Last June I participated in the annual Pride March in New York City, the biggest celebration of LGBT pride in the world. My girlfriend and I marched with the Episcopal Diocese of New York, waving a tiny rainbow flag someone handed us and walking behind a long white banner down 5th Avenue. After a slow start, we were among the last groups to head out under a sun that dipped and began to set as we moved down Manhattan. As we walked, evidence of the passage of earlier groups scuffed under our feet: cast-off pins and buttons, snapped strings of multicolored beads, condoms, bracelets, and what was probably a metric ton of confetti scattered over two miles of asphalt. Among the detritus of the march were placards, shouting the message of Pride up from the ground: Disarm Hate, God Made Me Queer, Equality Needs You. Most of these were repeated again and again along the route, but as we turned onto 8th Street for the final leg of the march, I glanced down to see a new sign under my foot: LGBT History is American History.
Walking down 8th street with the setting sun directly in my eyes, I found myself obsessing over that sentence: “LGBT history is American history.” It struck me as deeply important — and deeply ironic. I am an American historian; I am gay; I do not know LGBT history. When, a few minutes later, we marched past the Stonewall Inn in the last rays of the sun, it was the first time I had seen what will soon be the first national monument dedicated to the lives and struggles of LGBT persons in American history. I knew the significance of the spot, but in a theoretical, unsteady way — I felt, and still feel, that there was something about that little building I didn’t understand; that I should understand, but couldn’t.
Being gay in the 21st century is a strange thing — it’s intensely private and yet inescapably public, both a connection to a wide and diverse community and a uniquely isolating experience outside of that community. It’s at the center of liberal identity politics today, a hotly contested legal matter, and yet many non-LGBT liberals — the kind who teach college courses and write for academic journals, who listen to NPR, and buy the books that straddle academic and “popular” history — seem confident that the issue is “settled,” that the struggle of LGBT people is a matter of history, not of fights being waged or people being hurt in the now.
Listening to these voices today, you’d be forgiven for thinking LGBT history was over — but you might have trouble understanding what, exactly, that history looked like. I have two degrees in history, representing five years of study at two different institutions, and I can remember only 3 times the topic of LGBT history entered the syllabi in my classes.
- Junior year of undergrad, American Family History: Towards the end of the semester we were assigned George Chauncey’s Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality as part of an ongoing study of marriage in American history. In class, the professor led us through a discussion of modern marriage, showed us an old PSA warning against homosexual predators, and pushed the room to consider the rationale behind both sides of the gay marriage debate.
- Senior year, Introduction to Society, Culture, and Biology: I was a TA for this class, which covered a broad range of topics related to the brain and mind sciences throughout modern history. Among the readings was an article which dealt with the medical diagnosis of homosexuality in the late 19th century. The topic received little attention in class.
- Second semester of Master’s studies, America and the World II: In this class, which is designed to prepare future professors to teach American history, we read Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, a 500-page, 1.5-pound study of the rise of family and sexual politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Though the book includes several chapters on LGBT movements, we spent maybe half an hour of a three-hour class discussing them. When I pointed out that Self makes almost no mention of trans individuals in his book, I was met by blank stares and the assertion, in so many words, that nobody was trans in the 1960s.
What bothered me most about this frustrating graduate seminar was not the fact that the professor assigned a book that covered LGBT history extensively, then chose to focus on those parts of the book that discussed straight history, or even the fact that my fellow students showed no interest in talking about the rich history of gay and trans liberation. What concerned me was that, when I tried to point out the omissions I saw, I couldn’t put a name to what was missing. I couldn’t provide a date, a name, or an argument to “prove” that Self had left out part of the story. As much as I knew that LGBT history was important, as deeply as I believed it was more extensive than our discussion was showing, I was trying to start a conversation I didn’t have the knowledge to continue.
Some disclaimers seem appropriate at this point: my experience is only my experience. I’ve attended some very conservative institutions. Excellent scholars are doing excellent work on the history of LGBT individuals in America and around the world. And there are very valid reasons that LGBT hasn’t made its way to the mainstream of American history yet. In the grand scheme of two-plus centuries, the visible history of gay people in the United States is a relatively short and recent chapter. The last fifteen years alone represent an enormous change in the legal and cultural status of LGBT people in our country. It’s hard to write history as it happens, and even harder to teach it. For historians of an older generation than me (which is to say, 90% of historians), this dissonance is surely even greater.
But I want to go back to that junior year family history class. It was spring of 2013, and I thought I was straight. Our professor explained that Chauncey’s Why Marriage was an imperfect book, written in three months in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, a useful primer but far from a diligent, rigorous treatment of LGBT history. All the same, the book was a revelation to me, after years in a monolithically conservative community where LGBT history was never so much as mentioned. For the first time, I saw the history of gay people laid out in its simplest form; I saw how the terms of the debate had evolved; I learned that gay people existed before 2004 and that their existence had not always been seen as a political problem. For a few class periods, I was brought into conversation with a topic I had never been close to before.
Chauncey’s book is not itself exceptional; neither was this class unit. But spring 2013 began a year of contemplation for me at the end of which I no longer believed I was straight. What mattered wasn’t that I understood the full dimensions of LGBT history; I wasn’t an expert in gay history then, and I’m still not today. What pushed me to a place where I could reconsider my own identity was the knowledge that there was a history to what I saw in myself.
The LGBT history we tell in our classrooms, our articles, and our books doesn’t have to be complete to matter — no history is complete. The work of history, at its core, means grappling with uncertain knowledge, exploring the gaps in our stories, looking at what we don’t yet understand and trying to shape it into something with meaning. If we ask more questions than we answer, the work is still valuable.
The value of the conversation was driven home in the worst way last month. The tragedy in Orlando came to my generation in a historical vacuum, disconnected from the long history of struggle, suffering, and success in which it stands as the most recent paragraph, an event so full of meaning that every Facebook post took a different approach to the tragedy and yet remained so removed from the context of the past that earnest voices labeled the victims as “queer” without any consideration for the word’s painful history. As I walked over the sign on 8th Street — LGBT History is American History — the failure of the American university to create a space for LGBT history hit me hard. In maintaining the silence around LGBT history, we instead create space for misunderstanding and hate, for the extension of the cycle of violence, for the nurture of prejudice and indifference even within the very academic circles where the high ideals of objectivity and acceptance are paid such liberal lip service.
LGBT history isn’t American history — not yet. But it can be, and it must be. The very pace of change we’ve seen in the last fifteen years demands that we make the history of LGBT America a priority in our classrooms and our publications, in the conversations we have with our colleagues and our friends. It can’t be put aside for a later date, till the story’s over and the dust has settled. The longer we wait, the longer the story of hate becomes.
Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Jim Downs, Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016).
Thomas Foster, Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexualities in Early America (NYU Press, 2007).
Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (Plume, 1992).
Elizabeth Reis, American Sexual Histories (Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd edition, 2012).
Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Seal Press, 2008)