Queer Public Histories/Queer Public Service

Solicited by the OAH Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Historians and Histories

Friday, April 3, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; LGBTQ History and Queer Studies; Public History and Memory


This session brings together scholars, archivists and public historians to reflect upon historical and contemporary intersections of LGBTQ public service and LGBTQ public history. Panelists will share original research and personal reflections that address the following questions: How does new and forthcoming scholarship about LGBTQ public servants contribute to political, social and economic histories of the United States? In what ways have public institutions and/ or public servants facilitated (or impeded) public history projects about histories of sexuality and gender (and LGBTQ histories in particular)? 

Papers Presented

Black Looks: Documenting Black Queer Voices in the Archive(s)

Documenting black queer life and culture is foundational to the work that I do as an archivist/librarian and manager of the DC Public Library Special Collections department. My identity as a queer woman of color and my professional role as a public service worker at a public library grounds my archival practice; a practice that includes cultivating and fostering relationships, identifying and serving as custodian for queer archival collections, and curating community driven public history work in community. I will explore the Women in the Life Association (WITLA) digital archives and community pop-up archival reclamation project as examples of the public history work I curate with members of the WITLA community. The relationship between me (the library) and WITLA is ongoing and encompasses donor educational activities focusing on community preservation work, and collaborative public programming. The latter includes the curation of a digital collection of WITLA magazines and a public history event that was educational and communal, an offering to the WITLA community during DC Black Gay Pride in 2019. The public library and archives are spaces open and available to all members of all communities. This collaborative programming and the digitization project documents black gay life and centers black gay voices and experiences—in public.

Presented By
Kerrie Cotten Williams, D.C. Public Library

Stonewalled: A History of LGBTQ+ Teacher

In this paper I take stock of the historical scholarship about LGBTQ+ teachers and other educators in the public sector. At the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Martin Duberman notes that progress in terms of human and civil rights for LGBTQ+ people in the United States in recent decades has been (a) remarkable, given how things stood in 1969 and, (b) trended along a conservative trajectory with the high profile-victories concerning marriage equality and the right to serve openly in the military. These trends stand in contrast to the radical impetus of the gay liberation movement, but even these basic liberal advances have not been realized by teachers in the conservative institution of schools. Why not? What does this arc of queer educational history indicate about the profession of the American teacher? My analysis of the changing status of LGBTQ+ teachers begins in the 1950s and focuses on the elementary and secondary levels of schooling. It is informed by educational historians’ observations regarding academic freedom for primary and secondary school teachers, analyses of court cases brought by LGBTQ+ educators, and other considerations stemming from the impact of the LGBTQ+ movement in the field of education.

Presented By
Karen Graves, Denison University

The History of Legal Challenges to Bans on Transgender Military Personnel

The current ban on the enlistment of transgender people in the military has frequently been called a version of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for trans service members. Like the homosexuality ban under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the trans ban has existed in different forms and been challenged in court by service members. This paper examines earlier iterations of the military trans ban and its opponents, focusing primarily on cases from the 1980s. The paper discusses medical disqualification of trans personnel in these early cases and the extent to which these rationales have persisted or transformed in more recent cases. It also considers the case of a soldier expelled from the Army after marrying a trans veteran, showing the entanglement of antitrans discrimination with the homosexuality ban.

Presented By
Natalie Shibley, University of Pennsylvania

The Last Security Risk? The Arrest and Resignation of LBJ Aide Walter Jenkins

From 1953 to 1975, homosexuality was grounds for dismissal from all U.S. federal government jobs. This paper examines this era through the case of Walter Jenkins, a longtime staff assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who resigned in 1964 after journalists reported that he had arrested twice while cruising in a YMCA men’s room. Jenkins was the highest ranking official to resign during the Lavender Scare as a result of his perceived homosexuality. The Jenkins case complicates accounts of the Lavender Scare that focus on antigay policy makers and progay activists, who clashed in public, and gay public servants, who suffered in private. The suffering of Jenkins, by contrast, was widely publicized and discussed. Moreover, coverage of the official inquiry undermined the logic of the security-risk concept: the FBI concluded that a man had, in fact, for eleven months, simultaneously kept the official secrets of the commander-in-chief and the personal secret of his own homosexual behavior. As the fate of Jenkins seemed worse than that of other officials who abused their office for private gain, Americans questioned whether gay public servants deserve such severe punishment.

I will argue that the Jenkins scandal helps explain how the homophile movement was able, despite its extreme political powerlessness, to secure victory in 1975, when the Civil Service Commission relaxed the ban on gay civilian employees. The Jenkins case shows that publicity and the sympathy it generated helped augment the impact of activism in challenging the image of homosexuals as security risks unfit to serve.

Presented By
Timothy Stewart-Winter, Rutgers University–Newark

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jennifer Dominique Jones, University of Michigan

Presenter: Kerrie Cotten Williams, D.C. Public Library

Presenter: Karen Graves, Denison University

Presenter: Natalie Shibley, University of Pennsylvania

Presenter: Timothy Stewart-Winter, Rutgers University–Newark