Going back and reading over my manifesto, I’m surprised at how much I still feel this way. Normally any writing that I have done a semester back is dead to me. I hate it and struggle to find use. This manifesto, on the other hand, plays very nicely into the project that I am working on for this class. Therefore, I am going to reprint my manifesto here, unchanged, though extending it to include the work that I have done with On Our Backs.
History is often celebrated as a way of bringing the past into the present, as a guiding beacon for future practices, as a way of avoiding old mistakes. It’s also a way to celebrate national identity — we all have a shared history that connects us. It’s a way of spreading national values by teaching the same patriotic mythologies to every school-aged child. Those values inherently become the judge of each newly occurring myth, deciding whether it should take root in our collective social consciousness or fall by the wayside. Only what is selected as “History” becomes a part of our social consciousness. The rest is simply actions, events, ideas. Not really worth paying attention to. Not a part of “Us.” It might have happened in our society, but it’s not what makes our society. It is not Our identity. Not our “History.”
The mythologies that are handed down do not suffice for some. Many feel lost even within the “Us” of our cultural history. For these people, the histories that would have made an impact have been cast aside, ignored, invisible. There is no connection to the past and no way of avoiding past mistakes. How do we learn from a history that has been forgotten? And perhaps even more importantly, how do we connect to society knowing that our actions, our ideas, our lives will be systematically excluded because they seem alien rather than familiar? How do we connect to each other if our realities are so erased that there isn’t even a vocabulary with which to articulate it or to write it down? With the death of the individual goes the death of their history, and each new wave of unconnected people are left to relive these silent(ced) cycles.
When the written evidence of sexual slavery forced onto the Japanese Comfort Women was destroyed, all that remained of that history were the individual testimonies of the victims themselves. These testimonies were not believed by friends, family members, and government officials because they seemed to be outlandish, unsupported, and spoken only by “dishonorable” women. To speak about the experience brought further shame and mistreatment upon the women. They were not allowed to write about the experience because it would be slander against the Japanese government. The women could not organize because they did not have a way to connect to each other. Their stories went against the national mythologies. They were cast away and forgotten. It took over fifty years for these women to find a voice and a vocabulary that would allow them to speak of their experience. Now that they have it, they ask that their experience be recorded in text books, in official government documents, in the social consciousness. They ask that others who feel outside the realm of the traditional History can connect to the Comfort Women’s struggles as an aid to their own.
H/histor(ies) are always selective. No single history can ever emcompass the whole of experience. We will always orient ourselves to certain texts over others, and we will always gleam our understandings of those texts based on how we orient ourselves to their contents/contexts. But the writing of social histories gives us the chance to Re-orient. Rather than orienting ourselves to the same traditional texts and/or from the same traditional positions, a Re-orientation allows us to bring to light what might otherwise have been cast aside, to forge connections between people, cultures, and lives that might normally be rejected from the traditional History, to aid those struggling to find a voice and a vocabulary for their own experiences.
In working with the On Our Backs project, I have discovered a whole new world of information about lesbian history. A history that, for me at least, was not passed down as part of a cultural mythology. But I believe that it should be passed down. It’s a hero story in a culture that is definitely in need of heroes. On Our Backs is as important for Lesbian history as the Boston Tea Party is important for American history. On Our Backs has instilled values in the lesbian culture that, whether we admit that as an originating point or not, carry over into the next generation. But it’s more than that at the same time because it’s a story that encourages others to do something about their situation, encourages social action. If you don’t like the way that culture defines you, then define yourself. And by doing this project on social history, I now have this story to share with others in my generation and the generations to come. If I ever teach a course on LGBT history, I now have another aspect of that history to share – one that is not simply about victimization. The Stonewall riots have been etched into the cultural memory. Though the publication of On Our Backs is not as sensational as a riot, they too were struggling to find a voice for their own experience. That voice should not be forgotten just because it was delivered via a pornographic magazine rather than a public speech. As social historians of rhetoric, we must look for the voices that are not privileged in the academy, whether it is due to the speaker’s identity, their content, or their mode of delivery. We must find that texts that speak to us regardless. And we must be brave enough to share those voices with others who wish to hear them.