The Community Lost to History: LGBTQ+ History Month, and Why It Matters

Image from Penn State University.

Image from Penn State University.

Abby Pursh, Writer


The year is 1994. You are a high school teacher working in the state of Missouri. Your name is Rodney Wilson. And what you hope for your students is simple: for them to learn a history where they can see themselves reflected in the people of the past. 

But you realize something: one particular group of students doesn’t always see themselves in the pages of the history books. So you gather a few of your fellow teachers and community members, and decide to make a change. You believe that a month should be dedicated to the history and celebration of people like these students, as well as the importance of the progression of their people’s rights. 

Such is the story of how LGBTQ+ history month began. As a gay man, what Wilson wanted was his students to be able see themselves in history — a chance he never had as a kid. And the month they chose was October, in particular because traditions already existed in that month. For example, National Coming Out Day falls on the 11th, and the anniversary of the first gay march on Washington is on the 14th. Today, the ultimate purpose of the month remains to celebrate the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people and their history.

Rodney Wilson, the high school teacher who started LGBTQ+ History Month in 1994.
(Image from University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) Daily.)

In 1995, LGBTQ+ was added to a list of commemorative months forwarded by the General Assembly of the National Education Association. The idea was endorsed by numerous organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Additionally, the Equality Forum in 2006 assumed the responsibility of celebrating the achievements of 31 LGBT icons, featuring them with a biography and other resources. 

The month now also includes Ally Week, in which students are encouraged to be allies of the community and stand against bullying. On Spirit Day, supporters wear purple in solidarity with LGBTQ youth and the anniversary of a hate crime against 21-year-old Matthew Shepard. 

Sometimes LGBTQ+ History Month is confused with Pride Month, which is celebrated in June. Both recognize the LGBTQ+ community, but in different ways. Pride Month is about visibility and the movement towards equality. History Month, on the other hand, is more about the history of gay rights and related movements. It provides a spotlight for historic figures and their contributions to civil rights and history as a whole. 

While most prominently celebrated in the U.S., LBGTQ+ history month has also expanded internationally, including in the U.K., Australia, Hungary, Brazil, and the city of Berlin. 


Where is all of this LGBTQ+ History? 

Now you might be thinking, “there’s an LGBTQ+ history month? Is there even a history of LBGTQ+ people?” And in some respects, that response is valid. In line with Wilson’s original frustrations, not a lot of LGBTQ+ history has been taught in schools, and many findings are not known by mainstream society. But numerous writings on the topic have been published and shared with the world. 

Just last year, The New York Times came out with an article entitled “How Queer Women Powered the Suffrage Movement” which discusses the intimate same-sex relationships between women who fought for voting rights in the early 1900s. For example, a relationship existed between Dr. Anna Howard Shaw and Lucy Anthony, Susan B. Anthony’s niece. 

Also published in 2020 was an opinion piece called “The Hidden Queer History of Medieval Christianity” by Time Magazine, which gives a brief discussion of gender and sexuality in medieval Christian times. Still, the journalistic realm is quite limited, and articles that involve queer history can be difficult to find. 

Meanwhile, the scholarly realm offers more in-depth and academic analyses of LGBTQ+ history. One notable example is a piece written by Dr. Bonnie J. Morris, PhD from George Washington University, which was recently published on the website of the American Psychological Association. Entitled “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements,” the paper gives a scholarly overview of queer history that is often overlooked. 

Additionally, “LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History” was published by the National Park Foundation in 2016. The comprehensive 41-page report gives a detailed overview of the history and common trends throughout time for LGBTQ+ individuals. As the last line of the report reads: “LGBTQ history is a project in the making as we continue to excavate previously untold stories and pay attention to important moments as we move forward.” 


What is all of this LGBTQ+ History? 

In honor of LGBTQ+ History Month and the education that it promotes, as well as to continue Wilson’s traditions of celebration and awareness, the following section offers a brief, condensed summary of the aforementioned scholarly papers. 

To begin, LGBTQ history is the study of individuals, cultures, and communities. It involves struggle, triumph, and the demands for the rights to live and love. To tell this history involves finding traces of LGBTQ people anywhere from letters and diaries to churches and public art. 

But a problem arises when we realize that the labels we use today, such as lesbian or transgender, didn’t exist or weren’t known early on in time. So can we assign those labels to those who explicitly spoke of their sexual desire, or said they were gender non-conforming? Can we broaden the definitions of some of these terms to include intimate or passionate relationships? No matter the answers to these questions, history allows us to keep an open mind to better understand cultural frameworks of LGBTQ+ people. 

Initially, social movements began as responses to persecution by churches and authorities. LGBT or queer individuals suffered public trials, exile, or language from the pulpit. The result of this was long-lasting homophobia…as well as an increased sense of awareness. Still, an individual who shared this identity was at risk and without support before the 18th and 19th centuries. 

But banned literature, emerging research, and greater democracy gave activists the courage to speak up. A movement was underway in recognition of lesbians and gays by the 20th century. 

Many organizers, however, struggled to understand the concerns and identity issues of queer people. The theories that gained leverage often came from western White males, and didn’t always represent the race, social class, and national identities of the entire community. 

But let’s start at the beginning. It is important to note that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love in every documented culture, from Israel to Ancient Greece. Individuals throughout time have also lived at least part of their lives as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. For example, youths have been raised as the opposite sex in cultures like Albania and Afghanistan. 

Other LBGTQ+ individuals have existed in the “Two-Spirit” people present in Native American, North African, and Pacific Island cultures in pre-colonial times. But the Europeans who arrived there weren’t happy with this “scandalous opposition” to the gender binary, and began enforcing their own criminal codes. In fact, the earliest case of homosexual activity resulting in execution came significantly early– 1556, when the Spanish in Florida sentenced a Frenchman to his death. 

“Romantic friendships”, meanwhile, refer to women’s same-sex intimacies from the 1600s to the early 1900s. Scholars have used this term to mean declarations of love or passionate letters to one another. Some historians have even defined these relationships, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the U.S., as marking a lesbian “golden age.”  

Cross-dressing has also been prominent throughout history. Women, victims of sexism, were denied the same educational and economic opportunities of men. While not transgender, they often dressed in order to pass as males in order to receive these opportunities. Take Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself in order to fight in the military, or Mary Read, who cross-dressed in order to work as a pirate. In the arts, men also dressed as women (including on Shakespeare’s stage) because women were banned from playing the roles themselves. 

Taking on a scientific perspective, sexology (or the science of sexuality) has been effective in settling disputes on describing and assigning value to sexual and gender deviance since the late 19the century. For example, Sigmund Freud believed bisexuality began with undetermined gender development prior to birth. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German researcher, founded Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science– though later burned by Nazis, it was once Europe’s best library archive on gay cultural history. 

However, Freud also believed lesbianism to be an immaturity of women that could be solved through male dominance– and German doctors and scientists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis labeled a “third sex” abnormal. 

The first half of the 20th century saw religious pronouncements of “sin” couples with the emergence of scientific and medical discourses. But by the 1920s, psychologists looked instead to the mind and environmental influences on sexual choices. Homosexuality was adopted as more accurate in encompassing more orientations. 

And speaking of science, this late nineteenth and early twentieth century LGBTQ history can be studied in a variety of ways. Feminist scholar Domna Stanton identifies a “hybrid mode” of inquiry which considers poetry and fiction as a way to study gender and sexual identities of LGBTQ people of color. One literary critic’s version of hybrid mode involves legal, sexological, film, and literary texts from the late 1800s and early 1900s to show the dual formation of both the homo/heterosexual binary and the black/white body binary. Performance and musical expression also provide information. 

Returning to culture, the 1920s pre-war times saw a flourishing of gay life in urban centers, as “Gay New York” boasted an effervescent world in the early twentieth century. The blues of music of African-American women in the Harlem renaissance sometimes involved lesbian desire, and drag balls in the cities made the visibility of LGBTQ people more explicit. Prohibition, a time of defiance in racial and sexual normalities, contributed to a sort of “gay underworld” in speakeasies. By the 1940s, exclusively gay bars had surfaced in cities for the first time. 

World War II was even more important to the LGBT community. Formerly isolated, people met as soldiers, war workers, and volunteers and often found themselves in gender-segregated communities. This allowed for opportunities to explore gender and sexuality. For many people conscious of attraction to their own sex, the war years eased their coming out process. 

What’s more, military collaboration resulted in inductees being asked whether or not they’d directly engaged in homosexual encounters. Ironically, while this policy was meant to eliminate homosexuals from the ranks, for the first time it gave many people a definition that seemed consistent with how they understood themselves. The war years were incredibly crucial for thousands of LGBTQ individuals’ identities and collective interests. 

Additionally, increasing awareness resulted from their being sent to death camps in the Holocaust, as well as McCarthy’s investigations of homosexuals in the 1950s. 

A notable shock in America came in 1948, when Alfred Kinsley published his report on male and female sexuality, which suggested a much greater range of homosexual identities. Kinsley made common conversations about sex during the “Lavender Scare,” a time when lesbians and gays were seen as sexually subversive. He also claimed that same-sex sexualities were at least significantly present in the American population. 

Following this, in 1951, “The Homosexual in America” asserted that gays and lesbians were a legitimate minority group. And while throughout the 50’s and 60’s homosexuals continued to be at risk for psychiatric lockup, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed the classification of homosexuality as an “illness.”  Part of the reason for this was the studies conducted by Kinsley and others. 

The 1950s saw the gay and lesbian homophile movement, with organizations such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. These groups lobbied, published newsletters, and discussed issues during the Lavender Scare. Homosexuals during this time were seen as political subversives that undermined the nuclear American family, leading to mass firings and witch hunts. But some did resist. For example, in Buffalo, New York, LGBTQ people held hands in public. 

In 1965, the first gay rights demonstrations took place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. One year later, drag queens and transsexuals rioted in San Francisco to resist police harassment and discrimination. 

Perhaps the most popular event in gay history and culture is Stonewall in 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn (including drag queens, gay men, and others) fought back against police raids. Violent protests erupted into the Stonewall Riots. This event is considered the beginning of gay liberation and critical in the transition from silence to action and protest. 

During the 1970s, lesbians influenced by the feminist movement formed their own newspapers, bookstores, and collectives. They also called for lesbian rights in mainstream feminist groups. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) formed in 1972. 

Another notable event occurred in 1973, when New York City held Christopher Street Liberation Day. Four years later, Harvey Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and convinced the LGBTQ population they could have a role in the city’s leadership. But despite his election, he was assassinated the following year — and his lighter charge led to two days of rioting. 

The following decade witnessed the AIDS epidemic. When the CDC first announced the disease, it was labeled as “gay-related immune deficiency” in 1981. But due to protests against stigmatization and the idea that the disease affected others, it was changed to Acquired Immune Deficiency. This increased demands for compassion and medical funding, and caused the formation of groups such as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, who criticized the lack of action and focused on public visibility. 

In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television. This marked a new era of gay celebrity power and media coverage despite the risks. Trans and intersex individuals also gained a voice: for example, Kate Boernstein’s “Gender Outlaw” in 1994. 

Legislation in the last twenty or so years has had a major impact on the lives of LGBTQ people. A significant progression was made in 2003 when state sodomy laws officially ended. (Note that these laws had long been used in the U.S. to imprison gay men and remove children from gay and lesbian parents). In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to practice same-sex marriage. 

Emphasis on transgender activism characterized the beginning of the new millennium. Terms outside the gender binary became more common, and there were more same-sex couples on television. Transphobia and cissexism unfortunately became standardized, while openly trans characters appeared in films. 

Meanwhile, homosexuality remained illegal in 75 other countries. In South Africa, conservative evangelicals began providing support and funding for homophobic campaigns following the apartheid era. Uganda also had a death penalty for lesbians and gays. 

As of 2016, LGBT identification and activism was still punishable by death in 10 countries. Still, hope surfaced when president Obama sent LGBT to the winter Olympic Games in 2015, and Pope Francis openly supported the Catholic LGBT community. 

Following the repeated striking down of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriages in 2015. As a form of backlash, aims to remove sexual orientation from state legal protection arose, as well as so-called bathroom bills which targeted transgender people. 

But progress is evident. The Department of Justice fought against a North Carolina bathroom law, and allowed transgender students to use facilities that matched their identity. More progress came in the arts in 2016, when the Academy Awards recognized films with both lesbian and transgender themes.

However, racial profiling and tragedy struck that year as well. Attacks on the pulse club in Orlando caused grief and resulted in a call for alliances between the Muslim and LGBT communities (and greater recognition for those who are both). The attacks also generated a new attention to homophobia, and demonstrated the shift towards acceptance and public support. Despite the violence, the work of activists and allies throughout history has made it possible to reach this era where the perpetrators are punished for their crimes. 


How do I celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month? 

As the purpose of LGBTQ+ history month is to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and those who have led the cause, the best way to honor this month is to learn! Reading up on the history of the community and attending seminars are a great place to start. Going to mini-parades and donning the colors of the rainbow flag can also show support. 

There are more events in history than just those discussed above– even having a conversation with someone about what it means to be LGBTQ+ can help. Educating oneself about the struggles and achievements of those outside of the gender and sexuality norms is vitally important, and a key goal that Wilson was striving for when he created the month thirty years ago.