Tag Archive | history

The first openly queer person to run for U.S. public office and win was not who you think

“This is the first time in the history of the United States that someone has run openly as a gay person and been elected to public office.” – Kathy Kozachenko, Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 2, 1974

“This is the first time in the history of the United States that someone has run openly as a gay person and been elected to public office.” – Kathy Kozachenko, Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 2, 1974

On April 2, 1974, forty-three years ago, University of Michigan student and Human Rights Party candidate Kathy Kozachenko was elected to the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, making her the first openly gay or lesbian person to run successfully for political office in the United States. Notably, Kozachenko was not the first gay or lesbian person to serve openly in public office; in fact, her predecessors on Ann Arbor’s city council, Nancy Weschler and Jerry DeGrieck, came out during their first and only terms, making them the first openly queer officeholders in the United States. (To be clear: the distinction is that Kozachenko was openly gay as a candidate, whereas Weschler and DeGrieck did not come out until after their elections.)

After serving one term, Kozachenko stepped out of the public eye, though not out of the activist life entirely. After meeting her life partner, Mary Ann Geiger, and having a son, Kozachenko retreated more fully into private life and her place in queer history went virtually ignored for decades.

In “The First Openly Gay Person to Win an Election in America Was Not Harvey Milk,” a 2015 piece for Bloomberg politics, Steve Friess explored the factors that contributed to Kozachenko’s diminished place in the history of gay liberation: geography, misogyny, timing, messaging. When asked why the groundbreaking gay journalist Randy Shilts referred to Harvey Milk as “the first openly gay elected official in the nation,” for example, Kozachenko “figures there was little fuss at the time because it was just liberal, small-city Ann Arbor.”

“I don’t think I was brave,” Kozachenko told Friess, “because I was in a college town where it was cool to be who I was. On the other hand, I stepped up and did what I felt needed to be done at the time. Maybe that’s the whole story, that ordinary people can do something that then other people later can look back on and feel really good that they did this.” #HavePrideInHistory #KathyKozachenko (at Ann Arbor, Michigan)

(Reposted from LGBT HISTORY ARCHIVES IG: @lgbt_history.)

Is it weird for me to think this is a cool coincidence one day after I write about a much more recent openly gay person at the University of Michigan?

Facing an existential threat yet again…

On one level I understand why during many election years so many Americans talk rather blithely of it being simply a choice of the lesser of two evils. Earlier this year Stephen Colbert and John Stewart incorporated it into a small skit in which they pretended that Stewart has spent all of his time since retiring from the Daily Show living in a cabin in the woods somewhere, and Stephen shows up at his door desperate for help with the election. Stewart says, “Don’t worry! I’m sure Jeb Bush will be fine!” Stewart says.

From the viewpoint of many people, it usually appears that the major parties have each nominated basically similar guys, who have some differences on particular policies, but both talk about opportunity and freedom and respecting the Constitution. Depending on what your personal priorities are, one might say more things you agree with regarding taxes, for instance, but the same candidate says just as many things you disagree with in the topic of medical care. The other one says stuff you disagree with on taxes, while saying things you agree with on law enforcement.

So superficially it can feel as if being asked whether you want a red napkin or a blue napkin with your meal. You’re still going to get a meal which contains some food you love and some you don’t, and the bill is probably going to be a little higher than you hoped in the end, so why should the napkin matter?

For some of us, it has never been like that.

I wasn’t out of the closet in 1980. I was still several years away from the moment I would say aloud for the first time, “I think I might be gay.” But I had had more than a few furtive experiences with other guys and had been wrestling with the conflict between my conservative Christian upbringing and the fact that no matter how much I pleaded with god, the feelings wouldn’t go away. And for several years I had been watching political campaigns to pass laws to make it legal for people to fire me, to deny me housing, to send me to jail, and much worse simply because I fell in love with other guys.

In 1980 one party had for the first time in history adopted a plank saying the people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of sexual orientation. The other party very clearly was in favor of not just discriminating, but actively persecuting people like me.

My ability to live freely was on the ballot the first time I was allowed to vote for a president.

By the time 1984 rolled around, people like me were dying of a then-mysterious and scary disease. I had sat in church with my head bowed and then felt the horror when the pastor unexpectedly thanked god for sending AIDS to kill queers. One party was still saying it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against me, and now the other one was encouraging the people who were explicitly saying I should be dead.

In 1992 the Democratic Presidential candidate didn’t just leave the rhetoric of protecting us from discrimination in the platform, he actively and frequently argued that not only should we be protected by anti-discrimination laws, and not only should we not be left to die if we got sick, but we should actually be allowed to serve openly in the military. That may seem like a little thing, but it was clearly a statement that we were full citizens deserving not just tolerance, but respect. This forced the other candidate to openly say what had mostly been implied by his predecessors: that queers didn’t deserve legal protections, that our very existence wasn’t just regrettable, but it somehow made America less safe.

By 1996 the same candidate who had pledged to help us had been maneuvered into a compromise that made the situation for queers in the military worse, but the other side, oh my goodness, the other side! In my local state the Republican party had planks in the platform that literally equated us with witches and demons, that literally equated tolerance for us with witchcraft, and that literally called for locking queer people up in medical facilities. Yes, the party had been hijacked by what we all thought of at the time the fringe, but our state wasn’t the only one. And plenty of Republicans all over the country were talking about us as dangerous, as needing to be locked up, and more.

In 2000 I found myself arguing with someone who I had thought of as a friend who lived in another state where she was enthusiastically voting for a candidate who promised to make it illegal for queers to work in medical jobs, in child care jobs, or as teachers, and wanted to create a system of “medical camps” where queer men would be “quarantined” for the safety of the rest of the public. While at the top of the the ticket Bush and Cheney both made conciliatory statements about tolerating gay people, they still opposed full civil equality. All up and down the ticket you could find plenty of their candidates arguing that the very existence of queer people was dangerous, that our physical relationships should be illegal (and in many places still were prosecuted as crimes), and so forth.

And then in 2004 the Republicans hit on the strategy of actively pushing for state bans and constitutional amendments to more deeply encode our persecution into the laws of the land! There were far more candidates on that side saying to recognizing us as full citizens would cause god to destroy America.

A lot of people try to make the lesser of two evils argument because in 2008 the leading democratic candidates were arguing for civil unions and against letting queer people marry. To do that ignores the folks on the other side who were still arguing that it should be legal to fire us everywhere (not just the 29 states where we lack antidiscrimination protections), who were angry at the Supreme Court for saying the  laws criminalizing our relationships were unconstitutional, and thus were campaigning to make being queer a crime again everywhere. Again, one side thought we were people deserving at least basic rights, the other argued we were dangerous things that needed to be controlled.

In 2012 the Republicans were spouting all the same anti-queer rhetoric even more vehemently because the other party was arguing that we should have all legal rights, including the right to civil marriage.

And in 2016? This year the Republican party platform is even more viciously anti-gay than the 1996 state platform I mentioned above. This year, a lot of other people feel (rightly) that their very right to exist is on the ballot. This year in the name of fighting illegal immigration and defending us from terrorism, one party is arguing that people of some religions don’t deserve civil rights, that people of some races are automatically suspect as criminals, that people who are poor deserve it, that women who want medical care should only get what conservative white men think they,, deserve, and so on and so on.

And while for a lot of people this feels new, it feels as if a sudden lunacy has seized one party—it’s not. I hate to break it to you, but Romney, McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan were all spouting equally racist, misogynist, sectarian, and homophobic policies and values as the most deplorable Trump supporters are now. Trump isn’t a disease that has suddenly surfaced, he’s a symptom of a decades-long movement in the party to fan the flames of fear, promote racial resentment, foster religious division, and encourage hate. The Trump supporters who call for lynching journalists, beating people of color, deporting non-Christians, scalping people who support same-sex marriage, burning black churches, who claim Hillary is a satanist, insist that Obama and Clinton are literally demons, aren’t the lunatic fringe of the Republican party. They are simply enacting the rhetoric that Republicans have been using to rally their troops for the last forty years.

  • You may have thought that Reagan was talking about the Constitution when he argued for state’s rights at a speech in Nashoba County, Mississippi, but everyone in Mississippi who had lived through the previous decades of civil rights struggles knew that he was saying that in the matter of white privilege vs black civil rights, he was on the side of the white guys while the blacks were clearly the enemy.
  • You may have thought that the elder President Bush’s frequent evocation of Family Values was just wholesome-sounding empty rhetoric, but the thousands of people at the Republican Convention holding up signs that said “Family Rights Not Gay Rights” knew he was telling the anti-gay bigots that he was on their side and the queers had no moral values.
  • You may have thought when Bob Dole said that “disabled people is a group no one joins by choice” he was simply arguing for more rights for disabled people, but he was telling the anti-gay people, the Creationists, and the anti-feminists that queers, atheists/non-Christians, and feminists deserved to be discriminated against and worse.
  • You may have thought that when George W. Bush said as part of a speech about racial equality that African Americans had earned opportunities that he was arguing for respecting everyone, but the Republican base knew he was saying that only some people of color deserved respect, and it is perfectly alright to mistreat any you didn’t think had earned it.
  • You may have thought that when John McCain said “that both parents are important in the success of a family” it was empty pro-family pablum, but anti-gay and anti-feminist members of the Republican base heard him saying the queers who adopt are harming children, and so are single parents (including women fleeing abusive relationships).
  • You may have thought when Romney said that employers should be flexible and let female employees “go home and fix dinner” for their kids instead of making them work late, that he was talking about personal compassion, but the Republican base clearly heard that women only deserved respect when they were mothers and taking care of their man.

I could find a lot more examples from the previous six Republican nominees where they said things that signaled to the racists, homophobes, misogynists, et al that people of color, queers, women, and non-Christians are less valuable than cisgendered heterosexual white Christian men. They have been cooking this nasty stew of hatred for decades.

It’s not just Hillary and The Donald on the ballot. It is also the right for Americans of all races, genders, orientations, and beliefs to live with equal opportunity and dignity in this society. And I don’t just mean the right to be free—for many of us, our very right to live is on the line.

Armed voter intimidation is illegal.  If you see someone with a gun at a polling place text GUNSDOWN to 91990.

Armed voter intimidation is illegal. If you see someone with a gun at a polling place text GUNSDOWN to 91990.

It won’t be enough for Trump to lose. He needs to lose decisively. And the politicians down ballot who support him and the policies that have brought him to us need to be defeated, as well. We need to send a message, yes. But we also have to extend hope and a promise that the American republic and the democratic institutions that protect our rights will remain intact. Because when Trump talks about “opening up libel laws” and “locking up” his opponents and “getting rid” of legal impediments to deportation and more, he’s talking about ending the checks and balances that have existed since this country’s founding.

It isn’t just an existential crisis for the queers, people of color, women, and non-Christians this time. It’s an existential crisis for the republic itself.

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Wishing on 9/13…

Cover of the Sept 21, 2001 edition of the Village Voice.

Cover of the Sept 25, 2001 edition of the Village Voice. (click to embiggen)

Jim Wright, an author who is also a navy veteran, posted some comments about the 15th anniversary of 9/11 on Facebook on Sunday which upset a lot of people. They called him a traitor and other nasty names, and reported him to Facebook for violating community standards (which the post didn’t). Subsequently Facebook (as they always do) gave in to the loud voices of rightwing people who claim to love Freedom and Liberty, but only for people who agree with them. These folks also often yell a lot about how much they love Jesus, and then they call people like me faggots, lead prayers saying we deserve death, and call for people who have committed no crimes to be executed. So they neither understand what freedom means, nor do they understand any of the teachings of Jesus.

Mr. Wright’s post was blunt, and not at all a feel-good statement. But it also contained a lot of truth:

“You’re expecting some kind of obligatory 9-11 post, aren’t you?

Here it is, but you’re not gonna like it.

15 years ago today 19 shitheads attacked America.

They killed 3000 of us.

And then … America got its revenge for 9-11.

Yes we did. Many times over. We killed them. We killed them all. We killed their families. We killed their wives and their kids and all their neighbors. We killed whole nations that weren’t even involved just to make goddamned sure. We bombed their cities into rubble. We burned down their countries.

They killed 3000 of us, we killed 300,000 of them or more.

8000 of us came home in body bags, but we got our revenge. Yes we did.

We’re still here. They aren’t.

We win. USA! USA! USA!


You goddamned right. We. Win.


Every year on this day we bathe in the blood of that day yet again. We watch the towers fall over and over. It’s been 15 goddamned years, but we just can’t get enough. We’ve just got to watch it again and again.

It’s funny how we never show those videos of the bombs falling on Baghdad today. Or the dead in the streets of Afghanistan. We got our revenge, but we never talk about that today. No, we just sit and watch the towers fall yet again.

Somewhere out there on the bottom of the sea are the rotting remains of the evil son of bitch who masterminded the attack. It took a decade, but we hunted him down and put a bullet in his brain. Sure. We got him. Right? That’s what we wanted. that’s what our leaders promised us, 15 years ago today.

And today those howling the loudest for revenge shrug and say, well, yeah, that. That doesn’t matter, because, um, yeah, the guy in the White House, um, see, well, he’s not an American, he’s the enemy see? He’s not doing enough. So, whatever. What about that over there? And that? And…


15 years ago our leaders, left and right, stood on the steps of the Capitol and gave us their solemn promise to work together, to stand as one, for all Americans.

How’d that promise work out?

How much are their words worth? Today, 15 years later?

It’s 15 years later and we’re STILL afraid. We’re still terrorized. Still wallowing in conspiracy theories and peering suspiciously out of our bunkers at our neighbors. Sure we won. Sure we did. We became a nation that tortures our enemies — and our own citizens for that matter. We’re a nation of warrantless wiretaps and rendition and we’ve gotten used to being strip searched in our own airports. And how is the world a better place for it all?

And now we’re talking about more war, more blood.

But, yeah, we won. Sure. You bet.

Frankly, I have had enough of 9-11. Fuck 9-11. I’m not going to watch the shows. I’m not going to any of the memorials. I’m not going to the 9-11 sales at Wal-Mart. I don’t want to hear about 9-11. I for damned sure am not interested in watching politicians of either party try to out 9-11 each other. I’m tired of this national 9-11 PTSD. I did my bit for revenge, I went to war, I’ll remember the dead in my own time in my own way.

I’m not going to shed a damned tear today.

We got our revenge. Many times over, for whatever good it did us.

I’m going to go to a picnic and enjoy my day. Enjoy this victory we’ve won.

I suggest you do the same.”

—Jim Wright, Stonekettle Station

I almost never write about 9/11. On the first anniversary, I made a post on my old blog called “Living for 9/12.” And I reposted it on this blog around the eleventh anniversary. I didn’t express the same sentiment as Wright either of those times, but I’m getting to a similar emotional space.

It’s not that I think we should forget the deaths that happened that day. But could we try using that grief to accomplish some good in the world? I mean, my goodness, it took us 14 years to pass a bill to help the fireman and paramedics and police who responded that day, survived, but have suffered longer term health issues. And yes, we killed the mastermind of that plot, but along the way we’ve bombed countries that weren’t involved, and have used the original tragedy to justify all sorts of violations of our own civil liberties, assassinating at least one of our own citizens without due process, not to mention developing a disturbing habit of killing civilians with drones!

Every year about 11,000 U.S. citizens are murdered with firearms, sometimes in mass shootings like Orlando or Sandy Hook, most in incidents that barely make it to the local news. That’s nearly four 9/11s every single year. Maybe we should actually do something to prevent some of those? Or at least let the National Institutes of Health research into whether we could do anything to reduce that number?

Why are we unable to work up any determination over any of the tens of thousands of deaths that have happened since that day?

I need to stop ranting. There was one other 9/11 post I saw on the day that I think is worth looking at. It isn’t like Wright’s at all, but it also doesn’t wrap itself in the flag to push an agenda. Tricia Romano is currently the Editor in Chief of a Seattle weekly newspaper, the Stranger. But in 2001 she worked in New York City, writing for another weekly newspaper, the Village Voice: I Was In New York City During 9/11. I’ll Never Forget.

Sausage making: my history with presidential nominees

party-imagePresidential campaigns in the U.S. are weird. Okay, let’s be honest, politics everywhere is weird, but the way Americans choose candidates has a particularly amazing number of eccentricities. We choose candidates through a patchwork systems of caucuses and primaries, which also generate the delegates who will eventually write state and national party platforms through an arcane series of district, county, and state meetings and conventions. And sometimes the arcane becomes literal (such as the time our state’s Republican party platform had multiple planks condemning witchcraft). Politics is supposed to be about compromise and finding solutions that a majority of people can get behind, which makes things very difficult for people who expect a candidate to agree with them on absolutely everything in order to get their support. The more voters involved, the less likely it is that you’re going to get your first choice. Which isn’t a pleasant realization. As I well know… Read More…

Blood stains on their hands

Silence = Death became a rallying cry that led to the formation of ACT-UP as the queer community declared, ‘silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ "

Silence = Death became a rallying cry that led to the formation of ACT-UP as the queer community declared, ‘silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ “

I included three links in this morning’s link post that were less than complimentary of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. That was a limited list. A whole lot more went across my social streams this week. I tried to limit it only to criticisms of things she had been directly involved in. I wasn’t going to say anything more about her. I hoped to avoid any coverage of her funeral. I tried. Oh, I tried.

Every year on December 1st, because it is World AIDS Day, I post a list of names. They are the names of people I knew personally who died from complications of AIDS. Those names are: Frank, Mike, Tim, David, Todd, Chet, Jim, Steve, Brian, Rick, Stacy, Phil, Mark, Michael, Jerry, Walt, Charles, Thomas, Mike, Richard, Bob, Mikey, James, Lisa, Todd, Kerry, Glen, and Jack.

Let me be clear, that isn’t every single person I knew who died from the disease. Those are only the ones I knew well enough that I cry when I type their name. Yes, I’m crying now. I have been alternating between crying and shaking with rage since reading that Hilary Clinton said, “The Reagans, particularly Nancy, helped start ‘a national conversation’ about HIV and AIDS.” And then went on to describe her as an advocate for AIDS research!

I get it. Nancy Reagan just died, and Hilary’s a politician on a national stage and is expected only to say nice things about the recently deceased. Fine. Compliment Mrs Reagan on bucking the rest of the Republican establishment and coming out in favor of stem-cell research. Never mind that it was for selfish reasons, at least it was for a worthy goal. But the Reagans absolutely did not open a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. We in the queer community had been shouting, begging the powers that be to do something, anything about it for five years (while tens of thousands in the U.S. were infected, and thousands died) before President Reagan actually mentioned the name of the disease in public. It took another two years before he referred to it as a health crisis—and don’t forget that Reagan recommended a $10-million cut in AIDS research spending the same year that the U.S. death toll reached 5,500.

When the Reagans’s close friend, Rock Hudson, was dying of the disease, trying to get into a hospital in Paris to try an experimental treatment, Nancy, after receiving a desperate telegram asking for her help, wouldn’t even authorize a staff member to call the hospital on her behalf to ask if they might let Hudson (who wasn’t a French citizen, of course) in.

Listen to this recording of a Whitehouse press briefing when a reporter asks about the Whitehouse’s reaction to a Center for Disease Control bulletin about A-I-D-S, “also called the gay cancer” officially labelling it an epidemic:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

You almost can’t hear the reporter ask, “In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?” because everyone keeps laughing.

As I mentioned above, that list I post every year consists only of the people I knew well enough that I still cry thinking about them decades later. Through the early nineties, my late husband and I went to more funerals and memorial services than I can count. Many of them were people he had known before we met. Some of them were friends, lovers, or relatives of people one or the other of us knew, but we hadn’t been particularly close to the deceased ourselves. We went to the services to support the people who were mourning the death. We went to the services because sometimes the deceased’s own families wouldn’t attend. Sometimes we held services separate from the family’s because the partner/lover/life-long companion was barred from the official funeral by the family.

There was more than one time that we had to choose which memorial service to go to, because more than one was happening at the same time, and too far apart for us to attend a part of both. So many people were dying, we had to choose who not to comfort, because at the point when research and medical intervention could have limited the spread of the disease, people at the Whitehouse had been laughing at our suffering and dying.

And then to have Clinton, who has tried to portray herself as an ally of the queer community, praise Nancy for being an advocate for AIDS research? That’s when I lost it.

I was deeply closeted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had only a very small number of sexual encounters with other men during the time when so many were getting infected with the virus that no one knew existed. Even with that limited exposure, it is shear luck that I’m alive to bear witness to those years. Even though I wasn’t out, once the illness had been identified, I was keenly aware of how ordinary Americans perceived it. One of the most chilling moments for me came while sitting in a pew of a church in 1984. Our heads were all bowed in prayer, and the visiting pastor leading the prayer actually thanked god for the “plague of AIDS which you have sent to exterminate the homosexuals.”

Reading Clinton’s comments took me back to that moment. People like Nancy Reagan were not having a conversation about how to save people from AIDS, nor were they advocating for research for a cure. People like Nancy Reagan were thanking god for our suffering.

Never mind that Jesus commanded his followers to take care of the sick. He didn’t say to care for the sick that we deemed worthy. He didn’t say to care for the sick that lived a specific lifestyle. He specifically said to care for the sick, and people in prisons, and other outcasts of society. He said that the way you treated those outcasts was how you treated him. And he said that anyone who came to him on the day of judgment and had not cared for the sick, prisoners, outcasts, and the other “least of these” would be cast out of heaven and into the eternal fire; because they were not following his commandment.

But we’re not supposed to say anything like that about a famous person who has died. Even if she refused to raise a finger to help one dying friend get medical treatment. And apparently especially if she helped impede access to treatment for hundreds of thousands of people who were sick and dying. We’re apparently supposed to lie and say that she helped the very people whose blood is on her hands.

The official name of the holiday is Washington’s Birthday Observance

"When a person did his best, do not scold him for his failure" —George Washington

“When a person did his best, do not scold him for his failure” —George Washington

I know I start to sound like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory when I say this sort of thing, but the holiday we’re celebrating today is not named “Presidents’ Day,” it is “Washington’s Birthday Observance.” I’ve written before about how the myth that the holiday is President’s Day got started and why it is so persistent. I’ve also written about the reasons why there has never been a federal holiday dedicated to Lincoln.

But especially because of those racist reasons that have prevented a Federal holiday recognizing Lincoln, I think it’s important to remember that this holiday is not Presidents’ Day, unless you’re in one of the 10 states that have a state holiday this day which is called President’s Day (my state isn’t one of them). Five states still recognize a state holiday for Lincoln (Illinois, California, Connecticut, Missouri, and New York), though schools and state offices often remain open on that day.

And don’t get me started on the fact that because Washington’s Birthday Observance happens on the third Monday of February, George’s actual birthday, February 22, never lands on his Federal holiday. For shame!

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month…


From the President Obama’s official proclamation for Veteran’s Day 2015:

The United States military is the strongest, most capable fighting force the world has ever known. The brave men and women of our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard demonstrate a resolute spirit and unmatched selflessness, and their service reminds us there are few things more American than giving of ourselves to make a difference in the lives of others. On Veterans Day, we reflect on the immeasurable burdens borne by so few in the name of so many, and we rededicate ourselves to supporting those who have worn America’s uniform and the families who stand alongside them.

Our true strength as a Nation is measured by how we take care of our veterans when they return home, and my Administration is committed to ensuring our heroes and their loved ones have every chance to share in the promise they risked their lives to defend. We have made it easier for veterans to convert their military skills to the civilian workforce, enabled more veterans and their family members to attain Federal education benefits, and expanded access to timely, quality health care for all veterans. Just as every veteran deserves the support and benefits they have earned, those who have given everything to defend our homeland deserve a place of their own to call home…

Our veterans left everything they knew and loved and served with exemplary dedication and courage so we could all know a safer America and a more just world. They have been tested in ways the rest of us may never fully understand, and it is our duty to fulfill our sacred obligation to our veterans and their families. On Veterans Day, and every day, let us show them the extraordinary gratitude they so rightly deserve, and let us recommit to pledging our full support for them in all they do.

Our allies still refer to this holiday by its original name: Armistice Day: Nation remembers war dead. We barely study World War I in public school history classes, and when we do, it seldom includes the whole story: How did the first world war actually end?

Regardless, if you want to show support for those who served, may I humbly suggest donating to National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. There are, of course, many other fine charities that serve veterans and their families. You can find more of them here: Charity Navigator: Support Our Troops

Indigenous Peoples Day

native-american-quote-indianSeattle, where I have lived for thirty years, is one of many cities in the U.S. that have declared October 12 Indigenous Peoples Day. In Seattle the ordinance declaring the new name for the holiday was signed into law 364 days ago, which means that today is the first time we’re officially celebrating it here. There are a lot of good reasons we should consider getting rid of Columbus Day: Christopher Columbus was a lost sadist. There shouldn’t be a holiday in his name and Columbus a problematic historical character: unreliable navigator, relentless self-publicist, chaotic colonial administrator, and probable mass murderer. Which makes many ask Why is Columbus Day still a U.S. federal holiday?

When I was a kid, I don’t remember any of the school districts I attended giving us the day off. Columbus Day was a day we talked about the very white-washed version of his “discovery” of the Americas. I used to work with a man who was born on Columbus Day, and what he loved most about it was that where he went to school it was a day off, so he and his friends always got to go to the movies or something similar on his birthday.

94842cae33908dd208ad90a2a0b1df5fAny problematic figure can represent a teaching opportunity, of course: Ángel González: I’ll be raising a glass to the adventurer whose legacy shows how Hispanic culture and the United States are inseparable, in glory and in shame. And it must be noted that simply changing a holiday’s name doesn’t necessarily solve real problems: It’s been a year, but improvements for Native American services are off to a slow start.

And of course some people wonder Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day and Not Leif Erikson Day?

I have neither a clever nor wise conclusion to this. I think it is sad that there are people who defend Columbus Day, and not at all surprising that many of them are the same ones who bitch about so-called illegal immigration with absolutely no self-awareness of the irony of what Columbus and other European colonists did to Native Americans. But I do believe that names matter, just as truth and understanding matter. So, count me as one of the people who thinks the federal holiday’s name, at the least, should be changed.

Doesn’t my artistic license cover that?

Mythphile.com (Click to embiggen)

Mythphile.com (Click to embiggen)

Several times over the years I’ve gotten into discussions with co-workers (who are also technical writers) about the differences between writing fiction vs technical documentation vs other kinds of non-fiction, and why many of them believe you can’t be good at both kinds of writing. The usual feeling is that the requirements of most organizations needing technical writing are so regimented that they stamp out any possibility for creativity. The people who make this argument believe that technical writing is merely describing and presenting facts in the correct order, whereas fiction writing requires an artiste.

Others argue in the opposite direction. Once you learn basic spelling and grammar, they claim, fiction writing is just about making things up. It’s not possible to get anything wrong. If you accidentally contradict yourself, well, it’s your story, change it! They believe it’s much more difficult to learn and understand all the parts of a device or program or process and then explain it in a concise way.

Both arguments are exactly wrong. And both contain as much truth as falsehood.

A writer’s job—whether she is a novelist, technical writer, journalist, or historian—is to take an idea or vision they have in their own head, and use words to evoke or transfer that same knowledge to the mind of the reader. That process, the meeting of minds, is ultimately the same whether you are describing how to configure a clustered server application, an adventure in a distant galaxy, or the process to make your great-grandma’s chicken noodle casserole.

There are specifics in each of those scenarios that are different, but they all use the same skills. And non-fiction is never as straight forward as people think. This is why you end up with situations, such as the Stonewall movie I’m feeling trepidatious over (and wrote about yesterday). If you’re trying to tell someone about a series of actual events, you still have to make narrative decisions about where to begin, how much background information to include and when, which events to include and which to leave out, and where to end it.

German drama critic, Gustav Freytag, suggested this method of analysing the structure of stories in 1863

German drama critic, Gustav Freytag, suggested this method of analysing the structure of stories in 1863. (englishbiz.co,uk Click to embiggen)

For a novel or movie based on a historical event, that also means choosing viewpoint characters, constructing an emotional arc you think will resonate with the audience, and arranging events to follow that arc to reach a satisfying conclusion. Real life seldom happens in a neat, precise order that perfectly follows Freytag’s Triangle.

So you have to make compromises. You fudge the timing of events to make a more dramatic and satisfying story, perhaps. This is what we actually mean by “artistic license.” In order to tell the story in a way that moves people, you take a few liberties. In the 1995 movie about the Stonewall Riots that I mentioned yesterday, for instance, they take an event that happened in 1966 and drop it into 1969. The sip-in was an event organized by the Mattachine Society, the non-radical gay rights organization that had been around since 1950. Lots of states had laws against bars serving gay people—specifically in New York at the time, a bar could lose its license if it simultaneously served drinks to more than one gay person. A single openly gay person at a bar was okay, but two (such as a couple on a date!) was a big no-no. So this group of very respectable-looking people went from bar to bar, made a big announcement that they were gay, and asked to be served. They had to go to a bunch of bars before someone refused to serve them, at which point they could file a lawsuit, whose ultimate aim was to get the regulation thrown out in court as a violation of the Constitutional rights of association and assembly. Which they did.

None of the people involved in the sip-in had anything to do with the Stonewall riots later on. And the Stonewall Inn was not one of the bars where they tried to get served at. The makers of the 1995 movie, for whatever reason, decided to have the heroes of their movie being the guys that also stages the sip-in, and had them do it a month or so before the riots at Stonewall. It doesn’t really make much sense, and it certainly isn’t how it happened. The filmmaker was probably trying to come up with a way to show that his fictionalized versions of the real people who spontaneously rose up in the riots were actively fighting for their rights before that night. It was a way to show them as being active, aware participants in history, to give them agency in the plot. Because, apparently, deciding as an unarmed person to physically fight back against a bunch of armed police officers isn’t active enough!

I think that’s going to ultimately prove to be what’s happening with that brick-throwing scene that everyone is up in arms about in the trailer. The movie maker, having decided to tell the story through his fictional character who is not based on any specific participant in the riots, and who was crafted specifically to be an archetypical everyman, needs to do something active to show agency, and to move the audience to see him as the hero of his personal narrative. That doesn’t necessarily excuse it, but it would explain it.

It is a tough problem. When I was doing an edit pass on the first book in my Trickster series, I realized that I had spent so much time weaving all of the subplots together (and all the jokes—the word apocalypse may be in the title of the first book, but I am writing light fantasy!) so that all the characters get to the big climactic battle and have their emotional arcs culminate, I had turned my main protagonist (and one of the supporting protagonists) into a soccer ball. They were each propelled by events from one part of the plot to the next, seldom showing any agency. They each made decisions along the way, but I had wound up writing those scenes in such a way that each was always reacting to events outside his control. Fortunately it didn’t take a lot of revision to recast some of those scenes to make it clear that there were actual choices being made. I added one scene to give the main protagonist a more active role in shaping the end result of the plot. I think it worked.

As a storyteller, I know why these decisions about how to make a compelling tale out of historical events happen. Your hope is that the overall effect is to illuminate the past, show how far we’ve come, and introduce people unfamiliar with the topic to the struggles of the people involved. If not done right, you might still please the audience, but you’ve muddled things up, erased the real heroes, and sold the viewer a pretty but awful lie.

Please don’t ask me to applaud mighty whitey

Marsha P. Johnson (on the left) was an African-American transwoman/street queen who actually participated in the Stonewall riot and was seen by several witnesses smashing a police car with a brick near the beginning. Later she was a co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The actor on the right is apparently portraying the first brick-thrower in the new Stonewall movie.

Marsha P. Johnson (on the left) was an African-American drag queen/street queen who actually participated in the Stonewall riot and was seen by several witnesses smashing a police car with a brick that night. Later she was a co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The actor on the right is portraying the only brick-thrower seen in the trailer for the new Stonewall movie. (click to embiggen)

I have a confession to make. When I first saw the trailer for the new Stonewall movie set to come out next month, the white-washing and cis-washing were not the first things that jumped out at me. At least not directly.

If you aren’t familiar with the controversy: the trailer for the new movie focuses on a white, cisgendered young man as the viewpoint character, and more specifically, causes some people to infer that he is the one who threw the first brick and starts the Stonewall Riot on that June night in 1969. The Stonewall Riots being the event usually credited with starting the modern gay rights movement. This is a problem because, while no one knows for certain who threw the first beer bottle, we do know is that the first person seriously fighting back that night was a butch lesbian who got away from the cops (and was chased down, beaten, and dragged back) while resisting being put in the paddy wagon (it was probably Stormé DeLarverie, though some witnesses claim that it was someone else). A transwoman of color, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, also fought back, was clubbed unconscious, and was one of the few actually taken to jail that night. And no one disputes that it was Marsha P. Johnson (who was at the bar that night with friends to celebrate her birthday) who smashed one of the police cars with a brick… Read More…

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