Of all the ways to be introduced to a city as massive as New York, my internship with the Tenement Museum this year has been the most eye-opening and intriguing. Through the Tenement Museum, I conducted oral history interviews with individuals who were present at the Stonewall Rebellion and who lead lives of sustained LGBTQ activism. I’ve stepped in and out of the lavish, eccentrically decorated apartments of 1980s LGBTQ activists, listening to their stories and thinking deeply about what it means to participate in the struggle for human rights. As you may have seen on protest signs and t-shirts in recent years, “LGBTQ rights are human rights.” This year in New York, I have been made more aware of that than any other period in my life. Before this year, I did not know, for example, that gays and lesbians were treated as second-class citizens––liable to be fined or even jailed for expressing themselves. I did not know that during the AIDS crisis of the 1970s and 80s, people lost entire networks of hundreds of friends, family, and coworkers to the disease as a result of federal negligence and discrimination.
My time with the Tenement Museum has compelled me to continue to stay engaged in the fight for human rights, and to motivate my other, cisgendered straight male associates to do the same––especially as it pertains to combating bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism. The struggles that activists then fought and activists now continue to fight affect us all in one way or another. I have come to an understanding that inaction in causes that do not affect our personal identities does significant harm in part because it leads to apathy. This apathy was a key theme which arose from the interviews I conducted and the literature I read in preparation for the internship.
Among a list of moral issues and questions I learned to think more coherently about, I also learned a lot about project design/execution. The Tenement Museum has partnered with the National Park Service and Google to bring this oral history project to life. I have found that there are three things key to the design/execution of a project such as this. (1) Consistent, regular communication among project members that is not bound by distance/location. I have discovered that in New York, pretty much everyone is juggling multiple responsibilities. Combined with inclement weather, this can make it almost impossible to get a group of 5+ people to meet in the same place for more than a few hours. (2) Autonomy. Challenging people to take on more or less responsibility on project goals ensures smooth communication and realistic outcomes. (3) Humor (well-placed, appropriate humor), especially in the face of traumatic or grim situations. Human rights projects have a tendency to be, by the nature of the topics they cover, very dark and seemingly hopeless in their pursuit of justice or documentation of abuse. Humor can be an energizing and invigorating tool for project members when the scale of the phenomenon they want to cover is seemingly too huge or the narratives they cover too bleak.
This year taught me the importance of intersectionality and allyship in a way no other experience has quite managed to do. Because my Black identity is under regular physical and structural attack, it becomes hard sometimes to be cognizant of the privilege that I am implicated in as a cisgendered straight male. After learning more about the struggles of LGBTQ folks throughout the 20th and 21st century and seeing the parallels and interconnections to the civil rights movement and various other causes mobilized around this time, I would be a fool to continue to look away and not recognize that indeed, “LGBTQ rights are human rights.”
LGBTQ rights concern us all.
Desmond Austin-Miller is a graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History MA Program where, along with interning at the Tenement Museum during the Fall of 2017 and Spring of 2018 he crafted a thesis detailing the life experiences of young black professionals who graduated from predominantly white institutions. Desmond came to OHMA as a recent graduate of Lafayette College where he earned a B.A. in Anthropology & Sociology with a minor in Africana Studies. With a background in social sciences and cultural studies, Desmond aims to get involved with digital humanities and activist work in the Washington D.C. area.