In Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, he identifies two essential components contributing to queer history. First, he states that integral contributions to society have been made by those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; and secondly, despite these contributions, queer history does. Not. Exist.
Because of this dichotomy, Bronski goes on to explain that the queer community, like other marginalized populations of people, feels an impulse to ‘reclaim’ their lost history.
Many people within the queer community cite The Stonewall Riots of 1969 as the beginning of the queer liberation movement as well as the birth of queer history. Pride weekend is celebrated around the country in commemoration of the events that took place in Greenwich Village, New York City forty-five summers ago. Prior the riots, members of the LGBT community were forced to live in hiding, facing routine persecution because there were no laws protecting sexual orientation or gender identity at this time.
Pride weekend itself is a huge marker in LGTBQI history and, like many, I did not know the true significance and weight of this weekend until a year after I came out. To this day, many people I speak with are shocked to discover that Pride is not just a weekend of gay debauchery.
Furthermore, in every single history class I have taken — from elementary school to college (I was a history minor) — I never learned about prominent lesbian or gay individuals and their contributions to society. Prior to Edie Windsor suing the state of New York, the only historical figure I could identify was Harvey Milk. The fact that lesbian and gay individuals and groups, and events such as the Stonewall Riots, are not a part of general history curriculum proves what Bronksi has stated: queer history for too long has not existed in this country.
Although we know that homosexuality dates back to ancient Greece, where homosexual relationships and bonds were honored between men going to war, there is not much known about homosexuals in a historical context since then.
Our stories, our contributions and our lives were literally forced to stay in a metaphorical closet. Take the example of Bayard Rustin, a prominent player in the Civil Rights movement. He is known for his strategic behind-the-scenes organizing efforts of the March on Washington in August 1963, but what many do not know about Rustin is that he was a closeted gay man. Sources vary, but there is much speculation that even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself requested that Rustin stay closeted so that the mission of securing equality for people of color would not be confused with securing rights for lesbian and gay individuals.
Everything I have learned pertaining to LGTBQI history has been from self discovery. I love history and have always been interested in what our world and people have experienced and so researching historical events has always been an activity that I have enjoyed. Not surprisingly, after I came out, I became very interested in LGTBQI history and was dismayed by the lack of information I found.
One delightful discovery, however, was The Daughters of Bilitis, the first established lesbian group in America, whose mission was to address the complete lack of information regarding female homosexuality. Originally created to provide a safe alternative to bars for lesbian couples, as the group grew members of this organization wanted to provide support to help lesbian women gain self confidence in order to advocate for their social rights. The Daughters of Bilitis are an example of omitted details in American history that should be included in history courses.
Thankfully today, lack of LGTBQI information is decreasing because people of all different professions, ages, religions and ethnicities are coming out and sharing their stories and contributions. The more people who come out, the more history we have to share. Furthermore, lost photos like these are being published and are proof of our existence throughout history.
For the queer community, history is still currently in the making.