Capturing History

I began my career as a journalist at 17 years old writing for the feminist press and for local independent newspapers, including this one. Yet it was never my intent to become a journalist — activism propelled me in that direction. I didn’t go to journalism school. Rather, my field was history: American studies and women’s history.

I have long thought that the best journalists are those with a solid education in history. How do we report on current events without a foundation in what came before? This is exponentially more crucial for those of us reporting on those who have been historically marginalized and hidden from mainstream history — people of color, Indigenous people, LGBT+ people, women. 

How do we report on those who have been hidden from history without having some knowledge of that history?

Over my four decades of journalism, I have been asked repeatedly to write pieces that draw on that history. For several years I covered the U.S. Supreme Court, including for this paper. So I was in the actual court, in the press box behind those velvet drapes in the one place in U.S. government that remains sacrosanct: the press can observe but there are no cameras. It is for our eyes only. 

I remember clearly Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan and Harry Blackmun as the oral arguments of Bowers v. Hardwick were heard, and then years later as Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked questions about marriage equality. I was there in the blazing sun when the Hardwick decision came down and Harry Blackmun broke protocol to come out, angry and personally affronted by the 5-4 decision upholding sodomy laws, to rail against the majority as he had in his dissent, which was in part predicated on his opinion in Roe v. Wade.

These historical renderings have meaning for our collective history. The brutality of the Capitol and DC police when they arrested us protesting in front of the White House in the late 80s over the AIDS pandemic, the blue protective gloves they wore so they wouldn’t catch AIDS from us, is such a vivid, dehumanizing memory.

The past year and a half has seen an historical reckoning in America. We have been tasked with looking into our interiority as a nation and have been found wanting. The combined crises of the Trump presidency,  coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests that evolved out of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black men, women and children forced us to examine our collective American history.

What we saw was anything but “collective.” American history — the history I studied in the late 1970s in college — was the history of white male cis-het America. There was the occasional woman and the occasional man of color. But what I was taught — by men, as there was only one woman in the entire history department at my university — was the history of straight white maleness.

What I was taught was that there was no place for me in the story. I wanted to change that.

As I assumed a leadership role in creating and developing the nascent Women’s Studies department at the college, I also became acutely aware that there was little space for women of color and negative space for lesbians. When I returned from San Francisco where I had been the student representative from Temple University at the founding conference of the National Women’s Studies Association, I discovered how unwelcome my lesbian perspective was. 

I had been chosen as a 19-year-old dean’s list senior on a full scholarship to represent the college along with two of my professors, both straight white women. It was a thrilling conference and I loved every minute of it. I connected with women academics from all over the country and began to see a place for myself as an historian — a lesbian historian.

But the college was offended by my presentation of events. One of the two professors said outright — quite angrily and actually pointing her finger at me as she fairly shook with rage — that I had disgraced the college by associating with lesbians and Black women and ignoring the “real” academics, by whom she meant straight white women.

I shall never forget that conference, which set me on a critical path for my writing. Nor will I forget the subsequent meetings with the faculty at school. I was forced to defend my argument that lesbians and Black women were foundational to women’s studies and to our collective herstory. Kimberlé Crenshaw had not yet coined the term intersectionality, but that was what I was demanding. 

LGBTQ History month has often felt like a reprise of that series of events I experienced so many years ago. So many of the same people are highlighted: mostly white, largely male. James Baldwin and Audre Lorde are often featured in the mainstream queer press in October as the Black queers everyone knows. 

What I have learned as a journalist and as an historian is that history is mobile and fractious and volatile. It is also written by the powerful about themselves. Which means it is incumbent upon us to write our own history, to get down on paper in a real and solid record, the events of our lives individually and collectively, before they are subsumed by the history written in and by the mainstream.

The current fight over Critical Race Theory exemplifies how fearful some are of the revelations of the other side of American history, the hidden parts. And to continue to hide those facts — the genocide of Native Americans and Indigenous people, the enslavement of Black people, the subjugation of women, the criminalization of LGBTQ people — must not continue.

LGBTQ History Month 2021 demands we focus on this, too. It demands we focus on a critical review of what we have highlighted as a community and what we have hidden in our own history. There are LGBTQ people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who are still alive, whose histories are waiting, aching, to be recorded and archived. 

There are gender nonconforming lesbians, trans people and non-binary people who have been kept in the closet of the quest for assimilation and straight acceptance and belonging to the larger culture and society that has never made space for us. There are stories that we need to have, histories that are on the verge of being lost to us, that we must take down and record.

When I recall the events I have witnessed, the vast array of people I have met and interviewed over decades of reporting, I ache for those I never got the opportunity to return to, whose pivotal stories remained only partially told. 

We are on the cusp of so much change — crucial, visceral, critical change. Part of that tectonic shift must include breaking through the silences imposed on marginalized groups like LGBTQ people so that their historically suppressed voices can be heard. And when that happens, they become the part of history they were always meant to be.

Previous articleHerb Tapper: By Design
Next articleHoroscopes: Oct. 1 – 7, 2021
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.