The American Historian

Queering the Classroom

Eric Gonzaba

This June marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a widely recognized marker of the American gay liberation struggle. As educators, it’s an exciting and prudent time to rethink how we go about teaching our students the dynamic field of LGBTQ history. Topics in the news, from recent marriage victories, the Masterpiece Cakeshop debates, and the transgender military ban should inspire us all to find ways to incorporate the histories of diverse sexualities into our pedagogy.
In many ways, LGBTQ history feels more accessible than ever. All sorts of LGBTQ materials are now freely available on the web, from traditional source bases to often overlooked archival material. I stress “freely available” because despite some incredible digitization work in the past decade, not all of this material can be equally accessed. The impressive collection of Gale’s Archives of Sexuality & Gender, for example, which includes materials dating to the sixteenth century and claims to be the “largest digital collection of primary source materials relating to the history and study of sex, sexuality, and gender,” can only be accessed at research libraries and universities lucky enough to afford a subscription. Fortunately, not all digitized queer material is behind a paywall.
For scholars interested in textual sources, the most promising undertaking for those doing more modern LGBTQ history has been the push for the digitization of twentieth century, city-based gay newspapers. Although newspapers are by no means the perfect source base, gay newspapers are perhaps the only somewhat constant record of gay life in many American cities, however embellished or incomplete. The Washington, D.C., Public Library Special Collection, for example, has digitized and uploaded all issues of the Washington Gay Blade from 1969 until 1993 via their web portal called Dig DC. And it’s not just the large coastal cities undertaking this initiative. Gay culture of middle American can be found in 1960s copies of The Screamer, which documented “news and views of life and activities in the gay midwest,” along with several 1980s issues of The Works, Indiana’s gay magazine, both digitized via the former Chris Gonzalez Library & Archives, the Kinsey Institute, and the IUPUI University Library.
Other popular historical LGBTQ campaigns have focused on the collection of oral histories. The ACT UP Oral History project, for example, includes nearly 200 video interviews and transcripts with surviving members of those involved with ACT UP/New York, one of the principle direct action advocacy groups that fought governmental and societal neglect of the AIDS crisis beginning in the 1980s. The project is a nice overview of the complexities of an oral history project, offering users different dimensions (transcripts, videos, written blurbs) of oral history work along with the importance of a wide number of interview subjects who understand the same movement in a variety of ways.
One minor frustration from this otherwise promising explosion of online LGBTQ source material is that there is no comprehensive effort to curate all these new initiatives. Access to some issues of the Philadelphia Gay News, for example, is possible, but only if you knew of the Reveal Digital website and were aware that their Independent Voices project (which contains copies of incredible feminist, radical, and queer texts) is now open access. One exciting project that is helping curate the wealth of new material on the web is the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) based at the College of the Holy Cross. The site provides “an online hub for digitized historical materials, born-digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world” that relate to trans history. The DTA grew out of their creators’ dissatisfaction not only with the lack of digitized material related to transgender history but the lack of researcher’s knowledge of trans holdings in archives across the globe. The DTA helps connect archives with trans historical materials and places them together under a single search engine. It’s a function not unlike what Gale’s Archives of Sexuality & Gender attempts, but DTA’s hub is much more open access. It should serve as a model for future curation endeavors.
One archive that the DTA currently links to are pre-2000 t-shirts located on the Wearing Gay History archive, which is a digital hub of historical textiles related to LGBTQ history across over twenty archival collections around the globe. In the interest of transparency, it’s a site I created in 2014, but lest you think I mention it only to toot my own horn, I’d be the first to admit that Wearing Gay History has plenty of faults. One of the most glaring is the fact that using t-shirts as historical sources means only dealing with LGBTQ history from the past three decades or so. However, it does attempt to help resurrect discussions about aspects of LGBTQ history not often engaged with via other sorts of materials. The t-shirts in the online collection show us vibrant LGBTQ communities outside the American gay meccas of San Francisco and New York, helping fight what I call the “bicoastal bias” of queer history. And t-shirts serve as fascinating sources to combat the metaphor that so much of modern LGBTQ experiences were in “the closet.”
The project has inspired some college courses to think about how t-shirts can help reflect the community and activism of social movements. In Dr. Tim Retzloff's “Doing Queer History” course at Michigan State University, students solicited donors of LGBTQ t-shirts from around Michigan and had students photograph and create metadata of the t-shirt to eventually be included on the site. His idea of having the class partner with an independent archival project such as Wearing Gay History helped students understand that history is as much a verb as it is a noun; his students did history. They didn’t just study it. It’s the kind of collaborations we as educators need to continue to make with local historical societies, projects, and community groups to continue to make our work relevant and understood by not just our students but the wider public, especially in an era where humanities funding is facing massive cuts and history is deemed secondary to a STEM-obsessed society.
In some ways, my brief suggestions here of textual, audio, and nontraditional LGBTQ sources available online are geared to those educators lucky enough to have opportunities to include explicit LGBTQ content in their courses. That might include those historians looking for sources for their U.S. survey courses. If they are really lucky, they might be thinking about source bases for a class devoted solely to LGBTQ history or the history of sexuality. Alas, we aren’t always all that lucky. I’m sometimes asked by scholars about how to add LGBTQ content to their history courses, especially if their courses don’t lend themselves to traditional LGBTQ chronology. Is it possible to add LGBTQ histories to courses on the early Ottoman Empire, when such a notion of “lesbian” or “bisexual” had not yet come into existence? I also want to encourage historians of all stripes to think not just about adding “LGBT” specific content to their courses, but to think about how they can “queer” their entire syllabi, even if they aren’t teaching LGBTQ specific courses.
Queer history isn’t just about people with non-normative sexualities. Queerness is also a framework we can use to understand histories of people on the margins of society and civilization in whatever field we belong to, be it Ancient Egypt or Early America. Using a queer lens, historians are beginning to make sense of sexuality and gender long before the term “LGBT” came into existence. Can we use queerness to understand other facets of marginalized people and identities? I think we can. What do the “odd” people in our histories tell us about whatever field you study? The so-called “abnormal?” The ones that didn’t belong? Queer history gives us tools not just to look for and examine non-heterosexual histories. It’s a mechanism to analyze how normality produced oppression and resistance among those who were different. As Professor Lee Edelman suggested, “Queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one.”
Queerness, therefore, means not just introducing to our students the stories of LGBTQ historical titans like Harvey Milk and Barbara Gittings (or using the lack of LGBTQ figures in your subject matter as an excuse to leave out queer history in your courses altogether). It also helps us as educators find and present the stories of people on the margins. For those teaching gender and sexuality, it’s the story of male flight attendants at the dawn of the Jet Age as vividly told by Phil Tiemeyer, or about interracial couples of the South. It’s about those entrepreneurs who ran sex-based businesses like porn cinemas, and the women who ran abortion clinics before Roe v. Wade as Rickie Solinger beautiful laid out. By using a queer framework and continuing to focus on people in constant opposition and resistance to dominate understandings of normality, we can help students understand the dynamics of power at play that consistently shape the cultures and societies we study. Focus on the queerness in whatever you work on or whatever you teach. Your students will love it.


Eric Gonzaba earned his PhD in American history from George Mason University in 2019. He is the creator of Wearing Gay History, an award-winning online archive and museum on the global history of LGBTQ culture through t-shirts. Beginning this fall, he'll be an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.