Sam Smith and Gay Cultural Amnesia

Sam Smith is getting a lot of flack for claiming that he is the first openly gay man to receive an Oscar on Sunday night. During his acceptance speech he stated,"I read an article a few months ago, by Sir Ian McKellen, and he said no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar, and if this is the case -- and even if it isn't the case -- I want to dedicate this to the L.G.B.T. community all around the world."

Although Smith's assertion was inaccurate, his error, however, is less about his knowledge of Oscar history and more reflective of a larger gay cultural amnesia.

Put another way, black actors whose phantom presence at the Oscars took center stage on Sunday night, would never make such a mistake: they could all name Hattie McDaniel as the first African American to a win an Oscar and they would have certainly not forgotten similar monumental wins by Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, among others.

So, how is it that Smith, an openly gay man, seemingly forgot his predecessors while other embattled minorities in the Academy would not?

The answer is simple. Many black people grow up in a culture surrounded by friends, families, neighbors, churches, and a community that educates them about their heritage. Gay people typically come out alone. While some have supportive families and friends to help them navigate their way out of the closet, they are not initially surrounded by LGBT people who can tell them about their culture. Once gay people enter LGBT communities, there is remarkably little even in this world that shows them about their history. Instead, the focus remains on how they dress, how they cut their hair, or how many days a week they go to CrossFit.

Learning about the past and understanding their cultural legacy is often not a part of what it means today to be gay. Without fully knowing about gay history, it is easy for Sam Smith or any of us to think that we are the first.

It was not always this was way.

Part of gay liberation in the 1970s was not just about fighting for equality but it was also deeply invested in teaching gay people about their past: in showing gay people that they had a history; that they were not the first.

Just as black people have taught each other about their often-overlooked histories, gay people in the 1970s did as well; in fact, many early gay activist/historians actually took their cue from black activists in the 1960s and began to organize cultural events that celebrated gay history. Historian Jonathan Ned Katz, for example, spent years collecting sources about gay life in the United States from the seventeenth century to the present and compiled his research into a play that was produced at a local firehouse. The play got reviewed in the New York Times and became such a success that it was eventually made into a book, Gay American History, which became the leading gay book of the era.

Journalists in the 1970s also contributed to this nascent historical enterprise by including in gay newspapers special sections devoted to LGBT writers, artists, and musicians from centuries ago. Consequently, gay people in the 1970s knew, for example, that despite all the revolutionary fervor accompanied by the Stonewall uprising in 1969, which marked the official start of gay liberation, that they were not the first.

The fact that Sam Smith thought he might have been the first openly gay man to win an Oscar is not an insult against him but rather a larger indication of how gay culture today has forgotten its own roots.

The silver lining, however, of Smith's comment however lies in his final statement when he states, "I stand here, tonight as a proud gay man and I hope we can all stand together as equals some day."

While he was not the first to win an Oscar, Smith fulfilled the dreams of LGBT people of over years ago when he evinced the value of LGBT people standing together.

It is now our responsibility to educate ourselves about the many who stood before him.

Jim Downs is the author of Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016). He is s is an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions fellow at Harvard University and an associate professor of history at Connecticut College.