Over the past few weeks, I’ve been digging into part of my family history – something that I’ve been meaning to do for years but never really had the time. I’ve always loved learning more about my own family and hearing the stories of others doing the same. The story of the House on Loon Lake is one of my favorite episodes from This American Life and I’m really excited to hear more from the podcast Family Ghosts.
I grew up on the opposite side of the country from the rest of my mother’s family and the trips back to visit were few and far between. Those trips, much to my own disappointment, slowly stopped over time as more family moved out west and grandparents died. It was always hard and really expensive traveling thousands of miles with two kids so I don’t fault my parents for not going back as much as I would have loved to.
Recently, I saw the documentary Freedom to Marry and was thoroughly underwhelmed. A part comes from my own doubts around the now finished fight for marriage equality but another part comes from just how predictable the documentary was. Jay Weissberg reviewed the film for Variety and wrote that:
Despite a small theatrical run, “The Freedom to Marry” feels designed for TV in every way: It does its job more or less efficiently (we could do without Wolfson’s parents’ friends talking about what a bright boy he was) in cookie-cutter documentary fashion. Rosenstein, a childhood acquaintance of Wolfson’s, is unable to disguise the artificiality of certain “spontaneous” conversations before the cameras.
And that’s exactly what it felt like. The message and theme of the documentary oversaturated the film in a way that felt like you were being hit over the head with what the filmmakers wanted you to take away from it. That doesn’t mean it was completely terrible or anything – there were some great moments and the film does hark back to how gay people have been treated in the United States. But I ultimately left the theater feeling underwhelmed by the production and forgotten by the larger LGBTQ+ community. (That last part isn’t necessarily tied to the documentary and is a larger trend that I’ve personally felt in the past few months.)
In the midst of Thanksgiving and Black Friday this week, much of the US is deep into traditional meals, gatherings, and shopping but the camps and water protectors in North Dakota are still standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline. These protectors are frequently met with violence and intimidation from police and others. Just a couple days ago, those on the ground were sprayed with water cannons in the middle of the night and in North Dakota at this time of the year, that can be fatal. One medic shared his story about that night and many others countered the police’s narrative and shared that the protectors have been nothing but peaceful.
By complete chance, I saw the documentary Major! recently and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the past few months. A small part of my experience was also learning that a local nonprofit movie theater does a queer movie series and being surrounded in large part by other LGBT and queer folks. But being able to learn about and celebrate Miss Major was really the best part.
The documentary is in large part about Miss Major Griffin Gracy and her story as a black trans woman, veteran of the Stonewall Riots, a survivor of Attica State Prison, former sex worker, and community leader/activist. Her work at the Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), for example, has supported trans women who are currently in jail and prison or who are formerly incarcerated. There are interviews from Miss Major herself and the community around her about her life and work and there’s so much love and support in this film.
Recently, I read about how some school districts around the US were going to be teaching about LGBT history to students. This is, of course, a cause for celebration because it allows for LGBT students to learn about their community’s history in school. For one of the first times (at least in my experience), young people might be learning about the Stonewall Inn and Compton’s Cafeteria Riots and about people like Audre Lorde, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P Johnson.
I think that any sort of ally behavior should include continuous learning and listening to marginalized people when they speak. A part of this is also not insisting that marginalized people speak on demand or educate us on the issues because one, it is centering us and our understanding in the conversation rather than other people and two, other people are not and should not be responsible for our education.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way we learn and understand history – in part because of my own love for the Broadway hit musical Hamilton. That musical has taken the life of the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, turned it into a popular hip hop musical, and made learning about the founding fathers of the United States a little less boring. (Unless you’re a part of the founding fathers fandom, which is in fact an actual thing on the internet and includes romantic shipping of historical figures.) But at the same time, the show hasn’t told the full story and has spun some of the facts into a more dramatic retelling.
Hamilton has skyrocketed into mainstream popularity, received awards and praise, and has gained a sizeable and dedicated following. People show up in droves to watch the live #Ham4Ham mini shows during the ticket lottery in New York City and a book was created to show behind the scenes of both the show and creation. But not everyone has been praising the production and that’s a good thing.
Today is International Women’s Day – a day inspired by factory women going on strike for better wages and working conditions. The podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You goes in depth into the secret history of the day, particularly the importance of working class issues within feminism then and now. (Just in general and if you’re interested in feminism/women in history, I’d recommend that podcast – they have episodes on lady truckers/mechanics, abortion and reproductive justice, anxiety/mental health, and so much more.) But today has its roots in celebrating working class women and has become a day to recognize the achievements of women today and throughout history.
Yesterday I finished up the book Civil Rights for Beginners by Paul Von Blum and overall I really liked the book. Most of the book is dedicated to the civil rights movement from the 1950s/60s/70s but also ties in the history of black/African American resistance starting from slavery to the present.
Honestly, I learned more from this book about the civil rights movement and the history/context behind it than in any US history class I’ve taken. Von Blum writes so that the book isn’t like a dry history textbook but rather the interesting history it is. And the book not only highlights more than the civil rights movement but also goes more in depth about it than the March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech.
At the end of the book, Von Blum also writes about the impact that the civil rights movement has had on other liberation movements from the 1960s to the present. And while I really liked this focus on other movements, I thought it lacked a certain sense of how the different movements worked together on different issues as well. That and the gay liberation section did not even mention the work done by trans people from the 1960s to the present.
In fact, Von Blum completely erased trans people (especially trans women) from the narrative and not once mentioned women like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson. These two women were critical to the start of the modern gay liberation movement and are consistently erased so I’m severely disappointed to see them yet again left out from a civil rights narrative. And yes you can argue that this book is just civil rights for beginners but including Rivera and Johnson in the narrative should be included at the beginning stages because of the important work and role they’ve played in queer history.
So while this book does provide a lot of important information about US history and the historical context of resistance, it did leave out some important people and information. Ultimately the book does provide many of the missing information not found in some US history classes but it should be in no way be the final solution to learning more.
A little over 50 years ago in August 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law and thus enforcing the fifteenth amendment and banning discriminatory practices used in many states to prevent black Americans from voting. The journey to the passage of this act was filled with a whole lot of work and protests, much of which was met with violence from white people and communities hell bent on keeping the status quo. The 2014 film Selma highlights one significant protest, the Selma to Montgomery march, and highlights the violence and intimidation that came from police, government officials, and white people.