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Michael Bronski - Why Gay History Matters: From Bath House to Harvard, My Journey
Summary by Mr. Ronald Fisher
Why Gay History Matters: From Bath House to Harvard, My Journey
Presented by Professor Michael Bronski, Lecturer, Harvard University and Dartmouth College
The Jefferson Literary & Debating Society, March 29th, 2013, Jefferson Hall (Hotel C, West Range)
Professor Michael Bronski gave a presentation to the Society entitled, “Why Gay History Matters: From Bath House to Harvard, My Journey.” Prof. Bronski began his remarks by suggesting that there is no such thing as queer history—a claim which Prof. Bronski admitted might surprise some, considering that Prof. Bronski is teaches gender studies and authored A Queer History of the United States. Prof. Bronski explained by arguing that queer history is in fact just history; that is, queer history cannot (and perhaps ought not) be disaggregated from history generally. First, we often cannot know for certain whether certain historical figures were in fact gay, and we are reduced to speculating over the limited evidence that the historical record has provided. Second, a queer history revision of some topics simply might not be interesting; Prof. Bronski suggested that a queer history of the Civil War simply would not be all that enlightening. Instead of expending energy on such projects, Prof. Bronski argued, the academy should bring queer history back into general history. Prof. Bronski then turned to providing a quick overview of some lesser known queer historical figures who ought to be included in such a synthesis.
Prof. Bronski then turned to his own life story, starting with his employment at a gay bathhouse. Bronski explained that these locations served as more than locations devoted to sexual gratification; they were also social and political nexuses for the gay community. While working at the bathhouse, Prof. Bronski first became involved in queer identity politics. Prof. Bronski noted that during this time period the gay movement was much more radical than it is today. For example, the movement that Prof. Bronski was a part of in the 60s and 70s would have found the idea of seeking the right of marriage to be bizarre, because the movement of that period was so profoundly against the establishment and the state. Seeking marriage rights is tantamount to actively seeking the state’s approval of one’s relationship, which is a concept that was wholly alien to the grassroots gay rights movement Prof. Bronski recalled from his youth. In contrast, today’s gay rights movement is lead from the top-down, by organizations such as Lambda Legal and Human Rights campaign. Prof. Bronski expressed doubt that this transition from a grassroots movement to a top-down movement was an entirely positive development.
Prof. Bronski wrapped up by discussing the future of the gay rights movement. Although Prof. Bronski supports same-sex marriage and expressed hope that it will be recognized either by the Supreme Court this term, or by political action within the next few years, he also expressed some apprehension about a loss of momentum for the gay rights movement once same-sex marriage is achieved. Prof. Bronski noted the tension between liberty and equality, and argued that while Americans are easily convinced to support liberty, they are more reluctant to support action designed to increase equality. The success of the same-sex marriage movement, Prof. Bronki argued, can in part be attributed to the fact that same-sex marriage has been framed as a liberty issue. However, Prof. Bronski stated that he strongly believes that significant work regarding achieving equality for queer persons will remain after same-sex marriage becomes law. Prof. Bronski worried that after same-sex marriage is achieved, political will for gay rights issues, along with donations for the leading gay rights organizations, will dry up. Should that occur, Prof. Bronski speculated that the loss of the grassroots character of the early gay rights movement may come to be regretted.
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