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Resources in LGBTQ History in the United States: 1900 to 2019 (November 2019): Post-War to 1969

by Lisa N. Johnston

Post-War to 1969

The majority of LGBTQ organizations were established in the years immediately following World War II. General works include The Ashgate Research Companion to Lesbian and Gay Activism. It is a collection of essays, international in scope, that help researchers familiarize themselves with the contrasts and commonalities of activism in the US and abroad. Lisa Stulberg’s LGBTQ Social Movements combines history and theory into a concise, chronological volume for those unfamiliar with the subject.

World War II created a strong, political community for LGBTQ Americans beyond those who served in close quarters during wartime. Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis: 1940–1996, an excellent history of the life of gay men in New York, could be considered a second volume to Chauncey’s Gay New York. Kaiser’s three themes are military life during WW II and the community of men it created; the Cold War years to Stonewall, when men and women were creating political organizations; and the AIDS crisis. An updated edition with new material will be published in 2019 in honor of the fiftieth Anniversary of Stonewall.

As the veterans returned, some of them began small organizations, picking up where Henry Gerber was forced to leave off in the 1920s. The early homophile organizations in the US were founded in California in the 1950s. In the early years of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), many members identified as communists. It was the height of the Red Scare. Despite the investigations of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, the rise of homophile organizations continued, and according to historian David K. Johnson the fight to organize became more pertinent. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government is an essential history of the persecution of those in civil service directly following WW II. The Federal Government believed LGBTQ citizens could be blackmailed by Soviet agents. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed executive order 10450, thus legally discriminating against gay Americans working for the government. Charles Douglas’s Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviants” Program is a collection of reconstructed “sex deviant” files that had been destroyed in the 1970s. Both of these titles are essential to the study of LGBTQ Americans in the post-WW II era or the social history of the Cold War.

The Mattachine Society was founded by actor, Communist Party member, and labor organizer Harry Hay. In 1953 he resigned from the group due to philosophical differences. He was fighting for civil rights for what he considered a cultural minority, while the majority of the Mattachine members wanted to be accepted into mainstream American society. This argument foreshadowed the ongoing debate on marriage equality as assimilation and conformity. Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder, edited by Will Roscoe, collects Harry Hay’s writings, interviews, and speeches in an essential volume that describes the early Mattachine Society and the men who developed it into a national organization with regional offices and publications such as The Mattachine Review and One. These two small press magazines have been digitized by the University of Southern California’s ONE: National Gay and Lesbian Archives. They provide a vital primary source into gay life. Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s, a part of the “SUNY Series in Queer Politics and Cultures,” is a collection of letters received by the magazine in which its subscribers describe the issues of the day, i.e., employment, their personal situations, and police harassment. Both of these works can be supplemented by a secondary source, Todd C. White’s Pre-gay L.A.: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights. It’s a study of the formation of the LGBTQ Movement that spread across the US thanks to a small organization in 1950s L.A.  Both men and women were present at the early meetings.

Marcia Gallo’s Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement is an essential history of the birth of the lesbian rights movement in the US Gallo documents the small organization’s rise in San Francisco as a social club founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons to its demise due to philosophical divisions within its membership. An essential primary source on the Daughters of Bilitis is the 1972 ALA Stonewall Book Award–winning Lesbian/Woman by its founders, Martin and Lyons. Originally published in 1971, then reissued in a twentieth anniversary edition in 1991, Lesbian/Woman is both a memoir of a lesbian couple and a treatise on what it means to be a lesbian.

Franklin Kameny was dismissed from his civil service postition because he was gay. A founder of the Washington, D.C., Mattachine Society, his Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny is a vitial source for understanding the contributions of one man to the national advancement of LGBTQ rights. Many of Kameny’s papers have been digitized at The collection of articles and editorials on the history of the early homophile movement are especially enlightening. For researchers seeking a subjective account of the homophile movement’s development, John D’Emilio’s 1983 Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970, uses biographical portraits of members of the early organizations to trace persecution of LGBTQ people, particularly during the McCarthy Era, and how this persecution led to the homophile movement, The Stonewall Uprising, and the Gay Liberation movement. A second edition was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1989.

For researchers with an interest in LGBTQ history from a wider range of US regions, there are a variety of sources. Originally published in 1983, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, adds the perspectives of women in working-class Buffalo to the list of essential works on lesbian history. Spanning the years 1930 to 1960, the authors use oral histories to illustrate how communities are constructed. Particularly enlightening are the descriptions of butch/femme culture. In City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972, Marc Stein, in telling the history of activists, explores neighborhoods and makes a case for looking for LGBTQ history outside New York, L.A., and San Francisco. The American South’s LGBTQ history is explored in John Howard’s Men like That: A Southern Queer History. Howard uses oral history to highlight forty years of gay men’s lives in Mississippi. Other significant works of regional history include Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948–1968, by James T. Sears. Primary source documents are being digitized and archived by the Invisible Histories Project. The goal of this new community-based archive is to collect, preseve, and make available the history of LGBTQ people in the South. Queer Twin Cities, a collection by the Twin Cities Oral History Project, further adds to the primary source materials outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Randy Shilts’s Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf was published in 1993, the year the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was instituted. Best known for his investigative reporting that led to his groundbreaking book on AIDS, And the Band Played On, Shilts employed the same thourough research and riveting writing style in this twenty-five-year, post-1950s history of LGBTQ military personnel.

Subscription/perpetual access digitization products that include a wide variety of primary source materials, such as GALE’s Archives of Sexuality & Gender: LGBTQ History and Culture since 1940: Part I & II and Alexander Street Press’s (ProQuest) LGBT Thought and Culture, have been available since 2014. More recent is the 2018–19 collection from Adam Matthew Digital Sex and Sexuality: Research Collections from the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections. It has a more complete collection of the papers of Kinsey and Harry Benjamin than the Alexander Street Press collection, but lacks the documents from the British Home Office that LGBT Thought and Culture includes due to its more varied scope

Works Cited