LGBTQ people are under attack. Fight back by knowing your history

Past accomplishments are a blueprint for preserving existing civil rights, advocate Eric Selvey said

Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Gay News.

With hyper-partisan political battles axing the nation in two, simply living as an “out” queer person can seem like a radical act.

“All of us who are openly gay are living and writing the history of our movement,” the U.S. Senate’s first openly gay member, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., has said.

She advises that “there will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it’s simply the way things are.”

Struggles litter the name-change landscape for LGBTQ individuals. There are fears that the progress achieved in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court granted marriage equality will be the next civil rights reversal to follow the high court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade eliminating access to abortion.

Book bans are all the rage in right-leaning political circles.

In April, Olivia Pituch and Christina Ellis, of York, Pa., in April told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties that  “… it is important for students to see books written by authors who are people of color, LGBTQ+, Black and Indigenous, and with characters from marginalized groups,” the Capital-Star previously reported.

Students in Central York School District recently defeated an effort to impose a book ban there.

Preceding current efforts to expand or contract queer civil rights has been the constant drumbeat of death within trans circles. So far this year, there have been 23 transgender people in the U.S. fatally shot or killed by other violent means, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The actual number may be higher since not all crimes of this nature are reported or investigated as such. In previous years, most of these people were Black and Latina transgender women. In 2021, there were 47 such deaths, preceded by 44 deaths in 2020.

Against the backdrop of headlines foreshadowing difficult times ahead, the LGBT Center of Central PA History Project marks its 10th anniversary this year.

The nationally recognized project achieves what York students Pituch and Ellis called for in their testimony: discovering, documenting, collecting, preserving, and presenting the history of the LGBTQ+ community in central Pennsylvania and beyond.

The project works in partnership with the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.

Most notably to date, the project has publishe Out in Central Pennsylvania: The History of an LGBTQ Community, winning the 2020 Book of the Year award from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference. More than 150 libraries across the state have received copies donated by the project. The book is part of the Keystone Books series which provides Pennsylvania citizens with accessible, well-researched explorations into the state’s history culture, society, and environment.

The History Project’s co-founder and chair, Barry Loveland told the Capital-Star that “we’ve received wonderful feedback from professional historians, archivists, and oral historians.”

No stranger to examining the public record, he is also coordinator of the Pennsylvania LGBT History Network, after having served 30 years as Chief of Architecture and Preservation at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The project’s work has been featured in “Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies and Pennsylvania Heritage.”

Articles on the project have been featured in Pennsylvania Historical Association’s Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Pennsylvania Heritage.

Such exposure is significant “because LGBTQ history is a largely hidden and newly discovered history,” Loveland said. His kind praise acknowledges that queer history has been largely ignored by most institutions. Creating change, the project has “consulted with several organizations that want to start similar projects,” Loveland said, noting the project is popular on the speaking circuit with colleges, universities, historical organizations, libraries and archives, and professional associations.

In contrast, the work of the project doers not enjoy the same level of interest within the Legislature. “We have not received any communications of interest from legislators or their staff about the book or our efforts in general,” Loveland said.

The queer community’s recent history has been one of more success than failures at creating basic civil rights – marriage equality and homosexuality is no longer against the law in Pennsylvania, although the state still has no basic civil rights protections in place. Loveland observes “It has been a difficult road in Pennsylvania. The Republican Party controls both the state Senate and House with no noticeable evolution on these issues by Republican legislators.”

Limp legislative support within the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature stands in stark relief to the measurable evolution reflected in public opinion polls.

A 2015 Public Religion Research Institute showed that 55 percent of Pennsylvania residents supported same-sex marriage. Later, a 2021 Public Religion Research Institute survey showed that 69 percent of Pennsylvania respondents supported same-sex marriage, while 24 percent opposed. “Legislative action almost always lags behind public opinion, so I remain hopeful that change will eventually come,” Loveland said.

With the political environment regarding LGBTQ issues in an uproar – anti-gay opponents are on the warpath – one member of the local queer community told the Capital-Star that “I feel like I’ll have to live in the closet again.”

The best defense against civil rights reversals is education and knowing our own accurate history, Loveland advised.

“While opponents like to use slogans that try to sensationalize the issues and scare people into taking an extreme viewpoint, we must point out the inaccuracies in their arguments and fight back with facts,” Loveland said

Sometimes acknowledging history is fraught with challenges. Such was the case when the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission voted to remove a state historical marker dedicated in October.

According to a story published in the project’s newsletter, here is what transpired:

PHMC removes Richard Schlegel marker 

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) received a request from Sen. John DiSanto (R-15th District) on December 20, 2021 to remove the Richard Schlegel state historical marker that was installed and dedicated in October.

The marker was sponsored by the History Project. PHMC notified the History Project on March 23, 2022 of the request and gave us 30 days to respond. After a review of the request and some additional research, Amanda Arbour, executive director of the LGBT Center of Central PA, and Barry Loveland, History Project chair, each prepared a letter in defense of the marker and the two letters were sent to PHMC in April. PHMC’s historical marker committee met in May and after a long discussion voted 4-1 to retire the marker.

The PHMC met on June 1 and approved the recommendation of the marker committee unanimously. In his objection to the marker, Sen. DiSanto cited an incident when Richard Schlegel was a minor, age 16, that occurred in 1943 with another younger boy of undetermined age (estimated by Schlegel to be 11 or 12) that Schlegel recounted in his oral history interview. No sex took place, but nudity and vague references to playing were made and the participation was apparently voluntary on the part of both minors.

Amanda Arbour wrote in her letter of response, “Although not much detail is provided as to what actually occurred, the behavior described in the oral history interview is best understood as problematic sexual behavior amongst youth…. The age gap (if his estimation of the other boy’s age was correct) makes it inappropriate and we do not condone this behavior.”

The response goes on to point out that the incident occurred in 1943, “when there was much less access to accurate information about sex, sexuality and consent – especially for LGBTQ+ people.” It is not accurate for DiSanto to describe the incident as criminal, even by standards of today, according to the project’s Summer 2022 newsletter.

The newsletter also noted: While Schlegel is a complicated individual, all people honored on state historical markers are imperfect. His contributions in federal case law are nationally significant to the movement for LGBTQ+ equal rights and his contribution in organizing the first known LGBTQ+ group in the state outside of Philadelphia are significant to local and state history.

Despite this setback, the History Project will continue to honor Richard Schlegel’s important legacy as a pioneer of the LGBTQ+ movement through exhibits, publications, and lectures.

“How we document and share our history will always be imperfect, but we continue to strive to better represent all of our communities – particularly those who are most marginalized – through the History Project’s work,” Arbour wrote in an email to the Capital-Star. She elaborated that the center “is committed to the project because our LGBTQ+ communities have a rich history…and it is critical for us to document and share that history to inform the work that we continue to do today.”

Keeping track of the region’s rich queer history is the job of Malinda Triller-Doran, Dickinson College Special Collections Librarian. In its 10-year history, the project has collected “approximately 120 linear feet of documents, photographs, and artifacts from about 100 donors,” Triller-Doran said.

Materials date primarily from the late 1960s to the early 2000s and includes newsletters and magazines distributed by activist and social organizations, event programs, scrapbooks, t-shirts, buttons, banners, and bar memorabilia. Open 9a-5p Mon-Fri, the collection portrays “political activism, discrimination, religious life, local responses to HIV/AIDS, gay bar life, and transgender advocacy, plus oral history interviews conducted with more than 150 individuals,” she told the Capital-Star.

Triller-Doran said the collection is a community resource. “We want everyone to feel welcome, whether they are just curious or have a specific research project in mind.”

Area high school students have explored the collections during central Pennsylvania’s annual Gay Straight Alliance Summit. Dickinson College and Gettysburg College students and interns from Elizabethtown College, Penn State Harrisburg, Shippensburg University, and York College have used the collection to create digital exhibits and a Google map that identifies gathering spaces in central Pennsylvania. Items from the project have also been displayed at venues in Harrisburg, Carlisle, York, Lancaster, and Lock Haven.

“I’ve gotten phone calls from scholars in Chicago and New York City inquiring about our resources,” Triller-Doran said.

In 2019, the project partnered with the Susquehanna Art Museum to sponsor a juried exhibit selected from local artists recognizing 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.

The Stonewall Uprising gave birth to today’s annual Pride events.

After a two-year, Covid-induced hiatus, Dr. Eric Selvey, optometrist, and a well-oiled cadre of volunteers, advocates, and allies worked all year long to produce the 30th iteration of the popular event.

Selvey is no stranger to history or Pride events, his rich history of involvements outlined in Out in Central Pennsylvania. After serving for two years on the History Project’s Steering Committee, he thinks “Archiving our history is important because the struggle for equal rights in Pennsylvania continues,” Selvey told the Capital-Star in an email.

“Younger generations need to be aware of the events that were responsible for bringing us to where we are today,” he noted. “Our history of past accomplishments is a blueprint for how to preserve already-attained rights as well as securing future civil rights,” Selvey points out.

“Queer constituents and their allies statewide must impress upon their elected representatives the importance of equal rights,” he said.

Selvey also encouraged activists and allies to engage with the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.

The commission, according to its website, is charged with the responsibility of advising a sitting governor and state agencies regarding policies, programs, and legislation that impact LGBTQ communities and to serve as a resourceful intermediary between LGBTQ communities and state government. It is composed of appointed commissioners from across the Commonwealth, each acting as a representative and advocate for LGBTQ communities.

In June, the commission denounced Senate Bill 1278, which they described as copy-and-paste version of Florida’s discriminatory “Don’t Say Gay” bill opponents say would harms students and set back human rights in Pennsylvania.

Introduced June 10, the bill is now before the full Senate for consideration. “Pennsylvania was founded on the basis of inclusion, and the Wolf Administration has fought to ensure that Pennsylvania will continue to be a state that welcomes and protects all of its residents,” said Rafael Álvarez Febo, the LGBTQ Affairs Commission executive director. “This bill, which was introduced in the middle of Pride Month, is a cruel attempt to politicize LGBTQ people and deny their humanity in order to score cheap political points.

Febo elaborated that the commission knows “the guise of calling LGBTQ people and topics ‘age inappropriate’ is just fearmongering. Bills like these will cause LGBTQ teachers to have to conceal their identities and strip any resources available for LGBTQ youth out of schools. Even more alarming, these bills have emboldened far right hate groups to mobilize to commit violence against LGBTQ people,” he said on the commission’s web site.

“While Pennsylvanians are struggling with very real issues such as gun violence, soaring prices and underfunded schools, the General Assembly has chosen to pick on LGBTQ children and teachers to score political points. This is deeply wrong and would have long-reaching consequences for our schools and human rights in Pennsylvania,” Febo said.

Selvey echoed Febo’s take on the current political environment.

“We need to fight against censorship and book bans, against anything that offends the snowflake sensitivities of those who would diminish groups that are viewed as not mainstream,” Selvey said.

He is adamant that “the fight must be enjoined by all groups who are marginalized because there are those who feel threatened – the eventually-shrinking ‘majority’ – because their country ‘is being taken away from them’ by people who are not like them.”

“Young people need to learn what it took to attain the rights that may slowly be taken away through state and national legislatures,” Selvey said.

He said he views the U.S. Supreme Court “as a court who have already demonstrated, and voiced, their desire to roll back the past achievements of women and minority communities.”

History buffs can support the History Project on Nov. 6,  from 4 p.m. to 8p.m., at Harrisburg’s Brownstone Lounge. The project will close out its 10th anniversary year with a DJ spinning dance hits through the last several decades of LGBTQ+ history. “Come party like it’s 1999, or 1969, or whatever your favorite decade is,” Loveland told the Capital-Star.

Donations from the event will support the project, according to the web site.

Community support is vital. The project’s most recent annual appeal fell $10,000 short of its goal. “We also launched our first-ever annual appeal in March to raise funds to extend our digitization of the collection, fund a third traveling exhibit, Out on Campus: A History of LGBTQ+ Activism at Pennsylvania Colleges and Universities, and other projects,” Loveland explained.

Fundraising is needed in order to apply for grants in which funds raised may be matched. “There’s still time contribute,” he said.

Republished from our partners at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where it first appeared on August 14, 2022.

Frank Pizzoli is the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice, the former Harrisburg LGBTQ newspaper.