No, Marsha P. Johnson Would Not Suggest Queer Youth Disregard History

No, Marsha P. Johnson Would Not Suggest Queer Youth Disregard History

There is one consistent thing about my personality that has never changed and grows stronger as I get older — my love of history and advocating the importance of knowing and understanding it. 

History is more than the names and dates you had to memorize for multiple choice tests you took in high school, and the key question to ask when studying history is not who, what, when, or where, but how and most importantly why.

Most of us know Pride Month is in June as a remembrance of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and many of us know why the uprising started, but fewer know why those conditions existed to start the riots, and yet fewer still understand how the history of New York City created those conditions. Sure, you can answer all that with a simple “Because of homophobia,” but that reduces the people who lived through these times to shadows cast on a wall. We diminish their lives and struggles, and ultimately erase an understanding of how we got to here and why it still matters. As the black nationalist Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Recently, the British LGBTQ magazine Attitude published an op-ed that said the queer youth of today shouldn’t be obligated to care about LGBTQ history because we live in an era where they don’t have to. While certainly the author was addressing a British audience, it struck a major chord with Americans, especially because of its unfortunate timing with it being Black History Month and National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

The op-ed goes on to admit that yes, there are still issues with discrimination but it’s “way better than it used to be,” and that a whole new group of LGBTQ youth is “unencumbered by the abuse … that older generations have been tragicall y… scarred with.” While one can easily write pages on how widespread abuse and discrimination against LGBTQ youth is, especially when one goes outside of progressive bubbles like London or New York City, it’s the follow-up where writer Dylan Jones dismisses the older generatios's concerns that these youth are losing sight of the issues and living a devil-may-care existence.

Outside of the clubs, brunch-serving bistros, and drag diva Instagram world of the socialite gay scene that perhaps skews the author's view, LGBTQ youth still face discrimination and violence, especially within the trans community. Violence against LGBT people last year actually increased in America to include a record 52 known anti-LGBT homicides. What seems to some the past is our today.

The author continued to deride “self-appointed sanctioners” who claim that “we” were not allowed to enjoy our rights and freedoms once we had won them. The problem is that is not only blind to the struggles so many still face, but the fact that so much of LGBTQ culture is, in fact, a near-bacchanalian celebration of our identity, which is partially derived from the first remembrances of the Stonewall riots. That uprising and others like it stemmed from individuals wanting to celebrate their identity around others — and simply feel free. Stonewall was a bar with drag queens and illicit booze, not a somber activist meeting.

The author, in his accepting that things aren’t perfect, pays lip service to resistance by government to PrEP. The urgency of spreading awareness and use of PrEP within the community is useless without understanding the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s; its devastating effect upon the gay community, and how it shaped our current culture and identity. I was too young during this era to even understand my gender identity and sexuality, but I do remember it. I recall how it amplified homophobia, the deaths of closeted celebrities like Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury; I remember watching Queer Nation protesting on The Arsenio Hall Show, the cruel “AIDS Kills Faggots Dead” T-shirts, the AIDS Quilt spread over the National Mall, and I wasn’t even able to drive yet. Later, as I got older, I learned more on how AIDS devastated gay enclaves in cities to the point they nearly stopped existing, and I understood the cruel indifference of the Reagan administration, which couldn’t be bothered with addressing the “gay cancer” until it crossed over into straight culture. I learned the history of the community I became a part of and why PrEP is so important, beyond being the dosage of a drug advertised on posters on the back of the bar’s bathroom doors. It’s one thing to sit down to read And the Band Played On or watch Angels in America, but so much more to truly understand the times that shaped these things — and why you need to get on PrEP, damn it.

The author additionally derides those who go on marches or write think pieces because they (the youth) simply can’t afford the time off work. At least half the writers and activists I know are under 30 and do this in their spare time, and quite often for free because they’re passionate about it. Yet at the same time they, as the writer puts it, are “living their best lives,” implying they should be out partying and drinking at the clubs. I don’t know where he has been, but every single night these clubs are still packed with think-piece writers and activists. It is not a joke when I say that quite often when I’m out at the clubs looking to get a drink or a hookup, I ended up chatting to members of the local Pride board or the state's LGBTQ rights lobby instead. It's hardly an either/or situation. One can be passionate about changing the world for the better and find some time for fun.

But no, young people are not obligated to know their culture’s history; no one is obligated to do anything but pay taxes and die. But as Garvey said, a people without knowing their history are without a foundation. We cannot continue to fight for our rights against discrimination without understanding the urgency it holds because of our past. There is no celebrating it without knowing what gave it life. Most certainly, without knowing our past we allow ourselves to become victim to those who would like to return the world to it — where we hid in closets or darkly lit speakeasies, and died because of society's disgust. Living our best life is not merely partying and having a good time, but improving ourselves and those who come after us. We can only improve ourselves by knowing not merely who we are, but who and why we were.

AMANDA KERRI is an Oklahoma City-based writer and comedian, and a regular contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_kerri.

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