Today we remember an important figure in LGBT American History: Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk, known as the “Mayor of Castro Street,” was a gay rights activist and community leader. In 1977, Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board. He became the city’s first openly gay officer and one of the first openly gay individuals elected to office in the United States. In addition to gay rights, his campaign platform incorporated a variety of issues, including child care and affordable housing, as well as a civilian police review board. Harvey Milk was assassinated on November 27, 1978, by a conservative political rival who infamously claimed the “Twinkie defense” at trial, asserting that his junk-food diet had made him mentally unstable. The jury convicted him of manslaughter rather than murder and sentenced him to just six years in prison.
To honor Milk’s memory, I would like to share ten books on LGBT history that I think everyone should read. Someday, I hope to add my own book on Gay American Literature to this list, but that will have to wait until it successfully finds a publisher. Feel free to reach out to me if you’re looking for a researched, academic text on early twentieth century gay American literature. It’s ready for you!
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 by George Chauncey: Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.
A History of Bisexuality by Steven Angelides: Why is bisexuality the object of such skepticism? Why do sexologists steer clear of it in their research? Why has bisexuality, in stark contrast to homosexuality, only recently emerged as a nascent political and cultural identity? Bisexuality has been rendered as mostly irrelevant to the history, theory, and politics of sexuality. With A History of Bisexuality, Steven Angelides explores the reasons why, and invites us to rethink our preconceptions about sexual identity. Retracing the evolution of sexology, and revisiting modern epistemological categories of sexuality in psychoanalysis, gay liberation, social constructionism, queer theory, biology, and human genetics, Angelides argues that bisexuality has historically functioned as the structural other to sexual identity itself, undermining assumptions about heterosexuality and homosexuality.
The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday: The Straight State is the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling new evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today.
How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne J. Meyerowitz: From early twentieth-century sex experiments in Europe, to the saga of Christine Jorgensen, whose sex-change surgery made headlines in 1952, to today’s growing transgender movement, Meyerowitz gives us the first serious history of transsexuality. She focuses on the stories of transsexual men and women themselves, as well as a large supporting cast of doctors, scientists, journalists, lawyers, judges, feminists, and gay liberationists, as they debated the big questions of medical ethics, nature versus nurture, self and society, and the scope of human rights.
The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson: Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. Charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a “Lavender Scare” more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy’s Red Scare. Relying on newly declassified documents, years of research in the records of the National Archives and the FBI, and interviews with former civil servants, Johnson recreates the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in New Deal-era Washington and takes us inside the security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. The homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.
Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram: In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation’s imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture.
Gay L. A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons: Drawing upon untouched archives of documents and photographs and over 200 new interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism sparked by the 1950s blacklist; from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s. Faderman and Timmons show how geography, economic opportunity, and a constant influx of new people created a city that was more compatible to gay life than any other in America. Combining broad historical scope with deftly wrought stories of real people, from the Hollywood sound stage to the barrio, Gay L.A. is American social history at its best.
Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele: Activist-academic Meg-John Barker and cartoonist Julia Scheele illuminate the histories of queer thought and LGBTQ+ action in this groundbreaking non-fiction graphic novel.From identity politics and gender roles to privilege and exclusion, Queer explores how we came to view sex, gender and sexuality in the ways that we do; how these ideas get tangled up with our culture and our understanding of biology, psychology and sexology; and how these views have been disputed and challenged.
Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II by Allan Bérubé: During World War II, as the United States called on its citizens to serve in unprecedented numbers, the presence of gay Americans in the armed forces increasingly conflicted with the expanding anti-homosexual policies and procedures of the military. In Coming Out Under Fire, Allan Berube examines in depth and detail these social and political confrontation–not as a story of how the military victimized homosexuals, but as a story of how a dynamic power relationship developed between gay citizens and their government, transforming them both. Drawing on GIs’ wartime letters, extensive interviews with gay veterans, and declassified military documents, Berube thoughtfully constructs a startling history of the two wars gay military men and women fought–one for America and another as homosexuals within the military.
Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich: Colonialism and Homosexuality is a thorough investigation of the connections of homosexuality and imperialism from the late 1800s – the era of ‘new imperialism’ – until the era of decolonization. Robert Aldrich reconstructs the context of a number of liaisons, including those of famous men such as Cecil Rhodes, E.M. Forster or Andre Gide, and the historical situations which produced both the Europeans and their non-Western lovers. Each of the case-studies is a micro-history of a particular colonial situation, a sexual encounter, and its wider implications for cultural and political life. Students both of colonial history, and of gender and queer studies, will find this an informative read.