Part III: U.S. Histories

Chapter 4: U.S. LGBTQ+ History

Clark A. Pomerleau

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this chapter, students will be able to do the following:

  • Explain the social construction of sex, gender, and sexuality.
    • Summarize the history of nonnormative genders and sexualities, including homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identity, as well as queer identity and activism.
  • Describe intersectionality from an LGBTQ+ perspective.
    • Analyze how key social institutions shape, define, and enforce structures of inequality.
  • Describe how people struggle for social justice within historical contexts of inequality.
    • Describe several examples of LGBTQ+ activism, particularly in relation to other struggles for civil rights.
  • Identify key approaches used in LGBTQ+ studies, including the study of LGBTQ+ history.
    • Define key terms relevant to particular methods of interpreting LGBTQ+ people and issues, such as history and primary sources.
  • Describe the relationship between LGBTQ+ history, political activism, and LGBTQ+ studies.
    • Summarize the personal, theoretical, and political differences of the homophile, gay liberation, radical feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and queer movements.



Political organizing by oppressed Americans in the 1970s helped create lesbian, gay, bisexual or pansexual, trans, and queer history as a field of study. 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 United States, expose institutional discrimination against minorities, and outline their contributions toward the American democratic experiment. Like women’s history, LGBTQ+ history has developed through four stages that Gerda Lerner first identified: compensation, contributions, revision, and social construction.[1] 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 found by and about LGBTQ+ people. Finally, the field understood that sexual orientation and gender themselves are social constructions.

By the mid-1970s Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel had founded the Lesbian Herstory Archive (figure 4.1), collecting evidence of lesbian existence for the public, and Jonathan Ned Katz published a thick book of primary sources, Gay American History.[2] Stages one and two included uncovering the gender identity or sexual orientation of 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 bisexual?) and instead questioned how time-bound those terms are and debated how to identify people from time periods before society widely considered sexual orientation an identity.

A crowd holds up a banner that says "Lesbian Herstory Archives."
Figure 4.1. At the 2007 LGBT Pride March in New York, people hold a banner representing Lesbian Herstory Archives. (CC-BY Istolethetv.)

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. The chapter synthesizes formative, respected scholarship and includes some primary sources and recent research. It discusses the social construction of sex, gender, and sexuality; how LGBTQ+ intersects with other structures of inequality that social institutions have enforced; and how LGBTQ+ people have struggled for social justice despite resistance and setbacks.

Ideas about sexuality and gender have changed historically. This basic premise is one of the ways that we know that sex, gender, and sexuality are social constructs—that is, they are ideas that emerge from society and are changed through social action. Queer Americans have formed different types of communities in different historical eras, and LGBTQ+ people have struggled for social justice. The political struggles of LGBTQ+ people intersect with and have been influenced by other struggles for social justice, like civil rights and women’s rights.

Norms in Colonial America through the Late 1800s

White Settler Colonial Norms

Colonial Europeans established norms of marital reproduction and a sexual double standard within gender roles, which rendered what fell outside these two ideals unacceptable.[3] The Europeans’ encounters with nearly six hundred indigenous nations and all the ways these societies constructed gender and allowed varied sexual practices challenged European essentialist beliefs. Europeans tended to believe their Christian God created two fixed genders through sex assignment, set gender-divided duties, and made reproduction the purpose of sex. Thus, sex acts for purposes other than reproduction were signs of sin rather than any fixed identity. Yet European and, later, North American records give evidence that over 130 tribes recognized some individuals as women whom Europeans considered male or acknowledged some persons as men whom Europeans sexed female.[4]

The Spaniard Pedro Fages, for example, reported from his 1770 California expedition, “I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing and character of women—there being two or three such in each village—pass as sodomites by profession. . . . They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem.”[5] Colonizers’ descriptions forced what later became known as two-spirit people into inadequate Western models, such as calling the joyas men and sodomites.[6] White settlers gradually amassed power through irregular warfare to impose their norms by murdering and dispossessing civilians. An indirect effect was queering indigenous genders by labeling variation sinful, criminal, and subject to punishment.[7]

The intersections of race and sexuality are foundational to colonial history. Consolidation of English power included writing white supremacy into Virginia law. By the 1690s colonialists divided people into categories of white, Negro, mulatto, and Indian and decreed enslaved status heritable through the mother. Many colonies enacted laws against interracial sexual relationships, but judicial systems prosecuted enslaved Black, free Black, and sometimes poor white people and not the plantation owners, ensuring that slaveholders’ power included the ability to rape without legal consequences.[8] Meanwhile, church and colonial laws drew on the dominant universalizing view of sexuality as simply behavior and not a basis for majority and minority social identities. Legal statutes deemed sodomy (oral or anal sex) unnatural, a sin and a crime.[9]

An English servant’s case illustrates how class also intersected with gender and sexuality in colonial America. Thomasine Hall lived as a girl, woman, and man before migrating to Virginia in 1627 as a male indentured servant, Thomas. There Hall’s sewing skills and sporadic dress in women’s clothes led neighbor women to question Hall’s gender. A group of women physically examined Hall three times. Amid rumors that Hall fornicated with a serving woman, the General Court assessed Hall’s gender. Examiners declared Hall had male genitalia. Hall’s response according to the court records was “hee had not the use of the mans parte” and “I have a peece of an hole [vulva].”[10] After townswomen refused the official ruling that Hall was female, the court decreed Hall must wear a combination of men’s and women’s clothing. We will never know whether Hall was intersex or what to call Hall’s sexual desire. Evidence suggests that, like other colonists, Hall enjoyed sex for pleasure outside of marriage. Anglo society was more bothered by fluidity than hybridity in wanting to fix Hall in place as both woman and man.[11]

Gender, racial, and class hierarchies established by the eighteenth century all helped shape twentieth-century LGBTQ+ organizing, but first people had to start forming communities based on their same-sex relationships.

Passionless Women, Romantic Friendships, and Vanguard Communities

From the American Revolution through the Civil War, defining sex as acts rather than as the basis for social identity continued. New gender norms, however, affected attitudes toward same-gender attraction. Americans in the early republic rejected previous colonial-era views of women as sexual beings. Instead, in the late 1700s, society considered Protestant, middle-class women less lustful and more spiritually moral than men. Idealizing women as passionless and sexually self-controlled compared with men’s “natural” sex drive constrained women’s public (though not private) behavior. Women reformers, whose organizing started in churches, asserted that society needed women’s input because of their Christian virtues.[12] The perception that women’s and men’s temperaments and desires were distinctly different facilitated wide acceptance of emotionally intense same-gender relationships alongside traditional marriage.[13] Occasionally, women who could support themselves lived together in so-called Boston marriages. Contemporaries were more likely to attribute a sexual component to romantic friendships between men, like the poet Walt Whitman’s with Peter Doyle, than to women’s relationships because of society’s continued belief that a penis was necessary for sex.[14]

Industrialization through the 1800s also played a role in forming communities based on sexual orientation. As industries spread, more people migrated to larger urban centers for factory and related jobs and into places for raw production that had extreme gender imbalances. Despite the prevalent view that same-sex affection was behavior anyone might show, rather than an identity, communities based on same-sex attraction formed. By the late 1800s, New York City had developed a subculture with identity terms like fairy for effeminate working-class men and queer for gender normative men who loved men.[15] New Orleans was another hub. An array of woman-woman relationships also existed, usually divided by class and race. Lesbians sometimes patronized bars, dance halls, and other public spaces where queer men congregated in the early 1900s.[16] Police from Los Angeles to New York might arrest women wearing pants and sporting short hair on charges of masquerading as men.[17] Same-sex relationships also occurred among men doing the physical labor that produced resources for industrial production—mining in California, Pacific Northwest logging, Seattle dock work, and railroad labor transporting goods—despite anti-sodomy laws that penalized these behaviors.[18]

How Sexology Pathologized Identity and Led to Solidifying the Straight State

Near the same time that communities developed self-definitions, European sexology repackaged marital reproduction and widespread views on sin and crime in the language of medical science. These sexologists articulated the concepts of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality”.[19] The earliest sexologists campaigned against sodomy laws by asserting that same-sex attraction constituted a form of benign variation among humans—that is, harmless identities differing from those focused on reproducing. Most sexologists, though, argued same-sex attraction correlated with gender transgression as a pathological identity.[20] Newspapers had recurring exposés on working-class women passing as men for work and freedom. By 1892 the pathology model played a role in a Memphis insanity inquisition. This case exposed the plans of two women, whom relatives had thought to be romantic friends, to marry each other by having one assume a male identity. But when family members broke up this middle-class relationship, the distraught “masculine” half of the couple murdered her lover, and the defense lawyer her father hired used sexology to argue insanity.[21]

With the emergence of sexology, gender nonnormativity and same-sex attraction were now mental illness, in addition to being violations of religious ideas about sin and criminal laws. Although queer communities continued to spread, society’s validation of romantic friendships declined, and antivice campaigns arose by the 1920s and punished queer public expression. After Prohibition ended, federal and state officials enacted laws to control alcoholic beverages, to police respectability in bars. State agents held authority to revoke alcohol licenses if bar owners allowed the presence of undesirables like prostitutes, gamblers, gays, or lesbians (terms in the popular culture by the 1920s), who according to these laws, made establishments disorderly.[22] From the 1930s through the 1960s police freely busted bar patrons on suspicion of homosexuality.[23]

During World War II the military spread the normalization of heterosexuality and negative perceptions of “the homosexual.” Psychologists convinced military officials that homosexuality was a mental disorder that threatened morale and discipline. As eighteen million men moved through draft boards and induction stations, staffers asked questions designed to exclude gay men from service. Such questions heightened recognition that homosexuality existed even while pathologizing it. Officials feared that straight men would claim to be gay to avoid the draft; to deter this, they labeled anyone rejected for homosexuality as a “sexual psychopath” and gave employers the right to review draft records. Women’s auxiliary units started in World War II, but because criminal law usually ignored lesbian sex acts, the military did not similarly screen women recruits. Gay service members caught having sex or suspected of it faced humiliating expulsion after systematic inquisitions, which left several thousand men and dozens of women with undesirable discharges on their records.[24]

Gay and lesbian communities proliferated during and after the war, especially in cities with a military presence.[25] During the Cold War, federal, state, and local authorities redoubled efforts to achieve a straight state, including congressional laws and a presidential executive order against employing homosexuals in federal jobs.[26] Recent scholars have argued that the 1950s McCarthy Red Scare most victimized gay men and lesbians.[27] George Harris was among thousands fired. When the Central Intelligence Agency did a background check, they asked people from his Mississippi hometown about his sexual orientation. Suddenly jobless and homeless, Harris got a ride to Texas. He met Jack Evans soon afterward at a Dallas gay bar. As they dated, fell in love, and then lived together, they steered clear of bars to avoid arrest, and—fifty-nine years later—they became the first gay couple to marry legally in Dallas County.[28]


George Harris and Jack Evans are married in Dallas June 26, 2015, in this video. They were both in their eighties, having lived together for fifty-five years. A full video transcription can be found in the appendix. 

  • Describe what you witness in the video. What do you think is the relationship between the videographer and the couple? What terms, items, or actions featured in the video are you unfamiliar with?
  • Given the history you learned in this chapter, why was this occasion so publicized and celebrated?
  • Conduct a bit more research on George and Jack; how did their lives together reflect larger historical events from the 1960s to 2015?

From Homophile Movement to Gay Liberation

In the face of Cold War hostility and McCarthyism, gay and lesbian communities further institutionalized and began organizing a homophile movement for civil rights. Los Angeles gay men formed the Mattachine Society in 1951. Its founders, Harry Hay, Bob Hull, and Chuck Rowland, had organizing experience as U.S. Communist Party members. They structured Mattachine into secret cells to survive government infiltration.[29] The founders blended Marxist theory—that injustice and oppression were deeply embedded in societal structures—with inspiring tactics from the African American civil rights movement. They argued that repressive norms based in heterosexuality left homosexuals “‘largely unaware’ that they in fact constituted ‘a social minority imprisoned within a dominant culture.’” The founders sought to mobilize a large gay constituency through meetings and by creating homophile journals to produce a “new pride—a pride in belonging, a pride in participating in the cultural growth and the social achievements of . . . the homosexual minority.”[30]

Soon Mattachine grew to include many politically mainstream members who were anticommunist. The founders stepped down in favor of leaders who argued that the mostly white, middle-class, gay members were the same as heterosexual citizens, aside from the private sphere of love. They focused on gaining allies among heterosexual psychologists, clergymen, and public officials. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Del Martin, Phillis Lyons, and their group, Daughters of Bilitis, also “were fighting the church, the couch, and the courts” for equality. Like the more male-run Mattachine Review and One magazine, Daughters of Bilitis’s journal, The Ladder (figure 4.2), consistently assured lesbians of their worth as respectable middle-class people deserving treatment equal to heterosexuals.[31] Chapters of both organizations spread to the East Coast and Midwest, forming a web of advocates for homosexual civil rights by the mid-1960s who published, lobbied, and picketed the White House and city governments for equality.

A print of a woman holding a mask, with the title "The Ladder."
Figure 4.2. October 1957 cover of The Ladder. (Public domain, Women and Social Movements.)


This 1983 interview by Vito Russo features Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay and Barbara Gittings, a founder of the Daughters of Bilitis and editor of The Ladder ( and

  • What are some similarities and differences between Hay’s and Gittings’s experiences with political activism?
  • What does Barbara Gittings mean when she states that “the very first gay pickets had maybe ten, fifteen, at the most twenty people who could afford to get out in public and do this”?
  • What does Harry Hay mean when he argues it was important to “quit imitating the heterosexuals as much as we do”?

By the 1960s, various social movements were developing tactics to fight discrimination and inequality. Black civil rights legal work and direct action produced court-ordered desegregation, antidiscrimination law, and voting rights, although centuries of housing segregation, education, and job discrimination continued to racialize poverty. Frustrations rose in poor communities of color over police brutality and the dearth of economic opportunities. In 1965, gay and lesbian street youth organized in San Francisco. They and trans women often gathered at Compton’s Cafeteria, one of few places where they could meet. When Compton’s management called the police to deter drag queens’ and trans women’s patronage, a riot erupted. The next night, trans hustlers and street people picketed Compton’s and protested police brutality. Although the protest did not end abuse, a new collective militant queer resistance pushed the city to address queer and trans people’s rights as citizens.[32]

Three years later the Stonewall rebellion broke out after a New York City police raid. Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-run dive that blackmailed gay Wall Street patrons and used those funds to pay off police. In return, police gave the Stonewall advance warning of raids. Raids targeted those in full drag and trans sex workers like Sylvia Rivera. But raids could also ruin the lives of white, Black, and Latinx gay and lesbian customers; newspaper exposure often led to their being fired from jobs or evicted from housing. On June 28, 1969, there was no tip-off for the police raid. Trans and lesbian patrons resisted—refusing to produce identification or to follow a female officer to the bathroom to verify their sex for arrest. They also objected to officers groping them.[33] A growing crowd outside spontaneously responded to police violence by hurling coins and cans at officers, who retreated into the bar. Rioting resumed a second and third night. The gay poet Allen Ginsberg heard slogans being chanted and crowed, “Gay power! Isn’t that great! We’re one of the largest minorities in the country—10 percent, you know. It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.”[34]

The Stonewall rebellion also did not stop police raids, but mainstream and gay coverage and leafleting spurred the creation of gay organizing that was more militant than previous homophile groups. The Gay Liberation Front sought to combine freedom from homophobia with a broader political platform that denounced racism and opposed capitalism. From the Gay Liberation Front arose the Gay Activists Alliance and its “zaps,” or surprise public confrontations with politicians to force them to acknowledge gay and lesbian rights.[35] Gay liberationists like Carl Wittman drew on past New Left antiwar student activism and the women’s liberation movement. Wittman’s “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto” (1970) rails against homophobia, imploring gays to free themselves by coming out while also acknowledging it will be too dangerous for some. Wittman was attuned to the rise of lesbian feminism, which linked sexism and homophobia. Lesbian feminists emphasized women’s autonomy and well-being rather than identification as mothers, wives, and daughters who indirectly gained from what benefited men. Wittman deemed male chauvinism antigay and urged gay men to stop being sexist. Rather than mimic straight society, gay liberation should reject gender roles and marriage and should embrace queens as having gutsily stood out.[36]

Gay liberationists continued the fight to overturn homophobia in religion, psychology, and law. Gay Catholics formed Dignity in 1969.[37] The Unitarian Universalist Association urged an end to legal and social expressions of antigay discrimination in 1970, and the United Church of Christ ordained the first openly gay person in 1972. Episcopalians started Integrity in 1974. Mainstream Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, and Lutheran Church in America endorsed decriminalization but still disapproved of homosexuality. Fundamentalist evangelicals became increasingly vocal among denominations opposed to same-sex relationships and gender nonconformity. They began conservative religious organizing in response to progressive changes, propelling to celebrity status some ministers on the right such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jim and Tammy Bakker. Some LGBTQ+ Christians flocked to the Pentecostal minister Rev. Troy Perry. He founded the Metropolitan Community Church denomination from a house-based service in 1968. Meanwhile, gay Jews in Los Angeles created the first gay synagogue in 1972.[38] Gay-friendly or gay-run houses of worship proliferated over the decade, but the majority of LGBTQ+ Americans faced discrimination in unwelcoming religious congregations.

A design of linked male and female symbols, with a raised fist.
Figure 4.3. A Gay Liberation Front logo. (CC-0.)

In addition to trying to integrate religious spaces, gay liberationists demonstrated for the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association list of mental disorders. Activists and gay counselors knew people were not sick for being queer. They used the research findings of their ally, the psychologist Evelyn Hooker; she had demonstrated, on the basis of personality tests she had conducted since 1957, that gay men were equally stable as heterosexual men and sometimes showed more resilience.[39] In 1973 the association voted unanimously to define homosexuality in its diagnostic manual as “one form of sexual behavior, like other forms of sexual behavior which are not by themselves psychiatric disorders.”[40] This was a major win on the long road to discrediting claims that homosexuality was a mental illness and the conversion therapies designed to “cure” homosexuals. However, in 1980 the American Psychiatric Association’s third manual introduced “gender identity disorder of childhood” and “transsexualism” as disorders, indicating it preserved a concern about variety in gendered behavior, which sustained forced conversion programs for children and adolescents without increasing access to medical services that some trans adults wanted.[41]

Politically, in the 1970s efforts to gain equal rights ordinances and to elect lesbian and gay politicians became fruitful. Elaine Noble joined the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1974, and Harvey Milk won a seat in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors election in 1977.[42] The conservative campaign of Anita Bryant that overturned Florida’s Miami-Dade County gay rights ordinance in 1977 galvanized conservatives on the Christian right and gay activists nationwide against or for, respectively, extending equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. The next year activists managed to prevent California from passing an initiative that would have barred gay teachers from working in public schools. But cities with antigay campaigns experienced increased violence against gay and lesbian people and their businesses, centers, and churches, culminating in the murder of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by a former board of supervisors member and ex-policeman, Dan White, in 1978. White was convicted of manslaughter and served five years.[43]

Amid the volatile cultural battles of the 1970s, there were some victories. By the end of the decade, activists had decriminalized themselves in just under half the nation by overturning twenty-two state sodomy statutes, had countered antigay city initiatives, and had convinced the Democratic Party to include a plank against sexual orientation–based discrimination in its 1980 platform.[44] They would have to wait until 2003 for the Supreme Court decision on Lawrence v. Texas to strike down sodomy laws nationwide.[45]

The 1970s also saw a cultural renaissance of LGBTQ+ institution building and cultural productions through publishing and music. More Americans came out despite the real hazards of family rejection, violence, and legal discrimination. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson survived such dangers to start Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970. STAR, the first organization led by trans women of color, created the first homeless queer youth and sex worker shelter in North America. By recognizing links among homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism, STAR filled needs other early gay liberation groups were not considering. More often gays and lesbians organized safe spaces through bars, gay baths, bookstores, discos, sports leagues, and musical ensembles.[46] As the 1970s continued, feminist lesbians of color took the lead in advocating for “the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”[47] This important way of analyzing the world would become known as intersectionality.


Billy Porter provides a brief history of queer political actions that predate the Stonewall rebellion (

  • What surprised you about this video? What did not surprise you? What LGBTQ+ organization or historical event described in this video was new to you? Conduct some more research to better understand that organization’s or event’s goals and accomplishments.
  • What LGBTQ+ organizations or movements are active now, and how are they similar to or different from the movements discussed earlier?

Responding to AIDS

In the 1980s, the emergence of a deadly epidemic marked a crossroads for LGBTQ+ activism and institution building. A 1981 newsletter from the Centers for Disease Control reported five Los Angeles gay men had contracted an unusual pneumonia typically found in immune-compromised people. Then the New York Times stated that a rare, aggressive skin cancer had struck forty-one recently healthy homosexuals.[48] By late 1982, related immunosuppression cases existed among infants, women, heterosexual men, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs. The mortality rate of the original patients was 100 percent. Panic spread as media, many government officials, and the gay community asked what linked the affected gay men. Connecting a deadly disease, ultimately called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) to gay male sexuality provided a new rationale for discriminatory laws and harassment as the political power of the Christian Right continued to ascend.[49]

In response to AIDS, LGBTQ+ Americans organized new institutions and created new methods to get needed resources, which furthered lively debates over political tactics. Because the health care system failed to address the epidemic’s causes and consequences, New York City gay men founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982. It became a model for AIDS service organizations that offered information and support to prevent or treat the disease.[50] Lesbians contributed experience from the women’s health movement, where they had countered male-dominated medicine with their own research and support networks. Black Panther–sponsored free breakfasts and community health clinics became a model for AIDS service organizations.[51] By 1983 the group People With AIDS had mobilized nationally to demand control over decisions about their care and to draw attention to scapegoating that resulted in job loss and refusal of hospital treatment. They released “The Denver Principles,” which asserted their responsibility to use “low-risk sexual behaviors” without denying their right to “satisfying sexual and emotional lives.”[52] The gay community split on whether to blame casual sex with multiple partners for the crisis and how to contain the spread of the disease. As city public health officials sought to shut down bathhouses and bars that had spaces for sex, some gay activists agreed with the precaution, but others saw the campaign as more antigay harassment. Those opposed to closures argued that instead of driving gay sex further underground, public sites like bathhouses should become education centers for safer sex practices. Meeting spaces were places where the community organized efficiently to respond to AIDS.[53]

A major contributor to the AIDS epidemic was willful neglect by the federal government. For the first five years of the epidemic, President Ronald Reagan remained silent about it. In 1986 he and governors from both parties proposed cutting government spending on AIDS. That year the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that gay adults did not have constitutional privacy rights that would protect them from prosecution for private, consensual sex.[54] The Justice Department announced that federal law allowed employment discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status. When Reagan spoke briefly at the Third International Conference on AIDS in 1987 in favor of testing, over twenty thousand of the thirty-six thousand Americans diagnosed with AIDS had died. Congress prohibited using federal funds for AIDS education that condoned same-sex behavior but mandated testing of federal prisoners and immigrants to bar entry to those with HIV.[55]

This spurred high-impact radical organizing. Larry Kramer and cofounders formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. It further publicized the New York City slogan “Silence = Death” in demonstrations. ACT UP dramatically disrupted Wall Street, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the high cost of AZT (the first drug treatment) and the appointment of a loudly homophobic Catholic cardinal to the Presidential HIV Commission. ACT UP chapters spread to other cities; the groups became known for their insistence on action and their reclaiming of the term queer.[56] Keith Haring’s graffiti art spread the message. Cleve Jones created a memorial for people lost to AIDS, inviting loved ones to create three-by-six-foot panels for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (figure 4.4). During the second March on Washington in October 1987, volunteers laid out 1,920 panels on the National Mall.[57]

In tandem with responses to AIDS, often-overlooked portions of LGBTQ+ Americans organized. Trans people were disproportionately poor owing to job discrimination and devastating budget cuts to AIDS programs, welfare, and health programs. For-profit centers sold medical procedures for gender transition at high costs. Bisexuals started forming social and then political rights groups, including the National Bisexual Liberation Group in 1972 based in New York City, San Francisco’s Bisexual Center in 1976, and the national BiPOL in San Francisco in 1983. When the 1987 March on Washington organizers would not include “bi” or “trans” in the march’s title or list of demands, both constituencies argued that the category “gay and lesbian” was not inclusive.[58] New trans groups arose with transnational scope, including FTM International (advocating for the female-to-male trans community) and International Foundation for Gender Education, along with periodicals like Metamorphosis and Tapestry.[59]

A photo of a large quilt by the Washington Monument.
Figure 4.4. The AIDS Memorial Quilt. (Public domain, National Institutes of Health.)

With the development of intersectional theories and activism, gay, lesbian, and bi Americans who also held other minority statuses founded organizations in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Gay American Indians was founded in San Francisco in 1975, and in 1987 the group joined American Indian Gays and Lesbians. Conferences of the American Indian Gays and Lesbians produced the consensus that two spirit was the preferred term for gender-expansive Natives.[60] The National Rainbow Society of the Deaf (1977) grew from its Florida origins to hold annual conventions around the country as Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf (1982) and to become a force for advocacy. The national Asian Pacific Lesbian Network was founded when organizing for the 1987 march. African American gays and lesbians created religious community with Unity Fellowship Church (1985) and secular groups. When gay men formed the National Association of Black and White Men Together (1981), with local affiliates across the country, they ushered in a new form of interracial organizing. Some queer people of color joined with white gays and lesbians for antidiscrimination and AIDS work and criticized white-dominated queer communities for their racism. Queer people of color worked with other people of color for civil rights, poverty issues, and anti-imperialism while objecting to those communities’ homophobia, sexism, and transphobia. Queer people of color needed their own queer groups by race as respites from coalition work.[61]


In a 1989 Making Gay History interview (, ACT UP founder Larry Kramer describes being a student at Yale University in the 1950s, before the Stonewall rebellion, and then how he tried to organize gay men to fight the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

  • What were some of the challenges that Kramer had to overcome in his lifetime, whether at college or in the fight against AIDS?
  • Queer theory emerged during a very turbulent period in U.S. history, with AIDS decimating gay male communities. The anger at the apathy of the U.S. government, in the face of tens of thousands of men dying, drove the radical activism of ACT UP. Describe some of the tactics they used. What do you think of them?
  • In the interview, Kramer says there had been “a lot of change and no change” between when he was in college in the 1950s and the late 1980s. What do you think he meant by that? If he were interviewed today, do you think he’d say the same thing, and why?

Mainstream and Queer Goals

Beginning in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, new drug therapies prolonged the lives of people living with AIDS. Although radical, multicommunity AIDS activism continued, work for mainstream legal protections and rights dominated LGBTQ+ activism. LGBTQ+ Americans and supporters sought inclusion in the military, the passage of antidiscrimination laws, and marriage equality. After a campaign promise to end military exclusion, President Bill Clinton responded to pushback from military leaders with a compromise. He supported a congressional law that instructed LGBTQ+ service members to remain closeted and military officials not to pursue people for discharge (figure 4.5). Ironically, this “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy increased discharges of gay service members and continued violence against them until its repeal by President Barack Obama in 2010 ended discrimination based on sexual orientation (but not gender identity).[62] President Clinton was more effective with his executive order to end antigay discrimination in federal government in 1998 than with his military policy.[63]

A pamphlet cover that says "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
Figure 4.5. Cover of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” pamphlet. (Public domain, United States Army.)

Violence against LGBTQ+ Americans continued, including the rural murders of Brandon Teena and then Matthew Shepard. Both murders gained so much media coverage that they eventually became movies. Outrage against antigay violence and prejudice led New York ACT UP members to form Queer Nation in 1990 and inspired groups like the Pink Panthers (1990) and Lesbian Avengers (1992). Their direct actions to liberate sexuality and gender from heteronormativity were defiantly queer. A particularly controversial tactic was exposing the closeted homosexuality of antigay politicians and pundits. New federal hate-crime tracking confirmed the scope of anti-LGBTQ+ violence, indicating that over 10 percent of violent crimes motivated by bias against the victim’s identity were based on sexual orientation, putting that category behind only race and religion. Congressional passage of the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act (1994) included gay bashing as a federal crime to ensure fairer trials.[64]


Read Dignity & Respect: A Training Guide on Homosexual Conduct Policy, a pamphlet published by the U.S. Army in 2001 that explains to soldiers the new homosexual conduct policy that would become known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (

  • Does this pamphlet help you better understand the army’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy? Why or why not?
  • According to the pamphlet, the army’s goal was to fairly enforce this new policy, to promote unit cohesiveness and readiness. Do you think this pamphlet would have helped achieve that goal?
  • What is or isn’t in the policy that might explain why harassment and violence against gay service members continued while it was in effect?

State legislatures and popular ballots featured both antidiscrimination and antigay measures, creating grassroots organizing for and against protecting LGBTQ+ Americans from being fired or excluded from jobs, housing, and public accommodations. Cultural conservatives lamented the gradually increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people as celebrity musicians and television and film stars slowly started to come out and weathered backlash to continue their careers. Meanwhile, the Hawaii state supreme court win Baehr v. Miike temporarily legalized same-sex marriage there in 1996.[65] National LGBTQ+ organizations pushed to extend marriage equality nationwide. Over the next decade states split on whether to ban or legalize marriage equality. Popular support steadily grew in the first years of the 2000s, reaching 60 percent in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry (figure 4.6).[66]

Groups that centered young, trans, poor, and minority people warned in the early 2000s that hate-crime legislation and nondiscrimination laws connected to it would further hurt the most marginalized Americans. Dean Spade cautioned that sentences mandatorily extended for hate crimes strengthened “the criminal punishment system” that targets poor (and trans) people of color.[67] Likewise, some feminist and queer activists opposed the costly push for marriage equality because it supported only heteronormative relationships.[68] Paula Ettelbrick, among the first, argued in 1989 against endorsing one family form instead of destigmatizing unconventional relationships and sexual expression. Lisa Duggan has argued for broad coalitions to gain universal benefits instead of tying needs like health coverage to employment and marriage.[69]

A photo of the White House illuminated in rainbow colors.
Figure 4.6. The White House is illuminated in rainbow colors on the night of the Supreme Court Obergefell ruling June 26, 2015. (CC-BY-SA Ted Eytan.)


LGBTQ+ history in the United States has witnessed profound transformations in meanings, the social construction of identities, and how LGBTQ+ people have used collective action to fight for rights and equality. For centuries laws touted marriage as the place for reproductive sex but allowed some men sex for pleasure across race and class. When sex was considered simply a form of behavior and society believed women and men were fundamentally different, same-gender intimacy that was not obviously sodomy was deemed unremarkable. But as sexologists categorized sexuality into normal or pathological identities, psychology and medical science joined the church and state as key social institutions that demonized LGBTQ+ people. Communities of gay and bisexual men, lesbian and bisexual women, and trans people multiplied in the 1950s despite heightened repression, and a portion of these minorities organized for equal rights. Even the HIV/AIDS epidemic, blamed on and falsely identified with gays, could not stop LGBTQ+ organizing. Activists further developed radical tactics from the 1970s to call for liberation from heteronormativity. Legal gains have been arduously won, but foundational power imbalances based on race, class, gender, ability, and citizenship persist. Nonetheless, both legal and cultural changes continue to transform society.

Profile: Institutionalizing Sexuality: Sexology, Psychoanalysis, and the Law

Jennifer Miller and Clark A. Pomerleau

Sexology, Civil Rights, and Criminalization

European scientists and social scientists developed the social science known as sexology to understand human sexuality. They used biology, medicine, psychology, and anthropology to support beliefs that privileged binary gender identities (man or woman) and reproductive sex while trying to account for gender and sexual diversity. What was at stake for the men who created sexology varied: some felt same-sex attraction, some were sympathetic to those who did, others opposed same-sex behaviors. Their findings became arguments for and against criminalizing same-sex behavior. This profile’s history of sexology prioritizes primary sources to consider how sexologists explained diversity in gender and sexuality and how the field’s spokespersons shifted from an initial focus on social justice to creating oppressive, pathologizing diagnoses. Knowing this history helps us understand sexology’s long-reaching implications as a method by which people worldwide have been taught about queer and trans people.

The earliest form of sexology combatted legal discrimination. The German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (figure 4.7) drew on Plato’s Symposium for his 1860s theory that male-male love was biologically inborn and therefore natural.[70] Ulrichs used the term urning for a man who desired men and believed the urning’s desire reflected an internal female psyche. After telling his family he was an urning, Ulrichs—freed from his secret—lobbied to repeal sodomy laws. He maintained that consenting adult men who were not being publicly indecent had a civil right to express their love without state persecution. Ulrichs hoped to influence national legal reform as German states unified, so he published “Araxes: Appeal for the Liberation of the Urning’s Nature from Penal Law. To the Imperial Assemblies of North Germany and Austria” in 1870.[71] The next year, Germany’s assembly refused change and retained a sodomy law in the new law code. Paragraph 175 of the German Imperial Penal Code stated, “Unnatural vice committed by two persons of the male sex or by people with animals is to be punished by imprisonment; the verdict may also include the loss of civil rights.”[72] Germany would not decriminalize homosexuality until 1969.

A print of a man in a suit with a long beard.
Figure 4.7. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. (Public domain.)

Although his argument was unsuccessful, Ulrich’s work influenced other sexologists and became part of a growing field. His contemporary, the Austro-Hungarian human rights journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny, coined the words heterosexual and homosexual in 1868 as two forms of strong sex drive apart from those that pursued reproductive goals. Out of compassion for a friend who killed himself after being blackmailed for same-sex attraction, Kertbeny argued that sodomy laws violated human rights.[73] The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing adopted Kertbeny’s terminology and Ulrichs’s view that men who loved men had womanly desire (figure 4.8). Krafft-Ebing, however, considered anything outside reproductive sex to be an inferior, immoral deviation, which he called degeneracy. His Psychopathia Sexualis, Contrary Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Legal Study (1894) provided an elaborate taxonomy of “pathological manifestations of the sexual life.” The taxonomy included sexualizing an object (fetishism), sexually enjoying pain (masochism, which Krafft-Ebing considered natural for women), and sexually enjoying inflicting pain (sadism, which Krafft-Ebing considered natural for men). Krafft-Ebing claimed same-sex attraction was usually innate but could sometimes be produced as a result of exposure to other forms of “sexual deviance” like masturbation.[74] Like Ulrichs and Kertbeny, Krafft-Ebing hoped to influence jurisprudence with psychological claims, but to him, “The laws of all civilized nations punish those who commit perverse sex acts. Inasmuch as the preservation of chastity and morals is one of the most important reasons for the existence of the commonwealth, the state cannot be too careful, as a protector of morality, in the struggle against sensuality.”[75] Sexology’s language has continued to aid the power to police sexuality legally and has contributed to critiques of that power.

Both in Germany and in England, sexologists used widespread eugenics beliefs of their day that the body revealed behavioral tendencies. Reformers hoped that ascribing innate, unchangeable status to sexuality would secure rights, but eugenics was an imperialist science that justified racial, class, and sexual hierarchies.[76] Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician who experienced same-sex attraction, asserted that anatomy indicated sexual desires: “Hermaphroditic features significantly make the diagnosis of homosexuality easier.”[77] Hirschfeld advocated for homosexual rights from 1896 through 1935, arguing in The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914) that homosexuals’ “urnish” nature contributed creativity and philanthropy to society and gave homosexuals “equal understanding to both sexes.”[78] In addition to publishing books, Hirschfeld started the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Germany in 1897. The committee’s goals were “(1) to win legislative bodies to the position of abolishing the antigay paragraph of the German penal code, Paragraph 175; (2) enlightening public opinion on homosexuality; (3) ‘interesting the homosexual himself in the struggle for his rights.’”[79] Hirschfeld amassed an archive of same-sex research and literature that the Nazi state destroyed in 1933.

Hirschfeld’s British contemporaries Havelock Ellis (figure 4.9) and John Addington Symonds published Sexual Inversion in 1897. It was based on their interpretation of cross-cultural examples of same-sex attraction and varied sexual expression. This English medical textbook claimed inversion was an involuntary physiological abnormality usually “due to the accidental absence of the natural objects of sexual attraction” or, more rarely, was inborn.[80] Ellis’s case studies highlighted perceived abnormalities in subjects’ bodies, especially females. According to Ellis, whether acquired or inborn, inversion should not be criminalized, because it could not be helped. Symonds was at the forefront of homosexual rights activism in England, where, until 1866, homosexuality was punishable by death. In Symonds’s life and through 1967, British law still criminalized homosexual behavior.

Old photograph of a man in a suit with a long beard.
Figure 4.9. Havelock Ellis. (Public domain, Smithsonian Institution.)

In the following generation of activists, Edward Carpenter used anthropology to appeal to exceptionalism, seeing intimacy between men as a way to overcome society’s class differences.[81] Carpenter advocated on behalf of homosexuals like himself and for women’s rights, vegetarianism, and socialism. The idea of camaraderie (as he read the meaning of the American poet Walt Whitman) was central to his work and activism. In 1914, Carpenter published Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk, where he used “intermediate” to describe nonheteronormative genders and sexualities among peoples in tribal and ancient societies. By challenging terms like invert or uranian, he argued that nonheteronormative genders and sexualities were natural benefits to individuals and society.[82]

Although the notion that homosexual men were effeminate and lesbian women were masculine was an enduring stereotype that sexology promoted, some sexologists started to untangle gender from sexuality. Hirschfeld asserted that homosexuals had cross-gender traits, but he was the first to study cross-dressing men and women and found that most of them were heterosexual. As a result, his 1910 The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress understood cross-dressing for sexual pleasure as separate from homosexuality.[83] Noting that a difference between gender expression and sexual desire was an important contribution to the field. Iwan Bloch (figure 4.10), another German psychiatrist-sexologist who advocated for the repeal of Paragraph 175, challenged the popular idea that homosexuality was related to the presence of opposite-sex characteristics and was one of the first scholars to attack the popular notion of sexual degeneracy found in the work of Krafft-Ebing.[84] His anthropological and historical evidence of same-sex behavior existing around the world argued that it should be understood as naturally occurring difference.

After more than a century, the ideas of Ulrichs, Kertbeny, Krafft-Ebing, Ellis and Symonds, Carpenter, Hirschfeld, and Bloch continue to influence how gender and sexuality are interpreted. Sexology described homosexuality in myriad ways: (1) an innate condition theorists interpreted as degenerate or benign, (2) a learned behavior resulting from sexual excess, trauma, or no access to the preferred sex object, (3) something that should not or should be criminalized, and (4) an individual liberty or a social problem. The ideas and terminology that sexologists developed continue to provide the contradictory framework through which arguments about sexuality are made.

Old photograph of a man in a suit with glasses.
Figure 4.10. Iwan Bloch. (Public domain.)


Psychoanalysts distinguished themselves from other sexologists because they understood becoming gendered and developing sexuality as developmental human processes that required mental, emotional labor rather than as simply happening naturally to the body. The most famous proponent of psychoanalysis was Sigmund Freud, whose 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality responded to prior sexologists.[85] His classification system for inverts identified “absolute inverts” as individuals who had a sexual interest in their own sex exclusively, “amphigenic inverts” as individuals with a sexual interest in women and men, and “contingent inverts” as individuals who preferred the opposite sex but who would have sex with someone of the same sex on the basis of availability.[86] Freud rejected the idea that homosexuality was an immoral condition or that sexuality was innate. He considered people to be innately desiring beings whose desire was shaped by society’s proscriptions about what sexualities were acceptable and preferred. Nonetheless, he also considered the highest form of sexual development to be reproductive heterosexuality featuring active males and passive females.

According to Freud, all but the most sexually repressed people incorporated perversions into their sexual routines. He defined perversions as acts outside reproduction such as touching and kissing. Freud created a multistage explanation for how people achieved adult heterosexuality or got diverted into other forms of desire. He claimed that all infants start with unfocused sexuality. Young children focused their desire on their mother. An Oedipal crisis, which ended infatuation with the mother, was the next stage to move children toward forming the gender roles and opposite-gender desire that was normative in Freud’s time. Freud attributed a girl’s rejection of her mother in favor of her father to the girl realizing she “lacked” a penis and being drawn to her father who had one. A boy moved from actively desiring his mother to passively identifying with his father because of castration anxiety. A boy’s realization that not everyone had a penis prompted anxiety that he could lose his. The boy’s recognition of adult male status and possessiveness led to fear that the father would castrate him if he acted on desire for the mother but also anticipation that the boy would gain that adult male status later in life.[87] This early Oedipal crisis generally would be repressed and unable to enter into conscious thought, as girls converted their penis envy into desire to have a baby and boys grew into men who desired sex with women. Confining repressed feelings to the unconscious, however, would leave people in denial of their own motives and reasons for their actions, making it hard for them to understand why they were heterosexual or interested in “perversions.” Freud’s theory of the unconscious also made it difficult to prove his claims, but Freudianism became wildly popular in the mid-twentieth-century United States.[88]


Sexology and the law were two key social institutions that produced the category of “the homosexual” as a form of social identity. Gradually, as people accessed sexology texts and terms from the 1860s through the 1940s, they internalized this new form of identity, which then became a key component of their sense of self. When self-identified homosexual men and women internalized sexual orientation as part of identity they often had to grapple with how sexology and psychoanalysis explicitly or implicitly positioned homosexuality as somehow inferior to reproductive heterosexuality.

Both sexology and psychoanalysis presented stereotypes about gender expression, immaturity, and excess that circulated in society. By the 1940s, psychologists in Europe, the United States, and the imperially influenced world used Freudian psychoanalysis to rationalize treatments that conformed women to passive homemaking roles and the medicalization of homosexuality as a disorder (until 1973 in the United States). Feminists and then gay liberationists began to attack the incestuous overtones of Freudian theory and its disparaging references to women as anatomically and emotionally inferior. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex, the American feminist journalist Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique (figure 4.11), and American feminist books from 1970 like Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex all sought to debunk Freud in the name of women’s liberation.[89] Gay liberationists built on this feminist foundation to draw the homosexual rights activism that had emerged in the late 1800s away from rhetorical reliance on a sexology or psychoanalysis framework while still working to challenge the criminalization of same-sex love.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman smiling.
Figure 4.11. Betty Friedan. (Public domain, Fred Palumbo.)

Key Questions

  • What histories of nonnormative genders and sexualities discussed in this chapter surprised you? What were you already familiar with, and why?
  • What are three examples of LGBTQ+ activism, and how are they related to other struggles for civil rights in the United States?
  • What important role does intersectionality play in the history recounted in this chapter?
  • Choose three glossary terms; how would you define them using your own words?

Research Resources

Compiled by Carrie Pirmann

  • Discuss: Choose one or two resources listed in this chapter, and discuss them in relation to what you have learned about LGBTQ+ history.
  • Present: Choose a key topic or event found in this chapter. Then locate one or two resources from the “Quick Dip” and “Deep Dive” sections and develop a presentation for the class. Explain the significance of the topic, and provide additional details that support your explanation.
  • Create: What idea, person, or event from this chapter really moved you? Do more research on that idea, person, or event based on the resources in this chapter. Then create your own artistic response. Consider writing a poem, drawing a picture, or editing a photograph in a way that demonstrates both what you have learned and how you feel about the issue or person.
  • Debate: Find a partner or split into groups, and choose a topic, idea, or controversy from this chapter. Have each partner or group present an opposing perspective on it. Use at least two of the resources in this chapter to support your argument.

Quick Dip: Online Resources

ACT UP Oral History Project

The ACT UP Oral History Project ( interviews surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), New York. The project includes almost two hundred interviews, with five-minute clips and full-text transcriptions of each interview available on the website. This is a critical primary source for understanding the impact of AIDS on the LGBTQ+ community.

Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History

The Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History ( is an affiliate organization of the American Historical Association and holds annual meetings in conjunction with the association’s conference. The committee was founded in 1979 to promote the study of LGBTQ+ populations in the past and present. Its website features a collection of syllabi from LGBTQ+ history courses (national and international), citations for dissertations focused on LGBTQ+ history, and other resources.

Digital Transgender Archive

The Digital Transgender Archive ( provides an online repository of digitized historical materials, originally digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world. Based at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, the archive is an international collaboration among more than fifty colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, public libraries, and private collections. This collection serves as a critical resource for researchers who need access to materials on transgender history and culture.

Diverse Sexuality and Gender Section

The Diverse Sexuality and Gender Section of the Society of American Archivists promotes the preservation and research use of records documenting LGBTQ+ history (

Lesbian Herstory Archives

The Lesbian Herstory Archives, in New York City, is home to the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities. The Herstories project digitizes and makes available online some of the Herstory Archives’ audio and video interviews ( Among the important items in this collection are audio recordings of speeches and readings by Audre Lorde; audio interviews from the Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold project, which documents a lesbian community in Buffalo, New York; and video interviews from the Daughters of Bilitis Video Project. This resource makes available invaluable primary sources on the history of lesbian life in the United States.

LGBTQ+ Archives, Libraries, Research Centers, and Special Collections

Karla Strand, Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian at the University of Wisconsin, compiled a list of links to and information about LGBTQ+ library and archival resources. Although most of these are physical locations, many also have a digital presence, with either portions of their collections digitized or other materials freely available, such as curriculum documents and lesson plans that center on LGBTQ+ studies and history. See

ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives

The University of Southern California Digital Library makes some items from the ONE Archives collection available online ( Founded in 1952, the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives is the oldest active LGBTQ+ organization in the United States and the largest repository of LGBTQ+ materials in the world. The digital collection encompasses over six thousand artifacts, including photographs, flyers, letters, periodicals, audio recordings, advertisements, and other materials, mostly from the 1960s to mid-1990s.


Founded in 2008 by Jonathan Ned Katz (author of Gay American History), the website OutHistory ( tells the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals, from the 1600s to present. Visitors can browse entries by time period, location, and subject or search among a collection of documents from the LGBTQ+ movement. The site also includes timelines, oral histories, curated bibliographies, and other materials that make it a rich source for both research and teaching.

Washington Blade Archive

Established in 1969, the Washington Blade is one of the oldest LGBTQ+ publications in the United States. Beginning as a monthly publication and eventually transitioning to a weekly publication, the Blade covers current events from an LGBTQ+ perspective and the social and political progress of the gay rights movement ( The digital archive ( from the Washington, D.C., Public Library encompasses issues from 1969 to 1989, with other issues to be added. The current publication is updated online daily and includes local, national, and world LGBTQ+ news.

Deep Dive: Books and Film

After Stonewall: From the Riots to the Millennium, directed by John Scagliotti

This 1999 sequel to the award-winning Before Stonewall, After Stonewall chronicles LGBTQ+ history in the United States from 1969 through the end of the twentieth century. It includes interviews with prominent LGBTQ+ figures, including Dorothy Allison, Armistead Maupin, Barney Frank, and Barbara Gittings. The film also examines how the AIDS crisis affected and changed the gay rights movement. After Stonewall won Outstanding Documentary Feature at the 1999 Outfest Los Angeles and was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in 2000 (New York: First Run Features).

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts

Shilts, a former reporter for the Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle, broke new ground with his incisive exploration of the AIDS crisis as it ensnared the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century. This award-winning volume, which serves as the basis for the film of the same name, lays out the missteps of the federal government in not addressing the crisis and the response from the gay community. It is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the impact of the AIDS crisis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community, directed by Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg

Originally released in 1984, Before Stonewall was restored in 2019 in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. It chronicles LGBTQ+ history in the United States from the early twentieth century up until the Stonewall rebellion in 1969. The film uses archival footage and interviews with LGBTQ+ activists, writers, and historians, including Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, Barbara Gittings, and Martin Duberman. Before Stonewall is a vital documentation of LGBTQ+ life in the United States before the watershed moments in the gay rights movement. The film won an Emmy Award in 1987 for Best Historical/Cultural Program and Best Research (New York: First Run Features).

Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement, by Marcia M. Gallo

Gallo chronicles the history of the Daughters of Bilitis, a San Francisco–based organization committed to lesbian visibility and empowerment that emerged in the Cold War era. Through interviews with several dozen former members of the Daughters of Bilitis, Gallo preserves a critical piece of lesbian history and the history of the larger LGBTQ+ community (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006).

Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., by Jonathan Ned Katz

Katz’s work encompasses a broad view of gay and lesbian history in the United States, from the sixteenth century through the 1970s. It covers U.S. history from the earliest European settlers and Native Americans to contemporary times. The book includes reprints of rare documents representing over four hundred years of oppression, conflict, and struggle experienced by the gay and lesbian community (New York: Meridian, 1992).

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman

This extensive history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States covers the 1950s through 2010s. Faderman’s lengthy volume, which was honored as a Stonewall Honor Book in Non-Fiction, is based on thorough research and interviews with more than 150 individuals who were part of the LGBTQ+ rights movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis, by Kevin Mumford

This volume examines the history of Black gay men from the 1950s through the 1990s in the United States. It covers the lives of both famous and little-known Black gay activists, including James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Joseph Beam, and Brother Grant-Michael Fitzgerald. Mumford additionally analyzes how social movements inspired and marginalized Black gay men, and he draws on an extensive archive of newspapers, pornography, and film, as well as government documents and personal papers, to support his arguments (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Our Gay History in 50 States, by Zaylore Stout

Created as an educational resource for ages fifteen and up, this book tells the story of queer U.S. history, state by state. It covers significant people, places, and events and highlights struggles, successes, and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community in all fifty states (Minneapolis, MN: Inflection Point Media, 2019).

Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, edited by Uriel Quesada, Letitia Gomez, and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz

This volume breaks ground in chronicling LGBTQ+ activism in the Latinx community in the 1970s through the 1990s. The experiences of fourteen activists from the United States and Puerto Rico are presented in essays and oral histories, offering a new perspective on the history of LGBTQ+ mobilization and activism within the Latinx community. Activists profiled in the book detail their work in LGBTQ+ organizations and discuss the impacts of racism and discrimination in the larger LGBTQ+ community (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).

Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America, by Martin Duberman

Originally published in 1993, Martin Duberman’s history of the Stonewall rebellion remains a definitive account of the landmark event in the gay rights movement. Through interviews with several who were present at Stonewall, Duberman describes the transformational event and its impact on U.S. gay rights history. A Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the City University of New York and author of multiple works on gay history, Duberman is a leading scholar in the field, and Stonewall is a scholarly yet accessible work that chronicles an important period in history (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).

The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Robert Epstein

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician in California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This 1984 film documents Milk’s rise from a neighborhood activist to his work on the board of supervisors and his assassination in November 1978 at San Francisco’s city hall. In 2012, the film was deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry (New York: New Yorker Films, 1984).

Transgender History: The Roots of Todays Revolution, by Susan Stryker

Stryker’s concise history of transgender life and activism in the United States is essential reading for those who want to understand the history of this community. A renowned researcher and professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, Stryker in this volume covers U.S. transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today. She highlights major texts and speeches in transgender history and provides brief biographies of key figures in the transgender community (New York: Seal Press, 2017).


anti-imperialism. A term used in a variety of contexts, usually by nationalist movements that want to secede from a larger polity (usually in the form of an empire but also in a multiethnic sovereign state) or as a specific theory opposed to capitalism in Marxist–Leninist discourse, derived from Vladimir Lenin’s work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

castration anxiety. A feature of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipal crisis whereby a boy realizes that not everyone has a penis, which prompts anxiety that he could lose his. The boy’s recognition of adult male status and possessiveness leads to fear that the father would castrate him if he acted on his desire for the mother and to anticipation of gaining that status later in life.

degeneracy. Behavior that deviates from the norm and that society considers immoral, inferior, pathological, and—in relation to evolutionary theory—a retreat from progress.

Edward Carpenter. British activist who advocated on behalf of homosexuals like himself and for women’s rights, vegetarianism, and socialism. His 1914 Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk describes nonheteronormative genders and sexualities among peoples in tribal and ancient societies as naturally benefiting individuals and society.

essentialist. The view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function.

fairy. A term from 1800s New York applied to effeminate working-class men.

hate-crime legislation. State and federal laws intended to protect against hate crimes (also known as bias crimes) motivated by enmity or animus against a protected class of persons. Although state laws vary, current statutes permit federal prosecution of hate crimes committed on the basis of a person’s protected characteristics of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

Havelock Ellis. The British physician who coauthored Sexual Inversion in 1897. The medical textbook claimed inversion was an involuntary physiological abnormality of the body on the basis of the authors’ interpretation of cross-cultural examples. Ellis argued that inversion should not be criminalized because it could not be helped.

heteronormativity. The belief that heterosexuality, predicated on the gender binary, is the norm or default sexual orientation.

homophile movement. Coined by the German astrologist, author, and psychoanalyst Karl-Günther Heimsoth in his 1924 doctoral dissertation “Hetero- und Homophilie,” homophile was in common use in the 1950s and 1960s by homosexual organizations and publications; the groups of this period are now known collectively as the homophile movement.

intersectionality. Refers to an analytic framework used to understand how social identities, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability, intersect to influence the discrimination or privilege an individual faces within society. The term was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

inversion. An early theory of homosexuality developed by Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds that suggested same-sex desire was influenced by inborn psychic identification with femininity for men and masculinity for women.

Iwan Bloch. A German psychiatrist-sexologist who advocated repeal of Paragraph 175 and challenged the popular idea that homosexuality was a degeneracy related to the presence of opposite-sex characteristics. His anthropological and historical evidence argued that because same-sex behavior existed around the world, it should be understood as naturally occurring difference.

John Addington Symonds. The British literary critic and historian who coauthored Sexual Inversion in 1897. Symonds was at the forefront of homosexual rights activism in England, where, until 1866, homosexuality was punishable by death. In Symonds’s life and through 1967, British law still criminalized homosexual behavior.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. The German lawyer in sexology who theorized that male desire for men existed because such men had a female psyche (mind, soul, spirit) and who argued that consensual adult love was a human right.

Karl-Maria Kertbeny. The Austro-Hungarian human rights journalist and sexologist who coined the words heterosexual and homosexual in 1868 as two forms of strong sex drive apart from reproductive goals. Initially both terms included an idea of excessive behavior.

Magnus Hirschfeld. A German physician who advocated for homosexual rights from 1896 through 1935 in his publications, by forming the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897 and by creating a private sexology research institute in 1919 in Germany.

nondiscrimination laws. Also called antidiscrimination laws; refers to legislation designed to prevent discrimination against particular groups of people.

norms. Collective representations of acceptable group conduct as well as individual perceptions of particular group conduct.

Oedipal crisis. A stage in Sigmund Freud’s theory that follows the stages of infants’ unfocused sexuality and infants’ focus on their mother as the object of desire. Freud posited that both girls and boys passed through an Oedipal crisis when they came to want a penis. Freud attributed a girl’s rejection of her mother in favor of her father to the girl’s realization that she did not have a penis, being drawn to her father who did. In Freud’s formulation, a boy moved from an active desire for his mother to a passive identification with his father as a result of castration anxiety.

pansexual. The sexual, romantic, or emotional attraction toward people regardless of their sex or gender identity.

Paragraph 175 of the German Imperial Penal Code. A German anti-sodomy law in effect from 1871 to 1969 that spurred activism for its repeal.

passing. In the context of gender, this refers to someone, typically either a transgender person or cross-dresser, who is perceived as the gender they wish to present as.

perversions. A term various sexologists used regarding sexual behaviors and attractions that were not specifically about reproductive sexuality. Sigmund Freud included as perversions any acts outside of reproduction such as touching and kissing but did so without the condemning attitude, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing had.

queer. Pertaining to a person or group that does not fall within the gender binary or heterosexuality.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing. A German psychiatrist-sexologist who theorized that anything outside reproductive sex was inferior and immoral deviation. He produced a book categorizing deviance and argued in favor of anti-sodomy laws.

romantic friendships. Also called passionate friendships or affectionate friendships, very close but typically nonsexual relationships between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond what is common in contemporary Western societies.

same-gender attraction. Attraction between members of the same gender.

sex assignment. The identification of an infant’s sex at birth.

sexology. The scientific study of human sexuality, including human sexual interests, behaviors, and functions.

Sigmund Freud. An Austrian founder of psychoanalysis famous for his developmental theory that all individuals pass through mental-emotional stages (including the Oedipal crisis) that end with achieving heterosexuality or being diverted to other forms of desire. Freud rejected the ideas that homosexuality was an immoral, criminal condition or that sexuality was innate. He considered people to be innately desiring beings whose desire society directed by prescribing what sexualities were acceptable and preferred.

social construction. A theory of knowledge in sociology and communication theory that examines the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality.

sodomites. People who engage in nonreproductive sex acts, especially anal or oral sex.

sodomy. Anal or oral sex.

two-spirit people. A modern umbrella term used by some Indigenous North Americans to describe Native people in their communities who fulfill a traditional third-gender (or other gender variant) ceremonial role in their cultures.

urning. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s term from Plato’s Symposium for his 1860s theory that male-male love was biologically inborn and reflected one partner having an internal “female psyche.”

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About the author

Clark A. Pomerleau is associate professor in the University of North Texas History Department who also serves on the women’s and gender studies and LGBTQ+ studies advisory boards. His book Califia Women: Feminist Education against Sexism, Classism, and Racism (2013) and scholarly essays historicize feminist diversity education, feminist views on sexuality, and trans-inclusive praxis. He also writes poetry about queer aesthetic, transformative agency, memory, place, and nature. His first full-length poetry book is Every Day, They Became Part of Him (forthcoming). He published his chapbook Better Living through Cats in 2021.



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Introduction to LGBTQ+ Studies: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach Copyright © by Clark A. Pomerleau is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.