Civilities: Steven Petrow takes your questions on LGBT/straight social situations and the host of the podcast "Making Gay History" joins the chat

Mar 21, 2017

Steven Petrow (the author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners") addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities. In between, join Steven for his chat about everything that's on your mind.

Here's more about Steven's "Civilities" column and what makes him the person to dole out advice.

You can also reach Steven on Facebook at and on Twitter @stevenpetrow.

Welcome to today's Civilities live chat. I'm very pleased to welcome Eric Marcus, who--most recently--is the creator and host of an amazing podcast called "Making Gay History," the stories of LGBTQ "champions, heroes, and witnesses to history."  You may also know his name from the book of the same title or some of his other published works that include "Why Suicide" and "Breaking the Surface" (with Greg Louganis).


Season 2 of "Making Gay History" is now underway and Eric will be talking about how it came to be, his favorite interviews, and taking your questions. Welcome to the chat, Eric.


Let me start with this question: Why this podcast now?



Hi Steven!  Delighted to be having a chat with you.  Why this podcast now?  Three reasons.  I got fired from my job working for a suicide prevention organization (painful, but a good thing in the end), the New York Public Library digitized my collection of 100 interviews that I conducted for my oral history book, Making Gay History, and podcasts came into being as a way of sharing recorded stories.  I had a series of fortuitous conversations that got me from needing something to do and producing the podcast (including partnering with History UnErased, a non-profit that's creating LGBT-inclusive K-12 lesson plans), but that's the short answer.

Can you tell us about the cast of characters who appear in "Making Gay History" and why their history matters?

And what a cast it is!  If you can imagine, all these people have been living in my head (and in the pages of my book) for the past three decades and now they speak!  From Dear Abby, who is an advice columnist icon and Wendell Sayers, a black attorney who was diagnosed as a homosexual in 1920 at the Mayo clinic, to Marsha P. Johnson, a self-described drag queen who participated in the 1969 Stonewall uprising and Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, the happy gay rights warriors who helped demolish the American Psychiatric Association's listing of gay people as mentally ill.  Their stories matter for a few reasons.  We can't know where we're going unless we know where we've been.  Through these stories we learn how change gets done--especially important given what's happening in the USA now.  They offer us roadmaps as relevant today as they were decades ago.  And, these are our heroes!  We can take pride in their accomplishments and be inspired by them.  

I'm going to ask you a leading question, I think. I know you call the podcast, "Making Gay History," but I'd say this is really about "American history." What's your take on that distinction?

This is really a sore point with me.  The first edition of my book was called just Making History because there was concern at the publishing house that the sales force would have trouble selling a book with a title that had the word "gay" in it and that bookstores might be shy about shelving it face out.  Ten years later, when we published the second edition, we added "gay" and no one blinked an eye.  The world had already changed.  But not entirely.  On the back cover of most books, at the top, there's shelving information (in small type).  For the second edition I argued for:  "American History/Gay Studies" and the publisher agreed.  But when the book was published "American History" somehow disappeared from the version of the jacket they had shown me.  I was furious and tried to get answers.  But no one at the publishing house would acknowledge who removed "American History."  Long response to a short point:  Gay history is American history.  You can't tell the whole story of American history without including LGBTQ folks because we are everywhere!


Petrow: I'm looking at my copy of the book and on the back it says simply: "Gay Studies."

You say that these people are "our heroes" and I couldn't agree more. But I also know that many of their names have faded from public consciousness, especially among younger LGBTQ folks. What's your sense of how much our community knows their own history? Not to mention the larger, let's say mainstream world?

I've talked to audiences filled with young LGBTQ folks, older LGBTQ folks, and mostly straight people.  Most people know almost nothing about our history and why should they?  Even today, if you learn anything about LGBTQ history in high school it's a paragraph about Stonewall.  And that's it.  You're not taught that there was a Lavendar Scare along side the Red Scare or that one of the leading black civil rights leaders, Bayard Rustin, was gay.  And certainly no one knows that this coming Sunday is the 40th anniversary of the first meeting at the White House with gay activists or that the person who made that happen was Jean O'Leary who was then the co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force (now NGLTF).  We're posting a two-part episode with Jean beginning this Thursday.  This is why it's key for our history to be un-erased.  It's all there, but all the LGBTQ folks have either been ignored or the fact of their LGBTQ-ness has been erased.

I'm holding the revised edition of "Making Gay History" the book and I've been listening to the podcast. What do you think is the difference between reading the oral histories and hearing their actual voices? Take an example, say "Dear Abby," Abigail Van Buren.

I like to think I did a very good job of translating the oral histories I recorded into print for the book, but when I first listened to the tapes last fall I was astonished at the power of the actual voices.  Each is so different and special!  And there's so much more information embedded in how people say what they say.  You simply can't reproduce that in print.  I LOVE the voices!  And to have these people speak to you from inside your head, which is the experience you get when you listen with headphones or ear buds, it's so incredibly intimate.  They're right there with you in a way they can't possibly be when you're reading their stories on the page.  

And why. You have to pick just one!

Steven, this is so NOT fair!  It's like asking a grandparent which his favorite grandchild is!  Okay, one.  Wendell Sayers, Edythe Eyde, and Dr. Evelyn Hooker.  I know that's three, but I can't do it.  A lot of people tell me that the Dear Abby episode is their favorite.  I think each person speaks to our listeners very individually, so we'll all have our favorites.  And every time I work on a new episode I've got another favorite.  Jean O'Leary is my favorite this week.  Oh, and Vito Russo, too!

Not sure if you saw this, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will be performing what they call a "same-sex" production of the musical Oklahoma, and supposedly the estates of the author and composer have OKd it. I think done right it could be fascinating, revealing as much about the audience as it will about the show itself, but there's a part of me that thinks it's a bit gimmicky. I'd like your take on it.

I didn't see the news item but I think it would be a lot of fun--if done as a serious performance otherwise.

Many of these interviews took place as long as 30 years ago.  When you listen to yourself as a young man, how is he different than the Eric Marcus today? Feel free to lie on the couch and pretend this is analysis!

I am SO grateful to that young man for having thought to record these oral histories using broadcast quality equipment because without the high-quality recordings there would be no podcast.  Okay, now the analysis.  I'm much less certain of myself than I was back then.  I'm more forgiving (just a little more forgiving).  I'm still a perfectionist.  And I'm still passionate about making certain that the people who trusted me to tell their stories get to tell their stories.  Now I get to help them tell their stories again in a more powerful way.  One other difference:  I need to go to bed a lot earlier than I did 30 years ago!  

My guess is that you certainly haven't been able to include all the personal stories from the book but have you added in any new voices to the podcast? And, if so, why?

Our first episode this season, which I referenced in an earlier answer, which features Marsha P. Johnson in conversation with Randy Wicker ,is not a conversation you'll find in the book.  Marsha didn't have a lot to say.  For an oral history that you're going to use in a book, the people telling the story have to give you enough material that you can use or you're left with a lot of blank space.  But for a podcast, you need far less material and with Marsha, who is now famous but was rarely recorded, just hearing her voice is revelatory!  And, you get to hear her say, contrary to the popular myth that she threw the first brick or cocktail glass that triggered the Stonewall uprising, that she didn't get to the Stonewall until 2:00 a.m.  About 40 of the original interviews that I did for the book were left on the cutting room floor.  Well, I left them on the cutting room floor, which was painful

I know that you're best known for being a writer and working in print, although you've done plenty of TV and radio. What's been different about creating a podcast? How does your storytelling technique need to be adapted?

With a book you get to tell a slice of a slice of a story.  With a podcast you get to tell a slice of a slice of a slice of a slice.  You don't get a lot of space.  But it's concentrated in a way that can't be done in print.  Also, it's so MUCH MORE FUN producing a podcast then writing a book.  I actually mostly hated writing books (please don't repeat that to anyone!).

A big thank you to Eric Marcus for all of your work on this amazing and important project! I wasn't familiar with it before this chat (embarrassed to admit!) but will be sure to start catching up and share it with others, especially the LBGTQ+ teens I work with. This is such a treasure.

Did anyone ever tell you things off the record that you wish you could have written about when your book was first published in 1992? If so, in the age of TMI, can you share now (presumably if they're dead)?

You ask very good questions!  Yes, there were things that were off the record.  Some people even asked me not to use their real names.  In the book, Edythe Eyde is "Lisa Ben" (play with the letters and see what you get).  Wendell Sayers is "Paul Phillips."  People were still afraid back then of their family members finding out they were gay.  And for our upcoming episode with Jean O'Leary I learned a couple of secrets about the White House meeting that Jean asked me not to tell while Midge was alive.  But I'm sorry that you'll have to wait until we post Sunday's episode to learn the truth behind the official historic record :--)


Petrow: That's an unfair tease.

As you finish up production of Season 2, do you have plans for a third Season? And, more generally, what's up next for you?

Producing this podcast has been a joyous experience.  And incredibly intense!  Now that we're in the middle of Season Two it's a little hard to imagine doing a third season.  But we're working hard at identifying funding for a third season because there are so many more stories to tell.  Remember, I've got 100 interviews and 300 hours of tape!  Our plan is to launch Season Three in October to coincide with LGBT History Month.  

Thank you, Eric, for the podcast and thank you, Steven, for bringing it to my attention. As an only-somewhat-tech-savvy senior citizen, I am just getting into listening to podcasts and, to be honest, I am often overwhelmed when trying to find something of interest to me! I can't wait to start this one.

Many thanks to writer and podcast host Eric Marcus for joining me today from New York. I'm all caught up on Season 2 of "Making Gay History" and I really want to urge folks to listen, subscribe, like and review the podcast. Eric, thanks for being with me.


I'll be back in two weeks for another live chat. See you then.

Thank you Steven!  A pleasure being with you today.  And now it's back to work on the Jean O'Leary episode!

In This Chat
Steven Petrow
Steven Petrow is a respected journalist and the go-to source for modern manners. Petrow writes the "Civilities" column for The Washington Post as well as "Digital Ethics" for USA Today.
Eric Marcus
Eric Marcus is the creator and host of the Making Gay History podcast, which mines his decades-old audio archive of rare interviews personal portraits of both known and long-forgotten champions, heroes, and witnesses to history.
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