Histories Slipping Away: The Aging of the LGBT Movement


Four time Tony Award-winning  playwright Terrence McNally's new Broadway show Mothers and Sons opened this week.

13382027135_e9e8747b1c_bThe brilliant play is the first to capture the journey of the gay community from the dark days of HIV/AIDS to the days of marriage equality and children. In fact, the play has the first legally married same sex couple ever portrayed in a Broadway production.

Not only has McNally made history with this intense show, it is an extraordinary piece of art with stunning performances. Frederick Weller (Cal) and Bobby Steggert (Will) give the audience unforgettable moments of first rate acting. However it is Tyne Daly who steals the show. Her portrayal of the homophobic mother of a son who died of HIV/AIDS makes her a guaranteed frontrunner for the Tony Award in June.

As it bears witness to history this stirring production also serves as a powerful reminder that the LGBT community is on the verge of losing substantial parts of its history and no plans are in place to save it.

The struggle to preserve our history over the years has faced enormous barriers. Members of the gay community in the early years of our struggle for liberation were reluctant to keep records, papers, and videos for fear of discovery. After many of our best and brightest died of HIV/AIDS, many of their families destroyed anything of their belongings that would even suggest they were gay. Many traditional universities, museums and libraries initially refused to accept such papers because of their 'controversial content'.

If action is not taken very quickly, the pioneers of our community over the last fifty years will pass away without their stories being saved, their papers safely kept or their oral histories taken down.

Personally, coming out of intensive care last month I realized that while my papers are at Yale University, I have never done an extensive oral history which would cover so much more than are in my papers. Dozens of my peers who have been in the forefront of the battle for LGBT liberation are now in their senior years and are having health issues.

Dmixnerb&wVeterans of the movements who picketed the White House in the 1950's, participated in the Stonewall insurrection in 1969,  fought Anita Bryant in the 1970's and led the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic are quickly passing on with no archival record of their lives. Even the early days of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell" took place over 20 years ago and many of those involved are now over 60.

The story of the LGBT community and its struggle for freedom is an epic one that is filled with courageous stories and victory against insurmountable odds. The fact that we never gave up even while we were faced with caring for our sick and dying at the height of the AIDS epidemic is a story that should be told to future generations. The story of how the LGBT community embraced a path filled with love and outreach instead of responding in kind to the hatred and violence directed toward us should never be forgotten.

Our history, if we decide to save it, without question will be an inspiration to future generations no matter what their sexual orientation. It is a history filled with courage, dignity, nobility and amazing victories.

What a tragedy if people don't act quickly and these amazing stories disappear into the night.


  1. JAMES P KELLY says

    I’m 67 and came out privately in high school and publicly in college (before Stonewall). I donated papers to Cornell University’s Koch Library of Human Sexuality, including my own detailed sexual history from ’76-’79 and a ticketstub to Gay Disneyland – the first public gay event other than a parade; my items are on display right now at a show in Ithaca. I have also donated to One National Gay and Lesbian Archives. I suggest others find amenable institutions for themselves but these two have been welcoming and wonderful to work with.

  2. Bob K says

    Go for it, David — of course, young men tend to think only their generation matters, but knowing the history gives everyone grounding.
    How many 20 and 30 somethings can imagine what it was like for me to lie in bed 25 years ago, wondering why I was not dead like my friends?

  3. says

    I have tried getting help and so often… it goes unanswered. I have a large collection of images,memorbilia and stories behind the images. Many at important gay events. At 77, if I do not get help it will be lost. A few years back,much attention was given to a Chicago nanny who had over 100,000 images and books and exhibits came out of it. Yet not one story was found among those images. My collection is only about 3,000 and you would be amazed at the stories behind them. My most well known image is that of Harvey Milk with the bull horn and the save our rights sign in the background. It was recreated for the movie MILK… and they were wrong on every detail. For the details visit one of the best websites of San Francisco gay history.


    For my Milk image.Note I coined the phraise “Orange Tuesday”.


  4. Wavin' Dave says

    I second the nomination of Lauderdale’s Stonewall Library Museum and Archive. I’m a librarian and don’t love the sloppy ways that personalities and politics have interfered in professional work there, but, aside from the San Francisco collection, it seems the best repository for the future. I just wish they’d spend money to hire professionals – 2 salaries thus far: Director and Development Director. Alas, that won’t help organize and preserve the invaluable material they can assemble. And volunteers just aren’t the answer.

  5. Kevin says

    With all due respect to David Mixner….LGBT history, or the lack of documentation to tell our stories, is just another sad chapter in world history.

    I support anyone with data that could patch together one or more LGBT stories; however, many peoples, in Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, Australia, Europe, etc. – with equally import and stories to tell, also will never have their stories told because of time and my lack of supporting/substantiating evidence and data.

  6. RJ says

    While it’s important to look towards the past, let’s not forget that there is a distinct barrier between older gay men and those of us who are younger.

    A few times, I have experienced a great deal of unwarranted anger towards me by older gay men simply because I was born in 1984 and did not experience the AIDS epidemic first-hand.

    I do, however, recognize and give thanks to those who not only lost their lives, but survived to instill in me an appreciation for safer sex and a desire to help those who are currently suffering in the gay community.

    Whether it’s young towards old or old towards young, we could all do with a splash of cold water in our face and drop this heightened level of ageism that we’ve all witnessed.

  7. Ryan says

    I feel like this is such a huge problem with society in general.

    Everyone should become hobbyist historians and catelogue society around them — whether it’s writing a daily journal down or keeping important documents from something important you were involved in, even if you don’t think it’s historically important as it’s going on.

    I’m not saying anyone should be a hoarder…. a lot of this stuff can be kept digitally and it would be just as helpful to future generations, and maybe even more so if you give files and folders sensible names, with dates, to make them easily sortable.

    This doesn’t have to be for things you think are incredibly important… they could just be things that will someday be important to someone.

    I frequent a forum on video games every once in a while, and you’d be shocked at how many of them worry about the fact that we aren’t keeping good history of online games that, once turned off by the companies who own them, are gone forever…. even if those games played a large part in the development of entire genres.

    So it could be seriously mundane topics — like things going on in your town (which is more important than ever to keep track of since local papers are dying, and even where they exist, aren’t able to cover what they used to).

    It could be musicians and bands.

    And it certainly could be all those old journals and pictures you took at protests during the HIV/AIDs crisis or DADT, etc.

    This stuff is going to inevitably be important to future generations, and if we don’t keep it, all of that knowledge and all those lessons that have been learned could be lost.

  8. scott_lumry says

    My partner of 21 years, who is now 84, grew up in Houston. He often tells the stories of life lived with fear of being found out. The retreat from gay venues when being raided by the local police, falling out of bathroom windows as wigs fell off and high heels made the running difficult. I wonder if any of this will live on in the minds of our community when his ashes are spread out over the landscape and Scott fails to remember the names and stories.

  9. Gary Bebout says

    “I’ve always thought the phrase should be ‘going in,’ not ‘coming out.’ “At whatever point or points we choose, we enter a gay culture which already exists, and in joining that culture we find ourselves amidst a variety of styles which our gay peers offer us and demand from us. We define ourselves by adopting or refusing these styles.”

    Neil Bartlett, in “Man in Frock,” The Body Politic, July 1985

  10. Randy says

    In Canada, the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives has quite a collection, which I was lucky to visit when I donated some old newspapers.


    They do collect artifacts (and I assume papers are among those) from notable people and add them to their archive.

  11. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  12. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  13. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  14. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  15. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  16. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  17. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  18. Brian W. says

    @ Scott Lumry

    Nice comment. I’m a gay man in my early 30s living in Houston and would love to hear stories of past gay life from your partner.

  19. simon says

    In recent years, there were a lot gay blogs, livejournals , myspace, youtube etc. These will one day also become part of history in the last part of the 20th and beginning of the 21th century, in digital forms.

  20. alex says

    There’s little I find more irritating than someone who complains but fails to provide any ideas to fix the problem. My irritation turns to anger when the complaints come from with power, authority, or experience.

    If David Mixner spent less time complaining, maybe he’d come up with a way to avert the problem.

  21. Jerry says

    Life doesn’t cast a different shadow on this side of the mountain. I had recently read that some young politicos appear to believe that at the age of 65 you start to loose it and start to argue with potted plants. At the age of 63, I am running out of storage space for those aspect of my journey . The more time you live, your memory reaction time does get jarred but you still can remember.
    However the challenge doesn’t fade. My partner and I have been presented with a challenge that to many is frightening. However so, we are standing alone in facing bias. Please visit http://str8jacquet.blogspot.com/

    We appear to be surrounded by bias and need some light.

  22. Dback says

    There’s also a weird technological bias going on–when I’ve offered magazines, newspapers, etc. to some places, they’ve been like, “Can you scan everything in and e-mail it to us?” I had a hard time donating a bunch of LGBT-themed movies and documentaries–not all of them on DVD–because our local center didn’t even have a VCR anymore. Hmmmm.

  23. mark says

    As you mature you may find that the stories you made up to keep love alive are no more “real” than the stories people made up about you.

    There is a certain amount of freedom in that.

  24. says

    Simon mentions a good point – there are new documentations.

    Digital records of the ongoing movement.

    That said, I feel a lot of what this article talks about . I try to do what I can to remind my generation ( i was born in the early 80s) and the next about the men and women who came before us, the brothers and sisters who risked and fought and lost and won so that one day our own battle wouldn’t be as difficult to fight.

    we owe our lives to them. and we owe it to remember.

  25. says

    I’m a 51 year old librarian who lives in CT, and I’ve long had an interest in gay history. Four years ago I purchased a collection of 1950s snapshots that document the relationship of an American gay couple named Roger and Frank. Based on handwritten notes found on the backs of many of the photos, I’ve been researching the lives of these two men. I’ve also been giving talks about the collection. I’ve scanned the photos and you can see them on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boobob92/sets/72157623596865714/

  26. says

    The call to record our history is always timely. More resources and more institutions are needed to do the job across the country. At the same time, it bears noting that initiatives to discover and preserve LGBT history have been part of our movement almost since the beginning.

    The annual publication of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in the early 20th century regularly ran historical articles, and the library and archives at Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science founded in 1919 in Berlin collected historical records.

    During the post-World War II homophile movement, perhaps the first significant homosexual research library and archives in the United States was founded as part of One Inc. in Los Angeles in the early 1950s; that collection is now part of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives. And during the gay liberation movement in the early 1970s, archives and history projects were founded in a number of cities and countries.

    The institution of which I am a founding member, The GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, was established in 1985; it now maintains one of the largest publicly accessible collections of LGBT historical materials in the country and sponsors The GLBT History Museum, which has welcomed more than 45,000 visitors from around the world since it opened in January 2011.

    Just as important as urging members of our community to recall our history, we also might take a moment to honor the people across the U.S. and around the world who have already put so much work into ensuring that our stories are preserved for the future. And even more importantly, all of us can help this process along by donating to the nonprofits that do this work.

    To learn about supporting the GLBT Historical Society: http://www.glbthistory.org.

  27. says

    For fifty years, I have been writing gay history, and have written hundreds of articles and twenty books of gay history, including “Gay San Francisco” and my memoir of life with my lover, “Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera.” Most importantly, since 1995, I have posted FREE to all the texts of all my books and other writings at my dual gay research site http://www.JackFritscher.com Enjoy.

  28. Palamane says

    David, thanks for raising this issue to awareness. Thanks also for the comments talking about institutions–from the biggies (like Cornell’s awesome Human Sexuality Collection) to small indies like local LGBT historical societies. If you’ve documented local LGBT history and want to save it, PLEASE look to your nearest research university. If it’s a secular school with liberal views on the the value of collecting ALL historical sources, then they’re more likely to be interested, especially if you have already cataloged and described things. You may need to look around, and if your regional research university can’t or won’t handle your collection, go to one of the big institutions named here–it doesn’t have to be in a city with a large gay population and university life (New York, LA, Berkeley/SF, Chicago, Atlanta). Cornell’s collection is very open and simply amazing. Historians of sexuality, changing mores, human health, entertainment, design, fashion, etc. will be so enriched if we share our collections and stories.

    And hey, even if you’re not yet ready to give up your collection, TALK to the librarians and archivists, make the connections. Make sure your family, friends, lovers, and executors know of your interest. If something happened suddenly, and your will was not up-to-date, your executors and survivors would know to donate your collection. (And keep it well-organized–it will be even more appealing to institutions with limited staff and budgets.)

    Websites are being saved by the Internet Archive which now has support from the Library of Congress. Someone may want to dig into the IA and create an LGBT research guide. Digital archiving is a growing area of archives and librarianship. (It’s not as bad as 10 years ago, but there’s still risk.)

    Oral history is a problem. There are established oral history collections and training programs for conducting good oral history interviews, but trained people need to be paid and then there’s the cost of transcription. Again, check with a regional library or archive–they have the connections and resources to put you in touch…
    Paul (trained librarian in NYC)

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