I never thought I’d find myself listening to a documentary about syphilis in 1930s America, but that was before I discovered You’re Wrong About. It’s a podcast that challenges the prevailing narrative about significant people and significant events, and the documentary in question is about something I hadn’t heard of before: the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, something that started with good intentions but which degenerated into something really awful. The first episode (it’s a two-parter) is utterly compelling and like all the episodes I’ve heard so far, based on exhaustive research and interviews with key experts.
I came to the podcast because of its episode about the demonisation of the musician Courtney Love, who I’m fascinated by. Love is the widow of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and a successful rock star in her own right (the Live Through This Album is as good as anything Nirvana ever did). She was treated horrifically when he was alive and worse after his death. Even if you’re not interested in music or knowledgeable about Courtney and Kurt, her story is a pretty savage indictment of misogyny in the music business, in music fandom and in the entertainment media.
What I liked about the podcast’s take on it was its refusal to take a simplistic view. While it successfully debunked the demonisation of Love, it didn’t attempt to paint her as an angel either. She is a complicated, flawed, human being who’s made a lot of mistakes and who’s experienced some truly terrible events. The podcast argues that it’s possible to understand and empathise with someone without necessarily liking them or wanting to be their best friend.
The episode was great, so I listened to more. I think my favourite so far is You’re Wrong About… The Stonewall Uprising, which tells a familiar story – the Stonewall riot, often seen as the Big Bang of the LGBT+ rights movement – in a very thorough way. Some of the people we think were there were not there, some of the things we think happened didn’t, and the story doesn’t fit into the neat little boxes people would like it to.
One of the things that the episode is particularly good on is the erasure of the people who were actually involved: disproportionately drag queens, trans women of colour, sex workers and street punks. But the statues memorialising it, and much of the media portraying the legend of it, focus on white cisgender people.
If you’re looking for a metaphor for how the gay rights movement excluded (and in some cases continues to exclude) huge swathes of the LGBT+ community, that one’s hard to beat.
If you’re looking for something interesting to get your ears around, there’s more about You’re Wrong About here.