Field Concepts, Identities, Movements

Clark A. Pomerleau

Political organizing by oppressed Americans in the 1970s helped create U.S. lesbian, gay, bi/pansexual, trans, and queer history as a field. Why would people’s struggles for rights and freedom include wanting to be represented in historical accounts? Inclusive histories reflect the diversity of people in the U.S., expose institutional discrimination against minoritized people, trace how minorities have contributed, and outline their work toward the American democratic experiment. LGBTQ history has developed through four stages Gerda Lerner first identified for women’s history: compensation, contributions, revision, and social construction (Lerner, 1975). LGBTQ historians first compensated for heterosexism and cissexism by finding LGBTQ people to reinsert into historical narratives, then determined how LGBTQ people contributed to history. As they analyzed primary sources, they slowly revised historical narratives through testing generalizations and periodization against evidence by and about LGBTQ people. Finally, the field understood that sexual orientation and gender themselves are social constructions.

File:Lesbian Herstory Archives Gay Pride 2007.jpg

Marchers at 2007 LGBT Pride March in New York hold the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the byline reads “In memory of the voices we have lost”.

By the mid-1970s Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel collected evidence of lesbian existence for the public as the Lesbian Herstory Archive, and Jonathan Ned Katz published a thick book of primary sources documenting Gay American History, that included people whose might be considered lesbian, pan, or trans if they lived today (Katz, 1976). Stages one and two included uncovering the role of gender identity or sexual orientation in known figures like civil rights leaders Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin. For stages two and three, scholars have debated how best to tell LGBTQ history—what counts as a “first,” who and what historians should emphasize, what places to highlight. Stage four scholars stopped declaring that anyone who wrote intimately about someone of the same gender was “gay” or “lesbian” (why not bi?) and, instead, questioned how time-bound those terms are and debated how to identify people before society widely considered sexual orientation an identity.

This chapter takes the approach that LGBTQ history hinges on how concepts of sexuality and gender have changed to produce today’s identities, how queer Americans have formed community, and how these minority groups have forged movements using different tactics to gain rights and freedoms amid resistance and backlash [learning objectives 5-6]. As an overview, the chapter synthesizes formative, respected scholarship and includes some primary sources and recent research, so key approaches are in the citations [objective 1]. The main text includes the social construction of sex, gender, and sexuality [objective 2], how LGBTQ intersects with other structures of inequality that social institutions have enforced [objective 3], and how LGBTQ people have struggled for social justice despite resistance and set-backs [objective 5].