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How Gay History Came Out of the Closet

The story of how LGBTQ people came to find and value their own history is one of subversion, secret societies, and hard-fought battles toward equality.

by Jim Downs
10 August 2016, 4:00am

Women representing the Lesbian Herstory Archives march in the 2007 New York City LGBTQ Pride March. Photo via Flickr user istolethetv

This June, the media spent more time reporting on the Pulse nightclub massacre than any other LGBTQ hate crime in American history. This makes sense, given it was both the deadliest mass shooting and deadliest assault on the gay community in our nation's history. But beyond those and other aspects for which the tragedy stands alone, it will come to be defined by another singular feature: It was the first of its kind whose coverage will be archived by mainstream historical institutions, like libraries and private historical collections. Because until the turn of the century, gay people have had to maintain their own archives—and the history of how LGBTQ citizens came to value and preserve their own history was a story, much like that of gay liberation itself, of many hard-fought battles to be won.

The sheer volume of coverage produced was not due solely to the massacre's scale. Until Pulse, in which 49 were shot dead, the deadliest American LGBTQ hate crime was a 1973 arson attack on UpStairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar in which 32 died during services for the Metropolitan Community Church, a chapter of the first-ever gay church in the United States. But that assault saw little mainstream news coverage at the time, due to homophobia and an unwillingness to report on LGBTQ lives.

Violence against gay people is nothing new, but the mainstream reporting of such incidents is—and the subsequent preservation of the stories of their victims and perpetrators.

Throughout history, it's been up to queer people to document their own history. As I show in my book, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, historical archives—libraries, both academic and public, and private institutions that make it their mission to hold and properly preserve historical artifacts—have traditionally refused to preserve the records of LGBTQ people. When they did, homosexuality appeared in card catalogs under derogatory subjects like deviance, criminality, and medical disorder.

As a result, LGBTQ people have come to recognize that documenting their past is an inextricable part of the gay liberation movement. Beyond political protests and pride parades, a quieter, more somber effort has taken root among them to report on, collect, and document their history, in order to preserve their past and to demonstrate what makes gay culture distinct.

In the 1970s, not long after the Stonewall riots, a group known as the Gay Socialist Action Project began meeting at a Manhattan apartment to read feminist and socialist texts in order to grasp the power dynamics that had oppressed them. They came to realize their oppression was less about their sexual choices and more about social stigmas that pathologize homosexuality. This realization revolutionized how Jonathan Ned Katz, one of the group's members, began to interpret the past.

These archives and others are vital because they tell a different kind of gay history. Most mainstream LGBTQ history traces the rise of gay liberation to the Stonewall uprising, but the truth is more complex.

With only a high school diploma, Katz began to investigate the history of homosexuality from the colonial era to his 1970s present. Investigating the way homosexuality had been listed in New York Public Library card catalogs, he traced how authorities portrayed homosexuality first as a sin, then as a "sickness," then, later, as a criminal act. In 1976, he set out to prove that LGBTQ people had their own history with the publication of his anthology Gay American History. It was "the bible of gay liberation for many years to come," Craig Rodwell, the owner of Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the first gay bookstore in the world, said in a newspaper interview at the time.

Four years earlier, in 1972, a group of lesbians turned their 92nd Street apartment into the first-ever lesbian history archive, theHerstory Archives. While fledgling at first—early on, founders would stuff shopping bags with artifacts to present privately in homes, bars, women's groups and early gay churches—it stands today as a living museum, still open to the public.

"Our histories were disappearing, or uncomfortable to find or locked away," said co-founder Deborah Edel in an interview with the Brooklyn Historical Society this June. It was "important for people to feel at home with the archives," she said, "and at home with their own history." To that end, the Herstory Archives remain independent from government funding, and visitors are free to touch and engage with its contents, which include all manner of artifacts—from letters and photographs to shirts, buttons, and candle sticks.

Their efforts marked a turning point: Secretly and subversively, LGBTQ people began to pass their history along to one another, rather than place it in the hands of discriminatory libraries and mainstream archives. Over the decades that followed, in attics and overstuffed closets, they continued to archive the histories of their own people. And over the past decade, such libraries and archives have begun to treasure, rather than trivialize, such materials.

The formal process of converting these collections into archived, institutionally accessible anthologies has created some of the most important compendiums of gay archival material available in America today. In 2007, Kay Tobin Lahusen, a gay photojournalist, donated more than 170 boxes of historical materials from her private collection to the New York Public Library, which marked the beginning of an era in which public libraries began to accept and house collections of LGBT materials. A year later, prominent lesbian-feminist historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg donated her late-19th-century collection of 650 books and pamphlets to the Library Company of Philadelphia, one of the oldest libraries in the country, including research that had established her as one of America's leading gender and sexuality historians.

These archives and others are vital because they tell a different kind of gay history. Most mainstream LGBTQ history traces the rise of gay liberation to the Stonewall uprising, but the truth is more complex.

LGBTQ archives include massive repositories of newspapers founded by and for LGBTQ people showcasing the full breadth of gay culture produced during the 20th century, from the churches they founded to the plays they wrote to the poetry they read, including the surprisingly vast breadth of gay poetry produced in prisons. Such papers also evince a surprising amount of intra-community conflict and political division that runs counter to the popular portrayal of a unified gay political front. Gay archives reveal the racial, ethnic, gender, and class fissures that have undermined the popular representation of a monolithic gay community.

Most of all, these archives tell of the violence and hatred LGBT people have endured. While mainstream newspapers reported on the progress of the gay liberation movement, crumbling gay newspapers remind us of the gristly violence of the UpStairs Lounge arson attack. While pop culture romanticized the hedonism of gay sex throughout the 1980s, decaying audiotapes recount stories of gay activists exposing the epidemic of prison rape or the story of Patrick Wayne Kearney, a serial killer who targeted and murdered somewhere between 21 and 43 homosexual men throughout the 1970s. And, today, as well-intentioned talking heads announce "It Gets Better" in online media campaigns, Herstory Archives photographs depict a time in which graffiti implored passerby to simply "kill lesbians."

Eventually, coverage of the Pulse nightclub attack will descend upon these new LGBTQ historical archives and will mark a profound change in how such history is recorded. Rather than depicting the story of LGBTQ liberation as a linear trajectory of upward progress, Pulse will remind future researchers that the plight of LGBTQ people in the 21st century has been a story of progress and pushback, of triumph and tragedy. More profoundly, it will reveal that in the 21st century, the onus no longer lies upon LGBTQ people to document their own history.

Jim Downs is the author of Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016). He is currently an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University and an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. Follow him on Twitter.