The podcast that is Making Gay History
“The fight for equality and respect isn’t nearly over.”
I caught up with Eric Marcus of Making Gay History to talk about why the past matters.
When did you start the Making Gay History podcast?
We launched in October 2016 — it began life as an education project that we thought worked better as a podcast.
It was something of an accident. I got fired from my job at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in 2015. I was 57, and virtually unemployable — primarily because of my age, and the fact that I’d spent much of the past three decades working for myself writing books.
The New York Public Library had just finished digitising the interviews from my oral history book Making Gay History — a book about the LGBT civil rights movement — so, I set out to explore what I might do with the interviews. One of the conversations I had was with Kevin Jennings, who founded GLSEN, and was then the executive director of the Arcus Foundation. Kevin had some funding available through which he was able to support the project.
The initial education project consisted of six short excerpts from my archive of 100 decades-old interviews. When my executive producer and I began cutting the three-hour interviews down to 10–15-minute rough cuts — on the way to being 4–5-minute clips — we realised that we had something that we could share with a far wider audience as a podcast.
So while I’m passionate about bringing these important and compelling stories to listeners around the world, my motivation initially was to figure out what I might do with the rest of my life after getting fired.
Why is it important that we talk about gay history and the stories of people from previous decades?
How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been? I grew up without any knowledge about my gay heritage. If I’d been introduced to these stories when I was growing up, I would have quickly developed a sense of pride instead of feeling shame about who I was.
These stories have the power to inspire — and not just LGBT people. They offer a road map to resistance and activism that’s absolutely relevant for the times in which we live. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel when we have the examples of people who fought for, and achieved change during times far more challenging than our own.
How do you find the subjects that you focus on?
We didn’t have any sense that we’d have more than a single season for the podcast, so we picked out my favourite stories for the first ten episodes. We’ve gotten more deliberate in our selection of people to feature since then, but we’ve always been mindful of providing listeners with a range of voices from across time.
Looking ahead to seasons four and five, we’ll be scripting our seasons to prepare listeners for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in June 2019.
What’s the production process like?
If we did all the work on a single episode without doing other work, I’d say that each episode takes my team about a week. Of course, it’s not just the audio episode. We also provide ‘episode notes’ on our website, which include additional information about each person we feature — and that includes archival photos and links to relevant articles and documents.
How do you distribute and promote the podcast?
In addition to being available on the Making Gay History website, our episodes are available on all the podcast player platforms. We promote the podcast principally through our social media channels, and I credit our listeners for the word-of-mouth marketing that’s put us on the map. We’ve been very fortunate to have gotten lots of media attention, and an award last year from the Oral History Association for the best oral history in a non-print format. We also have a newsletter that listeners can sign up for.
What’s been the most unexpected thing that you learnt about gay history?
When I first started work on my oral history book 30 years ago, the biggest surprise was that we had an extensive history of activism prior to Stonewall, beginning in 1950 in the U.S. with the founding of the Mattachine Society. I was also stunned to learn that Magnus Hirschfeld founded the first gay rights group in Germany in the late 19th century. In terms of interviews, my interview with Wendell Sayers was the most mind-blowing — we broadcast that in season one of the podcast.
What sort of response to the podcast do you get from listeners?
We have way more listeners than we ever anticipated — we’ve had 1.7 million downloads in 208 countries around the world. Even during our hiatus, we’re seeing hundreds of downloads every day.
Over the years, we’ve received numerous emails and comments on social media. Virtually all have been positive, they’re often filled with passion and emotion, and more than a few have left me in tears. They range from an email from a ninth-grade student who was inspired to write a play at his theatre camp about Edythe Eyde, to an expectant mother who expressed gratitude to the activists who made possible a world in which she and her wife could focus on their family and not have to worry about fighting for the right to exist.
What do you hope that people feel when listening to the podcast?
Moved. A sense of pride. Inspired to pick up the ball and carry it forward, because the fight for equality and respect isn’t nearly over.
What next for Making Gay History?
Season Four! Possibly a play drawn from our archive, and a short documentary about how the Stonewall Inn was designated a U.S. National Monument during the closing months of the Obama Administration.