Telling All Americans' Stories: LGBTQ Heritage Introduction

As America’s storytellers, the National Park Service (NPS) is committed to telling the history of all Americans in all of its diversity and complexity. For many years, the rich histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans have been erased through punishing laws and general prejudice—appearing sporadically in police proceedings, medical reports, military hearings, and immigration records.

Too often categorized as "outsiders," Queer Americans nevertheless consistently played important roles in American cultural life.

A rainbow against a cloudy sky over mountains at Badlands National Park
A rainbow over Badlands National Park

National Park Service

Yet, for many LGBTQ groups, preserving and interpreting their past has been an important part of building communities and mutual support. Because of their efforts, we can find LGBTQ histories across the United States—from private residences, hotels, bars, and government agencies to hospitals, parks, and community centers. From the mujerado of the Acoma and Laguna tribes to the drag queens of the Stonewall riots, discover their stories in our nation’s parks, homes, and historic sites.

The use—and potential misuse—of language is an important concern for LGBTQ communities. While some have reclaimed the term "Queer" for people who do not identify as heterosexual, the term still resonates as a pejorative slur for others. Some scholars adopt "Queer" as a broad category to encompass the experiences of peoples whose identities do not fit neatly into current categories of gender and sexual identity and to build a more complete understanding of Americans’ lives. Because it is part of a movement to recover the voices of peoples of color, the bisexual, transgender, the poor, and rural communities, we adopt it here with the intention to be inclusive, not hurtful.

For centuries, medical experts have struggled to definitively categorize human sexuality. Influenced by European sexologists like Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis, 19th century American doctors attempted to “diagnose” and “treat” what they considered pathological sexual behavior. At the Selling Building in Portland, Oregon, Dr. J. Allen Gilbert treated patients for "sexual inversion." Here, gender nonconformists like Alberta Lucille Hart underwent some of the earliest sex-reassignment procedures in the United States. These medical professionals worked during a period of transition, where homosexuality had once been understood as a sexually "deviant" act, was slowly beginning to be understood as an outward expression of an individual’s internal identity. By the mid-twentieth century, sex researchers like Alfred Kinsey at The Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, began to challenge popular perceptions of "normative" sexuality.

Such histories show that gender and sexual identities are not fixed. The labels and categories different institutions have created to label different identities change over time and never encompass the full spectrum of personal identity. Because of this, historians must study the past without assigning the people of the past with an LGBTQ identity that they would not have understood. Interpreters face this challenge at Hull House in Chicago, Illinois. Here, pioneer of the settlement house movement Jane Addams (1860-1935) worked, lived, and sustained intense, personal relationships with a number of women but would have not understood or accepted the term "lesbian" for herself.

Too often categorized as "outsiders," Queer Americans nevertheless consistently played important roles in American cultural life. For example, many gay pioneers found international acclaim as artists during the Harlem renaissance. New York’s Apollo Theater—an iconic center for American jazz—also hosted a multitude of black queer performers. Vaudeville actors like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and comedian Jackie "Moms" Mabley publicly acknowledged same-sex relationships and even occasionally made nods to their sexuality in their acts on stage. Queer heritage has been preserved by the communities, social networks, and enclaves established and nurtured by generations of LGBTQ Americans. Spaces like New York’s Fire Island and Pier 45, or The Castro in San Francisco provided safe outlets for queer expression and also created community resources for political activism. Other spaces were explicitly political from their founding—such as the Furies Collective, a separatist lesbian organization that called Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill home in the 1970s. While many of these site continue to thrive as hubs of LGBTQ life and community, others sites have hidden queer histories. For instance, before the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, Lafayette Square had been a popular cruising spot for gay men near the White House in Washington, DC.

Queer activism has been central to the history of civil rights in the United States. Grassroots movements, private organizations, individual writers and artists articulated a need for political equality and social justice for all Americans—regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or creed. Henry Gerber’s short-lived Society for Human Rights (1924) in Chicago, Illinois, was an important predecessor to later homophile organizations, such as the Mattachine Society. The Society’s Dr. Frank Kameny fought the discriminatory policies of the McCarthy Era—such as the expulsion of gays from federal service—and encouraged LGBTQ Americans to positively embrace their sexual identity, coining the phrase "Gay is Good." Building upon the contributions of these groups, members of the Gay Liberation Front marched alongside members of the New Left, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and feminists during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Like other minority groups, moments of violence brought their activism to national attention. The 1969 raid-turned-riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City exposed the systematic police harassment—including routine raids and physical abuse—LGBTQ Americans endured in public spaces across the United States. The ensuing riots galvanized LGBTQ activists nationwide and has been remembered as a significant turning point in the modern Gay Liberation Movement. In 2000, the Stonewall Inn became the first National Historic Landmark for its importance in LGBTQ history. The LGBTQ experience is a vital facet of America’s rich and diverse past. Their stories highlight how personal lives continuously are affected by (and affect) the political, economic, social, and commercial. Personal identity and shifting definitions of gender and sexuality are central to the American experience and reveal the complexities of our nation’s citizenry. By recovering the voices that have been erased and marginalized, the NPS embarks on an important project to capture and celebrate our multi-vocal past.

Visit the National Park Service Telling All Americans' Stories portal to learn more about American heritage themes and histories.

Last updated: February 9, 2017