Despite being born in Arizona, William Burton spent the majority of his life in big cities. As soon as he could, he moved to Houston, then Boston. These major cities, Burton called “safe havens” for some gay people.
“I realized I’ve been living in a bubble,” he said. “I lived in areas that had laws that protected me. I had gay neighborhoods. I had social networks right outside my door… I had an entirely different experience than people in central Pennsylvania.”
This drove Burton to explore the queer history of our area. Four years later, he released his book, “Out in Central Pennsylvania: The History of an LGBTQ Community.”
Burton, along with his co-author and head of the LGBT History Project, Barry Loveland, held their look launch on Wednesday night via Midtown Scholar’s virtual book talk series. In lieu of Pride Month, the bookstore collaborated with the LGBT Center of Central PA. The authors were joined by Frank Pizzoli, editor and publisher of the Central Voice, Central PA’s LGBTQ newspaper.
Burton discussed what prompted him to tell these stories, many of which were unknown to the general public.
“Most of the stories that have been written were about large urban areas,” he said. “You don’t think about non-urban areas, and that’s what this book’s about.”
The book discusses the formation of central PA’s gay community and some of the activists and organizers behind it. With the suggestion of their publisher, Penn State Press, the book is broken down chronologically.
The first chapter is about discovery and what it was like for people in this area to come out. There were stories about how people’s families and communities reacted to their queerness.
A section on early life documented what gay bars were like in this area and the police raids that plagued them prior to the Stonewall riots in New York City.
“I was blown away,” Burton said. “The stories of harassment, discrimination, how the networks formed, the people that did them…”
Most of the information came from oral stories collected by the LGBT History project, which started in 2012, as well as newspapers and newsletters. The stories were used to bring the book to life and create more of a personal touch.
“A lot of them are very emotional kinds of stories,” Loveland said. “It’s been amazing to collect these stories and tell these stories in this kind of approach.”
Aside from sharing queer history, the authors hope the book helps educate young people who are still in the midst of fighting for equality.
And they seem to be on the right path already. One audience member said that, as a young trans person living in a small town, the book inspired them in a way “bigger” heroes don’t.
“I hope I can do for the next generation what my queer predecessors did for me,” they said.
According to Burton, writing this book opened his eyes to many of the trials and tribulations the rural queer community has been through. He hopes that writing this will help others do the same.
“Hopefully, some of the young people that don’t know the history, that they’ll be inspired and say ‘Maybe I can make a difference too,’” he said.