After much discussion, October was named “Lesbian & Gay History Month: A Celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History.” Now LGBTQ+ History Month, October was designed to “promote the teaching of [LGBTQ+] history in secondary and post-secondary academic settings, as well as within the [LGBTQ+] community and mainstream society.” October was chosen because it is full of LGBTQ history: the dates of the first (1979) and the second (1987) Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights are in October, as is National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11) and Halloween (Oct. 31). Furthermore, October falls in the middle of the academic calendar which, unlike the month of June (LGBTQ+ Pride Month), allows schools to participate. LGBTQ+ History Month now includes Ally Week, Spirit Day (October 20) and the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard (October 12). In an age of “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, observing LBTQ+ History Month takes on great importance.
To many people, our history is basically a roster of “great LGBTQ people in history.” Apologists used this to justify sexual or gender variance: In other words, it is not so bad to be queer if Michelangelo was one. But Michelangelo’s sexual orientation, which is still debated, does not do away with homophobia or transphobia any more than the fact that Albert Einstein was a Jew did away with anti-Semitism or the fact that Louis Armstrong was Black did away with racism. For every Susan B. Anthony or Bayard Rustin there were thousands of women or men who struggled anonymously against a hostile society and religious, legal and scientific systems that branded them sinners, criminals or mentally ill. The fact that many of them survived such a regimen to create loving households, supportive social groups and flourishing communities say a lot about their survival skills. We are here today because of them.
There are many books written about the likes of Walt Whitman or Radclyffe Hall. What about the anonymous lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people who lived their lives the best they could? Since 1990, our histories have gone beyond great queers in history to study the lives and times of our more ordinary ancestors. They include books of popular or scholarly history, film or video documentaries, and programs and exhibits by community institutions like Fort Lauderdale’s Stonewall National Museum and Archives. While we can learn much from books, videos or museum exhibits, they only supplement the knowledge that we learn from personal contact with those who walked ahead of us. Therefore, the next time an older LGBTQ person wants to tell you their story, please listen. Their stories are quaint, funny, tender, touching and sad, and they all have something to teach us. And when your time comes, do not hesitate to tell your own story to those who come after you, so they too can learn. That is what LGBTQ+ History Month is all about.
Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and journalist. He has been an active member of South Florida's LGBT community for more than four decades and has served in various community organizations.