The history of LGBT people has included conscious attempts to erase that history; either by society at large or religious, state or academic thugs, or LGBTs themselves who've wanted to "protect" themselves posthumously, e.g., Walt Whitman's coded/altered diaries, or, even more often, the person's heirs who, when they have not succeeded in destroying records entirely, have sometimes legally blocked anyone from publishing them.
So, the passage in California of a law requiring that LGBT history be included in state public schools curriculum was a major, long overdue victory. But, ironically and sadly, it's coincided with a time in which we're seeing an orgy of misinformation and gossip and plain old wishful thinking being accepted as fact. I believe that a false history is as bad as no history at all. For if knowledge is power, what is ignorance?
Examples of the gossip/wishful thinking abuses are the recent claim that George Washington "in all probability, was the first American to offer domestic-partner rights." The person who made that claim is a longtime gay activist who made major contributions to the Movement. But I won't even grace this nonsense by detailing his "reasoning" because there isn't any unless 1+1 now does = 3. This isn't "uncovering LGBT history"—it's making it up. What we do know, in fact, is that Washington approved the literal drumming out of the Revolutionary Army of a man accused of "attempted sodomy." Are we to believe he approved of gay men living together—but only as long as they were celebate?
Then there's the trailer for the film about FBI monster J. Edgar Hoover. The actual film might be different, but the trailer clearly intends to reinforce the belief that he and his longtime companion, Clyde Tolson, were lovers. One can't call this "pure speculation" because it's almost rotten to its core, for, unlike, e.g., the highly suggestive surviving letters of Eleanor Roosevelt to Lorena Hickok that weren't among those Hickok burned, there is apparently nothing substantial enough to justify such a dramatization. And, no, contrary to what one can still read in some places, Tolson and Hoover are not buried side-by-side, although they are buried in the same row. But so is gay military pioneer Leonard Matlovich; in fact, only a few feet from Tolson's grave with its, yes, pink granite marker. But, trust me, Leonard and they were not involved in any kind of menage.
The misinformation category is harder to deal with both because examples of it are more rampant, and because, usually, the person repeating it genuinely believes it to be true, either because they're unaware of anything different or have trusted the source. Even before the film about Harvey Milk, many erroneously believed that he was, as it's usually phrased, "the first openly gay person elected to public office." It popped up again a few days ago in a story in a New York City neighborhood newspaper about an openly gay elected official there who wants New York schools to also require teaching "the truth" about LGBTs. After writing the paper, and explaining to them that Harvey was actually the FIFTH such elected out gay, they graciously thanked me, and said they'd never make the mistake again.
As I recall, the film script added the qualifier "to a major office," but he wasn't the first at that either. Yet anyone visiting the Castro today will see it emblazoned on no less than the door of the HRC store, making them failures at both activism and knowing our history.
Sometimes it's a matter of getting caught up in someone else's youthful ignorance. This summer, even mainstream media reported that active duty gays and veterans in San Diego were participating in a Pride event for the first time in history. It's understandable that most were not aware this was done at least as early as 1975 in New York City, but how was it so many forgot still-in-the-Army-National-Guard Dan Choi participating in Pride events in 2009 and 2010? They might have been justified in claiming, "the most ever," but, no, they insisted on The First crown, and simultaneously looked like fools and disrespected those who came before, including this apparent gay sailor in San Diego in 1977.
Even someone as great as the late Frank Kameny, with a huge institutional memory, can make a mistake. He was a brilliant man, with a mind as quick and sharp as his tongue, and I genuinely loved both. But he was unaware, or had forgotten, the facts that made two of his statements over the years incorrect. The first was that, in 1971, he was the first out gay to run for office. Actually, Jose Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as an out gay man ten years before.
Some have interpreted what Frank said about his 1961 appeal to the Supreme Court challenging his being fired by the government as being the first gay case to go to the Court. In terms of a job discrimination case, that's apparently true. But not only was there an earlier gay rights related case, but they won. In 1954, the post office confiscated mailed issues of the gay periodical ONE for being ''obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy." The publishers sued, and four years later the Supreme Court unanimously reversed lower court rulings upholding the post office.
But for "Worst of All," it's a tie. First, when one sees misinformation written by people who are PAID to be professional journalists; and not just about our history but the present. "Fact checking," apparently went the way of the 8-track tape. For months now I have tried to stamp out the myth, repeated far and wide, in both gay and mainstream media, that DOMA bans gay couples from living in military family housing. Unless the Pentagon has admitted that they were wrong in stating unequivocally in their November 2010 "study" report that it is not, then not only do media have retractions to make but SLDN, too. In this case, the issue is far greater than academic accuracy. People need to understand that the President could order the Pentagon to extend this benefit now.
Second are those who simply make things up. At the top of this list are those who are having growing success in getting people to believe that, in the same way gay men had to wear pink triangles in Nazi concentration camps, lesbians had to wear black triangles. According to German historian Dr. Claudia Schoppmann, herself a lesbian and author of some 10 books on the period, in Days of Masquerade: Life Stories of Lesbians During the Third Reich, “Lesbians did not make up a separate category of prisoners.” Some were arrested as “prostitutes” or under the catch-all “asocials,” and, as both categories [along with vagrants, pacifists, et al.] were assigned the black triangle, that is from which the myth arose that it “meant” “lesbian” in the same way the pink triangle meant “homosexual.” Ella Smula and Margarete Rosenberg were arrested as lesbians and sent to Ravensbruck, but, in another example of the inconsistency of the Reich, they were assigned red triangles which meant “political prisoner.” One example of a lesbian sent to a concentration camp and executed was Henny Schermann. While her prisoner record in Ravensbrueck included the fact that she was gay, her imprisonment and death was because she was also a Jew.
Finally, I come to what prompted me to write this after thinking about the issue overall for some time. Today we see a story first published by GLAAD which asserts that a man named Gary Hess was "the first person in Navy history to be honorably discharged for being gay, marking a historic moment in LGBT history."
His lawsuit fighting his discharge and the ban definitely was a part of the history of other challenges going on at the same time, and deserves applause. And, I'm sure his loving daughter believes the unique claim above. But, somewhat like some of the sincere beliefs people bring to Antiques Roadshow ["My grandmother said it had belonged to Marie Antoinette."], alas, it's not true. A June 25, 1975, Army Times article reported that fiscal 1970 marked a major change in the percentage of gay service members receiving honorable disharges. In 1969, the military had given undesirable discharges to 54%, but by 1979 60% were honorable.
And an August 21, 1978, syndicated UPI story was even more specific: "The Navy has kept careful statistics on it homosexual discharges.... In fiscal 1975, 147 homosexuals received honorable discharges while 347 got general discharges." As noted in the GLAAD story, Mr. Hess did not receive his honorable discharge until February 1976.
There are two morals to this story. 1. Read, read, READ! And never depend on just one LGBT history book, article, or, Goddess forbid, Wikipedia. 2. Before repeating a claim you see only one source fore, attempt to measure it against other sources. And, even if no contradictory information is found, it's still probably best to say, "the first KNOWN _______" because, thankfully, we're learning more everyday.