Put yourself in the shoes of a man or woman attracted to someone of the same sex in the 1950s. Your name could be on an FBI watch list, you might have difficulty finding or keeping a job, and you and your friends would be subject to public humiliation just because of who you loved. People thought you had a disease, an affliction. A fun Saturday night at a gay-friendly bar could turn into a police raid at a moment’s notice. In 2017, it can be hard to imagine the fear, anxiety, and stress that so many gay and lesbian people must have lived with at that time, just existing as who they were. The world is largely a much more accepting place for people of all sexual orientations today, though true freedom and civil rights for the LGBTQ community are still threatened.
Making Gay History is a podcast that tells the first-person stories narrating the events that turned the tide from the oppression to acceptance. Host Eric Marcus recorded oral histories with dozens of gay rights pioneers in the late ’80s and early ’90s for a book he wrote (Making Gay History). Among the subjects are Dr. Evelyn Hooker, the first doctor to publish research that being gay was not a disease, Frank Kameny, a fiercely tireless gay rights activist who dedicated his life to activism after being fired from a federal job, and Edythe Eyde, who anonymously self-published a lesbian magazine in the 1940s.
Chronologically, the stories go back as far as the ’40s and ’50s and continue to the time of the interviews, so there is a wide swath of gay history discussed. Marcus donated the tapes to the New York Public Library, who digitized the recordings. With the help of producer Sara Burningham and Pineapple Street Media, this amazing archival audio has become a podcast.
Each episode is bookended by Marcus’ setup about the gay rights pioneer in the interview, what was going on around that time in history, and then what happened after the interview or later in the person’s life. The episodes are typically 15-20 minutes long. I imagine it takes a lot of work to cut the tape and make a segment from a lengthy interview, and it’s masterfully done.
My favorite episode of Season 1 was with Wendell Sayers, a black lawyer who worked for the attorney general’s office in Denver. Sayers never came out to his family and was referred to by a pseudonym (Paul Phillips) in the original book. Sayers spoke about things that had happened decades before, but you can tell that he was still uncomfortable at times even with saying the word “gay.” The interview is poignant and moving. Marcus gives the subjects enough time to speak and is not uncomfortable with silence, which I love in interviews. Here’s Sayers talking about his fear of being “found out” by the attorney general’s office where he worked (the Mattachine Society was a gay rights activist group started in the 1950s, one of the only places that LGBT people could openly meet people in their community):
He later talked about the headline he feared would be published if he came out: “First Black in the Attorney General’s Office Turns Out to Be [Gay]” and how his career was everything to him. He helped people within the Society with pro bono legal advice and risked his career on many occasions to help gay people in need.
It is plainly evident to me after listening to these narratives that these pioneers were courageous and not the least bit self-serving. They wanted to make life better for the people in their communities. They had a common goal of standing up for what they believed in, taking personal risks to benefit a greater good, and believing in love. I have grown up in a much more accepting generation, and it makes me angry to think of a time when you could be subjected to violence because of who you love … think about that. A friend of mine said recently that he’s convinced that most of human emotion lies on a spectrum between love and fear. People who are afraid of the unknown, afraid of people who aren’t like them, made (and still make) judgments about and decisions for people about who they can love. What if those decisions and judgments were made for heterosexual couples? If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know that you can’t help who you love-it just happens. Love is love.
There have been a handful of podcast producers and hosts that I have interacted enough with to actually want to be real-life friends with, and Eric Marcus is certainly one of them. I admire people who are unapologetically authentic, and whose passion for sharing what they know is unbridled. I so enjoyed my phone interview with him; he’s a genuine and thoughtful person who is immensely appreciative of the people who have helped him along his path in life, including the making of this podcast.
Please read my interview with Eric Marcus here – we talked about the challenge of working with the decades-old recordings, the difference between the book and the podcast, and more about History UnErased, a K-12 LGBTQ curriculum with which the show is partnering.
This is an extremely well-produced show that is perfect for anyone wanting to know more about history – history includes black history, gay history, women’s history … so if you like history, you’ll love the first-person storytelling. I’ve been lucky to listen to the first episode of Season 2, which profiles Randy Wicker and Marsha P. Johnson. I loved how non-produced the actual interview sounded – of course it was organized and Marcus asked great questions, but I’ll just say that Wicker’s and Johnson’s personalities truly shine through. The second season debuts Thursday, March 2, 2017 and will run for 10 episodes released every Thursday.
What do you think of this podcast? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss! Also subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter!
Audible Feast Ratings
Educational Value (5 / 5)
I’d love to hear this audio being played in schools.
Pop Culture Value (3 / 5)
Host Listen-ability (5 / 5)
Flow & Production Value (4 / 5)
Humor (3 / 5)
Investigation (3 / 5)
Storytelling (4 / 5)
These are personal narratives, and not everyone was a born storyteller, but most of the stories are very engaging.
Makes Me a Better Person (5 / 5)
Can I give this 10 stars? 100? I think listening to this show would make ANYONE a better person.
Bonus Stars: (1 / 5)
I was privileged to interview Eric Marcus (you can read the interview here) and he is a pretty fantastic human. I also think the Making Gay History website is beautiful and provides photos and additional notes for each episode.
Overall Audible Feast Rating: (5 / 5)
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Making Gay History website