elisechenier: (Default)
In the history of lesbian and gay politics, historians put a lot of stock in whether or not the people we study were "out." But what exactly does"out" mean? This past week I interviewed Robert W. Wood, author of 1960 bookChrist and the Homosexual. Wood is a retired United Church of Christ (formerly Congregationalist Church) minister who knew since high school that he was gay. As a teenager he poured through Biblical scripture looking for guidance regarding his sexuality and found none.
Cover of the 1960 book Christ and the Homosexual
A year into university Wood was called up for military service. He suffered a gun shot wound in the mountains of Italy that left him with a collapsed lung. When he was finally released from hospital 666 days later (not making that up), he took his GI Bill benefits and enrolled in the Oberlin Seminary where he studied for a life in service of God. By the time he graduated, he was no better informed about the Christian view of homosexuality and decided to fill the gap himself. Once established in his own church in the commuter suburb of Spring Valley, New York, he crafted a book-length argument for a Christian approach to homosexuality, one that saw homosexuals as equal to heterosexuals, that maintained God approved of homosexuals, and that argued pastors had a moral and ethical obligation to become better informed about homosexuality so that they could provide good counsel to their homosexual parishioners. He also insisted on the right of same-sex couples to marry, which is why I came to know him and his work. Not only did Wood use his real name (something Edward Sagarin, author of the 1951 book The Homosexual in America chose not to do) and put his image on the book sleeve, he gave a copy to each of his own church's board members. Wood does not identify himself as a homosexual in the book, but simply writing such a book automatically raised suspicions. Remarkably, if an eye was batted in Spring Valley, it was done in private. Wood's position as pastor was never challenged, and he went on to serve at two other churches before retiring in 1986.

Two years after the book came out, Wood met, fell in love with, and married rodeo cowboy and artist Hugh Coulter. They bought and wore matching gold bands on their left ring finger but maintained separate residences. When congregants invited Wood out socially, Hugh usually went along. Some grasped the nature of their relationship, others did not.

Was Wood "out" or not? In an interview I conducted with him last week he says he "came out" in 1957 when he published a short article called "Spiritual Exercises" in a gay men's physique magazine. He used his real name and it was printed with a clear head shot, the same one he later used for his book. In an earlier interview with Stephen Law, Wood described an unambiguous public declaration of his sexuality more typical of what Americans consider "coming out." When Hugh died in 1986 a sympathetic parishioner said, "I am so sorry your friend has died."

"He wasn't my friend,"Wood declared, "he was my partner." It was the first time he confronted the ambiguity that had allowed him and Hugh to lead the life they did while still actively and openly advocating for gay rights.

Being "out" enabled people to publicly fight against oppression while simultaneously providing a visible role model for lesbians and gays who believed they were abnormal, deviant, and sinners. For that reason, being out had a measurable historical impact. Wood's book is case in point. He received hundreds of letters from lesbians and gays who expressed relief at having a positive view of themselves put forward, but who were still too afraid to sign their own names at the bottom of the page.

Did Wood come out in 1957 or 1986? Or is "outness" too blunt an instrument for understanding the history of queer resistance politics? Perhaps Wood's story suggests that we need a different metric for measuring "outness" in the 50s and 60s than we do for the 70s and after. What do you think?

(Special thanks to Alan Miller of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives for putting me on to Wood's work)

crossposted to [community profile] fromoutlawstoinlaws

Like the Elise Chenier Facebook Page | Like the From Outlaws to In-Laws Facebook Page

elisechenier: (Default)
This past week I met with Vancouver's queer seniors writing collective Quirk-e to talk about a draft of an article I recently completed with the title: “Freak Wedding! Marriage as Postwar Lesbian Pleasure Practice.” The article was inspired by the headline of a 1957 tabloid story about a butch and fem lesbian wedding in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The question I ask in the article is simple enough: how can we make sense of butch and fem lesbians' highly conventional marriage practices when everything else about them was highly unconventional? There are extraordinary parallels between working-class butch and fem lesbian bar culture and the culture of early twentieth century circus freaks, so I use the critical studies understanding of late 19th and early 20th century circus "freaks" to deepen our understanding of butch and fem culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Margot Dunn, a Quirk-e collective member, made a brilliant comment during our discussion. "There is nothing freakier than a wedding ceremony," she said. People dress completely out of the ordinary, they say things that are out of the ordinary, and the day is spent in a very unordinary way.

Everyone agreed, myself included. Margot could see something so obviously freaky, but made so ordinary by its status in our culture as “normal,” that no one else could see.

The wonderful thing about the word "freaky" is that it can mean different things. Something can be freakishly weird or freakishly wonderful. The challenge in writing Outlaws to In-Laws is to make the story of same-sex marriage in the 1950s, '60s and '70s as interesting to people who see marriage (gay, straight, or otherwise) as freakishly weird as we might expect it to be for those who see it as wonderful.

I am one of many who see same-sex marriage as weird and wonderful. Since the late 1800s marriage in Western culture has increasingly come to be a public celebration of love, intimacy, and commitment between two people. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, mainstream American society insisted lesbians and gays were incapable of authentic love, intimacy, or commitment. That same-sex couples married each other anyhow makes these weddings freakishly wonderful. On the other hand, as a cultural institution marriage typically reinforces gender stereotypes. When Daisy de Jesus performed wedding ceremonies in New York’s Broadway Central bar in the late '60s, she asked: "Do you take so-and-so to be your butch, to love and protect you? Do you take so-and-so to be your fem, to love you and to be faithful?" Daisy would come to reject this kind of gender differentiation as she became more and more involved in the women's liberation movement in the early 1970s.

What guides my exploration of this topic is the largely forgotten gay liberationist argument that love outside the bounds of society's prescriptive norms is a radical action. To truly embrace other human beings as having a value, a dignity, and a humanity equal to you and everyone else, they claimed, is the most direct path to uprooting of social and political inequality.

People do not always marry for love, and it is certainly not the only way to express love, but the couples I am writing about loved radically. At the time, most Americans thought such love to be so freakishly weird it was perverted; in this context how can it be anything other than freakishly wonderful?

What do you think?

crossposted to [community profile] fromoutlawstoinlaws

Like the Elise Chenier Facebook Page | Like the From Outlaws to In-Laws Facebook Page

elisechenier: (Default)
In the summer of 2011 I rode my motorcycle around the U.S. in search of pre-1980 evidence of same-sex marriage for my book Outlaws to In-Laws. I made stops at queer and lesbian and gay archives in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Elise Chenier and Troy Perry
Caption: Me and Troy

While in L.A. I met up with Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which today boasts 222 member congregations in 37 countries. The MCC was founded in 1968. Perry ran an ad in a local gay newspaper inviting people to attend a Christian service he was to conduct himself. With no money to put toward the effort, he held the service in his living room. Twelve people turned up. Nine were friends he cajoled into coming. Only three came as a result of the ad.

Perry’s fiery sermons services, however, quickly attracted large crowds of queers thirsty for spiritual sustenance and community. One of the most popular services he provided was to bless couples’ unions.

Unlike the story of Daisy de Jesus, which I wrote about last week, the history of Troy Perry and the MCC Church is well documented in archives, books and on film. Interviews, however, often bring out nuances and details left off the official record. I was keen to meet Perry and hear what he had to say on the subject. We met up in June of 2011 and spent close to three hours talking about the MCC and gay marriage.

Here is a 38-second clip from our interview. Perry explains his feelings about marriage and describes an early, creative solution to the exclusion of lesbian and gays from formal marriage rites. The clip gives us a sense of Perry's intoxicating voice and his passion for life and love. It's easy to see why so many are drawn to him.

Do you know of similar “creative solutions”? Did you ever marry or attend a wedding ceremony at the MCC in its first decade?

crossposted to [community profile] fromoutlawstoinlaws

Like the Elise Chenier Facebook Page | Like the From Outlaws to In-Laws Facebook Page

elisechenier: (Default)
Archivists are the unsung heroes of the historical profession. They are made all the more special by the fact that in the lesbian and gay archives sector most are unpaid, or underpaid. Theirs is a true labor of love.

Doing research in volunteer-run archives means that services can be patchy. You rely on the goodwill and good humor of others, and luck and happenstance can have as much to do with your research results as a good method and thorough approach.

When I first began contemplating same-sex marriage as a research topic, I contacted the Lesbian Herstory Archives. As luck would have it, the volunteer archivist on duty that day was worked particularly hard to provide detailed answers to researcher's questions. When I asked if the Archives had any material on lesbian weddings before 1980, she found a variety of newspaper clippings and suggested other parts of their collection where I might look. She also chatted up a few of the long-time Archives volunteers and workers, women whose participation in the local lesbian scene went back to the 1960s and '70s New York community. One of them suggested I contact Daisy de Jesus.

A search of the online phone directory got me nowhere. Four years later, I tried again. Her name appeared in a news story about a wedding expo for same-sex couples. The journalist identified where she and her partner lived and I was able to use that information to track her down. In 2012 we sat down together for an interview in her office on Broadway.

In the late 1960s, Daisy was known in the local lesbian bar scene as the woman who conducted marriage ceremonies. It started simply enough. One day two of Daisy's friends told her that they wished they could get married. “I’ll marry you!” Daisy blurted out. And so she did.

The Broadway Central bar where she hung out was terrifically noisy, so she always conducted ceremonies in the hotel lobby.

“But you had to be quick,” she said. “The bouncers would come and kick you back into the bar.”

Daisy married couples for four years. She stopped when she began dating a woman who was possessive of her and resented her constant interaction with other women. Not long after she became involved in Salsa Soul Sisters, a feminist group of women of Latina and African American heritage interested in alternatives to the bar, to butch-fem practices, and to relationship conventions such as marriage.

Daisy’s story reveals how same-sex couples found ways to marry each other at a time when homosexuals were seen as deviant, as immature, and as incapable of forming meaningful, lasting relationships. I would never have been able to document it and share it with you now were it not for the commitment of archivists. That young archivist is named Lisa Cohen, and it is to her we owe this story.

crossposted to [community profile] fromoutlawstoinlaws

Like the Elise Chenier Facebook Page | Like the From Outlaws to In-Laws Facebook Page