Why LGBTQ+ History is American History
By Nancy Unger
By 2012, when California’s FAIR Education Act kicked in to ensure that the roles and contributions of LGBTQ+ people are accurately portrayed in K-12 history lessons, Professor Nancy Unger had already been doing her part at Santa Clara.
The inspiration surfaced decades earlier, in 1986, when the newly-minted history Ph.D. was teaching her very first class—a general U.S. history course at San Francisco State. Unger required each student to review a book of his or her choosing on any topic in U.S. history, from a list of suggested titles.
One student, she says, chose John D’Emilio’s “Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970.” The student wrote a thoughtful, enthusiastic review, adding a handwritten note at the end. “Thanks for recommending this book. As a gay man, I didn’t know I had a history.”
Unger was crestfallen.
“I was so struck by that, as a historian,” she says. “Everyone has a history, and knowing one’s history is really important and empowering.” She began including more history about gay men and lesbians in her classes at SFSU until a contingent of students approached to ask if she would teach a course dedicated to the subject. Unger designed the course, which was approved to be taught in the department.
After being hired at Santa Clara, however, she assumed the curriculum she’d designed would have to be shelved. A university administrator thought otherwise, and in 2002 she taught her first class on “Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.”
To Unger, LGBTQ+ history is not just a vital component to understanding America’s political, economic, social, legal, military and religious past—from pre-colonial to colonial America, through World War II and the Cold War—but also its present.
“Some students think they know American history, but there’s an aspect many didn't quite know before,” she says.
We recently sat down with Unger to discuss American LGBTQ+ history, even as that history is being actively erased by politicians and pundits today. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
In the United States, we celebrate Pride Month in June. As a historian, what’s the significance?
When the New York City police did a routine raid on a gay men’s bar called the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, it started a rebellion by the bar's patrons and others that led to three nights of protests.
The thing about Stonewall was that usually when a gay bar was being raided, people went along quietly. You didn't want to get your name in the paper or go to jail. So people tended to cooperate, pay their fines, and just be done with it.
But after years of these police raids, people finally fought back. They set the bar on fire, they threw rocks. Many weren’t worried about getting their names in the paper; these were trans people, people of color, people who were “out,” working class people who were tired of going along with all of this stuff. They fought back, and word got around. The next night they come back to do it again, and then again on a third night. And they realized, “Oh my God, standing up for ourselves and fighting back is so liberating.”
So that was really energizing, and one year later, a bunch of different newly-formed LGBTQ+ groups were saying we’ve got to seize the moment here and start talking not just about people accepting, not just tolerating us, but having pride in ourselves. So they organized a one-year anniversary celebration of Stonewall, and that’s why every June we now have Pride parades commemorating the Stonewall uprising—and not just in the U.S. It had a worldwide impact.
How far back does American LGBTQ+ history go?
There was same-sex sexuality, or a sort of gender fluidity among Native Americans. But it doesn’t equate to our definitions of today. It’s a complicated thing, but it existed for a very long time, for generations upon generations. Why don’t we know about it? Because European settlers/colonizers were quick to claim this was evidence of Native Americans being barbaric or unnatural, which to them justified their colonization of the New World. And then, like virtually anything else that was part of traditional Native ways, unfortunately it was very, very aggressively suppressed.
In your course, you examine how and why New York and San Francisco emerged as major centers for LGBTQ+ populations in the U.S. What led to that migration?
Once we have urbanization and industrialization in the so-called Gilded Age, we start to see small enclaves of gay men and lesbians in cities all across the United States, not just on the coasts, but in Chicago; in Kansas City; in Minneapolis—everywhere. What changes things is that when World War II comes along, many gay men and lesbians leave their small towns to enter the military or civil service, where you went to one of two places: the East Coast to be deployed to Europe, or the West Coast to be deployed to the Pacific. So if the first time you've ever been to a gay bar is in San Francisco or San Diego or Boston or New York, when the war is over you say, “I don't want to go back to my small town. I want to go back to that community where I found other people like me.”
With all these service members returning to thriving LGBTQ+ centers, why wasn’t there a gay liberation movement earlier, after WWII?
It’s a particularly frustrating time, because there’s this feeling at the end of WWII when gay men and lesbians are thinking, “This is our moment. We’ve proven ourselves to be good Americans. We found each other. This is it!” But instead, there’s a new generation of fear and discrimination because of the Cold War and McCarthyism.
During this time, homosexuality was conflated with communism, as politicians like Senator Kenneth Wherry and CIA Director Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter painted gay men and lesbians as "subversives" and threats to American security who should not be "in positions of trust." The result was a government policy led to the “Lavender Scare” that ruined thousands of careers between the late 1940s and early 1960s, and also forced additional thousands of gay men and lesbians to live deeply closeted lives.
Who are some of America’s most significant gay rights activists that we should all know about?
I think everybody should know Frank Kameny. He was a combat soldier in WWII. He got his Ph.D. from Harvard and then went to work as an astronomer for the U.S. government, just when the space race took off. The world was his oyster, but he got caught in a tryst in a men’s bathroom sting, and was ultimately fired from his job in 1961, a classic victim of the Lavender Scare. He tried to fight back, saying the country needed him, and took his case all the way to both the U.S. Supreme Court and President Kennedy. But he’s told that he’s not fit for government service and that his career is over.
So he devotes his life to gay rights and he is unapologetic. He coined the term “Gay is Good,” meaning that these are good relationships and they should be embraced, which was a radical idea at the time because it went beyond tolerance to an active celebration. He’s the right person at the right time. The same year former President Barack Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, Kameny received an official letter of apology from the U.S. government.
Barbara Gittings was another prominent gay rights pioneer. She and several other LGBTQ+ activists, including Frank Kameny, went to the annual convention of the American Psychiatric Association in 1972 and successfully campaigned to remove homosexuality from the APA’s list of mental illnesses the following year.
Lastly, Audre Lorde was an African American poet, and a lesbian and civil rights leader who understood the concept of interrelated oppressions, including age, race, class, and sex. She counseled against ignoring multiple identities in ourselves and others, observing that focusing on all the aspects of one’s identity brings people together more than just focusing on one component. Her speeches, poems, and other writings helped to recognize and strengthen the diversity within the burgeoning LGBTQ+ movement.
LGBTQ+ visibility has increased dramatically since the 1970s, but so has hatred, as we see with Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, and sweeping anti-trans laws and drag bans across the country. Is this a new Lavender Scare?
I think it’s trying to be. It’s clearly a political tool. I know that’s easy for me to say, because I'm not the one suffering from this, or from all the other enormous problems that this is causing. And in a terrible way, it’s a sign of the success of all of these various civil rights movements—it’s such a backlash.
For the longest time abortion was the big bugaboo, and you could rally conservatives around that. Now with Roe v. Wade being overturned, they’re trying to make inroads on these other issues. But I see this much more as sticking it to the liberals than about any genuine concerns regarding people’s private sexuality.
I think the more stories and history we get out there, the more we put a face to LGBTQ+ people, to me that’s the best way to counter any kind of hate. Because I really believe that knowledge is power, and I think that most hate comes out of ignorance.
Perhaps I’m being naive about this, but you can’t roll back history; progress has been made. I don’t think you can unring this bell of progress/justice—and these bells have been ringing for a long time. To me, the gay men and lesbian history has really been a meaningful part of what’s amplified that bell, and understanding that history is empowering.
Finally, what have you learned from your students who take this class?
I’ve learned the importance of this subject for all students, not only those who identify along the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This course covers a key component at work throughout American History and my students, no matter their sexuality, report that it fills an important gap in their understanding of this country’s political and social history.
What I have learned from many of the LGBTQ+ students is how personally empowering it is to know that they have a history. I’ve also learned the importance to them of the sub-fields of study that are just beginning to develop in response to the increasing recognition of sexualities beyond simply “straight,” or “gay or lesbian.” Students want to know more about the history of bisexuality, asexuality, gender fluidity, and transgender identity, to name a few. Historians, including myself, are having a hard time keeping up!
Jun 8, 2023
Marchers at the 1977 San Francisco Gay Day Parade. Photo by Marie Ueda, courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.