Christina B. Hanhardt

Among the first lessons instructors teach in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) history classes is about the changing definitions and uses of the word queer. Up through the nineteenth century the word was primarily used to mark individuals considered odd or outside social norms. Queer carried particular currency in scandal from the lingo of newspaper exposés and gossip columns to private epistolary speculation. It was often but not always offered as epithet and ascribed to others rather than claimed for oneself; and by the twentieth century it was most commonly used for reasons of perceived sexual or gender non-conformity. In the 1960s and 1970s, a new social movement called for the rejection of labels such as queer and even homosexual (itself seen as pejorative and medicalizing) in favor of proud proclamations like “Gay Is Good.”

Many lesbians, gay men, and those who would increasingly claim the category transgender who had felt the sting of the queer insult were quite surprised, then, to encounter the term’s reemergence in the 1990s, spurred both by a political formation of militant and creative LGBT activists and by a new cadre of academic scholars. The members of Queer Nation, founded in New York City in 1990, and the producers and readers of what was labeled as “queer theory” by the next year, were by no means the first to affirmatively or wryly reclaim queer, but they set the word into a new play that changed the language and the methods of both social movements and academic scholarship for years to come. In ground-breaking manifestos and theoretical texts alike—from Queer Nation’s “I Hate Straights” (1990) to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990)—activists and scholars variably offered analyses of and social alternatives to the social sedimentation of the normative terms of heterosexuality, primarily in U.S. and European contexts. Queer activism and theory also provided an approach to what historians such as John D’Emilio or Jonathan Ned Katz argued: that sexual identities—in fact, the very idea of heterosexuality or homosexuality—are socially constructed and historically specific.[1] Queer indexed a range of practices and identities that strayed from the ideals of the heterosexual family, be they held by so-called straight or gay people, or that stood outside a particular modern understanding of sexuality as constitutive of the self rather than as a set of situated practices.[2]

But I emphasize the word variably because queer activism and queer theory have never been one thing. While the reclamation of the word was offered in large part as an alternative to an increasingly mainstream lesbian and gay culture and movement, activists and scholars continued to debate its use: was it a new identity, or did it denote a structure or relation? Might it refer only to sex, sexuality, or gender as distilled categories of differentiation, or might race, nation, or political economy also outline relevant norms? What was to be the relationship between social movements and academic scholarship? And given that academic queer theory was mostly associated with literary-critical approaches, where did the discipline of history fit in?

Two major interventions into this conversation came in 1995 and 1997, from Lisa Duggan, a historian, and Cathy Cohen, a political scientist, both in the pages of queer theory’s leading journal Gay and Lesbian Quarterly (GLQ). In her essay, “The Discipline Problem: Queer Theory Meets Lesbian and Gay History,” Duggan noted that queer theory’s rejection of liberal humanism, progressive narratives, and the consolidation of identity often posed unwelcome challenges to a historical field that significantly relied on the assertion of minority identity and was indebted to the terms and promises of a still-new social movement. In turn, in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” Cohen highlighted how the use of queer often defaulted to an understanding of power based in the binary of heterosexual versus homosexual that ignored the interplay of race, gender, and class. She offered that queer might measure one’s relation to power more broadly, and she anchored her analysis in a history of black feminist critique, highlighting the regulation of kinship and gender roles (such as policies that stigmatize single black mothers) but also centering the experiences of those who did not abide by other features of liberalism’s norms (such as drug users and others ignored by the response to HIV/AIDS at the time). These approaches to queer did not isolate lesbian or gay identities, but neither did they leave those categories behind, instead demonstrating that sexuality and gender are inextricable from race and class, and that they are arranged in different fashions for different purposes and different populations.

But at the very same time, the word queer was also slowly working itself into the market and the mainstream, and by the start of the twenty-first century it would be used as a shorthand to describe everything from niche markets to student groups, even as it also continued as an alternative to the status quo. In the decades following the riots at the Stonewall Inn bar in 1969 that had set a movement into the public’s eye, declarations of gay pride had been followed by those made in the name of other maligned, ignored, or new categories of sexual and gender identity, including lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and, more recently, intersex and asexual. In institutions and social movements, the commitment to include all those who experience sexual and gender marginalization was expressed in an ever-expanding acronym: GLB, LGBT, LGBTIA, and more. Queer was a shorter and easier word, that addressed both the multitudes, and limits, of categories themselves. But the popular uptake of queer also meant that it found its way into use far astray from, and even sometimes directly counter to, many of its earlier forms.

All of these dynamics have been paralleled in a field called “queer history,” which can be a less clunky way to refer to LGBT history but can also signal the study of an expansive or inclusive approach to sex/gender difference and/or power. In many of these cases, the framework of queer history is used to recognize the social and historical situatedness of sexual and gender identities, although it most often refers to those who participate in same-sex intimacy or adopt non-conventional gender and who today might be marked by an L, G, B and/or T. For example, new books that seek to provide a wide-spectrum look at the history of same-sex activity and desire tend to opt for the modifier queer as in Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States (2012) or Don Romesberg’s edited collection The Routledge History of Queer America (2019). The categorization of these works as queer history is not merely semantic insofar as they avoid the ahistorical imposition of specific social categories. But at the same time, books such as Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer (2019) might not be considered so much as a break from than an extension of the kind of careful work begun by scholars like George Chauncey, whose field-defining book may have been called Gay New York (1994), but similarly described a city of fairies, queens, homosexuals, and inverts.[3]

This rhetorical shift has also manifested in the topical mainstays of the field of U.S. LGBT history: community and social movement studies. To consider this scholarship queer history recognizes that no single word or acronym can be sufficient, and books such as Phil Tiemeyer’s Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants (2013), Miriam Frank’s Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America (2015), or Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (2017) account for the diversity of identities included—or excluded—by language and social movement frames. Interestingly, very little historical scholarship yet exists that looks at the emergence of queer as a precisely claimed political or cultural formation. This is due in part to the fact that for many the 1990s is not yet set in the historical past, and those that do write about the period tend to adopt a less strictly disciplinary approach to what counts as history—offering an analysis that takes queer as object and form, that is often more genealogical than strictly historical, or that includes evidence considered more speculative than empirical.[4]

But there are important examples of new scholarship in queer history that take up the challenges offered by Duggan and Cohen from over twenty years ago. This work also tends to draw on insights and frameworks from within and beyond the discipline of history and to approach gender and sexuality in tandem with racialization and political economy—a move that not only expands which LGBT subjects are analyzed, but that takes the very production of the and normative and non-normative as an object of study. Focused on themes, often overlapping, of the history of health, punishment, and cultural geography, new scholarship examines the history of how social norms have regulated bodily movement and desire or created spaces of vulnerability and protection inside and outside dominant sexual identity terms, and looks to scholarship and methods not always associated with the discipline of history. Considered together, these books provide histories of queer relations that include but are not restricted to same-sex desire, including the domestic arrangements of single immigrant men, the kin care of criminalized women, the movements of other migrants, or the trade of varied stigmatized pleasures. These works analyze the broad racial and economic landscape that has defined the parameters for emergent sexual and gender minority identities, emphasizing patterns of economic development and social welfare policies within cities or rural areas, and often looking at how these processes have shaped LGBT social movements. These works are also indebted to a few important early models of this kind of queer history, including Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line (2000); Lisa Duggan’s Sapphic Slashers (2000); John Howard’s Men Like That (2001); Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides (2001) and Stranger Intimacy (2011); and Regina Kunzel’s Criminal Intimacy (2008).

Excellent examples include Julio Capo’s Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami Before 1940 (2017), which examines how transnational economic structures such as tourism economies and other forms of trade between the U.S. and Caribbean contributed to the policing of racialized migrants, gender outlaws, homosexuals, and vagrants in the first half of the twentieth century in Miami. This approach clarifies some of the causes of the uneven outcomes of city boosters’ marketing Miami as a “fairyland,” that, by the end of the twentieth century, saw the increased visibility of certain lesbian and gay identities alongside the continued criminalization of other social outsiders. Colin Johnson’s Just Queer Folks (2013) also considers how early twentieth century rural geographies provided the context for sexual and gender arrangements that pushed outside now standard frames of identity and recognition. Like Capo, Johnson draws on both traditional and less conventional sources to make an argument about desires, practices, and identities that are often left unnamed in the archives of police, migration, and social welfare records, including cultural representations such as plays, film, novels, songs, autobiographies, and material culture.

Exciting new work for queer history can also be found in black urban and feminist history. Essays and books-in-progress on the history of uneven development and policing of cities like Washington, D.C., by Kwame Holmes and Los Angeles by Treva Ellison show that ideas of social disorder and strategies of state control conjoined racial and sexual logics about social pathology that most squarely affected black working-class and poor communities, LGBT and not, during late twentieth century economic restructuring. This often manifested in the defunding of public programs, particularly in the areas of health, and Nic John Ramos’s research on Los Angeles’s hospital system provides a queer perspective on how postwar ideals of healthiness shaped both the provision of services as well as the management of newly defined, marginalized populations, including but not restricted to low-income transgender women of color.[5]

Despite the lack of attention to the development of so-named queer politics in the 1990s, there has been scholarship on the response (or lack thereof) to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, including the development of the organization the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), members of which founded Queer Nation. Yet the historical study of activism in response to HIV/AIDS has only recently begun to seriously consider the racial and class challenges to the category of queer posed by Cathy Cohen; one important corrective to this is Darius Bost’s Evidence of Being (2019), a study of black cultural production in New York and Washington, D.C., during the 1980s and 1990s that defines activism around HIV/AIDS as inclusive of collective aesthetic practices.[6] His focus on literature and close reading as methods to understand the historical past extends the kind of critical work done in black queer studies of the urban environment, including pathbreaking work such as Marlon Ross’s Manning the Race (2004) and Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black (2004).

Many of these texts, in addition to the aforementioned ones by Holmes and Ellison, revisit canonical work in African American urban history, from W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899) to Allan Spear’s Black Chicago (1967), as they tease out how gendered ideas about deviancy have shaped academic and policy-based approaches to the study of black community life.[7] Much of this scholarship is most recognized within black feminist and gender history but also offer field redefining contributions to queer history, such as Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here (2016), C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides (2017), and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019).  Haley writes a history of the incarceration of black women in Georgia at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century, in which she demonstrates how ideas of gendered and racial deviance were used to create the idea of acceptable womanhood and, in turn, violently punish black women. Haley looks at this as a queer process, both by tracing the use of that word to describe black women in years preceding its tightened focus on homosexuality and by demonstrating the precise means by which black women were categorized as outside the normative. Haley also adopts what might be described as a queer method of “speculative accounting” to discuss intimacy between black women. The official archive holds little official evidence to account for the emotional and psychic life of incarcerated black women, and Haley narrates love and care between two women in the history she tells not as a new essential truth, but to bring into the light what the normative form of history itself excludes. This woven dialectic also motors C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides and dislodges the dominant bifurcation of race and gender within queer studies’ treatment of the category transgender. Instead Snorton draws on scholarship from across the disciplines to demonstrate the entwined history of blackness and transness, and how their categorical separation and pairing has been significantly enabled by the deployment of normative evidence.

Both Snorton and Haley cite Saidiya Hartman, and Hartman’s new book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments also offers a formally innovative look at the lives of black women at the start of the twentieth century. Focused on the places and spaces routinely described in the literature on black urban life as seedy or deviant or criminal, Hartman finds not only scenes of black women’s abjection, but also of their defiance, resistance, and pleasure. Here the designation of the wayward—ascribed to black women by the modes of empirical description favored by urban reformers and scholars—is paired with experiments, and might describe both the lives of these women and Hartman’s own writing. Like queer as offered by Cohen and others described in this essay, the wayward marks behaviors and embodiments produced as nonnormative in ways sexual and not, but it also a means to consider a collectivity that reclaims power and the forms of proof used to secure it. The exhaustive archival evidence upon which Hartman’s arguments are made are put into a kind of critical relief, even as they also provide the text much of its frame.

In this way, queer history—and its new directions—might not necessarily call itself “queer,” even though Hartman writes, “This entry on the wayward is in dialogue with notions of the respectable, the queer, and the willful” and she cites foundational work in queer studies throughout. Here it is interesting to note that although Snorton and Haley’s books were deservedly awarded many prizes and recognition inside and outside the field of history, Snorton’s book, which is the least traditionally historical in method, has received the most celebration in LGBT and queer history, while Haley’s book, the most conventional in its use of historical evidence and argumentation of the three, has been primarily recognized within black women’s, Southern, and carceral history. Newly published, Hartman’s book has not yet circulated within many LGBT and queer history contexts. It will be interesting to see how much traction it gains. Such new works suggest that an openness about new methods in queer history are still paired with a desire for subjects most recognizable in relation to if not equivalence with L, G, B, and/or T identities, and that understanding why might provide for new queer histories to come.


Christina B. Hanhardt is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Duke), which won the 2104 Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Studies.


[1]See John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (1993), 467–76; and Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995).

[2]See also Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality (1976).

[3]This essay focuses on queer histories of the U.S. although some of these arguments also hold for select histories of parts of Europe. A fuller historiography for other parts of the world would look quite different.

[4]My own book Safe Space (2013) might fit into this category, as it traces a discourse of safety from the mid-1960s to the start of the twenty-first century; Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Culture (2003) might also count as a form of queer history that looks at 1990s lesbian subcultures and activism through cultural practices and affects.

[5]See Kwame Holmes, “The End of Queer Urban History?” in The Routledge History of Queer America, ed. Don Romesburg (2018), 160–74; Holmes, “Beyond the Flames: Queering the History of the 1968 D.C. Queer Riot,” in No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, ed. E. Patrick Johnson (2016), 304–22; Treva Ellison, Towards a Politics of Perfect Disorder: Carceral Geographies, Queer Criminality, and other Ways to Be (Ph.D. diss., 2015); Nic John Ramos, Worthy of Care? Medical Inclusion from the Watts Riots to the Building of King Drew, Prisons, and Skid Row, 1965–1986 (Ph.D. diss., 2017).

[6]Also see HIV/AIDS roundtable in the Journal of American History, 104 (Sept. 2017), 431–460.

[7]See also Cathy Cohen, “Deviance as Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Student of Black Politics,” Du Bois Review, 1 (2004), 27–45.