“People haven’t been taught anything about gay history. They have no sense of the history.” This is Eric Marcus, on the purpose of the podcast Making Gay History. He has interviewed dozens of LGBTQ civil rights pioneers, some of whom were well-known in the gay community, and others who played important background roles. Marcus, who has been writing about LGBTQ history and culture for decades, actually recorded the interviews in Making Gay History in the 80s and 90s, and along with producer Sara Burningham has edited the archival tape into 20-minute podcast episodes. I was fortunate to spend some time talking with him about the show, the second season of which will debut on March 2, 2017.
Audible Feast: I want to start off by talking about how society views the LGBTQ community. The declassification of homosexuality as an illness in the early 1970s began a slow, slow acceptance of the LGBTQ community. I’m 36, so I have definitely seen a transformation toward more acceptance especially in the last 5 or 10 years, but that’s been the norm for me for more than half my life as one of my best friends came out to me when I was 17. There is a video clip online of a segment you did many years ago with Bill O’Reilly where he talked about how people don’t “approve” of the homosexual “lifestyle.” Do you think this mentality has shifted since that interview almost 20 years ago? And if so, due to what?
Eric Marcus: Yes—the majority of Americans no longer think it’s immoral to be gay. Knowing someone who is gay is single biggest reason people become accepting. We take being open about your sexuality for granted, but for LGBT people there is something of a generational divide based on when you grew up: before the Stonewall uprising [in 1969] and after. The world was so different for people growing up in the ‘60s vs. the ‘70s. In the years before Stonewall, very few people lived as openly gay. In the ‘70s and ‘80s more and more people started to come out, and then many people were forced out due to AIDS. If there was any silver lining to the epidemic it was the opportunity to see gay people as people, including celebrities like Rock Hudson and Liberace, but also Mary Fisher (an AIDS activist who spoke at the Republican National Conventions in 1992 and 1996), or even people’s doctors or beloved teachers. The public got to see [gay people] in every shape and size. Gay people aren’t hidden anymore. We can’t be portrayed in ways that the public recoils at, because the public knows a lot more people in the LGBTQ community now.
AF: Why did you make these recordings in the first place? Was the original intent to capture material for your book (Making Gay History)?
EM: I was actually commissioned to do this work, to write an oral history of gay civil rights movement, by a gay editor at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). They wanted a fresh and non-academic approach. My initial goal was to do 200 interviews, but once I had done about 80, I knew I would never get the book finished in time if I didn’t start transcribing. I ended up choosing to transcribe 49 of the interviews for the 1992 edition; there are 62 interviews in the second edition, which was published ten years later. Thankfully I had asked a former colleague, Jay Kernis from CBS Morning News, about what kind of recording equipment was used at NPR. He had created “Morning Edition.” I knew that these interviews had value even then and I thank my 30-year-old self every day for having had the foresight to use broadcast quality equipment so the interviews could be saved for posterity. In the end I had a five-foot tall stack of trays filled with cassette tapes – over 300 hours’ worth. I donated them to the New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division in 2008 and they digitized the collection; they did a fantastic job.
I was so afraid that some of the pioneers would never know what their contributions were. I felt such a responsibility to them and felt so protective of the book project that when I would travel by plane while I was gathering the interviews, I would make backups on disks of whatever I had worked on already, included instructions of where I was in the writing process, and I Fedex-ed them to my editor.
AF: What are the challenges working with archival tape?
EM: The New York Public Library did a great job digitizing the tape. Some of the audio is a little dicey – I wasn’t always conscious of background noise and sometimes I didn’t have enough microphones to mic myself and the interviewees if I was interviewing more than one person at the same time. Since I never anticipated being in the interview itself, I didn’t worry about getting myself on tape. That’s sometimes a problem now, because sometimes my voice is pretty faint. Fortunately, we have a great audio engineer who can clean up the biggest problems, but we also don’t want to clean the audio up so much that you lose the vintage quality to the tape. The recordings are nearly thirty years old. They shouldn’t sound like they were recorded yesterday.
AF: How did you find the people you interviewed? Was it difficult to get people to speak to you?
EM: Many people used pseudonyms (back in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was dangerous to be involved in gay rights and to use your real name), so sometimes it was difficult to track people down. Some people didn’t necessarily want to be found, or were never fully out in their lifetime [such as Wendell Sayers]. I actually found Wendell Sayers by accident. I met a couple of guys who owned gay bookstore in Denver when I was working on my first book and asked them about their local Mattachine Society chapter and they suggested I interview Elver Barker who pointed me to Wendell Sayers. People in the LGBTQ community wanted to connect with others, so they often went to these events [put on by organizations such as the Mattachine Society]. That’s how Elver Barker came to meet Wendell Sayers in the late 1950s at a Mattachine meeting—the Mattachine Society was an early gay rights group founded in 1950. People like Wendell were driven by a desire to meet other people like them, to find companionship, to find love, not by civil rights. So quite often I’d interview one person and they would lead me to others. In terms of getting people to speak with me, I can’t think of one example where someone said no. People really wanted to tell their stories. In many cases they were telling their stories for the first time.
AF: In the book, there are dozens of interviews – how many of these do you plan on releasing the archival audio for and do you plan to add any new stories?
EM: I have about 100 interviews on tape, and there are many that didn’t make it into the book. For a written oral history you need quite a lot of material to draw from. So a three-hour interview might yield a five- or ten-page written oral history. For audio I don’t need nearly as much material from which to draw an episode. Now I’m getting to use some of the interviews I couldn’t use for the book for the podcast, like our first episode of the season with Marsha P. Johnson and Randy Wicker. With so much archival tape to mine, we’re only using that material for now. Eventually I may do more interviews.
AF: Tell me about the evolution of the show.
EM: Oh, I’m having so much fun doing the podcast! Here’s the short version of how it happened. There is an organization called History UnErased – they’re producing K-12 LGBTQ-inclusive curricula and they said they’d love to use audio clips from my tape as an entry point to the history lessons they’re producing. I was introduced to History UnErased through a series of conversations that started with Kevin Jennings, who was then the executive director of the Arcus Foundation (Arcus funded our first season). I then asked my friend and neighbor Sara Burningham, who is now our executive producer, if she could cut tape—she said yes. Our original goal for the History UnErased clips was to provide 3- to 4-minute clips. Once Sara started cutting tape she realized that when we cut the three-hour interviews down to 8- to 10- minute pieces (on the way to the shorter pieces) they sounded like they could be a podcast. Sara, who is an experienced radio producer, decided she wanted to get a better handle on podcast production and took a weeklong course. At the final class she presented a couple of pieces, including what eventually became our Wendell Sayers episode. Jenna Weiss-Berman from Pineapple Street Media, the company that produces Lena Dunham’s podcast and is currently producing the “Missing Richard Simmons” series, was the expert who came to the last class to advise the participants on their projects. Jenna loved Sara’s work and what we were doing and offered to help. She took us under her wing and that’s how we wound up being a co-production of Pineapple Street Media. The Arcus Foundation funded our first season of 10 episodes and for season 2 we’re funded by a grant through the Ford Foundation.
AF: What is your strategy for marketing the show?
EM: So far we’ve focused on social media: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. We’ve gotten a lot of support on Instagram from the two guys who run the lgbt_history account – Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown. They’ve really championed the podcast for us. We’re more organized about our marketing for this season, which includes doing a better job of getting the word out. We’ve added a sign-up on the website for our mailing list and just started sending out a weekly heads-up email to our list. But we’re still feeling our way. We’re a very small operation, so we have to balance producing the podcast with promoting it. Producing comes first. What’s really exciting to us is that through word of mouth, primarily via social media, we’ve gained a following from around the world. That’s a big difference between a podcast and book. You can’t email a link to a book, but you can easily send a podcast episode to someone anywhere on the planet.
AF: What are some of the best reactions you’ve gotten from the episodes?
EM: We love the comments; there are so many people who say they can’t believe what they don’t know, what strong shoulders those in the community stand on today. I’ve been moved to tears more than once. Some listeners say the recordings are as essential as learning about their own family history. People write about feeling activated and inspired to be engaged. I’ve been somewhat surprised by the number of straight people who listen to our podcast, the range and types of people. It’s incredibly rewarding to create the show and get this kind of feedback.
AF: Finally, what specific impact do you hope the show will have?
EM: At the beginning I just wanted to do the project, to do wonderful work and do justice to the stories of the people I interviewed. They are remarkable people, often because they simply survived against all odds. The people who have gone before us had the conviction of their beliefs and never, ever gave up. In light of the 2016 U.S. presidential election I am hoping that these stories serve as examples of – and a roadmap for – what can be accomplished in the darkest of times.
Making Gay History’s season 2 premieres on Thursday, March 2, 2017. Listen to the show wherever you find your podcasts, and check out the great Making Gay History website here. An Audible Feast review of the show will follow this post prior to the season 2 premiere.