Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My current project, Living in the Struggle: Black Power, Gay Liberation, and Women’s Liberation Movements in Atlanta, 1964-1996, explores how poor and working class residents of Atlanta came to identify mutual interests across traditional lines of difference like race, gender, and sexuality. The project began as a study of Southern African American women and the welfare rights movement they built in the 1950s and 1960s. As my research progressed, I saw how intertwined this activism was with other social movements and so expanded my study to explore the myriad ways African American women’s work shaped post-civil rights era social movements in the South.
One strand that connects all of my research is how everyday interactions fostered relationships which, over time, led to political strategies or alliances that helped poor people survive and build political power.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
In the fall, I’m teaching a seminar called Queering the South. I did not start my dissertation with a Southern Studies background so I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned and how the field has recently changed. Together my students and I will examine the people and ideas that are often left out of, or marginal to, accounts of modern Southern history. Every week, we’ll read oral history interviews conducted by scholars like E. Patrick Johnson and John Howard. These will anchor the course in the experiences of ordinary people and help students bring questions to our readings of novels, songs, monographs, and articles. We will also conduct oral history interviews and write for non-academic audiences.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
My go-to summer reading always includes Samuel Delany’s novels, short stories, and non-fiction. He’s an urbanist working in, and creating, so many different configurations of people and practices and places. He is a joy to read and sparks my imagination about the types of questions urban historians should be asking. And I can never get enough of Joe Sheehan’s writing. He writes a baseball newsletter that is the single thing I’ve read the most over for the last decade. His work relishes in analytical rigor, argument, and narrative in ways that I am always trying to replicate in my own writing.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
Reach out to graduate students at universities in the city you are studying, even if they’re not working on similar projects. Traveling for research can be lonely, especially as graduate school progresses and the dissertation becomes harder to finish against the backdrop of ever-dwindling job opportunities. Having friends in the city makes research trips so much more pleasant and connects you to parts of a city you may not otherwise engage, including current organizers and activists or neighborhoods beyond where archives are located.
Most recently, you held the postdoc at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE). What were the highlights of that experience? Would you recommend the postdoc to other scholars?
If you have the chance, leap at the opportunity to be involved with CAUSE! Dr. Joe Trotter and Hikari Aday have built a program that cultivates and celebrates African American history. Each month, the speaker series brings scholars of African American history to campus to speak with Carnegie Mellon community members and Pittsburgh residents. All of their initiatives bring together scholars of African American history and the general public. Dr. Trotter is the next president of the Urban History Association and I hope the annual conference comes to Pittsburgh so that everyone can experience firsthand the great work CAUSE is doing.
The highlight of the past year was Dr. Trotter’s mentorship. He helped me see my project in a new way, worked with me to craft a strategy for revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, discussed new article ideas with me and read drafts, and introduced me to scholars working on similar topics. He did it all with such kindness and good cheer. It was wonderful to have a postdoc year devoted just to research and writing at CAUSE.
Editor’s note: In anticipation of next’s month’s #OAH2019/#OAH19 in Philadelphia, the March Metro of the Month is the City of Brotherly love. To get more info about the conference click over to the organization’s website, where you can also download the OAH’s program for the event.
“You know how it works in South Philly. Our strength has always been in our numbers.” local barkeep Max tells Philadelphia Eagles hopeful Vincent Papale in 2006’s Invincible. The underemployed Papale, a part-time bartender and substitute teacher, epitomized the downward economic trajectory of his fellow blue-collar white ethnics in 1976. The union was on strike, manufacturing was fleeing the city, and the Eagles were terrible. As the elder Frank Papale exhaustingly proclaims earlier in the film, “A man can only take so much failure.”
Despite the 1976 bicentennial, the city and nation had seen better days; a “crisis of confidence” had struck the nation, President Jimmy Carter would tell Americans in 1979. Though the Papales might not have articulated it in such terms, Philadelphia and the United States were both mired in “collective ‘existential despair.’”
A brogasm of Wahlbergian spectacle, Invincible depicts Philadelphia in all its white working-class patina-tinged glory; Mark Wahlberg’s everyman struggles to earn his place on a dismal Eagles team that resents his amateur presence, yet his plight captures his fellow citizens’ imaginations and attention as the newly appointed head coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), attempts to right a ship that had gone far off course.
As with their team, white, blue-collar Philadelphians similarly found themselves drifting listlessly into economic uncertainty; Wahlberg’s quest for a roster spot at least gave his fellow struggling white ethnics some measure of validation. “You’re one of us,” Max assures Papale. Papale securing a roster spot in the NFL pushed back against the erosion of national and local confidence, or as Carter put it, “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives.”
Unsurprisingly, the 1970s offered no shortage of similar takes on the city, the most obvious example being Rocky, a film released the same year as the real-life Papale’s ascent onto the Eagles roster. Its most iconic scene, Rocky Balboa “atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” was “made possible by the Bicentennial.” Historian Christopher Capozzola writes that “the museum’s renovation” was financed as “part of the city’s Bicentennial cleanup campaign.”
More recently, “Breaking Bad”—and to a far greater extent, “Better Call Saul”—featured the travails of the former Philadelphia cop Mike “No Half Measures” Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). Ehrmantraut’s character is particularly resonant since the city’s police force helped to define the white blue-collar identity depicted so faithfully in contemporaneous films (such as the aforementioned Rocky and later, nostalgically, in Invincible). “Police work was a blue collar job and tradition, often passed down generation to generation,” notes Timothy Lombardo in his most recent work. “White police officers also shared the blue collar identity that developed in the city’s white working and middle class neighborhood.” Police embodied the identity and at the time, their work literally defended white interests. When White ethnic Philadelphians’ defended of local law enforcement, it only underscored this deeper connection. Officers helped to defend their communities from crime and upheld long-standing values such as tradition, honor, hard work, and law and order.
While the end of the ‘70s remains defined by malaise, during the late 1960s and early 1970s white blue collar Philadelphians enjoyed cultural, and to some extent political ascendency behind the populist and controversial Mayor Frank Rizzo who himself had risen from the ranks of the PPD—first to Chief of Police during the mid-1960s, and later to the city’s highest office in 1972.
Long the junior party to Philadelphia’s WASP elite, the white working class residents envisioned a city remade in their image. Rizzo, described as “a cop’s cop,” embodied the hopes, resentments, and fears of his fellow white ethnics. He decried elites, personified working class masculinity, and criticized civil rights activists through a studied colorblind discourse that understood open displays of racism were no longer politically and socially viable. “If there is one thing I’m not,” he told a local journalist, “it’s against somebody because they are Negro or an Irishman, or anything else.”
The former police chief crafted campaign slogans that effectively conveyed double meanings but steered clear of overt racial appeals. One, “Rizzo Means Business,” promoted his no nonsense blue collar approach and juxtaposed his masculinity against both the effete, pinheaded intellectual class and the burgeoning threat of Black Power activists. It also evoked the kind of “law and order” policies that defended the very neighborhoods inhabited by his supporters. Rizzo understood the value of symbolism, be it appearing at an urban disturbance in a tuxedo with a billy club protruding from his cummerbund or endorsing Richard Nixon and handing the President a lighter emblazoned with Snoopy and the words “Fuck McGovern.”
Yet Frank Rizzo’s ascendency has as much to do with the arc of twentieth century urban history and municipal policies as his combative style. Postwar reformers embraced New Deal municipal programs that promised (and sometimes delivered) benefits to its white residents, but that also reified structural inequalities, particularly in regard to race. “The gulf between the promises and limitations of urban liberalism established the urban crisis that shaped Philadelphia’s long postwar period,” Lombardo points out. Public housing further carved the city’s neighborhoods into racial fiefdoms. Critically, it naturalized white privilege—or, to paraphrase William Upski Wimsatt from his underground 1994 memoir on tagging, Bomb the Suburbs, whites believed that having the proverbial wind at their back was the natural order of things.
When urban decline and deindustrialization began to chip away at metropolitan economies, racial conflicts blossomed into urban tensions and uprisings. When civil rights activists demanded a piece of the share from which they had been denied, white ethnics revolted, embracing their cultural identity and retreating to neighborhoods like Bridesburg, Whitman, and Morrell Park in Greater Northeast Philadelphia.
“‘Defense of the neighborhood’ was at the root of nearly every conflict that contributed to the transformation in white working and middle class politics of the 1960s and 1970s,” writes Lombardo. School integration and busing enabled Philadelphia’s Italian, Irish, and German American residents to organize around the collective identity they had come to define and the communities in which they resided. The Northeast became its own territory. “This isn’t Philly,” one civic leader noted. “This is Bridesburg.”
If police officers represented one distillation of the blue-collar identity, construction work embodied another and also helps to explain how liberal urban policies contributed to the sort of expectations and disappointments that fueled white, blue-collar politics. By the mid-1960s, federal, state, and municipal expenditures on economic development poured over 17 billion into construction coffers; even as the city shed manufacturing employment during the 1950s and 1960s, federal urban renewal programs maintained a steady stream of work.
Attempts to broaden the workforce’s diversity met with resistance. Building and trade unions pushed back against attempts to integrate. “I never said no to a negro,” Joseph Burke of the Sheet Metal Workers told journalists, admitting in the same breath that “We didn’t go out looking for them either.”
Leaders like Burke insisted the union hall promised black construction laborers their best hopes for work, yet refused to acknowledge the ways in which their control over apprentice programs and rules privileging seniority prevented black workers from gaining a real foothold in the industry.
In spite or maybe because of this, the affirmative action plan the city enacted in 1967 became the nation’s first; it would develop into a national model. However, the Nixon administration’s institutionalization of the program had less to do with a sense of concern for the plight of non-white workers but rather, as Jefferson Cowie writes, as a means to outflank “the liberals and … flood the inflation-minded labor market.” Secretary of Labor George Schultz warned that the integration of the building trades would probably “help foment conflict between the two core constituents of the New Deal – labor and blacks.” A conflict that, as historians such as Rick Perlstein and Bruce Schulman contend, the president (and by extension Rizzo) had few qualms about fanning.
Then again, white ethnic blue-collar Philadelphians did not hold a monopoly on identity formation during this period. The city’s gay community also asserted itself, amidst the same forces that produced its full-throated white, working class howl. As historian Kevin J. Mumford notes, the LGBTQ community’s quest for equal protection led to clashes with “religious and racial conservatives who challenged not only their rights but also their legitimacy as a minority.” The process necessitated a reconstruction of identities while “negotiating race relations and extending liberal impulses of the 1960s into the 1980s.” In contrast to the blue-collar revolt that rejected racial compromise and built an identity in opposition to the liberal policies that helped buoy them, the push for LGBT equality worked, with admittedly varying degrees of success, to navigate racial tensions and harness social liberalism rather than repudiate each.
In 1965, the Janus Society conducted sit-ins at a Philadelphia restaurant following an incident in which the manager refused to serve customers on the suspicion of their homosexuality. The protest resulted in several arrests, but more importantly drew publicity for the cause. On July 4th of the same year, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, and Lilli Vincenz, among others, organized the first Annual Reminder demonstration outside Independence Hall emphasizing their rights as citizens. These protests pre-dated the Stonewall Rebellion by several years and helped to lay the groundwork for a more militant Gay Liberation Movement, perhaps best represented by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), that blossomed during the early 1970s.
In Philadelphia, the GLF established a branch in 1971. Influenced by the Black Power movement, activists began declaring “gay is good” much as Stokely Carmichael coined the slogan “black is beautiful.” Even the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which had been critical of BPP’s homophobia and had formed after objecting to the GLF’s attempts to court the local Black Panther Party (BPP), was clearly influenced by Black Power rhetoric. Though perceived as whiter, more academic, and less street oriented, the GAA adopted BPP language in its fliers and memos declaring “gay is angry!” and “gay is proud!”
Despite this apparent convergence in the effort for equal rights, Philadelphia’s black community did not warm to the LGBT movement initially. Homophobia pervaded many of the “rights movements” of the time. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), feminism, and the New Left all struggled with such bigotry, and the Black Power movement was no exception. Many leading black religious figures criticized efforts by the gay community to establish a city council bill protecting the rights of the homosexual community, both due to their Christianity and worries about “the politics of respectability.” Reverend Melvin Floyd, a former Philadelphia cop who had established Neighborhood Crusade, Inc. and dedicated his life to social uplift, particularly in regard to the black community, questioned the effort. “The one thing about everything else that can destroy that kind of manhood is to come up with a generation or generations of homosexual black males,” he told the council during hearings. He also pointed to one of the LGBT movement’s largest weaknesses, its lack of diversity. “100 percent [of the people] of any organizations of gay rights are white.”
However, there existed a wide diversity of viewpoints on the matter within the larger black community. According to a 1977 Gallup opinion poll, non-whites expressed “slightly more tolerance for homosexuals” than white respondents. Brother Grant Michael Fitzgerald, member of the Catholic religious order Society of the Divine Savior and a black gay activist, defended the bill during the same hearings. Gay men and women should be able to publicly hold hands just as “black people … and interracial couples can do … today,” he told council members. The black newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune, which admittedly sometimes trafficked in sensationalism when it came to the city’s LGBT community and was not always a reliable ally in this regard, decried Floyd’s remarks as “absurd.”
Rizzo’s hypermasculinity and penchant for saying things such as “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” failed to endear him to the city’s gay residents. The rise of the New Right, Anita Bryant’s homophobic crusades of the 1970s, and Rizzo’s own rhetoric sparked fresh activism in the city such as the formation of Gays at Penn in 1975, which consisted of staff and students at the University of Pennsylvania.
Three years later, behind Reverend James H. Littrell and organized by Penn staff and students, Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force (PLGTF) was established and it soon aligned itself with the Philadelphia Coalition of Black Gays. During the 1980s lesbian feminist activist Rita Addessa took the helm and the PLGTF launched a new effort to get a major rights bill passed in Philadelphia. The end of Rizzo’s administration, new elections, and a new mayor who publically supported gay rights marked a new day and in 1982 hearings on a new bill went very differently. Granted, the new law, Bill 1358, failed to pass, but the council agreed to amend the Fair Practices Ordinance by adding sexual orientation. Unlike Rizzo and his followers, gay rights advocates, though “slow to grapple with intersections of identity” such that its political base had become too white and too male, still “drew on the long civil rights movement and sought protection from discrimination in what were essentially civil rights statutes,” writes Mumford.
Post-Rizzo Philadelphia, like its football team, struggled as the 1970s ended and the 1980s commenced. The MOVE bombing of 1985 arguably represented its nadir. Though his administration deployed rhetoric and policies favored by the city’s white, blue-collar community, the addition of sexual orientation as a protected class to city statues represented only one aspect of “Rizzocrat” frailty. Throughout the 1970s, deindustrialization was afoot and no amount of rhetoric could change that fact. “Blue collar ascendency did not change the reality of blue collar decline,” writes Lombardo. Even as Rizzo burnished Philly’s white working class bonafides, the ground underneath it had already shifted. “Ironically, Philadelphia’s blue collar reputation emerged just as it was in the midst of a transition to a more white collar and service sector economy.”
As the city stumbled out of the twentieth and into the twenty first century, Philly was, as the kids like to say, very seen. The 1993 movie Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer named Andrew Beckett who was fired by his firm for both his contraction of HIV and his sexuality, neatly captures the limits of the LGBT community’s success in the city. The only attorney willing to take his case, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), cannot hide his own homophobia, though much like black leaders in the early 1980s, he too comes around on the issue of sexuality by the film’s conclusion.
Later the nihilistic but often very funny sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” followed the exploits of “The Gang,” their South Philly Irish bar and their various morally dubious adventures. Silver Linings Playbook came after (2012), continuing the theme of tortured Eagles fans—though no one would describe Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as distinctly blue collar or particularly ethnic.
Today, Philly is known as much for its ascendant professional sports teams and burgeoning hipster art and music scene as for its white, working class. The War on Drugs epitomizes the latter—hardly a testament to Rizzo’s legacy, though one could argue that the Flyers mascot, Gritty exists as nod to this past. Yet one barely need mention, if you look at our political debates nationally, the late mayor seems to have represented more than just an undercurrent in American politics.
As always, you’ll find our bibliography below, with special thanks to James Wolfinger and Abigail Perkiss for their recommendations. We know it’s incomplete so any book recommendations exploring eighteenth and nineteenth century Philly are very welcome, as are any others we might have missed that examine city during the last and current century. All suggestions welcome in the comments!
Adams, Carolyn. Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Arnold, Stanley. Building the Beloved Community: Philadelphia’s Interracial Civil Rights Organizations and Race Relations, 1930-1970. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
Banner-Haley, Charles. To Do Good and To Do Well: Middle-Class Blacks and the Depression, Philadelphia, 1929-1941. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1993.
Bauman, John. Public Housing, Race, and Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.
Binzen, Peter, and Joseph R. Daughen. The Cop Who Would Be King: The Honorable Frank Rizzo. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.
Birger, Jon S. “Race, Reaction, and Reform: The Three Rs of Philadelphia School Politics, 1965– 1971.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 120, no. 3 (July 2006).
Clark, Dennis. The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.
Cole, Peter. Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Countryman, Matthew. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Davis, Allen F. and Mark H. Haller, eds. The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.
Delmont, Matthew. The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
——-. “Making Philadelphia Safe for ‘WFIL-adelphia’: Television, Housing and Defensive Localism in Postwar Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 1 (2012): 193-213, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144211420644
Davidow, Julia. “The Crusade is Now Begun in Philadelphia: Municipal Reformers, Southern Moderates and African American Politics.” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 2 (2018): 153-168, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217746162
DuBois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899. Reprint, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
Feffer, Andrew. “Show Down in City Center: Staging Redevelopment and Citizenship in Bicentennial Philadelphia, 1974-1977.” Journal of Urban History 30, no. 6 (2004): 791-825, DOI: 10.1177/0096144204263814
Ferman, Barbara, Theresa Singleton, and Don DeMarco. “West Mount Airy, Philadelphia.” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 4, no. 2 (1998).
Grant, Elizabeth. “Race and Tourism in America’s First City.” Journal of Urban History 31, no. 6: 850-871.
Heller, Gregory L. Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
Lombardo, Timothy J. Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.
Lyons, Paul. Philadelphia Communists, 1936-1956. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
McKee, Guian. The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Royles, Dan. “Don’t We Die Too?”: The Politics of Race and AIDS in Philadelphia,” in Rethinking Sexual Politics: Gay Rights and the Challenge of Urban Diversity in the Post-Civil Rights Era, ed. Jonathan Bell. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming.
Ryan, Francis. AFSCME’s Philadelphia Story: Municipal Workers and Urban Power in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.
Ryberg, Stephanie R. “Historic Preservation’s Urban Renewal Roots: Preservation and Planning in Midcentury Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 2 (2013): 193-213, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144212440177
Savage, Michael. “Beyond Boundaries: Envisioning Metropolitan School Desegregation in Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban History, (online, 2018) https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144218801595
Schneider, Eric C., Christopher Agee, and Themis Chronopolous. “Dirty Work: Police and Community Relations and the Limits of Liberalism in Postwar Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban History, (online, 2017), https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217705497
Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Vietillo, Dominic. “Machine Building and City Building: Urban Planning and Restructuring in Philadelphia, 1894-1928.” Journal of Urban History 34, no. 3 (2008): 399-434, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144207311184
Warner, Sam Bass Jr. The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.
Weigley, Russell, ed. Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. New York: Norton, 1982.
Willis, Arthur C. Cecil’s City: A History of Blacks in Philadelphia, 1638–1979. New York: Carlton Press, 1990.
Wolfinger, James. Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
——-. Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2016.
Young, David W. “The Battles of Germantown: Public History and Preservation in America’s Most Historic Neighborhood during the Twentieth Century.” PhD diss., Ohio State University Press, 2009.
Featured image (at top): Philadelphia Museum of Art, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress
 William Graebner, “America’s Poseidon Adventure: A Nation in Existential Despair,” in America in the 70s, eds. Beth Bailey and David Farber (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2004), 157-158.
 Lombardo, Blue Collar Conservatism, 117; Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010), 150; Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008); Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002).
 Kevin J. Mumford, “The Trouble with Gay Rights: Race and the Politics of Sexual Orientation in Philadelphia, 1969-1982,” Journal of American History (June 2011): 49-50.
 John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983), 174.
In many ways, 1977 represented a great deal of possibility for Seattle’s LGBTQ community. Granted in years prior, the Gay Community Center on Renton Hill had been bombed and Robert Sirico’s gay Metropolitan Community Church faced possible closure, yet on July 1, 1976 the state’s anti-sodomy law was repealed and the Seattle City Council had passed a fair housing act that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Through the leadership of LGBTQ leader Charlie Brydon Seattle residents witnessed their first Gay Pride Parade; advocates in the state legislature pushed further in an attempt to pass a Gay Rights Bill. The latter failed and the promise of 1977 curdled into “the bleakest year” in decades, writes Seattle University Professor and author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, Gary Atkins. Forty years later, much has changed. The Metropole sat down (virtually) with Atkins to discuss Gay Seattle, the city’s present and past, and the future of LGBTQI activism and scholarship.
To what extent does Seattle’s LGBTQ history resemble and differ with other urban cities, particularly on the West Coast? For example, as you note in your book, WWII had a great deal of influence on the city’s expansion but also the creation of a larger LGBTQ (and I realize that individuals from that time would not identify this way, but for consistency in my questions I will use this term) community, but this was not unique to Seattle. San Francisco, L.A., NYC could all make similar claims, however, the creation of a Gay Community Center in 1969 in Seattle does predate L.A.’s own which I believe did not come into existence until the early 1970s. That said, the first attempts to establish a Mattachine Society in Washington occurred in Tacoma in 1959 and not Seattle, which I think would be a surprise to some readers. So the history is complex in this regard. I guess what makes Seattle unique in its development of an LGBTQ community?
Thanks to the effort historians have made to discover our stories, as well as what activists have done to create unifying symbols such as the rainbow flag, we’ve gotten used to the “idea” that LGBTQ folks have a national and even a global history, that “we are everywhere” as the saying goes. Having modern media and transportation systems that let us know and visit people all over the world has helped develop that consciousness too. But it’s easy to forget that sexual attraction and desire and the history of those are originally intensely local, that we are also “some place” when we as individuals develop loving relationships or “come out.” And those local places heavily influence how we express that.
Every city on the American West Coast was shaped by a slightly different set of historical factors. The Spanish missionary influence that helped shape San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, was largely missing in Seattle, although a very different style of French missionary influence was present in other nearby areas of Idaho and Montana. In Seattle’s case, the city brought together its own unique cultural configuration of local native understandings of gender and sexuality, of pragmatic Midwest immigrants who wanted neatly planned communities, of utopians who saw in the natural beauty of the area chances for varied paradises, and of adventurers escaping their families back east by joining the Alaska gold rush and laborers in mostly male camps cutting timber and building railroads. That gave the city an eclectic blending of interests and cross-purposes. Yet, everyone was, ultimately, trying to survive in what for a long time was just a gritty rain-driven frontier town–small compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles. I think you had the emergence of Seattle’s fame for being a rather tolerant, get-along kind of place with lots of niche groupings that, ultimately, were going nowhere in public influence unless they learned to form coalitions and not get too passionately involved or ideologically troubled with their neighbors.
The LGBTQ community that emerged reflected that, right down to the police department’s decision from the 19th century until the 1960s to simply let one side of the city pass laws and another side – us – who would have been heavily oppressed by them be tolerated, albeit for a monetary price, of course. So no Stonewalls raids here, just some low-level police harassment whenever payment weren’t made. Seattle had the pragmatic university professors who created the early political groups of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dorian Society and subsequent Dorian Group, operating with their keen sense of respectability, connecting with politicians and business people, running their meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order. But we also had gay women and men setting up utopian-style rural communes on the Olympic Peninsula and on neighboring islands – or joining economic co-ops in the city and promoting consciousness raising groups where everyone could feel safe to tell their stories. We drew on influences from the socialist and labor movement in Seattle – those unions that formed to represent laborers in the seafaring and timbering world. Radical Women, a socialist group, would demand that other organizations – like the respectably capitalistic middle class Dorian Group — recognize that the way homosexuals were treated as sick or as illegal was not really the core of the oppression. Rather, it was the challenge we presented to a form of capitalism that had been built upon the idea of the monogamous heterosexual family.
To be sure, there were battles within the community as it emerged with a public voice, but ultimately if anything was to be achieved, multiple voices had to be consulted, resulting in a low-key Seattle style of LGBTQ organizing and expression that continues to this day.
As a professor who came to academia through journalism, do you think you view scholarship differently from more traditional academics (particularly since you see the occasional flare up between journalists and academics when covering the same issue)? If so how? If not why? Relatedly, when writing Gay Seattle how did your background in journalism help you? How did you decide on your sources for Gay Seattle?
When I told my high school counselor I wanted to major in History in college, she discouraged me by saying, “The only thing you can do with that is teach.” Since I enjoyed writing, she encouraged me to instead consider journalism – the profession of “historians in a hurry” as the phrase goes. It was a good choice because I eventually found that journalism actually let me follow both my interest in writing narratives about real people and their struggles AND my interest in the historical context within which they were operating. Story, after all, is made from a character confronting a significant problem, but within a broader context.
I think it’s unfortunate that academic writing and narrative non-fiction journalism sometimes seem to exist in two different worlds. One targets writing primarily for fellow specialists and exploring theoretical propositions often in a style virtually indecipherable to a general audience. The other aims at that larger audience but often forgets to ask those more theoretical or political questions. The division that has occurred between “queer theory” with its theoretical emphasis and “gay studies” with its original focus on uncovering specific stories about people and communities is an example of that.
As is true of most long-form narrative journalists, I try to hit that sweet spot that links those two worlds of inquiry. As Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, two of the best once wrote, the particular genre I work in “mixes human content with academic theory and observed fact, allows specialized understanding of everyday events, and unscrambles and sorts the messages of a complex world.” Or at least tries to. So I always look for what we often refer to as the “ladder of abstraction” – those points within a particular character’s story where it’s possible to illustrate a broader theoretical or political context. My books are built upon characters and their problems, but woven through each are explorations of broader theories. Gay Seattle, for example, was built upon theories of geographic sense of place from Yi-Fu Tuan (especially his books Landscapes of Fear and Space and Place) and of figurative public architecture from Christian Norberg-Schulz (The Concept of Dwelling). The question that guided Gay Seattle was this: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized as sexual or gender criminals and perverts into citizens who can participate equally in the public civic discourse that marks a city — into an empowered group that is no longer outcast but that can truly be said either to have found or at least be well on their way to creating a sense of belonging within a local urban environment? How do they gain a public voice?
But, whew, I wasn’t about to put all that into the prologue!
Instead I talked about an 18-year-old sailor, John Collins, who went looking for some male companionship on a cold Monday night in downtown Seattle in November 1895 and found another teenager named Benjamin Layton. The two ended up in a room in a nearby saloon catering to sailors, loggers, gold rushers – and female prostitutes. That’s when they got reported to the police by a jealous prostitute, turning Collins into one of the first men in Seattle to be prosecuted for violating a law he didn’t even know existed – the newly adopted state sodomy law intended to regulate male-male sexuality. The case had to be dropped, though, when Layton – coerced into being the state’s witness – hopped a train and disappeared. I was very fortunate to find the transcript of Collins’ hearing in court records. From there, it was easy to pivot repeatedly to aspects of the story of what was essentially a century-long saga to overturn that law and resist the police, as well as challenge various medical practices. That carried readers through the history that LGBTQ citizens had experienced to secure a voice and a sense of place in Seattle.
According to your book, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the earliest organized attempts to pass legislation that protected individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. How do you think about this moment in Seattle history and the city’s LGBT community? What might be some important take a ways not only in terms of history but also modern politics and Seattle municipal politics?
Unfortunately, there’s a sad irony this year to that particular anniversary. It took from 1977 until 2006 to get the law adopted – three decades in a state often considered progressive. Success didn’t actually happen until the business community came on board, especially the power of Seattle’s new high-tech corporations. That’s certainly one lesson about how the effort to secure a public voice is a saga that evolves over many generations and that must involve both political and economic organizing.
Ed Murray was the gay state senator who helped complete that battle in the state Legislature and finally secure the non-discrimination law that bears his name. Murray also helped pull together a coalition to pass a marriage equality law in 2012 and then went on to beat an incumbent and become Seattle’s first openly gay mayor.
But as the city learned for the first time this spring, during Murray’s efforts to pass those bills, he was repeatedly being privately subjected to highly questionable charges that he had paid teenagers under the age of legal consent for sex in the 1980s before he entered the Legislature. The accusations never became public because those making them were considered not credible. But this spring, with Murray positioned to win an easy re-election and leading a very public effort to resist the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, the local conservative newspaper, the Seattle Times, decided to publicize many of the charges it had actually known about and dismissed at the time as not reliable. It did so because of a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed Murray had paid him for sex when he was 15 — but who himself has severe credibility issues since he has dozens of criminal convictions and mis-described critical parts of Murray’s anatomy. (Yes, we’ve been treated to awkward press descriptions of the mayor’s genitals.) Murray flatly denies any molestation or ever paying for sex.
Compounding the suspicion about the nature and timing of the lawsuit is the fact that an attorney known for his past anti-gay stances heads the law firm handling the suit. So a pallor of political opportunism hangs over the accusations. Still, because of the media coverage of the supposed – and still unproven – sex scandal, Murray, the man who led the final successful battles for that non-discrimination law, was forced to withdraw from re-election.
The local LGBTQ community has been split and shaken – not wanting to buy into trumped up stereotypes of molestation that are often slung by political opponents against gay men, but also not wanting to seem to be challenging the credibility of those who claim to have been sexually abused. After all, many gay, lesbian and transgender youth do become victims of crime or exploitation. So now we wait for the civil trail.
I wrote in Gay Seattle that 1977 had been a particularly rough year for the local LGBTQ community as it began to deal with severe backlash against what had been some important legal accomplishments. Now, 40 years later, we see some similar things happening. I think it’s historical moments like this that will go on to become particularly crucial ones in shaping the next steps in the local community’s sense of itself.
[Update: The suit against Murray was dropped as Atkin’s pointed out in an email to The Metropole, “the accuser and his lawyer dropped the lawsuit, adding to the impression that the original lawsuit was — as Murray has termed it — a ‘political takedown’ using old stereotypes about gay men.” See here for more details. ]
You write about the concept of “coming home” in Gay Seattle. Can you explain this concept (which seems to some extent multivalent in the book) and how places like Seattle fit into or draw out this idea?
As a writer, I look for themes that are universal in our lives. Creating a sense of place is a struggle many of us engage in. It involves more than just “coming out” and letting the world know who you are. In Gay Seattle I use a quotation from the theologian Walter Brueggemann who said that when you’re writing about people whose common experience is that of being emotional outcasts, rather than sharing a common race or social class, then the central question is not going to be about emancipation but about “rootage” – in our case, not just about “gay or LGBTQ freedom” but about “LGBTQ location” within a story about a series of generations gaining a promise and looking for fulfillment.
That’s one reason that in Gay Seattle I tried hard to locate the historical evolution of the gay community within the history of the city itself rather than treating it as a kind of “ghetto” history. So I spent a lot of time writing about the geography and overall factors that shaped the city, and then situated the lesbian and gay stories within that broader context. One of my goals, actually, was to be sure that the book ended up in the “Seattle/Northwest history” sections of bookstores and libraries and would not be ghettoized in some “Gay/Lesbian Studies” section. To this day, when I walk into one of the few bookstores we still have left in Seattle, I’m happy when I see it sitting there, right in front of the store, in the Seattle and Northwest history section – not several aisles back in the LGBTQ section. I wanted it to be clear that we were part of the entire urban history of the city, not some niche.
In political terms and scholarship, where do you see the movement and field going? You mention more work on transgender issues in the introduction to the paperback edition of Gay Seattle. Can you expand on this or discuss other directions you see both politics and academia moving?
I guess it might be said that we’re poised on intermingled waves. One wave brought us the new discoveries of historical stories and documents and is exemplified by the efforts of folks likes John Boswell, Lillian Faderman, Esther Newton, George Chauncey and all the other historical writers who are still giving us richly detailed accounts of the people who have been part of the LGBTQ saga. There’s a continuing international expansion of that research that I think is very exciting as we get more chronicles from Asia, Africa and South America.
Another wave has given us “queer studies,” building on theoreticians such as Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick. That has drawn us into deeper theoretical reflections on how knowledge about sexual and gender identities are constructed through local deployments of language and power.
Where does it go? I recently attended the world conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Bangkok. It brought political activists from all over the world. Very importantly, the association adds the “I” for “intersexual” onto LGBTQI. It was fascinating to me to see how capably people from all over the globe and from all races are fusing what I refer to as those two waves – the specific stories of struggle and community and the critical theories about gender and sexuality. The thinking and the political activism going on in China, in Africa, in New Zealand, in South America – that’s the next big story in LGBTQI scholarship and history. It’ll be written city-by-city and nation-by-nation but always with an eye toward global impacts.
How did your work on Gay Seattle influence your second book, Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore? What are you working on now?
The question that I looked at in Imagining Gay Paradise was essentially the same as in Gay Seattle: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized because of their sexuality or gender into citizens who participate equally in the public civic discourse and who feel they have a strong sense of place?
But in Imagining Gay Paradise I wanted to look at a region rather than a city, and I wanted it to be an area that had been influenced by European colonialism. Hence, Southeast Asia became a logical choice, with three very different geographical areas being the focus: Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore. I wanted to see what communication processes were available when the American civil rights influence that helped shape the experience in Seattle was missing. So the processes of communication I looked at were quite different. There were no big public marches or civil rights actions. Instead, there was the creation of an art-based community in Bali in the 1930s and 1940s, one that was effectively then destroyed by a Nazi-inspired sex scandal. There was a very famous gay men’s sauna in Bangkok that reflected both the sexual image of Bangkok but also created a place for sexual dissent. And there was a new wave of cyberspace activism occurring in Singapore.
I bounced around through time and space to try to understand particular characters and their contexts over a period that ran from 1910 until 2010. That included the early 20th century king of Siam, Rama VI, who got rid of his father’s harem and began to adjust family laws to enforce British concepts of romantic heterosexual monogamy in what would become Thailand – and yet who himself resisted that type of marriage even while writing plays about romance. I examined the role of the famed German artist Walter Spies in Bali in the 1930s, as well that of Khun Toc who developed the Babylon sauna in Bangkok in the later part of the 20th century. And I focused on a fourth major character, Stuart Koe, who created a cyber-organizing platform called Fridae in Singapore. In all cases, they used a type of “magical reality” to create a sense of place for the expression of gender and sexual differences – so the book became a narrative non-fiction exploration of how “magical reality” – as a communication process — can be used to create places that serve as LGBTQ homes.
As for my next story: Given the spread of new communication technologies throughout the world – as well as global LGBTQI organizing and backlashes to that organizing – I think I’ll be looking at how we, as now much more public LGBTQI citizens, continue to evolve our understandings of ourselves especially through new media. I don’t think I’ll be writing history about particular bars or even political groups, but rather about the evolving impacts of technology and of concerns about environmental changes in the places we call home.
I’m interested in the next generation’s stories so I’m going to watch – and write – as they make the next history.
College of Arts & Sciences, University of Louisville
I entered the academy in the early 1990s after spending much of the 1980s working in journalism and community organizing. About the same time I graduated from college in 1979, I got involved in feminism and in southern peace and justice movements, so that is what inspired me to become a scholar. Nearly all of the research and writing I have done is related to some aspect of the search for social, racial, and gender justice.
What has animated and sustained me in those passions has way more to do with others’ activism than with my own, and as a young woman I found myself drawn to telling the stories of people and currents that weren’t otherwise getting told. My PhD is in history, which I got interested in through growing up in the South in the turbulent years of school desegregation and seeing the people I loved choosing what looked to me early on like the wrong side of the issue.
Today I write and teach oral history, an interest that originated with my interviewing people as a student reporter for my college newspaper in my original hometown of Atlanta. In fact I began writing history as a journalist, before I ever even heard of historiography.
For most of us who care deeply about social justice and who work in the academy, especially from the relatively privileged position of a tenured professor, thinking of oneself as an “activist” is complicated and does not feel quite right. As a scholar of social movements, I have chronicled people who made profound contributions to social change. I have also participated in some of those movements but only as one of many and in episodic, extremely modest ways.
I rarely call myself a scholar-activist, but I suppose that is mostly how others see me, particularly in the 11 years since I became founding director of a social justice research institute at the university where I teach. The Anne Braden Institute (ABI) is named after one of Louisville’s most committed anti-racist activists, one of six white southerners Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised as a dedicated ally in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We try to work in her tradition to bridge the gap between scholarship and action for social justice, especially in regards to racial justice and especially at the grassroots level. I had the good fortune of serving as Anne’s biographer, and that is what brought me to Louisville, Kentucky, and caused me to put down roots here and to begin to think deeply about justice and equity locally. I moved here in the midst of writing Anne’s biography, and although her activism covered the South and nation, she was an ardent lover of her native Louisville who had her finger on the pulse of virtually every local racial injustice. It was through her eyes that I began to really know this community. I also had family roots here, and the stories I had heard from my grandmother in my growing-up years were always set in this river city situated at the border of south and midwest.
Although we are a part of regional and national conversations, our work at the ABI is primarily local. It often (not always) involves a kind of public history deployed in service of illuminating contemporary inequities. With the help of a small team of student assistants, one phenomenal staffperson, and a handful of faculty pulled into various projects, we respond to requests from a variety of community partners and advisers drawn to us in part through our namesake. The result is a little bit of a lot of kinds of research and community engagement. As an oral history practitioner for more than 30 years now, I have put the method to many unconventional uses in the work of the Braden Institute. Who would have ever imagined that a fair housing action plan for metro Louisville funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could be oral history-based? Our partnership with the city’s human relations commission and a local affordable housing advocacy organization made that possible.
Another project involved partnering with several museums and the city’s visitors bureau to develop a local civil rights history tour, which now has more than 20,000 copies in circulation, along with a volunteer training guide made available to local educators and community groups. The tour introduces Louisville’s vibrant movement history and makes a start at bridging its tenacious racial divides, which are most savagely visible in its housing patterns. Right now I am working with colleagues in Public Health and in the mayor’s office on a youth violence prevention research project to develop a citywide social media campaign that challenges negative messaging aimed at African American youth in part by including positive accounts of their own community histories.
My work has a distinctly urban flavor. But Louisville is the largest and most diverse city in an overwhelmingly rural, white, and poor state. So addressing the urban-rural divide is also vital, and organizations we have worked with that enact that mission through activism include, for example, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalshop, an eastern Kentucky media collective with whom I served as a humanities adviser for a documentary film about Anne Braden’s life. My most recent project was a collaborative public history project to research LGBTQ historic sites both in Louisville and across the state and then to write a statewide historic context narrative documenting Kentucky’s LGBTQ heritage. Part of a recent initiative to better preserve our nation’s LGBTQ past, that research was supported by a small grant from the National Parks Service to the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based organization for LGBTQ equality, and to Kentucky’s state historic preservation office. The project centered in part on Louisville, which was home to the state’s first gay bar, Beaux Arts, established in 1947. Documenting that site for the National Register of Historic Places was one project outcome. Yet the research was also quite a departure for me because it got me out of Louisville and traveling the state with the Fairness Campaign’s director and a team of students. To identify sites and collect archival documents and oral histories connected to still relatively hidden histories required unconventional investigative research as well as cultivating new networks of allies, often in small rural communities.
I have written three books of history, and I loved writing them. I plan to write more! But I would have to say that over the past decade, the diverse collaborations I’ve discussed here have reshaped my own research agenda substantively. Historians traditionally have not worked collectively, but nearly all of my recent projects are interdisciplinary and typically unfold as part of teams that are also interprofessional and intergenerational. I have 2 books-in-progress now. Yet my individual research pursuits do not overlap much with the local community engagement work that also absorbs me, and I cannot seem to make substantial progress on a new book because of my accountability to the more immediate presses of community-engaged collaborations. Most recently I am a co-leader in creating a Transdisciplinary Social Justice Research Consortium that crosses 7 colleges and schools at my university to support–with the help of one major internal research grant dispersed to multiple small research teams–a broader spectrum of community-engaged research aimed at addressing structural inequities.
Scholar-activist work is powerfully important. I cannot even imagine an academic career without social justice at its center, especially in the neoliberal, retrenchment climate in public universities today. But I also think any early-career scholar contemplating doing it must be mindful of the time and energy commitments relative to the rewards structures for earning tenure at their particular home institution. Anne Braden used to speak of an “other America.” She referred not to the poverty culture described by political scientist Michael Harrington but to the generations of dissenters throughout U.S. history who have worked for a more just country since the first slave ships landed here. As 2016 demonstrated, we have an awfully long way to go and we need more social justice-minded scholars to be able to stick around.
Catherine Fosl is the author of three books: Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (2009, co-authored with Tracy E. K’Meyer); Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (2002; republished in paper 2006; winner of Oral History Association’s 2003 book award); and Women for All Seasons: The Story of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1989). Fosl’s recent community-engaged and collaborative scholarship completed with multiple community partners includes “Kentucky Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer Historic Context Narrative 2016,” a public history project that will become available digitally in 2017; “Black Freedom White Allies, Red Scare: Louisville, 1954,” a 2016 digital history exhibit; and “Making Louisville Home for us All: A 20-Year Action Plan for Fair Housing (2014).
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