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Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
On this week’s episode of Truthdig radio in collaboration with KPFK we have legendary musician Ry Cooder (who brought along some songs from his new album), queer historian Michael Bronski and Marcia Dawkins on the real freedom riders.
0:38 - Michael Bronski
14:40 - Marcia Dawkins
25:30 - Ry Cooder
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, bringing you the best interviews and commentary from Truthdig.com and KPFK. I’m going to pretend that was the “Star Wars” intro and not just Fox. On today’s show, we have the legendary Ry Cooder, who brought along some songs from his new album; queer historian Michael Bronski; and also Marcia Dawkins on the real Freedom Riders. Here we go.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer in studio with Josh Scheer. Our guest is activist and cultural historian Michael Bronski, whose new book is “A Queer History of the United States.” Thanks for joining us.
Michael Bronski: Thank you.
Peter Scheer: So, why a queer history, and not a vanilla history of the United States?
Michael Bronski: Well, I think a queer history would be more interesting than a vanilla history. [Laughter] But I guess the real question is, why not an LGBT history, or an LGBTQ history? And part of what I wanted to do with the book was just not do a snapshot history of sort of famous gay people throughout the ages…
Peter Scheer: Yeah, I notice you don’t, you don’t mention, like, Lincoln…
Michael Bronski:…but rather to look at things in a more comprehensive way.
Peter Scheer: Right. Sorry I interrupted you there, but I noticed you don’t mention Abraham Lincoln in the book, things like that that are sort of titillating news stories. Or do you?
Michael Bronski: I don’t, I do not mention Abraham Lincoln, but I do mention George Washington.
Peter Scheer: Oh, there you go.
Michael Bronski: I thought one major president was enough. [Laughter]
Peter Scheer: Tell us about George Washington.
Michael Bronski: Well, it’s very interesting. People—and, actually, this work has been done in the past by a historian named Charles Shively, and some other people have actually picked up on it—but if you read George Washington’s letters to the Marquis de Lafayette, who was his comrade during the Revolutionary War … and … the letters—these are not, I did not find these on my own; these are printed in the collected letters of Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, volumes that actually go back to the 1850s when they were first published. The letters are extraordinarily intimate; I would argue romantic, even taking into consideration that, you know, in the 1780s, even then they had written in a more flowery way. There’s a passion and an intimacy there that is unmistakably heightened. So I would not argue that they actually did it [Laughter]; I cannot make that claim, I don’t know what happened in those tents out at Valley Forge.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Michael Bronski: But certainly, the degree of affection, the degree of intimacy between them is enormous. So you know, in the book when I say … I really try to avoid saying, so-and-so was a lesbian, so-and-so was gay. But rather, really look at the quality of these relationships and then I think, more important, really look at how they may have actually affected these people’s lives, and how they shaped the nation after that.
Josh Scheer: In the introduction, you talk about…
Michael Bronski: Shulamith Firestone.
Josh Scheer: Shulamith, and about the idea of snapshots of history, and it was interesting, not…
Peter Scheer: Well, that history should be in motion. Historians’ work should be in motion, not just snapshots.
Josh Scheer:…no, but it’s not—not just for queer history, but also for all history, right?
Michael Bronski: It’s for all history, right.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, we’re kind of being taught this history in snapshots, right?
Michael Bronski: Right. I think that we’re all very used to—because American education is generally so horrible—but you know, this is Columbus; these are the explorers; this is the Revolution. And there’s very little sense of sort of a grand sweep of the major themes that perhaps people are repeating, or if they don’t repeat, why they don’t repeat. And the reason I used that quote from Shulamith Firestone—from a book called “The Dialectic of Sex,” which is one of the earliest…one of the really early, second-wave feminist analyses—is that I think she really gets it right; I think she really … we really have to look at the long movement of things. We have to look at it in the larger picture, and not just focus on “Abraham Lincoln was gay, Eleanor Roosevelt was a lesbian.”
Peter Scheer: Right. What are some of those repeating themes?
Michael Bronski: Well, some of the—it’s interesting. One of the most—I think that the major theme in the book is really that America is almost a myth; that America doesn’t really exist. You know, we think about the American way, the American people, the American ideal. And I argue that because we’re—aside from the native peoples, who were here and then gradually killed off by the Europeans coming over, to a large degree—America is—and this is a bit of a cliché, you know—America is a nation of immigrants of all different sorts. Whether these be actual Italian or Irish immigrants, or Puritans and pilgrims, or whether it be, you know, slaves who were not immigrants but slaves. But you know, outcast groups such as different religious groups, different ethnicity identities, different sexual identities. So that America really is this—not so much a melting pot, because it doesn’t really melt together; these people are all quite separate. So that while we actually have this long view of over 300 years of people coming here, there have always been insiders and outsiders. And part of my book is looking at what it means to be an outsider with sexual orientation or gender, and how that actually influenced the mainstream, and how the mainstream changed because of that.
Josh Scheer: I want to get to the Puritans and early American history, but I know that you talk about war and entertainment being major forces to change.
Michael Bronski: Mm-hmm.
Josh Scheer: And I wanted to get a little bit more on that.
Michael Bronski: Sure. I think the one thing that really surprised me—I mean, they asked me to write this book; I said sure, I’d love to. I began writing it; I gave it, actually, to a former student whom I’m fairly close to. And I said, do you want to read it and tell me what you think. And he said, oh, it’s great; but this theme you have of wars changing everything for gay and lesbian people is so strong. And I didn’t even realize that it was there until he pointed it out. And then I realized that almost every war that we’ve been through has created—obviously, war creates major changes. But the changes around sex and gender, particularly for LGBT people, or the ramifications of that, have been enormous. So the first instance I used, actually, is the Revolutionary War, where literally … to separate ourselves from England, from the mother country, we actually invent an American notion of manhood. Which is quite distinct from what we see as the English fop, and the English effeminate man—the sort of royalty. And it really brings us right to Davy Crockett, to Daniel Boone, to the Wild West. And this is a purely American invention, which impacts enormously upon how men view themselves, and how women end up viewing men, and what it means to be a man—and then, of course, what it means to be a man who loves other men within the culture.
Peter Scheer: Hmm.
Michael Bronski: You know, I would argue that we still have this today, even with … George Bush and his cowboy politics, right? [Laughter] This is a theme—I mean, this also came about, I would argue, in 1816 when Washington Irving writes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which I described as the first fundamental story for all American schoolchildren that’s fundamentally a story about queer-bashing.
Peter Scheer: Ah.
Michael Bronski: Where Brom Bones, who is described as a bully, a mean person, a violent person, ends up being the hero; and Ichabod Crane, who’s described as womanly, effeminate and a gossip, ends up being either killed or driven out of town. So schoolchildren from the earliest years of going to grade school are actually taught that it’s OK to actually attack effeminate men. You know, very much in this notion of creating the real American man.
Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with Michael Bronski, whose new book is “A Queer History of the United States.” This is Truthdig Radio. Let me ask you about Thomas Morton and some of the other queer pioneers of early American history.
Michael Bronski: Right. I think Thomas Morton is very interesting. I think—and again, like “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I think [his is] one of these fundamental American stories that really, really expose some truth to that American culture.
Peter Scheer: Can you just sum up who he is, or why…
Michael Bronski: Sure. In—I believe it’s 1683; I could double-check that date—Thomas Morton is living—he’s a Puritan—he comes here from England. He’s living in the Bay Colony, which is now called Boston, and decides it’s really not for him. [Laughs] It’s a little bit repressive. Takes a bunch of people, including a bunch of indentured servants, and moves out to a few miles away, a town, it’s now Quincy, Mass., which is a few miles outside of Boston. Sets up his own colony called Merry Mount—you know, so the pun here is like merry mountain; or maybe it means merry and mounting in a sexual way. Some of the earlier versions are calling it Mare Mount, meaning a female horse mount, meaning—almost indicating bestiality.
Peter Scheer: Oh, dear.
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