Publication Date

October 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning



The current gay rights movement in America began in June 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village fought back after repeated police harassment (the terms “gay” and “homosexual” designate both genders here unless otherwise noted). An historic event, the ensuing riot was also the spark that ignited the field of gay history, a specialization that has grown remarkably during the past twenty years in both the sheer amount of information available and the level of analytical sophistication. One would hardly be aware of either of these phenomena, however, if one were to pick up most college textbooks that claim to survey U.S. history. An examination of over twenty of the current college survey textbooks reveals that while most mention gay rights in some form, only a few attempt to treat the movement’s origins and goals in a sincere manner, and fewer still contain any reference to the existence of homosexuals before the 1960s. This situation not only reflects the continuing marginalization of gay people in the United States, but also contributes to it. In addition, the treatment of gays in these texts raises important questions regarding history, politics, and particularly the politics of history writing.

That reclaiming the history of a minority would coincide with its civil rights agitation is certainly nothing new in America. One need only recall the manner in which the experiences of female and minority Americans have been added or rewritten in classroom texts in this same period to demonstrate the important connection between social/political movements and the power to be heard, past and present. The connection is hardly accidental; indeed, it is a symbiotic one in which the rights of a minority group at once foster and are fostered by the replacement of destructive myths with historical facts. Ironically, many of these movements have been so effective, both inside and outside academia, that we are now witnessing a backlash that seeks to discredit the new inclusiveness with accusations of curtailing free expression in the name of “political correctness.” Correct or not, the debate is a political one on all sides, and the future of history, so to speak, is at stake.

Centrally relevant to this debate is the field of lesbian and gay history, which is only beginning to be acknowledged as it enters its third decade. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 24, 1990) anticipated the fourth annual Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Studies Conference at Harvard with the headline, “Gay- and Lesbian- Studies Movement Gains Acceptance in Many Areas of Scholarship and Teaching.” The 1990 AHA convention in New York saw an unprecedented seven sessions sponsored by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History. Given the field’s own history, such enthusiastic declarations of “acceptance” for gay scholarship are received warily by scholars of gay and lesbian history. Nonetheless, the important point is that the field has matured enough in two decades to include sophisticated debates over definitions and theory that leave the search for famous homosexuals or the perennial victim accounts in the dust. John D’Emilio provides an eloquent personal overview of the field’s evolution, and continuing prejudice against it, in “Not a Simple Matter: Gay History and Gay Historians,” Journal of American History, September 1989.

Meanwhile, most of our textbooks reflect little awareness of any gay/lesbian scholarship. Granted, there usually exists a significant, and pardonable, gap between the depth and breadth of a field and its presentation in a survey text, but in the case of gay history it is a wide and unpardonable chasm. I discovered this discrepancy in the course of my typically dual role as scholar and teacher. A few years ago, I became deeply involved in lesbian and gay studies and concurrently added a segment on the gay rights movement to my survey lectures in American History II. I sought a text to “back me up” and though I quickly found one, my curiosity and compulsiveness led me to continue the search as an ongoing project (the list as of January 1991 is appended; references to texts are by the last name of the first author).

Two possibly faulty assumptions originally governed this quest: that students read textbooks; and that because we yet maintain and instill often too much reverence for the written word, what is seen in print has the capacity to validate what is spoken in the lecture hall. In addition, I would argue that textbooks provide the main sources from which the majority of Americans begin to shape their sense of a past and present reality, and college texts in particular may be the first and last exposure of the “educated” American to her or his own history.

Besides the possible influence of texts generally, there are reasons peculiar to homosexual history for seeking its inclusion. These in turn are directly related to the current status (or lack thereof) of homosexuals in the United States. The absence of civil rights legislation beyond isolated cases supports legal, economic, and social actions against gay men and lesbians, and encourages a climate in which violence against these people is acceptable. While it is true that America seems to be experiencing a disturbing resurgence of racism and anti-Semitism, particularly on college campuses, it is also true that we will not allow discrimination based on these hatreds and at least make pretenses of disapproving of the hate itself. In the meantime, homophobia is still vastly more respectable than prejudice against any other minority and creates an atmosphere in which the penalties for choosing to “come out” are potentially severe (loss of friends, family, economic security, or even life).

Homophobia, and its close relative, heterosexism, are as alive and well on college campuses as they are in other places in American society, thus creating some unique challenges in the classroom. First, both lead us to assume that everyone, including our students, is straight, unless proven otherwise. This is heterosexism at its worst, the effect of which is no less devastating to the gay student’s self-image than silence or derision towards people of color or women is to members of those groups. Second, the greater the silence, the more noticeable the isolated reference in the classroom and the greater the consequences for that student or teacher. In effect, mentioning homosexuals in class in a sympathetic way may be considered tantamount to coming out. Whether the person is homosexual or not, she or he must be willing to be perceived as such. Although an individual in this situation may disclaim her or his perceived homosexuality, such an action seems to me a product of the same homophobia supposedly under attack, and as such serves only to undermine whatever follows. At the same time, if one is out on campus, any sensitive treatment of gay issues can be dismissed as the product of personal interest, a reaction similar to that experienced by women and minorities when introducing those histories.

This environment has also affected the attempt to recapture gay histories, and causes problems that are both typical and atypical of those involved in writing the history of other minorities. As the concept of “equality” has been gradually expanded to incorporate more Americans, texts have become more inclusive of women and people of color. Traditional sources have not always been easily forthcoming for all groups, and we have been forced to restructure our conceptions of what they are and where they might exist. This is especially so with homosexuals, whose invisibility has been not only so necessary but so uniquely possible. In short, while historians and journalists have committed sins of omission, whether from moralism, ignorance, or both, gay people also have had a vested interest in cloaking their own histories, further complicating the task of the well-meaning revisionist. Finally, because “homosexual” as an identity is seen by many to be a twentieth-century political construct, and because feminist scholarship has successfully challenged “male-only” models in this as in other histories, simplistic definitions applicable to both men and women over time and presentations of a linear past are elusive at best, and may muddy more waters than they clarify.

As I examined textbooks, my findings, though reconfirming the marginal place of gay men and lesbians in America, also emerged as symbolic of several issues, ranging from those specific to gay history and politics to the broader controversies surrounding the writing and teaching of any history. Using a simple methodology, I looked in the indices under “AIDS,” “gay,” “homosexual(ity),” “lesbian,” and “Stonewall.” When these references did not appear in an index, I double-checked sections on movements since the 1960s and the reactions to them. In all cases but two, I had access to both volumes of split editions. I saw only vol. 2 of Pitt and obtained information via a distant librarian for Link. (Despite my attempts to be thorough, I may have missed brief treatments, especially if not indexed, and I offer apologies if I did.)

Indices themselves can be very revealing. “Homosexual(ity)” and/or “gay” are the most common entries and can denote a quantity ranging from a sentence to nearly a page of narrative. Of the 18 texts (of 23 total) containing some information, three (Bailey, Bailyn, Divine) do include at least the words “gay” and/or “homosexuality” without indexing the topic. Perhaps the most disconcerting instance here is Divine, which mentions gay men only in the context of AIDS, while advertising itself in publishers’ flyers as “the definitive American history text.” Martin and Wilson are similarly limited in their treatment of homosexuals strictly as AIDS victims and index such mention accordingly under “AIDS” alone. Conversely, Conlin promises more in the index than delivered in the narrative, since entries can be found for “gay rights” and “lesbian rights” (as a cross entry), but the former is barely treated and the latter not at all. Norton lies at the other extreme, with most subtopics under “homosexuals” and cross-indexing for “AIDS,” “gay rights movement,” and even “Stonewall” (the single instance). Oddly, for Norton, “lesbian(ism),” although mentioned, is not indexed, following a general pattern of neither treating nor indexing female homosexuals separately (a handful of texts include passages on lesbianism, and Nash does index it).

The questions raised by but not confined to the indexing are the relationship between quantity and quality on the one hand, and the definition of quality on the other. Overall, many more texts than I expected now include at least some mention of the topic (again, 18 of 23 examined). In all but four cases this was exclusively, and predictably, in sections covering the last twenty to thirty years of American history, notably under headings of “civil rights” and ” the sexual revolution.” Conlin and Nash include information before the twentieth century, while Burner, Portrait, and Norton have entries before the 1960s. Most chilling was the case of Current, stumbled upon by accident. I happened to have the fifth edition on my shelf, which contained a fairly balanced paragraph under “The Permissive Society,” but upon checking the seventh edition, I found it had disappeared.

Placing the topic under rights and/or sexuality is consistent with patterns of American history canon-making as well as with some degree of heterosexist stereotyping. Homosexuals, like all other American minorities, are not historically visible until they become political by “demanding” (a loaded term used frequently) equality. This reflects the continuing power of political history despite several decades of social history, the former of which equates the history of the existence and experience of individuals with that of the formation of a “movement” (Henretta is a good example of this: homosexuals receive reasonable though brief attention under “The Spreading Demand for Equal Rights” but the later sentence under demographic of the 1970s, “Homosexual men and women set up households of their own,” implies that none had done so before). Relegating any mention to the post-Stonewall movement is understandable; it conveniently side-steps problems of definition surrounding identity vs. behavior and/or gay men vs. lesbians. It even offers the chance to present gay people as actors in history. However, unless supplemented by any other type of attention, it still limits existence to political action.

The heading “sexual revolution” is equally understandable in light of limited space in a survey text, and by itself does not necessarily dictate a positive or negative discussion. However, the silent potential is to reinforce popular images of gay people as beings defined solely by their (dangerous) sexual activity. This view has been exacerbated by the AIDS epidemic and is reinforced by textbook entries on it. The problems of linking gays with AIDS alone and indexing accordingly, or not at all (see Divine, Martin, Wilson, above), ought to be obvious. That gay men in the United States were among the first victims of the epidemic is undeniable, but wording and context interact with brevity to perpetuate destructive stereotypes. Martin is the prime example, in which a sensitive and balanced discussion of gays in “AIDS: A Modern Plague” is compromised by lack of mention in any other context. The appearance of gay men in our history only as victims of a dreaded disease can not only perpetuate homophobia and the general “blame the victim” mentality of Americans, but also contributes to a misconception that at this writing continues to be deadly–that AIDS is somehow gay-specific (only Norton, for example, observes that geography is an important factor in the epidemic).

What all this suggests is that other factors interact with the length or number of entries to determine their overall impact. At the same time, I did find quantity to be important in that mentions of a paragraph or less, single or multiple, were much more likely to do damage, while those few of more than a paragraph contained greater depth and breadth (Nash, Norton, Pitt, and both Burners are impressive in this respect). In any case, tone, wording, and context can mitigate what are perhaps well-intentioned passages. First, and again consistent with the usual introduction of minorities, homosexuals still appear even in some of the broadest treatments more passive than active in events. Several uses of the word “homosexuality” refer more to opposition to it from political/religious conservatives rather than to the people themselves and their actions or goals (Bailyn, Blum, Garraty, for example), and even welcome mention of the egregious effects of McCarthyism on gays still portrays them as victims (Burner, Portrait, and Norton; again, both texts are among the best overall, though). Second, the way Blum, Boyer, and Davidson, for example, place quotes around “gay,” “gay rights,” and “coming out of the closet” trivializes the topic, while Bailey offers but a single sentence seemingly tinged with disapproval: “Even old taboos against homosexuality were crumbling as ‘gays’ emerged from their closets and loudly demanded sexual tolerance” (p. 942). Similarly, Blum states that recently members of Congress “confessed” to homosexuality (my quotes, his word, p. 839), and Conlin says that in 1972 McGovern tried “to distance himself from the zanies in his party, particularly ‘gay rights’ advocates” (p. 886). Does anyone really believe that these statements, however “true” they may be, will not reinforce students’ limited and negative views of the subject? Finally, the pros and cons of context are clearly reflected in the single antebellum mention of homosexuality (Conlin) under “Crime and Punishment” as a capital offense, along with rape, murder, and treason (p. 304). A verifiable enough statement, but with a typical problem—actions punishable at the time can be confused with an identity now carrying a political meaning because no explanation of attitudes, terms, etc., is offered, leaving the lingering image of gays as criminals.

Most of my suggestions for improvement are implicit in my critique and primarily involve adding depth and sophistication. This will demand the same of textbook authors and so it is desirable that they be cognizant of the principle works and debates in gay and lesbian history. Specifically, I would recommend more incorporation of gay people before the twentieth century, in addition to more thorough accounts of the origins of the post-Stonewall movement. The former could be handled by briefly outlining the controversy over defining the homosexual before the twentieth century, by utilizing fascinating research on same-sex relationships among Native Americans, and/or by offering names of well-known individuals (Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are obvious possibilities for the nineteenth century). Interestingly, I found no instance of naming a homosexual as such, male or female, past or present, though Blum comes the closest by saying that “James Baldwin in a series of books played upon the agony of two minorities–blacks and homosexuals” (p. 840). In addition , male and female homosexuals should be distinguished where appropriate, and a good treatment of nineteenth-century social life ought to include sexual-emotional mores generally and the complexities of female friendships specifically (Nash contains the single mention of lesbianism before 1900). Lesbianism is occasionally mentioned under women’s rights since the 1960s, usually as a divisive issue; again, though historically factual, it leaves only a negative impression.

In calling for more and better treatment of gay people in textbooks, undoubtedly I will be accused by some of possessing a political agenda inappropriate to an “objective” discipline. I would not deny my agenda, which includes toleration of difference, personal liberty, and equal human rights, values I understand to underpin both the nation and its system of “liberal education,” though yet as myths only. Rather, I would add that I am hardly alone in possessing an agenda. What I find most unsettling, and amazing, in the current debates is the naive assumption that it is possible to do history without one, however subtle. In their quest for inclusiveness, the new social historians disrupted the comfortable monopoly over defining knowledge that the (straight) white middle-class male perspective held for so long. This monopoly may or may not have been developed self-consciously, but it most certainly is political in its power to perpetuate the interests of the few and to always assure their central place in the present via the past. We do a tremendous disservice to our students by positing some histories as “objective” and others not, rather than examining the subjectivity of all history and historians and the factors that influence their perspectives. We need to trust students to evaluate our biases for themselves because only then can they take or leave them in a thoughtful manner and fulfill the mandate of “education” as opposed to career training.

Thus, I also admit that in calling for more and better treatment of gay people in textbooks, I am in fact hoping for more exposure of and better treatment of gay people in America. Further, I am clearly assuming that the two are connected in a symbiotic manner and that the record supports me. Denial of rights has always rested on prejudice rooted in ignorance and ignorance is easy to maintain through the denial of rights. This has been especially the case with gay people, whose rights are conferred only under conditions of deception and invisibility; as soon as one is out, one loses most rights in most communities in America. “Silence = Death” reads the motto of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power; it has been literally and tragically true in the case of AIDS. It is no less accurate in describing the effects on political power of historical censorship.


Texts with Some Mention of Homosexuality

Bailey, Thomas A. and David M. Kennedy. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. 8th ed. D.C. Heath, 1987.
Bailyn, Bernard, Robert Dallek, David Brion Davis, David Herbert Donald, John L. Thomas, and Gordon S. Wood. The Great Republic. 3rd ed. D.C. Heath, 1985.
Blum, John M., William S. McFeely, Edmund S. Morgan, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Kenneth M. Stampp, and C. Vann Woodward. The National Experience. 7th ed. HBJ, 1989.
Boyer, Paul S., Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Thomas L. Purvis, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. D.C. Heath, 1990.
Burner, David, Eugene D. Genovese, and Forrest McDonald. The American People. Revisionary Press, 1980.
Burner, David, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Eugene D. Genovese, and Forrest McDonald. An American Portrait. 2nd ed. Scribner’s, 1985.
Conlin, Joseph R. The American Past: A Survey of American History. 3rd ed. HBJ, 1990.
Davidson, James West, William E. Gienapp, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle, and Michael B. Stoff. Nation of Nations. McGraw-Hill, 1990.
Divine, Robert A., T.H. Breen, George M. Frederickson, and R. Hal Williams. America: Past and Present. 3rd ed. Harper Collins, 1990.
Garraty, John A. The American Nation. 7th ed. Harper Collins, 1990.
Gruver, Rebecca Brooks. An American History. 4th ed. Knopf, 1985.
Henretta, James A., W. Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, and Susan Ware. America’s History. Dorsey, 1987.
Kelley, Robert. The Shaping of the American Past. 4th ed. Prentice Hall, 1986.
Martin, James Kirby, Randy Roberts, Steven Mintz, Linda O. McMurry, and James H. Jones. America and Its People. Scott, Foresman, 1989.
Nash, Gary B., Julie Roy Jeffrey, John R. Howe, Peter J. Frederick, Allen F. Davis, and Allan M. Winkler. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. 2nd ed., Harper & Row, 1990.
Norton, Mary Beth, David M. Katzman, Paul D. Escott, Howard P. Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, and William M. Tuttle, Jr. A People and a Nation. 3rd ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Pitt, Leonard. We Americans. Vol. II. 3rd ed. Kendall/Hunt, 1987.
Wilson, R. Jackson, James Gilbert, Stephen Nissenbaum, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, and Donald Scott. The Pursuit of Liberty. 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 1990.

Texts with No Mention of Homosexuality

Current, Richard N., T. Harry Williams, Frank Freidel, and Alan Brinkley. American History: A Survey. 7th ed. Knopf, 1987.
Link, Arthur S., Stanley Coben, Robert V. Remini, Douglas Greenberg, and Robert C. McMath, Jr. The American People: A History. 2nd rev. ed. Harlan Davidson, 1987.
Risjord, Norman K. America: A History of the United States. 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, 1988.
Thernstrom, Stephan. A History of the American People. 2nd ed. HBJ, 1989.
Tindall, George Brown. America: A Narrative History. 2nd ed. Norton, 1988.

Author’s Note: I wish to thank the editor for offering me the opportunity to share this material with the readers of Perspectives. I am also grateful to members of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History for support of this project, and to Pat O’Brien for telling me to “just say what you mean.”

Vicki Eaklor is a professor of history in the Human Studies Department at Alfred University.