Queer Nostalgia

Queer nostalgia:  noun.  \ˈkwir\ \nä-ˈstal-jə\. A longing for the sense of community created by past experiences of marginality.

This spring, after hearing about some research funding available for undergraduates interested in archival research, I began exploring Pittsburgh’s gay newspapers of the 70s and 80s.  I discovered a rich collection of such papers in Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh.  The titles included Pittsburgh Gay News, Gay Life, Pittsburgh’s OUT, and Planet Queer among others.  As I began reading through them, I realized that I was making my first ever contact with the queer people of that generation.  Suddenly, I realized how disconnected I as a queer young person was from my own history and my own queer elders.

While religious youth groups and organizations like Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts work to encourage the transmission of heteronormative knowledge from one generation to another, I realized that queer people often have a harder time forging relationships across generations.  Queer kids can rarely, if ever, depend on having queer parents, and oftentimes queer spaces are so deeply stratified by ageism. I began to wonder if was possible that these publications could come to take on the role of our often absent or inaccessible queer elders—providing the wisdom and perspective of which we have been deprived within a heteronormative culture.

For example, we are able to patronize local gay bars without acknowledging the blood, sweat, and tears of our forebears that made such establishments possible in the first place.  We are denied access to the collective memory of older generations, and because of this we have lost sight of the radical tactics and monumental achievements of the historic gay liberation movement.  Furthermore, for many of us the urgency and direness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is but a distant memory in our collective consciousness.  And even more telling, the realization of national marriage equality, seemingly impossible just a decade ago, was all but an inevitability for our generation.  

Pittsburgh’s Queer Media


Gay Coffeehouse




Pittsburgh’s OUT

As I began reading through these collections of Pittsburgh’s local gay periodicals, however, I felt as though I was constructing my own genealogy.  I began to see the origins of my current landscape and to hear the voices of my queer predecessors who had made my present reality possible.  I expected the admiration for past activists, the grief for the trauma they endured, and the fascination with a world so different from my own.  But what I did not expect were the acute feelings of nostalgia that accompanied my research.  

As I traced the development of queer culture in the steel city, I began to notice in myself a profound longing for the sense of community I had not ever encountered until reading about it in the archives.  I had never considered how my own queer identity might relate to a protest of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but I began to connect the dots as I read about gay liberation activists marching against the occupation of Vietnam.   The countless gay poems, gay short stories, gay works of theatre, etc. made me keenly aware of the limitations of queer representation in mainstream media.  I knew the tightly-woven community of the past was born of marginality and oppression, but still I longed to be a part of it.  Though I knew on an intellectual level that life was objectively more difficult, more complicated, and more violent for queer-identified individuals in the 70s, I could not help but feel an affinity for the vibrancy, commitment, and fierce individuality of a network that bears little resemblance to the rainbow-washed queer community I have come to know.

I could not help but feel an affinity for the vibrancy, commitment, and fierce individuality of a network that bears little resemblance to the rainbow-washed queer community I have come to know.

With our newfound acceptance in mainstream culture, the borders of queer community are becoming increasingly diffuse.  Instead of needing to produce all of our own media, we have now begun to see queer characters represented in our favorite prime time television shows.  But is this kind of assimilation truly liberation?  Looking back from the present to the publications of the early 70s, it seems to me that we have lost something along the way.  

Instead of the familiar radical activism and coalition building of the 70s, we see contemporary concerns about integrating queer people into existing patriarchal institutions.  Instead of featuring the work of local, cutting edge queer artists, current publications simply advertise any sort of media that even mentions or alludes to a queer character.  What started as gay liberation has slowly become a quest for equality.  Rather than attempting to dismantle the establishment that oppressed us, it seems we’ve become comfortable simply integrating ourselves within the institutions we once protested.  In other words, is the recent increase in queer visibility leading to greater acceptance of diversity or is the queer community simply becoming another niche market that can be exploited for corporate profit?  

These reactions and questions are all the result of my personal experiences of queer nostalgia.  In examining my complicated emotional responses that I encountered in the archives, I was able to understand what implications these histories have for my own activism.  In my view, as ideas about liberation gave way to efforts more focused on integration into the mainstream or equality, the movement became less subversive and our tactics failed to disrupt the fundamental logics of our oppression.  As living conditions for some queer people (namely white, middle-class, cisgender queer people) have improved, our political agendas have become less radical and we as a group have become less concerned in securing justice for those still most oppressed among us.  

By analyzing our feelings of queer nostalgia we are able to complicate our notion of progress.  When we secure a more nuanced understanding of our history, we are better prepared to illuminate the future.  For these reasons, it is imperative that we, as a community, come together to discover, preserve, and share our history.  This process of remembering is perhaps one of the most important forms of activism we can pursue.  

As we well know, queer people have not always been assured by the rest of the world that our lives mattered.  What greater service could we do for our queer elders who survived the trials of the Stonewall days, the terror of the AIDS epidemic, and the injustices of rampant discrimination than to record, remember, and learn from their stories?  Similarly, what might it mean for queer youth, who are at much greater risk of homelessness and abandonment than their straight and cis peers, to know that they are not alone in their experiences but are a part of a long, vibrant, and beautiful history?  Especially in light of recent events this summer in Orlando, I believe that venturing into our histories and experiencing our own forms of queer nostalgia can become a small but meaningful step towards demonstrating that all queer people are truly loved, valued, and important enough to be remembered.

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.