Sunday, February 12, 2012

Don't lose the history

I recently finished Robbi McCoy's For Me and My Gal.  As I'm finding out, I enjoy each of Robbi's books, for different reasons.  This one is a historical novel, always something close to my heart, and I'll write about that in a review.  There were two paragraphs though that rang a bell with me and that, I think, speak to a concern I have.  Let me quote them first.  One of the characters, who started a US Navy career during World War II, is speaking in the present about why she left a woman she loved.

"It was very hard to be a lesbian back then.  You had to lead a double life, a life full of lies and hypocrisy.... It seemed easier.  There was so much secrecy and shame too.  I know we're all proud now, but you can't really be proud in a climate like that.  I mean, you kept it to yourself.  You had to....

.....You might think this is funny, but I never even knew the word 'lesbian' until I was your age, late twenties.  I mean, I was one, but I didn't know what I was.  I didn't know what to call it....The thing is, if you don't have a label, you can't form a united front.  Some people think labels are destructive, but there are a lot of instances where a label gives you a community, and a community gives you strength.   If you don't even have a name for what you are, you don't identify with others like you.  We lived very private and lonely lives.  That was the worst thing.  We lived in shadows.   And we had no idea how many of us there were."

I worry sometimes that we're losing our history.  I see it in the intemperate words that characters sometimes say in the books when they rail against people who are closeted or the comments that are sometimes made on groups by younger members who say they don't understand why people are concerned about being identified.

I hear this all the time from my students.  The African American students know practically nothing about the civil rights movement and even less about what came between the end of the Civil War and Montgomery.  The female students don't understand why there was a women's movement.  Every year several of them will tell me that they are accepted at a particular college and then they look at me with a total lack of comprehension when I say that I wanted to go there, too, but that school didn't accept female students when I was applying to college.  When I tell my students that I remember when the medical profession finally declared that being homosexual isn't a medical disease, they don't understand why anyone would think that in the first place.

I understand that it's a normal process.  Those who never experienced something can't really appreciate what it was like.  For those who lived through the experience however, it's difficult to hear younger people talk about how much easier it is now, to say that they don't understand it, or, worse, that they don't remember anything about it.

As a lover of history, I would wish that none of us would ever forget what came before us.


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