On Thursday, April 6th, the Executive Director of Equality Forum Malcolm Lazin visited the Intercultural Center for “Get Your History Straight,” a talk centered on the establishment of the modern, high-profile movement for queer rights in the U.S. The event is a part of Swarthmore’s Pride Month celebration, which was advertised through the Intercultural Center. Pride Month, typically held in October, included events on queer art, history, networking, and more.
“Get Your History Straight” extended past Swarthmore to Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College as students from across the Tri-College were in attendance, and Professor of history at Haverford Paul Farber, invited by Lazin, moderated the discussion.
The talk began with a screening of the PBS documentary “Gay Pioneers,” of which Lazin was executive producer. Equality Forum, the nonprofit that coordinates LGBT History Month and that Lazin heads, defines the film as “the story of the first organized annual ‘homosexual’ civil rights demonstrations held in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, DC from 1965-69. When few would publicly identify themselves as gay, these brave pioneers challenged pervasive homophobia,” on a website it owns dedicated to the documentary. The film detailed the origins of the modern U.S. movement for queer rights in the 1960s at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The film largely argues that, without these initial demonstrations that helped dispel stereotypes of queer people, the Stonewall riots would not have happened or have been as successful.
Following the screening, a discussion of the film and Q&A occurred with Lazin, Farber, and the attendees. Lazin opened the discussion with a disclaimer.
“For those that think that Stonewall was the start of this movement, I would say they’re misinformed,” Lazin said. “We don’t remember [the demonstrations before Stonewall] because people didn’t take time to remember.”
Farber guided the initial conversation, walking through issues of the conceivability of a queer identity, the pace of social change, and political tactics in the early actions compared to today’s larger movement. Lazin responded, recognizing legal and institutional restrictions on queer life like the American Psychological Association’s classification of homosexuality as a psychological disorder; noting that there are legislative, judicial, and public facets to social change; and that movements often grow to accommodate more voices, images, and people over time.
The conversation moved to the audience, and Swarthmore was introduced into the conversation. Students’ questions focused on issues of moving forward after the establishment of marriage equality in the U.S. as well as how to negotiate multiple ideals within queer and trans movements and how to make those movements not only national ones but more specific and intentional in communities like Swarthmore.
Lazin referred to the expectations of the first demonstrators for queer rights in Philadelphia for the inclusion of multiple ideas. He recalled a quote from Lilli Vincenz:
“Just to show that we were good patriots, we respected the flag. We were first-class American citizens, and we had, that was a message we had wanted to tell everyone from the beginning,” Vincenz said.
Lazin said it was important to introduce the idea of queer identity into the political consciousness then as is important today.
Farber also brought focus to the issues of campus politics and constructing meaningful relationships and coalitions.
“Understanding the roots of intersectionality will provide a pathway to understanding and possibilities. These issues are … bigger than you, so respect complexity and commonality,” Farber said.
He then argued that undergraduates should not be fooled into thinking college is separate from reality.
Following the talk, Robert Conner ’20, an organizer of the event, touched on the importance of Lazin’s work generally and at Swarthmore.
“Malcolm Lazin’s work is multifaceted and intersectional in the sense that it currently pertains to LGBTQ activism, but it touches on racial and socioeconomic equalities as well,” he said. “The multifaceted and intersectional nature and approach of Malcolm Lazin’s work and career is very relevant to the Swarthmore community.”
Conner went on to discuss how Swarthmore’s engagement with activism at different levels of community reflects why Lazin’s work is relevant to campus.
“In the Swarthmore community, we constantly deal with and carry out activism pertaining to issues at local and national levels,” he said. “It was productive and engaging to see the Swarthmore community and Malcolm Lazin interact and exchange ideas.”
Sydnie Schwarz ’20 reflected on her friendship to Conner and relationship with Philadelphia as to why she first joined Lazin in the IC.
“Robert Connor is one of my good friends, and he has told me about Malcolm Lazin throughout the school year from a point of admiration, both for his work and for him as a person,” Schwarz said. “Not only did I want to hear from the person who is a role model to one of my close friends, but I knew that this speaker is integral to various developments in Philadelphia, old and new. I have been making a conscious effort to access and engage with Philadelphia, and Mr. Lazin not only offered a historical and lived narrative of the origins of the Annual Reminder in Philadelphia that became Gay Pride but also insight of particular Philadelphian historical sites, current climate and organizations to visit and research.”
Schwarz continued, noting how Swarthmore should engage more intently with Philadelphia as a resource but as a point where intersectionality can be found purposefully.
“You know, my immediate reaction upon hearing Malcolm talk about the public resources offered by the Equality Forum was why didn’t I find this during high school when I was leading an Allies? Simple resources like a queer icon per day during LGBT+ History Month or the historical films would have created productive dialogue,” Schwarz said. “However, I am admittedly unfamiliar with current campus initiatives to uplift queer and trans people, and I do not know how I would visualize a sweeping energy of Equality Forum coming to Swarthmore. Nevertheless, I generally feel that Swarthmore needs to systematically engage more with Philadelphia. There is a richness of activism and history to the city that is very accessible to us. Especially in consideration of how uncommon this urban access is for a small liberal arts school like Swarthmore, I feel that we do not engage with it except for on an individual basis.”
Schwarz went on to describe how Lazin highlighted issues in civil movements and how they have changed since their inception.
“Malcolm made a purposeful effort to talk about issues of intersectionality in Philadelphia movements. He pointed out how many queer women initiated the Annual Reminder, yet the movement did not seem to see them as the visible founders of Gay Pride Instead, white cisgender gay men took on the face of progress for the community. He also talked about how protestors in the sixties came to the march trying to look ‘professional’ and like ‘ first class citizens,’ basically by making their socio-economic status prominent as if that made them deserve rights more than unemployed or unprofessionally dressed people,” Schwarz said. “However, he noted that organizations in Philadelphia are currently investing much focus into trans women of color, and remarked that the new leader of a major local organization is the first black queer women to hold such a position in Philadelphia. This contrasts with the resistance he saw many organizations put up about even including transgender people in the community not long ago. I feel that awareness to this hierarchy within marginalized groups and new breakthroughs concerning intersectionality offers insight about how to uplift less systematically enabled persons into the conversation and pay attention to what faces are popularized in leadership.”
Conner noted the collaborative efforts between Lazin and Farber in the discussion section of the evening, commenting on their knowledge of regional resources and historical connections from the beginnings of the movement to now.
“In addition, both Professor Farber and Malcolm elucidated the little-known facts that the modern LGBT movement began well before the Stonewall riots, and a lot of it took place in Philadelphia,” Conner said. “Professor Farber and Malcolm pointed out that there is a lot of activism and internships that can be done in Philadelphia, and that students ought to take advantage of the city’s wide-ranging resources.”
Schwarz discussed how Farber provided some context to the liberal arts campus that Lazin complemented through his more regional and national efforts.
“I honestly missed the fact that Professor Farber was also coming, but I am so glad he was there! The dynamic worked well because Professor Farber well understood the Swarthmore student and their environment — an insight Malcolm Lazin did not necessarily share,” Schwarz commented. “While Malcolm Lazin answered questions and spoke about his network and experiences in Philadelphia, Professor Farber relayed his points back to the Tri-Co education and its sexuality and gender studies, and both offered perspectives on moving forward with the general agenda and individual efforts concerning LGBT+ rights. … He is teaching a course in the fall on public art in Philadelphia that I want to take and found out about because of this talk that transformed into a general reflection on local activism of all sorts.”
Conner concluded by hammering the idea that the discussion portion was most meaningful for students as the engagement with a national figure like Lazin could provide a large amount of information and experience to student activism and understanding of history.
“The students who attended Malcolm’s event particularly benefited from getting to ask him in-depth questions about career approaches towards enacting change,” Conner said.
Schwarz said the campus could gain lessons in empathy and relationships by participating in more talks like Lazin’s beyond just the implications of activism and civic engagement.
“I was disappointed that the room was not full, but I appreciated all of the questions and answers put forth. I almost could not make it because of practice, and I know there were a lot of conflicting events and a general increase in workload as classes are coming to a close, which was too bad,” Schwarz noted. “More talks like this would increase student interest in the local social environment beyond Swarthmore, an effect that would inherently increase skill set of being sensitive and observant to all forms of learning, particularly those that are immediate and visceral. I think students can also learn a lot from the realizations Malcolm Lazin has had throughout his lifetime about recognizing certain local leaders or sites as needing to be documented as a part of the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and his personal actions (creating films, interviewing, submitting historical marker proposals) to execute those ideas.”
Lazin’s coming to campus, Farber’s direction, and student inquiry allowed for an important discussion of where queer and trans movements in the U.S. started to gain traction. The talk initiated reflections on where the movements came from, and students now see the possibilities for deeper intersectional engagement and empathy as long as discussions like these are consistent within and beyond the classroom on campus.