The Tylt

This is part of the American story

Eric Marcus is author of the 1992 book, “Making Gay History,” and is currently the host and producer of the “Making Gay History” podcast. A longtime journalist and author of over a dozen books, Marcus has had the privilege of interviewing some of the most influential figures in the LGBTQ movement—including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Ellen DeGeneres and so many more—as well as many whose names are not known and whose stories may have been lost otherwise.

Between 2018 and 2019, Tylt voters addressed the question, “Should LGBTQ history be required in schools?” Nearly 65 percent agreed: Yes, it should. As Marcus puts it, “LGBTQ history is a part of American history,” and in this interview, he explains how and why “American history” ought to become a much more inclusive subject.

The Tylt’s Editor-at-Large, Jessie Blaeser, spoke with Marcus on May 21, 2020. The following excerpt has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Jessie: What is “Making Gay History”?

Eric: “Making Gay History” brings LGBTQ history to life through the voices of people who lived it. This project started in 1988 when I was working at CBS News. I got a call from an editor who asked me if I would consider writing an oral history of what was then called the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Movement. To which I said, “I don’t know anything about the history, I’m not an academic, why me?” He said, “I want a book that people can read. I don’t want an academic book. I want someone who is fresh to the subject.”

It was about that time when I discovered my career at CBS wasn’t going to go where I wanted. I wanted to be on the other side of the camera. I asked a senior executive at CBS if she would meet with me to talk about whether or not that was ever a possibility for someone who was gay and out. I was the only out gay person in the newsroom, and I said, “Would you ever put an openly gay person on national news?” and there was a lot of back and forth, and I finally said, “Look, I just need to know for the future of my career. Yes or no?” And she said, “No, we would never put somebody who is openly gay on national news.” And it was around that time that I was asked to write the proposal for this book.

Jessie: When you were in those rooms talking with huge names like Ellen DeGeneres and icons like Marsha P. Johnson, did you have any idea, in the moment, how important it would be to preserve their stories and their voice?

Eric: I had a sense of how important it was to preserve these stories—in part because many of the people I interviewed said they never thought anyone would remember what their contributions were. They entrusted their stories to me.

Jessie: Should LGBTQ history be taught in schools?

Eric: LGBTQ history is a part of American history. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s principal mentor, Bayard Rustin, was an openly gay man. And he was the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. No one learns about Bayard Rustin because he was out and gay and kept in the background. His story is heroic. The Red Scare, which we all learn about in school—there was a concurrent Lavender Scare when President Eisenhower signed an Executive Order in 1953 banning gay people from federal employment. Thousands of people lost their jobs. So I don’t see this as a discrete lesson. LGBTQ history is a part of American history. It's part of the American story. These are great stories that belong in a classroom, and I see that as the cutting edge of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement. The movement belongs in the classroom.

Jessie: What do you hope listeners, young people especially, take away from hearing these interviews?

Eric: I hope what [people] hear from these episodes is that it's possible for you to make change. That it's not somebody else who's going to do it. That if someone else isn't doing it, you can do it and you have a responsibility to the next generation to do it. It's people like us—like you, like me—who can change the world.