by Lisa Nielson,Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
I was taking an internet break from my pile of books in the National Library of Jerusalem this summer when a news article caught my eye. It reported the Jerusalem Pride Parade was going to kick off in about four hours — at 6 p.m. July 21, 2016 — in a park not far from where I was living. A year earlier, an ultra-orthodox fanatic stabbed six people at the march. One of the victims, Shira Banki, was 16 when she died. This time, the police were taking no chances. They blocked streets so participants could only join from certain points; they kept counter-protesters off the parade route and they prevented the family of the young girl’s killer from coming to Jerusalem.
I walked home, put on my purple “LGBT? Fine with Me!” shirt and joined the thin stream of people picking a way through the twisting back alleys and side streets of modern Jerusalem to reach the start. A crowd milled, waiting to go through security. Later I learned the organizers ran out of wrist bands. As I stepped into the park I found hundreds of people – shouting over pounding pop music, greeting friends, hoisting signs, draping flags. Some wore drag; some wore wings, some wore not much, but everyone seemed busy taking pictures with their phones. There were families with babies, soldiers in uniform, and visitors from outside Israel like myself.
My mother came out as a lesbian when I was 13. She did so at one of the toughest and most confusing times of her life, in conservative Salt Lake City. I remember being incredibly proud of her, yet too young to understand the importance of her decision. So my mom liked to sleep with women? Big deal.
Nevertheless, I found out we were not safe. Authorities might take me away from her; she could lose her job. Even worse, she could also be forcibly hospitalized. We knew a lesbian, I’ll call her Susan, who called a confidential hotline one night in desperation. The hotline worker called the police. We took care of her daughter while hospital staff gave her intensive drug and electro-shock therapy. Not long after her discharge, Susan killed herself – I never learned what happened to her child.
As the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case, I read each new crop of winning books, and this spring I was especially thrilled to find Lillian Faderman’s book, The Gay Revolution, on the list. It was enlightening, sorrowful and uplifting. I had grown up in the movement and yet there was much I didn’t know.
At 16, I had the pink triangle on my bag, a “Stop Heterosexism” pin on my hat, and was reading Audre Lorde. While in college, I helped carry the banner in the first Pride Parade in my tiny town of Bangor Maine, and participated in early local meetings of PFLAG. I was vocal supporting my LGBT friends and celebrating National Coming Out Day when it was still new. At times, I was harassed or criticized for my stance; others simply assumed I was a lesbian and dismissed me. Both responses taught me a great deal, as well as my own privileged position.
I am not a lesbian.
Like all the other identities in my life, I skirt close to the edge without being part of any. My mother laughingly called me her “heterodyke” and a number of women in the community were interested in me, but I turned out to be (perhaps disappointingly) straight. It didn’t matter to my LGBT community at all, which taught me another valuable lesson about tolerance and acceptance.
As I wavered about joining the Jerusalem Pride parade that afternoon in the library, I thought about my personal history and the historical weight of Faderman’s book. But it was the notion of my students that decided me. What would they like to see? How could I bring this experience into the classroom?
Yet, as I joined the crowd, I realized I was there for a wholly different reason. This was my community. I needed to be there, for me. As we started to march, I started to cry, and the tension of two months of intense work in an armed city began to ease. I held out my phone so I could film every second. Sure, I took pictures for others, but to be honest, it was all for me.
Some 6,000 miles from my apartment in Cleveland, I had arrived home.
Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
When Lillian Faderman spoke at the City Club of Cleveland this September, she ably distilled her ample Anisfield-Wolf winning history, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle,” into a half-hour presentation with 20 minutes of questions. Her audience was diverse, and several members expressed awe over a 76-year-old pioneer who came out as a lesbian in 1956.
Among the listeners were 14 young adults enrolled in a seminar on philanthropy in America — all first-year students at Case Western Reserve University.
“Lillian Faderman has long been a hero of mine and her work has informed my own research on early modern women,” said their professor, Barbara Burgess-Van Aken. She called her decision to bring the class “a shamelessly selfish choice which I justified by thinking that I would be giving students exposure to a different sort of nonprofit organization. Little did I realize that Lillian’s topic would spark so much passion among my students.”
Here are snippets of their responses:
One aspect of her talk that I was very interested in was the transition of the movement from being secretive and submissive to being loud and determined. It was very interesting to hear about the secret groups LGBT members would form. Prior to today, I had a vague knowledge of the history of the LGBT movement, but I did not know many of the actual details. It is pretty amazing to see how small acts of bravery here and there soon led to marches and riots.
It was surprising to hear, however, that people can be fired due to their sexual orientation. I most certainly could believe this to be true years ago, but I was not expecting it to still be true. —Claire Nordt
Lillian Faderman’s speech felt more like having a conversation with a person than listening to a scripted talk. —David Kerrigan
One aspect that I enjoyed was that she went through the very early stages of the LGBT revolution. It surprised me that people back in the 1950s would rather be called communist than gay. I know this was during the McCarthy era where it was very, very dangerous to be communist, which made it even more surprising. I like how she did not just tell us this information, but she illustrated it with statistics, evidence, and anecdotes.—Karthik Ravichandran
My visit to the Cleveland City Club and Lillian Faderman’s talk was very enlightening. I actually was hesitant about the course that the talk would take; I didn’t know if it would be a boring speech that would go on a tangent rant, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was a very intellectual and heartfelt speech. —Hemen Aklilu
Ms. Faderman has obviously gone through a lot in her lifetime and it is amazing that she has had the courage and will to do all the work she has to help educate so many people on gay rights. Her presentation was very professional but at the same time very personable.—Kyle Lewis
The City Club of Cleveland hosted an honest and ethical ceremony where the voices of many were summed up by one incredible woman who has done her best to engage, educate, and empower those who listen to her to recognize the hardships that this community has faced and to realize all that there is left to go to truly free these people.—Jacqueline Abraham
Lillian Faderman’s speech was both informative and incredibly interesting. I personally did not know much about the history of gay rights and learned a lot from the experience. It really saddens me that United States history has so much bigotry ingrained in it. We are not really educated about the history of gay rights. In high school, I learned about African Americans’ struggle for equal rights, Native Americans’ plight involving the taking over of their land, and the racism Hispanics face. Never did I learn about the LBGTQ struggle. It is absolutely appalling to me that this demographic received so much hate.—Michael Rowland
Perhaps my favorite question that was asked was about what the proper terms to reference the gay community were. There are so many things out there and it’s hard to know as an outsider what the majority prefers. It can be extremely hard to follow and her response about both gay and LGBT being acceptable was very helpful. It was nice to see her take a light-hearted approach about the acronyms and how many there are to this day. — Anna Goff
I very much enjoyed Lillian Faderman’s idea that the black power movement of the 1960s inspired the gay rights movement to rise up and take action. I had never thought of this connection before, so it was interesting to hear her perspective on it and the influence she believes it has…. In general I was a little disappointed that she didn’t talk about the AIDS epidemic in more detail because personally I feel that it was a large part of the gay rights movement in the twentieth century. To her benefit however, someone did ask a question based on AIDS, which gave her a chance to say how important it was to the struggle for civil rights. —Claire Howard
The most interesting thing at this event was whether or not queer people should be considered a minority group. Some people think that gay people are not minorities because there is only one simple difference that divides them from the rest of this heteronormative society. But wouldn’t that be the case for all minority groups? We are humans with variations in race, nationality, ability, etc. These things are just simple differences like sexuality. People are not in a minority group because they feel like they are oppressed. They are in these groups because they are oppressed. Any minority group, whether it be queer or disabled people, has to try harder in order to succeed in a society that does not acknowledge their human rights. —Mya Cox
I have spoken at a Rotary Club event, and it was much more informal and simple. This event almost seemed like a small-scale TED talk to me. Upon looking at Ms. Faderman, I expected a serious, bland, but informative speech. Instead, Ms. Faderman was light-hearted, charismatic, and very informative in her speech. She started by saying, “I am going to recap my 800+ page book in a 30 minute talk.” Rather than spitting facts or quotes from her novel, she took the listeners on a trip through the history and important events of the LGBT fight.—Rohith Koneru
Faderman also mentioned that a lot of hate came from the religious side of things. Now I cannot deny that a lot of those against the LGBT community have association with religion but I was raised Catholic and believe in that faith. I went through Catholic schooling from preschool all the way through high school and not once was a taught to hate the LGBT community.—Jeremy Hill
One other notable topic I liked was her discussion of the media portrayal of gay men as rapists and lesbians as killers. While those no longer exist in the media today, the stereotypes of gays being pedophiles and the like still exist, and TV shows and movies hardly portray LGBT characters at all, and those that do usually make a huge deal out of them. ..
A final note was that I loved the picture of Frank Kameny shaking hands with President Obama in the Oval Office because in that one picture and that one gesture, the viewer is able to see just how far the gay rights movement has come and the progress that has been made towards true equality.—Tom Schlechter
Everyone–both pro or anti LGBT–could feel the passion and struggle of the community and actually sympathize with them. I do feel like I have learned something new about the community’s struggle and the fracture it encountered on a whole another level. I respected her passion and dedication to something she truly believed in even though it has been a long hard brutal fight until this point.
As a gay male, the whole presentation affected me on an emotional level. Also, I was pleased that she was not dismissive of other cultures and opinions, which a lot of people tend to do, but instead focused more on the story of the LGBT individuals. Generally, people have a tendency to make their group seem better than others, but Faberman was very respectful towards those of other groups. —Karthik Ravichandran
We have to work hard to make sure everyone has equal rights. The fact that people are still being discriminated against is terrible. We need to band together and change this. —Michael Rowland