Queer History Uncovered: A Conversation with Matthew Riemer




FLIPPING THROUGH THE PAGES of historians-turned-queer-sensations Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown’s opus, We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation, one can’t help but feel chills. Covering a broad historical timeline, the book offers a pictorial and written history of queer life from the mid-1800s to the mid-1990s, sparing the stories that mainstream media and academia have thoroughly canonized and consumed in order to illuminate those stories that have remained buried in the archives, shielded from the public eye.

Riemer and Brown’s project started in 2015 when they decided to launch an Instagram account that would highlight fringe images of local and national queer communities in unassuming settings: photos of groups gathering for marches around the country, drinking wine in their living rooms, or fawning over the trade at their local bar. These scenes, so prevalent in the mainstream straight photography of artists like Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, or Dorothea Lange, have come to shape our understanding of a social history. Riemer and Brown reclaim the queer community’s rightful place in this discourse, giving queer people a crucial and necessary point of view through which we can understand ourselves as part of an infinite network of queerness. And while there still is much work to be done to bring these stories to textbooks worldwide, We Are Everywhere is a beautiful starting point: an outcry for recognition but also a celebration of time past and time to come.

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MICHAEL VALINSKY: You speak a little bit about this in the book, but could you give me an idea of how you started working on this project?

MATTHEW RIEMER: In late 2015, we were both private, big firm attorneys who didn’t have much in the way of interaction with queer history — although we had both been history majors in undergrad. I was always a button collector and had gotten into collecting vintage queer buttons. As a result, I had kind of formed some understanding of a basic outline of recent queer history.

Leighton and I had somehow become aware of the unveiling of the headstone of Frank Kameny at Congressional Cemetery in November 2015. Over the course of about an hour of that event, David Carter, who wrote Stonewall, activists, friends of Kameny, government officials, and the gay men’s chorus in DC, presented. It became abundantly clear to us that we did not know what they were talking about, that it was a language beyond us. It was really isolating, jarring, and sad. Something flipped.

We didn’t really talk to each other about it, but on the way home from that event, Leighton was on his phone looking up images from Kameny’s life, which is kind of a good starting point when you want to go down a rabbit hole.

I started to do text-based research, and over the course of a few months, the images, the history, and the text began to merge. All of a sudden, we were able to say, that’s Vito Russo. That’s Ernestine Eckstein, that’s Morty Manford, you know, whoever.

Most queer people, I think, have a reaction to these images, because it’s proof of our existence, proof of our bravery and resilience in decades and centuries past.

In the book, you say that these images created a visceral emotional reaction for you in the sense that you discovered a new family. How did you choose to unpack that feeling in developing this project?

The Instagram account was a great trial by fire. We ended up doing this “day in,” and for at least the first couple of years, we made a very conscious decision to include anything that we could find on any given day. We weren’t going to decide what was important and what wasn’t. We weren’t going to choose “the most important moments in queer history.” Those types of announcements are just nonsense.

While there have been formative moments, we don’t know collectively enough about our history to have those conversations yet, and people need to dive in wholeheartedly before they can start having those conversations. When it came to the book, we had to decide. It’s much more about narrowing it down and culling. When it comes to the stories, we expect and look forward to people telling us what we missed. We’ve gotten to know a lot of photographers, historians, and a lot of activists who have helped us create a language and create our perspective.

Surely, there must have been some images or some stories that you held dearer than others. How did you go through navigating this newfound family?

We wanted to mix in as many images as possible that just haven’t really seen the light of day since their initially intended audience. I think one of the main things we’ve learned, and what we wanted to convey, is that this notion of an inclusive history can get misunderstood as the tellers of history doing the more marginalized communities a favor, including them in the history when, in fact, an inclusive history is just a more accurate history, especially when it comes to query history.

What’s happened is that more marginalized people have — simply put — just been erased, written out, and bleached out. When you actually dig in, you don’t need to add trans people to the story. You don’t need to add people of color to the stories. You don’t need to add people with disabilities to the stories. They are there.

What we need to do is tell the correct story. There has been a long process of, for lack of a better term, cleaning up, putting our best face forward for the dominant culture. That’s meant pushing aside those who were deemed less worthy of being represented.

It wasn’t until the past few years that we realized that we have the honor and the privilege to have some connection to people who are radically different in radically different ways from us. We can learn from them, and we can share with them. It’s our responsibility to represent them and not talk over them, especially not when it comes to our history.

I want to speak a little bit about this connection you’ve had with other communities in building this work. The Instagram account garnered a lot of followers very quickly. I’m always happy to see that the queer community rallies around the people gathering their archival materials. You talk a little bit about this in the book, where people were coming to you and correcting you, sending you more images, giving you more context. What were those relationships like?

The first part of the answer is that some of those relationships are some of the most meaningful we have. We wink at some of the people who have had some of the most significant impact on us. Some of them have photos in the book: Danny Nicoletta, Dona Ann McAdams, Coco Curtis, Steve Wilkinson, Albert Barnes, Robert Fish. We tip our hat to some of them.

One of the things that we’ve found with the generations before us is that even photographers are shocked to find that we care. It gets worse or better — however you want to say it — the less formal of a photographer or less formal of an archivist or whatever the person is. The number of times we hear someone 50 or older show us a picture of their friends at the ’79 DC march or just at home just being fabulous, talk to us with this kind of notion of “who cares,” you know, “It’s just my friends and me. This isn’t history.”

Yes, it is! We need this. It’s part humble. It’s part internalized ageism. It’s internalized homophobia. Part of our work has been to spread the good word that your lives, your materials, matter. Just get the stuff to archives, get the stuff to in a safe place, will them to someone. The amount of our history that’s already been lost is mind-numbing. We don’t have a mechanism to connect intergenerationally. The vast, vast majority of people is not born into a queer family, so this history is not passed down as it is in other families. We have got to focus on that process. You would think that it would intensify with the emergence of social media, but it seems to have gone backward.

Why do you think it’s important to revisit the past and relearn the histories of past generations of queers?

The experience of getting to know our elders, not as fun, kooky old queens, but talking to them about their lives has been one of, if not the greatest gift this project has given us. I think part of the perspective we try to convey in our work comes from a quote from James T. Sears near the end of the intro. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like, I’m as indebted to my queer ancestors as I am troubled by some of their choices.

It’s imperative to dive into the stories of those that came before us because absolutely none of them were perfect. Even the ones that are absolute icons, that get paraded around in June, Marsha, Sylvia, Harvey, were far, far, far from perfect. But they were amazing. And they deserve three dimensions.

A lot of those whose names we don’t know, who are at risk of being forgotten, need to be discovered. We’re kind of resting on our laurels because a few names have been chosen. But it’s time to dive in. History feels old, right? History always feels old. But some of these people are still around.

The first known public picket for queer rights was in 1954 outside of Whitehall in New York. Randy Wicker was there. Randy Wicker is still alive. He’s still picketing. You can call him, but you need some time because he will talk. But that’s awesome.

We just need this sense of history. It will connect the generations. It has made us more rooted. It’s really just revolutionized the way we walk around in the world in a way that I didn’t know possible. A lot of us are walking around like children. You can’t walk around without history. A lot of us are. Our story has been shaped by people who were in and of the movement and the gay rights movement in particular.

We’re now at a place where we need to start asking ourselves why and how it was shaped. This notion that our history doesn’t exist — that we don’t have the sources — is just not true.

When you talk about Stonewall 25, you discuss the merging of what you call the common queer masses and the A-list wannabes into what appeared as a mess. We’re sort of in the same moment today, when a lot of LGBTQ people, at least in the media, are very much associated with fashion glitz. They’re very much associated with something other than a common mass. I’m wondering if you think that this intergenerational problem is getting worse in the age of social media and in the age of personal celebrity.

Nothing is new. That’s been happening all along. The common masses create the space by their unapologetic queerness where people can rush in and “represent” us. Then there’s this reaction because the common masses are pissed off. This kind of phenomenon is not new.

What is new is the platform. With social media, you have this kind of performative activism that allows people to develop the fetishizing of coming out. In the late ’70s, encouraging people to come out was about those who were safe and comfortable and who just didn’t feel like it. And those were the ones that were needed to come out. But it’s been turned into this thing about how everybody needs to feel this pressure to come out, even kids who aren’t safe.

It’s also become this thing where coming out is this cure-all as if when you come out, everything’s going to be fine. This has saved us from doing the hard work of actually building a community into which people come out. You could see this in queer periodicals dating back to whenever, but now it feels much more pervasive because of social media. All these pictures make it look so great once you come out, you get to go to the Met Gala and GLAAD balls. But that’s not real life.

How do you think this book will work to reshape our understanding of coming out?

What we try to do more and more on social media is to encourage safety. You stay where you are, do what you need to do until you’re safe to come out. There’s no right way to be queer. Right? Whatever you bring to the community is the way to be queer.

When you start looking at some of the more amateur photos or some of the more radical photographers, you start to see the smaller community groups, the people who found each other, and the common masses. Those are the people we need to see and who we want people to see. That’s still very much a part of the community, and we try, at least on social media, to amplify those voices. We hope that this is the next phase of the resistance era.

Reading books like Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer (2019), Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City (2018), or Gregory Woods’s Homintern (2016), always knocks the wind out me. Performative activism is so pervasive today compared to how it used to be. You have the “representatives” posting things on social media like, “After the rally, the gala.” What is your take on this?

For the first two years of his presidency, Trump couldn’t fart without people taking to the streets. Now, there just doesn’t seem to be anything again. This is one of the themes of the book and of our work generally: there is some inevitability to justice and progress. So we just need to be better and good, and things will work out. In our country’s history, if you set up a system that is to its core oppressive, that has black people set as three-fifths of human beings, that doesn’t care about women or queer people, then no doubt, every decade things are going to get better. Of course, you’re going to be able to look back and say, “Well, it’s not as bad as it was 10 years ago.” That disincentivizes really getting in the streets and working. We don’t think it should have been that way to begin with. We want radical change to get to the roots.

What we hope is that, when people learn their history, really confront their history, they’ll realize that the issues aren’t that different. In fact, a lot of them are the exact same. It should be jarring to people that the issues are the exact same. Believing that Stonewall was the beginning of our history has stumped our understanding of the fight. People think it’s only been since 1969. From that perspective, yes, we’ve come so far so quickly. Well, it hasn’t actually been just since 1969.

The higher up you go on the privilege ladder of white cis men, the more you fetishize coming out. You have to be all about you. You have to get competent and comfortable, safe with you, make sure you’re okay. And so then, whatever you do is great. Whatever you do is gay. Whatever you do is helping the community. I don’t want to completely diminish visibility. Being visible matters. But because we don’t have mechanisms for these kinds of conversations, it’s hard to make people understand that it’s not all about them.

How do you start a respectful and serious practice as an activist when this is the reference point for so many kids today?

The question is: What can you do for your community? It’s not just how you are making yourself feel, but how are you furthering the community and the goals collectively. You could still go to the gala. But you don’t have to present that as the goal because, for me personally, these are partly the things that kept me in the closet. I was scared because I didn’t feel like that type of gay, and I hate saying that. Once you start to look at history, and here’s the plug, we are everywhere.

On social media, some people just don’t get the clicks. Their aesthetic is snatched up, prepackaged, and rebranded. There’s been an interesting uptick in the kind of awareness of the life or death struggles of trans women of color. And while visibility has infinitely increased, that doesn’t mean that it’s enough. That’s not translating on the ground. They’re still facing murder rates, losing their jobs, and getting kicked out of houses. It’s not just about visibility. It’s not just about being accepted. It’s about real, fundamental, radical change.

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Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.


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