Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer [LGBTQ] history is generally not taught at home, in schools or in religious institutions. Some historians have gone through considerable contortions to avoid giving their subjects a hint of what British Lord Alfred Douglas called “the love that dare not speak its name.” They in effect are rewriting history by leaving out important aspects of their subjects’ lives, or outright denying key facts.
Gayle Rubin, who disentangled sex, gender, and sexuality as areas of inquiry, described the “Charmed Circle” of behaviors defined by society/law/religion/etc. as normal and acceptable; those identities and behaviors deemed deviant fell outside the circle. She noted that the Charmed Circle is not fixed; what is considered normal/deviant shifts and changes over time, and from culture to culture [Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975)].
Foucault argued that "homosexuality" - an identity predicated on same-sex attraction - was invented as a category with the rise of psychoanalysis and the increasing interest in “perversion” in the late 19th century. Previously, being a "homosexual" was not possible, as the term and its connotations did not yet exist. And “gay” — that identity category only becomes thinkable later in the 20th century.
Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, often called the “father” of LGBTQ civil rights, asserted with some asperity in his 1960 petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court “Probably [homosexuals] most dominant characteristic is their utter heterogeneity. Despite [the] common popular stereotype of a homosexual which would have him discernible at once by appearance, mannerisms and other characteristics, these people run the gamut of physical type, of intellectual ability and inclination and of emotional make-up … ”
LGBTQ Historiography should avoid presumptions that LGBTQ people have been visible and publicly accepted only recently. It woudl be misleading to frame this history in an oversimplified narrative of movement from repression to liberation. Historian George Chauncey, Jr. remarked when asked why no one had ever discussed the vibrantly visible “gay world” he found in late nineteenth/early twentieth-century New York City: “Until recently, nobody looked for it.” A strong necessity remains today to continue to excavate and look for such worlds and the historically specific sexual and gendered communities, systems, meanings, discourses, and realities they contained.
LGBTQ history is an umbrella term that captures the stories of diverse individuals, cultures, and communities that have been considered nonnormative. It is the story of movements for justice; of moments of triumph and tragedy that people later understood as LGBTQ have faced — and often continue to face — in their daily lives and demands for the right to live, love, and thrive. In the modern era, sexual and gender identity and expression have been central to Americans’ understandings of themselves, even as they have been shaped by — and shaped — broader structures and attitudes toward race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability, and nation. Major institutions, governments, courts, churches, and the medical profession, have served as arbiters, constructing normative and deviant sexualities and providing criteria for defining the range within each.
LGBTQ history is an exercise in recovery and reclamation. Doing and telling this history involves finding traces of LGBTQ people in texts (letters, diaries, novels, popular print culture, court and police records), visual aterial (art, public spectacle), oral narratives and traditions, and the built environment (buildings, parks, homes as meeting places, churches).
Identities shifted over time and were often distinct to place and cultures. Cross-cultural sexual and gender identity and expression were not necessarily linked to particular kinds of sexual or gendered behavior. Sexual or gender identity or behaviors were dramatically different than what they are today. It is difficult to use the terms “lesbian” or “gay” or “bisexual” or “transgender” or “queer” to describe those who would not have had such labels in the past.
It is unclear whether such recently developed identity definitions can be assigned even to those people who can be “proved” to ahve had same-sex sexual contact with one another, who explicitly spoke of their sexual desire for individuals of the same sex, or who explicitly articulated clear choices in relation to gender nonconformity. Lesbian or gay or bisexual or queer sexuality historically might only apply when individuals identified themselves explicitly as engaged in same-sex sexual relationships or only at the points when self-conscious cultures formed around shared sexual or gender identities. Possibly the definitions of same-sex sexual categories and gender transgression might encompass multiple kinds of passions between individuals, including intimate same-sex friendships that might or might not have been sexual.
Characterizing these diverse examples as “lesbian” or “gay” or evidence of same-sex desire, sexual intimacy or identity, turns on the question of how such terms are defined. Is spiritual love between women sufficient for such a definition? Is explicitly sexual love sufficient? Must the women or men themselves or the culture in which they reside perceive such relationships as deviant from heterosexual norms of behavior in order to speak of them as queer?
What was distinct about the twentieth century was a steadily increasing effort to identify, name, and categorize sexualities and genders. One of the most influential theorists on modern sexuality, Michel Foucault, has articulated this gradual yet major shift in the understandings of sexuality as a difference between acts and identities. While in the nineteenth century, same-sex sexuality and nonconforming gender behavior were seen as discretely punishable acts, in the twentieth century such acts placed the individual in a specific category that indicated a state of being and a species: “homosexual,” “deviant,” or “invert.”
Another key question for those looking to excavate and document LGBTQ histories is: who created modern understandings of sexual and gender identities, and how do they change over time and context? Official arbiters—scientific, medical, legal, religious, and political institutions—have demarcated the categories of sexual “deviance” while simultaneously creating the range of behaviors attributed to normative sexualities.
The term “community,” defined primarily as based on shared sexuality and/or gender identity, is itself a “naming” that oversimplifies LGBTQ life in the United States. The presumption that “community” is or should be the goal for sexual and gender minorities and the implicitly celebratory stance of many studies of sexual communities has been challenged by several scholars. Historian Horacio Roque Ramirez, who studied LGBTQ Latina/o communities, explicitly points out one of the most striking blind spots of the majority of community histories: the failure to analyze and center the movements and experiences of LGBTQ people of color.
Despite the importance of diversity, the predominant narrative of LGBTQ history is largely white, cis-gendered homosexual male, middleclass, and urban. People of color, transgender people, those who identify as bisexual, the poor, and rural folks are most often excluded, despite the critical role they have played. This erasure reflects in part the structural privilege that comes with being white, male, and middle class in American society; it is also a function of respectability politics.
In launching its LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, the National Park Service (NPS) demonstrated its commitment to including the story of the LGBTQ civil rights struggle and the creation of LGBTQ communities as part of the national story. The NPS is working to ensure the inclusion of the underrepresented communities’ landmarks within the ninety thousand plus sites on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and the twenty-five hundred National Historic Landmarks (NHL). LGBTQ history is American history; it really does matter in part by helping to shape the politics and policies of local, state, and federal institutions and leaders.
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