Home

Coming Out In America
An Historical Perspective

First posted Mar 12, 2005
Last update Sep 2, 2007

Webmasters Note:
These pages were extracted from a PowerPoint presentation assembled by a number of people. The program was originally prepared for a workshop held in October of 2004 by a large corporation in suburban Washington, DC. In order to make the presentation flow relatively smoothly on the web, some modifications have been made in the format and minor editorial changes to sentences. Other than that, the presentation remains essentially as it was handed to me. You may notice some differences in presentation styles from section to section because of the large number of people who worked on the original product.

I thank the presenters for allowing me to share these pages with you.
(March 12, 2005)


Before 1950

The words 'Gay', 'Lesbian', 'Bisexual', 'Transgendered' (GLBT) and 'Homosexual' are contemporary terms that emerged as part of the 20th century. So what is GLBT history? Where do we look for it? How do we define it? Is it simply the story of self-identified homosexuals or is it more?

Unlike other minority groups, where finding yourself in history is a matter of searching out your race, nationality, or religion, as GLBT people we have to put together the pieces of a more complex puzzle, to discover the sometimes hidden lineage that is our history. In spite of this difficulty, it's very important for us to acknowledge our history and to tell our story. For when we fail to do so, we risk feeding stereotypes and negative assumptions.

We would like today to provide you with a brief glimpse into our rich history. And we hope with that to continue to build a bridge across the boundaries that separate us. We hope that you come to the same conclusion that we have, that we are more alike then not alike.

As a group, GLBT Americans are as diverse as our nation. We are Latino, African, disabled, young, Jewish, deaf, Native American, Muslim, White, old, Asian, Indian, young, middle-aged and more. We share the story of all of these groups. For us, being Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgendered, is a piece of our overall history.

circa 3000 B.C.
First recorded evidence of homosexuality in Mesopotamia

 

1610
The Colony of Virginia created the first sodomy law in America. It called for the death penalty.

Although our focus today will be on the last half century, the history of the world is filled with evidence of our presence and our significant accomplishments. The first recorded evidence of homosexuality is found in Mesopotamia, circa 3000 B.C. where artifacts have been discovered depicting same sex couples. Alexander the Great is recorded as having had a same sex relationship. Many prominent people who shaped the world that we live in are reported to be what we know today as GLBT people. They are a diverse group: Plato, Edward II of England, Michelangelo, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick the Great, Walt Whitman, Francis Bacon, Gertrude Stein, to name a few.

In addition to our accomplishment there have been less positive markers of our presence. In 1566, the Spanish military recorded the execution of a Frenchman for homosexuality in St. Augustine, Florida. This is the earliest known case of punishment of homosexual activity in America. In 1610, the Colony of Virginia created the first sodomy law in America. It called for the death penalty. In 1935 the Reich Penal Code was amended prohibiting homosexual relations and making them punishable by imprisonment. When implemented to its fullest, Gay people were sent to concentration camps. In the camps they were forced to wear pink triangles as part of the system of social hierarchy among prisoners.

Looking into history sometimes challenges our own contemporary views on sexuality and gender identity. And we can begin here on our own North American continent.


Two-Spirt
 North American Indian tribes documented 'berdache'

In the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, William Clark recorded his observance of cross-dressing Native American two-spirit people. In some writings these people are also referred to as Berdache. Although Clark didn't fully understand the diversity of gender roles in each tribe or the complexity of the spiritual functions played by two-spirits, his report is relatively non-judgmental. Clark's observations were not unique. In fact, alternate gender roles were among the most widely shared features of North American Native societies and are theorized to date into pre-Columbian times.

Male and female Berdaches were typically described in terms of their preference and achievements in the work or activities of the "opposite" sex, men taking traditional female roles and women taking traditionally male roles. Male Berdaches have been documented in over 155 tribes. In about a third of these groups, a formal status also existed for females who undertook a man's lifestyle, becoming hunters, warriors, and chiefs. They were sometimes referred to with the same term for male berdaches and sometimes with a distinct term-making them, therefore, a fourth gender. In some writings these women are referred to as Amazons.

Berdaches were treated with respect by Native American peoples. Their identity was widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of visions or dreams, and their roles were often sanctioned by tribal mythology. In some groups, they were revered as shamans or healers.

The two-spirit people would most often form sexual and emotional relationships with non-Berdache members of their own sex.

However, when missionaries or government officials discovered Berdaches and Amazons in the late 19th century, they often forced them to change their mode of dress and manner of life to conform to American gender expectations. Many were reported to have committed suicide rather than do so.

1924
Society of Human Rights is the first homosexual advocacy group formed

 

1926
Bruce Nugent's "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade", was published

During the 1920s and early 30s, what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance, reshaped and celebrated African American culture. Often ignored is the incredible contribution that the Harlem Renaissance has made to the GLBT culture and community. Harlem provided a particular kind of freedom, and developed an early formation of a self aware GLBT community in the United States. Bruce Nugent's 'Smoke, Lilies, and Jade', was the first published story of homosexual love written by an African American. It was published in the magazine FIRE in 1926.

The first homosexual advocacy group in the United States was the Society of Human Rights. It was founded in 1924 by Henry Gerber. This Chicago organization however lasted less than a year. The group split after they were jailed.

 1950
Radclyffe Hallís 'The Well of Loneliness' is the first novel in English with a lesbian theme

Radclyffe Hall's 'The Well of Loneliness' was the first major novel in English language novel published in the US with an explicit lesbian theme. Americans bought more than 20,000 copies of the book within a month.

The renowned Dr. Sigmund Freud did not consider homosexuality a mental illness. In responding to a worried mother, Freud wrote in 1935, "Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness, we consider it to be a variation of the sexual development. Many highly respected individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruel too."