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Historicizing the Legitimacy of LGBTQ History

In 1975, the AHA Newsletter (the predecessor to this very magazine) erupted in conflict over whether historians should pursue new “fads.” Two PhD students, concerned about the “drift of the discipline” and critical of a proposal to put the organization on record in support of gay history, imagined scholarship on “hitherto virgin topics,” including the history of consorts, seminary dropouts, unemployed historians, neurotics, wheelwrights, and ugly persons. Declaring themselves “moved to new heights of alarm and despair” by developments that were forcing them to “consort with the harlequins, hucksters, and hobbled persons who largely make up the historian’s trade,” they warned that scholars were “placing a premium upon the odd, the unusual, even the suspect, research angle.” Gay historians in particular were “on the prowl,” joining others who were “shrinking” the discipline’s focus to “the absurdly narrow interests of the faddists.” Responding to two gay historians who had written in support of the proposed AHA resolution, the students asked, “Dare we suggest that the paucity of courses in gay history owes to the obvious fact that the history of this and other ‘sexual minorities’ is unimportant?” They dared.

Six months later, a critic of the critics responded, asking in the newsletter, “What lesser claim does the study of women, of slavery, of neurotics, of wheelwrights, of ugly persons enjoy upon ‘fundamental questions about knowledge’?” The director of the University of Pennsylvania Press also admonished the students: “As Oscar Wilde might have said, jokes are too serious to be left in the hands of the righteous.” After noting that a study of ugliness could be illuminating, he declared that he would welcome manuscript submissions on this topic.

When I first read the students’ antigay screed while working on my new book Queer Public History, I laughed. I have published work on what the students might have imagined as intersecting horrors, including unemployed gay historians and queer neurotics, so my curiosity was piqued. Previously, I dated the origins of the AHA’s engagement with gay issues to the 1979 founding of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History (CLGH, now the Committee on LGBT History), which I chaired in the early 2000s. In fact, the CLGH’s first newsletter mentions an earlier group in 1973, the Committee of Gay Historians (CGH), and an earlier name for the CLGH, the Committee on Homosexuality in History, in 1978. The Committee on LGBT History is often mistakenly identified as an AHA committee, but it is one of many independent organizations that are affiliated societies of the AHA. The AHA did not establish its own Committee on LGBTQ Status in the Profession until 2015. As it turns out, however, minutes from the AHA’s annual business meetings and the AHA Newsletter show that the Association actively engaged with gay issues as early as 1973.

At the AHA’s December 1973 business meeting, Dennis Rubini (Temple Univ.), representing the CGH, proposed a resolution that condemned “any form of harassment or discrimination directed at single and gay women and men and members of all other sexual minorities who respect the rights of others,” regardless of criminalization. The references to single people and the criminalization of sex can be situated in the historical moment. Just one year earlier, the US Supreme Court had announced two important rulings on the rights of the unmarried: Eisenstadt v. Baird, protecting access to birth control, and Stanley v. Illinois, protecting parental rights. Gay activists thought these decisions might have positive implications for them. As for the criminalization of sex, more than 20 states reformed their laws against consensual sex in the 1970s.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History