An Inherently Radical Identity: A Conversation with Matthew Riemer
Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown are lawyers, queer historians, social media activists, and the authors of We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation. The book is based on their popular Instagram account lgbt_history and features photographs and historical commentary from the mid nineteenth century to the present. Matthew unfortunately had to cancel an appearance at the Ann Arbor District Library scheduled for Tuesday, October 2nd. He hopes to reschedule an appearance for November.
Lake Roberts: You and your husband are lawyers. Is that where your interest in history comes from?
Matthew Riemer: That’s a good question. But Leighton is my homosexual life partner, not my husband.
LR: Oh! Thanks for correcting me.
MR: Though we technically are fiancé, I prefer homosexual life partner both because it's an accurate description and because it makes ‘the straights’ uncomfortable.
LR: I’m into that.
MR: We both majored in history as undergrads. History has always been the one thing that I connected with in school. It's hard to describe why, I just liked it. I can remember looking at the ‘then and now’ photographs of Austin (Texas), a photo of 6th and Congress from 1919 and imagining this space- that it's always been here, imagining people occupying it and what that was like, the limits of our understanding, and the connections we can draw. But I think that our legal background and training absolutely sets us apart and, I hope, makes us more successful as historians, at least as queer historians.
I don't know what the academy teaches in terms of training when it comes to researching a history book, but we did it like we would do a law brief. Everything had to be very well supported and our endnotes had to be copious and explained and our decisions had to be explained. So they inform each other. What we started to find was that especially the big moments, like, for example Stonewall, other than David Carter’s Stonewall, you would look at the end notes, citations, and it would cite to a secondary source and you’d go to that secondary source and you’d look at that citation and it would cite to another secondary source. You track it down and eventually I would get to an oral history taken 20 years after the fact. Usually it would be Eric Marcus's work, which is incredible, but still not something that we consider 100% reliable. Eric's work, and Eric will be the first to tell someone this, these were people in 1989 who had never really been listened to before who were telling stories that you have to take with a grain of salt. And to base history around that is questionable. And what we set out to do was to make sure that we tempered the dominant narratives with primary sources and if we couldn't find those primary sources that we explained that and not just kind of presented that as fact.
LR: When did you start looking into this? Were there a couple of ‘aha’ moments where you were like, ‘we have to find out more’?
MR: We were both practicing attorneys at private law firms, and I had and still have an obsessive collection of buttons, pinbacks. I was and am real hip (laughs), so that was kind of the door into queer history. They gave me and Leighton a very, very broad people, place, and thing. And in large part I was buying buttons based on aesthetics and pop, but that's how we came to know of Frank Kameny who is best known for coining, “Gay is Good.” Though, as we now know, his contributions to queer culture or queer history, and the rest of the world go much, much deeper. We ended up going in November of 2015 to the unveiling of his headstone at a congressional cemetery in DC. His headstone says, “Gay is Good.” It was at that event where David Carter, who wrote Stonewall (2004), spoke, and a couple of activists from Kameny’s time and circle, and a few other folks all spoke. And Leighton and I had this existential moment of: We don't know anything. And that as history majors, as privileged, white, cisgender, able-bodied attorneys, having felt so connected, you know, thinking, ‘This is our world and everyone else is just living it in,’ that is to say that we're white and the world is open to us, all of a sudden we had this realization that we don't know anything about our people.
It was extraordinarily isolating, extraordinarily sad and distressing. Of course, what we now realize is that it's something a whole lot of people experience all the time and that we have an extreme privilege that we've only just realized this. It was literally on the car ride home that Leighton started to look up images and find these pictures of Kamaney and others protesting in front of the White House in 1965. And he started to put up these images that he was finding on our Apple TV, and I was diving into queer periodicals. And we would sit down to binge watch something on Netflix and instead we’d just end up watching these images roll by. And, slowly but surely, I was able to identify and tell more and more about them.
It’s hyperbolic, it's whatever, but we became more complete. We were becoming people, we were becoming whole. We have a story. I think that anyone has paid attention to the ‘20 pictures, the great moments of gay history’ we’re not taught to ask who that is, and what the connection is, we don't think we deserve that. And all of a sudden we started to see that these are all people with stories and we're just not programmed to ask about it.
And this is where we can be helpful, this is where as attorneys, this is how we can contribute. We didn't know anything about social media, which I think helped in some ways, when we started the account. That work focuses on figuring out the facts that we don't know and there's also a healthy dose of explaining why we don't know it- because that's a tool of the oppressor: History is a weapon and if you take it away from people, obviously, they don't have that weapon. And Leighton and I are living proof of that, we were perfectly happy being privileged, bubbled, disconnected, we were “liberal” and we felt very self-satisfied being that. We did not understand, nor did we try to shape our politics around the simple fact that none of us is free until all of us are free. This has radicalized us and that's, I think, what they want to avoid.
LR: I want to press you on that. I think part of political history is that people are too busy to write things down, but have you found instances where people are literally hiding history, taking it down, and they're stopping it from being written?
MR: So there’s a lot to this. The first part is that absolutely, our history has been destroyed. Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute for sex research, the famous pictures of the book burnings in Berlin, that was Magnus Hirschfeld’s library which was the greatest library and collection of what we would call Queer Culture, and Queer Life, and Queer Studies that had ever been collected and that was destroyed. So that's a pretty obvious and glaring one.
More subtle ones are just the sheer number of- it's hard to prove a negative- but the ‘dainty uncle’ or ‘handsome aunt’ who died whose stuff was thrown out. Or, we talk about this in the book, Lorraine Hansberry who wrote A Raisin in the Sun was a lesbian but married to a man. The way that they worked out all of her estate, when it went to the New York Public Library, it was with very clear instructions for decades and decades that a certain set of writings could not be accessed by anyone. It's only been in the past few years that researchers have been able to access it, and it's like, lo and behold- there it is in no uncertain terms.
And then you have what we can never, during the AIDS epidemic, the amount of shit that was just thrown out. Whether or not that is all done with malicious intent, I just lumped in the Nazis and family members, and I don't mean to put that all in the same category. But it all has the same effect.
But then it gets more difficult, in terms of the barriers to entry of just talking about history with the academy and the burden of proof that's put upon us to prove our existence. The number of times that we have to hear, “He had a wife and kids.” Well, Oscar Wilde had a wife and kids. And that this notion, this ridiculous thing that so many gay people have come to believe, that men just wrote letters saying, ‘I love you and I want to touch you.’ Yes, their language was far more, mellifluous- whatever the right word is- than ours but you can still identify queer language. And the thing about Abraham Lincoln, for example, sleeping in the same bed (as another man,) they would say ‘A lot of men slept in the same bed as other men,’ well, a lot of those men were screwing men. The burden of proof is impossible. And they'll never let us prove it because it doesn't serve their interest.
And from within our own community and our own culture, the assimilationists and integrationists wanting to prove that ‘we are just like you,’ leads us to pick and choose history and to diminish or erase other history that doesn't fit that narrative. I know a lot of gay- especially gay men- have a hard time with this, that we are very much the oppressors in a lot of instances. So when I say that the dominant culture has erased our history I don't just mean the cis-hetero-patriarchy, I also mean the cis-homo-patriarchy. Audre Lorde says that we're not responsible for our oppression but we have to be responsible for our liberation. And so once you are aware of the nature of the oppression, which as more and more- and certainly those of us who are as privileged as I am- become aware of the oppression, it is our responsibility to contribute in a way that ameliorates that. Right now, while we've been denied our history and it's been hidden and destroyed in a lot of cases, and certainly pushed to the side of the dominant narrative, but it's still there. The GLBT archive, the NYPL collection, the Lesbian Herstory Archive, they still exist. We need folks to turn their attention and their training and their everything else into the archives and start to tell these stories. At this point it's just a matter of laziness, people who look and are like me are led to believe that history is something we can take for granted and it's just this shock that, in fact, we can't. And we are the ones who need to take care of that, and if we don't then it's our own fault.
One more thing, we face this constantly with our elders who we encounter on the path of this work and I don't know if it's fake modesty, internalized homophobia and transphobia, ageism, whatever, but it’s this constant, ‘Well, these are just pictures of me and my friends at a picnic in 1972. Who wants to see a bunch of queens just hanging out?’ And it's like, we do, and we need it. So many of our people have been taught to believe that nobody cares and they are not willing their stuff to the archives, they're not making sure that the history that they've collected is going anywhere. We hope more and more to use our platform to correct and contribute to that as well. We should be having scan-a-thons and big drives and gay lawyers who are out there helping people with just one line or two of a will that gets it into the archives.
LR: The response to the work has been amazing, supporting this idea that we do need the history of who we are and our culture. As you are learning all these things, you said it’s radicalized you, was that a challenging experience? What are things that you thought you knew about being queer that you were taking for granted?
MR: That’s a big question. I hate being this obnoxious lawyer, but I will say, in thinking about it, I don't know that I had any ideas about queerness before this work and that was the problem. History has informed and shaped my ideas about queerness, but what's been challenged is the supremacy of the cis heteronormative world, the white male able-bodied norm, the mythical norm, to quote Audre Lorde again. The challenge has been unlearning the oppressive notion that the goal is to fit in, and equality.
Now with that said, we are constantly challenged in what I think is consciousness-raising and we are pushed on choices of language and perspective and sourcing. And when called on a poor choice of words or an omission of a detail, that instead of immediately going to defend myself and prove why the commenter or whoever is wrong, it is my obligation to understand where that person is coming from and to figure out what it is that I did, and how I can do better. And, for one thing, try to understand where the commenter is coming from- I'm thinking specifically about commenters on the account.
When people speak up, their coming from a place that deserves to be respected. This isn't a blanket statement, sometimes people are just assholes and that's fine, but the people who are speaking up deserve more than just a, ‘Oh no that's actually not true.’ The more marginalized members of the community aren't just saying something for the hell of it, they deserve to be heard and my work should be- if this is worth anything, if I'm ever going to get better at this, and become more conscious- to figure out what I missed. When we’re talking about objective, to the extent that anything is an objective fact, they can still be “wrong.” I still might have gotten the date right and I still might stand by how I presented the history, but it cannot be my first reaction. It needs to be that I hear, and that I internalize. And more often than not that will change the way I think about everything. I can't count how many times there's been this moment of, ‘I never thought of it that way before and I'll never think about it the same way again.’ Those small moments of liberation are everything, they are priceless, and they feed the beast that “none of us is free until all of us are free.” How easy it is for those of us who have access to the machines the power to do the erasing, even if we have all the best intentions in the world, that doesn't mean anything. It has to be backed by action and if we're called on something that we do our damnedest to act on it and correct it.
So we constantly get challenged and this has all informed my idea of queerness. Certainly I didn't have an idea of queerness and I think that a lot of people are walking around without an idea of queerness. I think they have an idea of fitting in and they have an idea that they want to be in the scheme of the oppressive institutions, but, at least in my mind, queerness is somewhat inherently political and radical. If you're making the argument that my notion of queerness is getting Pete Buttigieg elected I would push back on that. And that's not a dig at him, that's electoral politics in general. We need to stop trying to fit our radicalism into institutionalism.
LR: You're talking a lot about dismantling hierarchy and this is similar to feminist history where there's a wave of people wanting to achieve parity, but when the next wave comes in people start saying, ‘We don't want to achieve parity in an oppressive system, we need to redo the system. That's how we fix this.’
MR: That's feminist history, that's Black history, that is the fight for liberation. And it gets complicated because our forebears deserve the respect of being analyzed in their time and place. So often in the narrative of gay history, people like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the homophiles, are cast as these moderate, conservative, coat-and-tie, just asking for recognition, and then came Stonewall and we got really radical. But we're only allowed to judge them because of the space they created.
I think that Frank Kameny is one of the most radical queer activists there was. He moderated as he got older, yes, but when we’re talking about those folks in 1965- I mean they were nuts- they were holding signs that identified them as homosexuals in front of the White House. And yes, they were gender normative and probably held deeply problematic views on race, and those need to be discussed and they need to be pulled apart, but it's not as simple as these narratives of, ‘They were moderate and they could barely stand up and then someone threw a shot glass and everything got going.’ We need to always be exploring what it means to be radical. Radical is digging up by the root- it's attacking the foundation- and simply copying what you think used to be radical, that's, by definition, not that radical.
LR: If you had a team of 30 people and you could assign projects, just based on the research you've done, where would you want to see resources and time and energy directed? Whether that's gathering oral history, doing more archival research, writing books, more social media- where do you see the holes?
MR: I think that we need desperately, as a community, to make the archives safer. The buzzwords and sub-communities, people of color, disabled, queers, the incarcerated, trans folks, we need those collections badly. The most marginalized folks have had less opportunity or felt less comfortable accessing or going to the archives and so we're figuring out the way to create bridges and make those places safe and gather those materials and start telling those stories. Digitizing what's already in the archives. I know one of the things that Leighton and I benefited from, as opposed to many of the folks whose shoulders we stand on, is that I had the benefit of Gale- the connected Library database. I was searching Lesbian Herstory Archives, NYPL, GLBT Historical Society among others from my home computer.
I think [we need more] projects like David Carter’s Stonewall, and I know he's working on a biography of Kamaney. I think really grappling with some of the myths and making them real- the fact that we trot out Marsha [P. Johnson] and Sylvia [Rivera] and there's no biographies- I don't understand how it is we live that way, it's just nuts- there should be comprehensive biographies on these major figures. The role of trans women is not explored and very consciously it has not been explored. STAR of course is well-known but there were many, many other organizations on the West Coast and East Coast and Marsha and Sylvia, among others, were all over the place. We need to track that instead of focusing on one moment. Sylvia was a decades-long, dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore activist and linking her to Stonewall when she might not have even been there is a real problem. I know for a fact that I'm not the one to do this work but we need more folks, and I know that there are amazing people doing this work, but grappling with some of the tension and the overlap between what can generally be called Butch history and Trans man history.
I don't really have the answer- we just need everything. And it goes back to the Kamaney memorial, we honestly thought there just wasn't much, ‘We don't have much of a history.’ I still think a lot of gay people really believe we didn't really exist. Of course it's becoming more of a thing like we know, theoretically, that we existed but in terms of self-identifying and organizing (people think) that Stonewall really was the beginning and it's been pretty smooth sailing since then, and there's been some backlash. Gay history, the way it's been told, is really just the history of straight people paying attention to Gay and Trans people. We have not just told queer history, every second of every day of our lives. You can go into a library and get (expletive redacted) grain records. You can get journals of the most boring things alive and yet we don't have biographies of Sylvia and Marsha. We haven't done the work yet and by doing that we've trusted a few people to tell a few stories that they want, to get the approval of a few people, who have done everything they can to oppress us.
So I guess with those 30 people I would ask them to go recruit 30 more of their friends, and get 30 more of their friends, and start an army. There's so much to be done it's overwhelming, but it's also really, really exciting and I'm honored and privileged to be a small contributor.