LGBT History in America

William B Turner. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Systematic research on LGBT history was all but nonexistent before 1970. Like women and African Americans, LGBT people only asserted the significance of their historical experiences after they created a social movement. Historical research is inescapably political: which groups merit historians’ attention is at least partly a function of the power those groups wield in the present. LGBT historical research has consistently reflected profound concern for the connections between scholarship and politics.

The earliest studies in LGBT history consisted of efforts to find LGBT persons in the past and write about them. But even some of the first forays into LGBT history, and the history of sexuality more generally, depended on and bespoke an astute suspicion that sexuality would prove as important a category of human identity for understanding the past as gender, race, or class. By demonstrating that the very notion of “sexuality” as a defining element of human identity (much less the specifics of sexual identity categories) varies enormously across time and space, historians have contributed crucially to the growing recognition that sexuality, in particular LGBT identities, has much more to do with power differentials than it does with nature or biology.

Or, as the vast majority of historians studying these issues would put it, sexuality is a social construction. Social constructionism refers to the belief that identity categories generally, especially sexual identity categories, reflect the influence of various social, cultural, and political factors—including economic organization, familial structure, religious and educational institutions, social movements, and especially in modern Western societies, the “expert” opinions of mental health professionals and medical researchers. The “social construction” position opposes the “essentialist” position, according to which sexuality is a natural, inherent quality that all humans have possessed in all places, at all times, whatever the variation in the expression of that quality.

Early Academic Scholarship

After considerable debate during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the constructionist position has come to dominate historical approaches to LGBT topics. This is so in part because the constructionist position depends heavily on historical evidence. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg provided an important part of the argument before the debate emerged, in her groundbreaking article “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” which appeared as the first article in the first issue of the women’s studies journal, Signs, in 1975. With her account of intense friendships among respectable, middle-class white women of the nineteenth century, Smith-Rosenberg demonstrated that assumptions about connections between emotional commitment and sexual activity that characterized the post-World War II period did not necessarily obtain in an earlier period. Literary scholar Lillian Faderman took a more essentialist position soon after, arguing in “The Morbidification of Love between Women” and elsewhere that intense female relationships in various guises have always existed. The impulse of psychologists and other authority figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to represent such relationships as pathological reflected men’s anxieties about changing gender norms in the period. Joining this discussion, Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in 1979 about “The Historical Denial of Lesbianism,” arguing that historians systematically refused to see evidence of sexual activity in prominent female couples and friendship networks of the same period. These articles all illustrate the important, complicated, and unpredictable relationships between gender and sexuality as historical topics.

Community-based Research

In 1976 Jonathan Ned Katz published Gay American History, a massive collection of documents from the beginning of European settlement in North America to the 1970s. Katz was not a professional historian, and given the conservatism of history as a discipline it is unlikely that anyone could have survived as a professional historian while producing Gay American History during the 1970s. The conflicted relationship between LGBT history and the de facto gatekeepers to the profession is an important factor to consider in understanding historians’ coverage of LGBT persons in the past. Katz is only one historian covering LGBT topics whose contributions to the field have come more in spite of than thanks to the canons of the discipline.

Other prominent early examples of nonprofessional historians include Vern Bullough, who has produced fourteen major publications on LGBT history since 1973—as part of a total corpus of nearly one hunded publications dealing with various aspects of the history of nursing, medicine, and gender and sexuality—and who has long held academic appointments; and Allen Bérubé, who published the groundbreaking Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II in 1990, but who does not hold a university appointment. Bérubé helped found the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project in 1978. Joan Nestle, lesbian author and activist who founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City in 1973, taught writing at Queens College from 1966 to 1995, but does not have formal training as a historian.

The San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and other communitybased LGBT collections also have tended to operate outside of the historical profession while proving crucial in the historical reconstruction of LGBT lives in the United States. The Gerber-Hart Library in Chicago is a free-standing institution dedicated to the preservation of queer history. The History Project in Boston published Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland in 1998. Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America , edited by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman (1998), is the outcome of a major 1994 exhibit on LGBT history at the New York Public Library. The GLBT Historical Society, based in San Francisco, has extensive archival collections and plans to build the world’s first major museum dedicated to LGBT history and culture.

Lack of scholarly affiliation has not impaired the intellectual sophistication of the resulting work. Katz’s Gay American History reflected the entire range of intellectual and political impulses behind LGBT history. By its very existence it amply demonstrated the continuous existence of LGBT persons in the American past, few of them famous beyond the fleeting notoriety they experienced during trials for sodomy or cross-dressing. At the same time, introducing the revised version of the book in 1992, Katz participated in the constructionist debate, arguing that terms appropriate to the late twentieth century, especially “homosexual,” did not accurately capture understandings of same-sex desire and activity before the late nineteenth century.

The Field Grows

The first major collection to include academic work on LGBT history in the United States appeared in 1979, when the Radical History Review published a collection of articles on the history of sexuality that included Robert Padgug’s piece on how to conceptualize the history of sexuality. He cited French philosopher Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, which first appeared in English in 1978, Smith-Rosenberg’s article, and a 1968 article by British sociologist Mary McIntosh, “The Homosexual Role,” which argued that the designation “homosexual” served to distinguish normality from deviance. Each of these works played a major role in the essentialist-constructionist debate. Although Foucault’s work has since come to dominate scholarly inquiry into issues of sexuality, The History of Sexuality was at the time only one in an array of major sources, theoretical and empirical, in the field.

The entire issue of the Radical History Review from which Padgug’s article came appeared in 1989 as Passion and Power: Sexuality in History. This volume illustrated the connection between LGBT history and the history of sexuality more generally, containing such major contributions as John D’Emilio’s “The Homosexual Menace: The Politics of Sexuality in Cold War America,” which demonstrated that more people lost federal jobs for suspicion of “homosexuality” than of communism during the second red scare; George Chauncey’s “From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: The Changing Medical Conceptualization of Female ‘Deviance,'” an important study showing significant variation in researchers’ and clinicians’ conceptions of same-sex sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’s “The Reproduction of Butch-Fem Roles: A Social Constructionist Approach,” which provided both conceptual discussion of the constructionist debate and a foretaste of their subsequent book, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993), a unique and enormously valuable oral history of lesbians in Buffalo, New York. Passion and Power also contained explorations of non-LGBT sexualities, including important considerations of variation in sexual definition and experience along the axes of class and race.

Another important collection, Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality, appeared in 1981 as a reprint of a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, first published in 1980 (reprinted again in 1985 under the title, The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays) . It covered a wide range both chronologically and geographically, with the lead essay discussing European laws prohibiting lesbian sexual activity from 1270 to 1791. This range itself indicated the paucity of scholarship in the field: edited collections on specific topics in history rarely cover several centuries and all of Western Europe plus the United States.

Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality was also important for publishing “‘Writhing Bedfellows,’ 1826: Two Young Men from Antebellum South Carolina’s Ruling Elite Share ‘Extravagant Delight’,” by Martin Bauml Duberman. Duberman, who established his career as a historian before coming out of the closet and writing about LGBT history, would go on to publish the only major historical work to date on the Stonewall riots of 1969, Stonewall (1993). He played a key role in the founding of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) in 1986; CLAGS would find a permanent institutional home at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in 1991.

Another prominent scholar from this period, John Boswell, published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century in 1980. His title alone demonstrated his essentialist conviction that one may properly apply modern notions of sexual orientation across the entire sweep of Western history and presumably across all of human history. With this book and the subsequent Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Boswell attracted an unprecedented degree of attention from the general public for studies of medieval history by arguing that the modern assumption of longstanding hostility toward sexual minorities throughout the Christian era was false.

Boswell began Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality with the observation that no historian can examine the past without bringing her or his present concerns and assumptions to the task. In disputing the constructionist thesis, he stated his conviction that to assert the absence of the categories “homosexual” or “gay person” in the past would be not only empirically false, but also damaging to the social movement for LGBT civil rights in the present. Certainly many activists exhorted LGBT people to participate in political activism in part by insisting on the immutability of sexual identity. They analogized to racial identity for purposes of conforming to American civil rights law and policy, convinced that the U.S. public was more likely to support LGBT rights if they saw LGBT people as “born that way.”

Subsequent research, however, raised significant doubts about the thesis that a transhistorical conception of homosexual or gay identity was a necessary linchpin for political activism in the present. In 1983, D’Emilio published Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1945 to 1970 , arguably the single most important contribution to the field of LGBT American history as of 2004. D’Emilio’s was the first study of the “homophile” movement—the precursor to the post-Stonewall riots (1969) LGBT civil rights movement—by a professional historian. Despite the manifest importance and quality of his work, D’Emilio struggled to establish his career, spending over a decade at a primarily undergraduate teaching institution before winning major research grants and a position at a research institution, the University of Illinois at Chicago.

D’Emilio’s study of the United States in the first twenty-five years after World War II fell well within the scope of sexuality as defined in constructionist terms. The subtitle of the book, The Making of a Homosexual Minority, revealed the claim that homophile activists in the late 1950s and 1960s had deliberately cultivated in LGBT persons a sense of themselves as a distinct subset of the population. D’Emilio did not explicitly address the constructionist debate in his book. He meant “the making of a minority” in the political sense of a supposedly isolated, invisible group that managed somehow by 1975 to claim more than one thousand organizations in the United States and a surprising measure of political clout. He argued that lesbians and gay men were not so uniformly isolated and invisible before Stonewall as later activists had assumed. In making that argument, D’Emilio built on his earlier article, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” where he presented a materialist argument for the proposition that lesbian and gay identities depended on economic and political developments—especially the separation of production from family relations and urbanization in the late nineteenth century—that are distinctively modern.

The period from 1979 to 1983 thus proved exceptionally productive, with major scholars publishing early work that would establish their reputations as pioneers in the field of LGBT history. As pioneers, they occupied a very sparsely populated frontier; their works served as landmarks for subsequent scholars who would connect early LGBT historical studies to the conceptual grid of the discipline as a whole.

Social, Cultural, and Political History

LGBT history benefited conceptually not only from the emergence of women’s history, gender history, and the history of sexuality but also from the increased prominence of social history beginning in the 1970s as well. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, the editors of Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (1989), made this point in introducing their collection of articles, which covered a wide range chronologically as well as geographically, dealing with Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and North America. The driving assumption behind much LGBT history during the 1980s and 1990s was that it could illuminate the experiences of everyday life and ordinary people by exploring their actual thoughts and actions in matters of sexuality, apart from the definitions and expectations of medical and legal authorities. If Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold is the lesbian exemplar of this genre, George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), perhaps the closest LGBT historians will ever come to producing social history in the conventional mode, is the gay male exemplar. Chauncey demonstrated convincingly that men from working class and racial and ethnic minorities in New York City in the early twentieth century did not operate according to the classifications of sexual identity that medical authorities had been developing since the last third of the nineteenth century. He also cataloged the variations in self-conception and presentation among gay men, including changing meanings of terms such as “gay” and “queer.”

Related to this emphasis on social history is what one might broadly think of as a cultural historical approach to issues of sexuality by literary scholars. The same Foucault who gave us The History of Sexuality played a major role in the rise of historically influenced literary studies during the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in work by scholars of English literature such as Valerie Traub, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jonathan Goldberg using primarily literary sources to explore the significance of sexual classifications. Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000) is a culmination of all of these trends: a cultural history resting primarily on literary and cinematic texts by a literary scholar, describing “the invention of homosexuality” as related to racial categorizations.

Somerville and other literary scholars used literature to make a historical point that historians also took up using a wider range of sources: observations about the historical variability of LGBT identity led to questions about the historical variability of heterosexual identity, and about the reasons for the existence of such identity categories in the first place. Katz’s The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995) extended the logic of social constructionism to the supposedly “normal” opposite of “homosexuality,” and demonstrated that sexologists created “heterosexuality” only after creating “homosexuality.” Jennifer Terry’s An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (1999), takes the obsession with homosexuality in the twentieth-century United States as a peculiar phenomenon in need of explanation. Terry’s work illustrates the fascination of LGBT scholars with the political uses of sexual identity classifications, especially insofar as part of their political efficacy derives from their ostensibly medical provenance. Similarly, Lisa Duggan’s Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity(2000) places sensational accounts of a “lesbian love murder” in Memphis in 1892 into the context of broader anxieties about gender, women’s rights agitation, and race. Each of these works is cultural history in that they rely on a wide range of sources in order to discern the meanings of seemingly ordinary categories to the persons who experienced them, especially at times of significant contest over those meanings; they are queer history in that they demonstrate how accusations of impropriety and immorality often serve to conceal underlying political struggles.

In short, for LGBT historians, sexuality is not only historical, it is political as well. Sexuality, like gender, serves in this analysis to transport hierarchy and power differentials into personal relationships while concealing its operation by explaining the effects in terms of “nature.” This assumption explicitly undergirds much LGBT historical writing that otherwise falls under the rubrics of social and/or cultural history. It also informs much history that is queer, in the sense not only of examining LGBT persons in the past, but of using historical analysis as the vehicle for raising significant questions about contemporary political and epistemological assumptions, including beliefs about the value of identity-based political movements. William B. Turner explored connections between historical research and queer theory in A Genealogy of Queer Theory (2000).

Oddly, however, explicit historical examinations of the LGBT movement remain relatively rare, perhaps because it has only achieved prominence since 1970. Besides D’Emilio’s groundbreaking study, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, the only book-length study thus far that addresses the social movement in detail is Marc Stein’s City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 (2000). Also in 2000, D’Emilio published Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights, with one historian, William B. Turner, but also one activist, Urvashi Vaid, as coeditors. For many, if not most, LGBT historians, the distinction between historian and activist is so fine as to be nonexistent. D’Emilio served as the founding director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s think tank, the Policy Institute. Bérubé, Duggan, Nestle, Stein, and Turner also claim significant activist as well as scholarly involvements. Creating Change contains articles describing the history of the LGBT civil rights movement, but many more of the contributors are political scientists and activists than are historians. The sole effort at a comprehensive account of the LGBT movement since Stonewall, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (1999), comes from two journalists, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney.

New Directions

Political struggles continue to occur within the social movement and among LGBT scholars, as well as between LGBT persons and the larger society. Only during the 1990s did activists define the categories “bisexual” and “transgender” as distinct political identities ripe for scholarly exploration. Many of the participants in the gay liberation movement of the 1970s and gay rights movement of the 1980s may have acted in ways that one might now categorize as bisexual or transgender, but accepted the rubric “gay” as a broad term encompassing a wide range of identities defined in terms of sexual or gender minority status.

One result is that specifically historical explorations of bisexual or transgender topics remain relatively rare. Attorney and activist Phyllis Randolph Frye’s chapter in Creating Change on battles to incorporate transgender issues into the lesbian/gay civil rights movement is one example. Transgender historian Susan Stryker, who is executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, has played a major role in defining the emerging field of transgender studies; she edited a 1998 special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies on transgender studies. It contained contributions from various disciplines and included an article by historian Joanne Meyerowitz, who later published How Sex Changed: A History of Transexuality in the United States in 2002.

As with most historical inquiry in the United States, LGBT history has tended to emphasize the Northeast and major urban areas first, with other areas, including places outside the United States, attracting scrutiny only later. Ramón Gutiérrez studied Native American cultures in New Mexico between European contact and U.S. annexation in When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (1991). Recent studies of the South by John Howard ( Men Like That: A Southern Queer History [1999] and, as editor, Carrying On in the Lesbian and Gay South [1997]) and the Pacific Northwest by Peter Boag ( Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest [2003]) have significantly broadened the geographic scope of U.S. historians’ understanding of LGBT lives. Nan Boyd’s Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (2003) extends several trends in queer history to the queerest of American cities.

An early study of a non-U.S. region was Bret Hinsch’s Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China (1990). James Green published Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil in 1999. Also in 1999, Gregory Pflugfelder published Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan have edited two volumes on France, Homosexuality in Modern France (1996) and Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection (2001). Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe published Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities in 1998. James Steakley’s The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany is very important for its early publication date, 1975, but also for describing a social movement that, before World War II, was well ahead of that in the United States.


LGBT historians initially dealt with discrimination within the discipline by staying in the closet and not writing about the LGBT past. As they began to come out and explore LGBT history, they created the Committee for Lesbian and Gay History (CLGH) in 1979. In 1982, CLGH became an affiliate of the American Historical Association. The profession has continued to follow the social movement and the larger society in that LGBT historians are coming out earlier in their careers and increasingly writing dissertations on LGBT topics. Indeed, one way of tracking the expansion of LGBT history is by reviewing the CLGH bibliography of dissertations, New research from LGBT historians is gradually reshaping our understanding of the human past in all respects, and the impact of this research is likely to continue growing in the future.