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The lives, freedom struggles, and social and cultural contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people make up a rich part of the history of the United States, and primary sources from the Library of Congress provide valuable opportunities to explore individuals, movements, and events from the nation’s LGBTQ history.
The 20th century saw a wave of organized activism to secure LGBTQ civil rights and freedoms. LGBTQ people had long been subject to public hostility and legal prosecution, and were widely denied protection against discrimination in employment, housing, military service, and private and public services. In the years after World War II, activists across the nation formed organizations, including the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, to campaign for civil rights for gay men and lesbians. Early movement leaders included Frank Kameny, who spent decades fighting against the federal government’s anti-LGBTQ employment policies, and Lilli Vincenz, who published newsletters and columns, picketed the White House, and made films that documented key moments in the movement.
In June 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The bar’s patrons, including transgender and gender non-conforming people, lesbians, and gay men, fought back, sparking several days of protests. A year later, to mark the anniversary of the uprising, thousands of people took to the streets for the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, which is widely regarded as the first Pride celebration.
In the ensuing decades, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people organized and fought on many fronts for equality and civil rights, including rights to employment, military service, and marriage. The HIV/AIDS epidemic that began in the 1980s hit LGBTQ communities hard, and LGBTQ people played central roles in shaping public-health advocacy campaigns that accelerated research and access to new treatments. The tools that activists have used in these struggles have changed over the decades as new technologies have emerged. Also, organizations have changed as they have been challenged to recognize their past blind spots and acknowledge individuals and communities who they themselves have excluded.
LGBTQ individuals have made lasting contributions to the social, political, and cultural life of the U.S. throughout its history, although in many cases their LGBTQ identities were not acknowledged during their lifetimes or afterward. The political organizer Bayard Rustin was a key strategist for the African American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century and a crucial planner of the March on Washington, though he faced discrimination because of his gay identity. The lawyer, activist, and writer Pauli Murray, who co-founded the National Organization for Women, thoughtfully navigated her own complex gender identity while making major contributions to movements for civil rights for African Americans and equal rights for women.
The Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century was shaped by many LGBTQ writers and scholars, such as Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. Musicians such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, writers such as Audre Lorde, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, and James Baldwin, and composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, have built and enriched the nation’s creative heritage.
Primary sources from before the mid-20th century provide opportunities to explore the ways in which relationships and gender identities were expressed or depicted in ways that appear to defy the social conventions of their times. Studying these primary sources calls for careful attention: The language used in the 21st century to describe LGBTQ individuals, relationships, and social movements did not exist or was not used in the same way for much of U.S. history, and commonly held categories of gender and sexual identity were often very different from those students might know today. Published accounts of the time often do not include these individuals’ own thoughts on their gender or sexual identity, and frequently describe them using hostile language or vague euphemisms.
Newspapers from the 19th and early 20th centuries contain many accounts of people who lived as a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, including the veteran New York City political figure Murray Hall. In addition, photographs and other primary sources also document individuals who dressed in a way that did not conform to the gender expectations of their time, such as the surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. Many cities and towns made it illegal for a person to appear in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.”
Same-sex couples who shared a home or an intimate relationship are sometimes described as close friends, such as the poet Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, or as business partners, such as the photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston and Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Letters exchanged in the 19th century between individuals of the same sex often contain romantic language, such as a letter from Whitman to Doyle that reads in part, “I believe that is all for to-night, as it is getting late, — Good night, Pete, — Good night my darling son —– here is a kiss for you, dear boy – on the paper here – a good long one.”
Working with primary sources related to LGBTQ history presents unique challenges and opportunities for reflection and questioning. As a result of longtime official and public hostility to LGBTQ communities, firsthand accounts of LGBTQ lives can be difficult to find, especially in published materials. Many of the depictions and descriptions that do survive are trivializing caricatures or hateful attacks.