Making Sexual History: Obsessions of a Quarter Century

It was the winter of 1971, at a meeting of the media committee of New York City’s Gay Activists
Alliance, in an apartment on West 16th Street, in then unfashionable Chelsea. We were discussing
ways to publicize the existence of our new, militant gay and lesbian liberation movement. I then made
a vow to look for documents of gay and lesbian American history and develop a theater piece based on
the evidence I supposed I could find. I was inspired by Martin Duberman’s documentary play, In White
America, and my own earlier radio documentaries on Black American history. From the start, work on
Black history, and, later, women’s history, encouraged research on the gay and lesbian past.
I stress that a political meeting led to my first research on homosexual history and the theater
piece, Coming Out!, presented at the Gay Activists Alliance Fire House, in then unfashionable Soho, in
June 1972. My and others’ work on this history owes its existence directly to an organized sexual
liberation movement, a fact that can be forgotten as this intellectual work is professionalized within
academia and recedes in time from its political origins.
Looking back on the 31 years since that meeting, it’s apparent that my work on sexual history has
been driven by several related concerns, even “obsessions.” These have powerfully haunted and focused
the direction of my empirical research and analytical work.
Obsession 1: To Document
In 1971, my strong impulse to document was most obviously motivated by a desire to prove the
existence of such a thing as “gay and lesbian history,” and the possibility of doing serious, responsible
work to recapture it. My documentary impulse was defensive, a compensatory, reactive move against
those who, directly or indirectly, denied the existence of our past, or who denied the value of research
to recover it.
Collecting gay and lesbian history documents also seemed therapeutic. It worked against the
feelings of inferiority experienced by a group told, directly or indirectly, that we had no past, or, no past
worth knowing — a group condemned to exist only in a diminished present.
In the 1970s, the gay history evidence also seemed to prove our militant assertion that we, too,
were a “minority group” subject to “discrimination” (a new, radical idea needing to be defended). The
evidence that I began to discover in the early 1970s, and later published in 1976, in topical sections, in
Gay American History, appeared to prove the existence of “gay oppression” and “gay resistance.” (Just a
few years later, the term “gay” would be regularly supplemented by “lesbian” in work striving to be
politically responsible. And, still later, gay and lesbian were regularly replaced by “queer.” Then, all
those present terms of ours came to seem problematic as ways of describing past worlds that differed in
fundamental ways from those of modern America.)
In the 1970s, documents of early colonial American executions of men for sodomy seemed to
show how long and acutely “homosexuals” had suffered. Early reports of Native American, crossdressing
berdaches seemed to show how early and deeply “homosexuals” were engrained in this in
country’s culture, and how far back “anti-homosexual” prejudice had existed. Late-nineteenth-century
and early twentieth-century reports of psychiatric “treatments” newly demonstrated the culpability of
mental health professionals in the creation of “homosexual” self-hate. Documents demonstrating the
historical varieties of same-sex “love” and “intimacy” provided evidence of a central, “positive” aspect of
our lives that was not well known. Documented tales of women who dressed and passed as men, and
had sexual affairs with women, showed how women’s history and feminism were illuminated by the
documents of “lesbian” history. (One of those “Passing Women,” Lucy Ann Lobdell, the first to be
labeled a “lesbian” in an 1882 American medical journal, was also called “The Female Hunter of Long
Eddy,” after a small town in Sullivan County, New York, a county about to which I’ll return.)

In the early ’70s, document collecting, and the presentation of documents in a theater piece and
book, also seemed appropriate to that early stage in the recovery of the gay and lesbian past. The
documents gave ammunition to individuals just beginning to find our own voices, and to speak
publicly about our maligned loves, lusts, and lives.
Certainly, my compilation of evidence into a documentary theater piece and book was an
important first step in my own education in speaking publicly as a gay person, something I was just
learning to do. Backed by documents, I also had the confidence to speak as a historian, even though,
as a college drop-out in the 1960s, I lacked the certification of any higher degrees. Speaking through
documents, talking through other people’s words, was a first step in learning how to speak for myself.
My impulse to document was also, from the start, opposed to an earlier gay impulse to claim
especially famous, creative, or noteworthy achievers as members of the tribe — often with little care
about evidence and analysis. In 1971, our new gay liberation politics asserted that it was OK to be gay
and ordinary — even uncreative. (What a relief!) No longer did homosexuals have to try to prove their
worth by asserting our family link to extraordinary creators like Michaelangelo and Shakespeare.
My compulsion to document also countered another, different impulse –to fictionalize, to
creatively make up past lives and worlds. Fiction had been the form taken by many earlier explorations
of past same-sex intimacies. I think, for example, of several novels by Mary Renault, and Patience and
Sarah, the lovely fictional recreation, by Alma Routsong, of the imagined lives of two women who
actually lived together in Green County, New York, in the nineteenth century. (I heard, by the way, that
Routsong researched her characters by questioning a weegee board.) I recall, also, The Song of the
Loon, by Richard Amory, soft-core porn set in an imagined nineteenth-century world of white pioneer
studs and their Native American comrades. In 1971, it seemed important to me to carefully distinguish
between creatively imagined and carefully documented events and persons. But it was obvious, even
then, that different types of documentation told very different tales about the “same” event.
Not making it up — discovering fascinating and well-documented trials and tribulations —
became a discipline that I fervently embraced. Finding tantalizing, ironic, and amazing evidence about
past lives and lusts became a creative challenge, and I loved the excitement of this detective work, this
tracing of history’s missing persons.
My documentary impulse was also, from the first, an effort to discover what drama, poetry, and
humanity could be uncovered in the evidence, and, importantly, made to live again for a popular,
general audience. From the get-go, the audience I imagined for gay and lesbian history was not
exclusively or predominantly academic. Having begun my gay and lesbian history research for a
movement theater piece, my leftist, democratic politics urged me to plain speaking to a general
My admiration for the apparent simplicity and emotional power of Bertolt Brecht’s and Walt
Whitman’s poetry was another prod to plain talk. My focus on the human interest value of the
evidence was also encouraged by journalistic training under the tough tutelage of an editor mother
whose pretension detector went off at any hint of academic jargon. My Communist father’s glowing
recollection of the agitation-propaganda theater of the 1930s provided another incentive to capture
history’s drama. I recalled his description of a scene from One Third of a Nation, a play about poverty in
the U.S., in which a grass mat passed from hand to hand visually signified the transformation of
Manhattan Island into property transferred from Native Americans to Dutch colonists.
That early 1970s moment in the recovery
of gay and lesbian history documents was
thrilling, and my discoveries led to loud
exclamations in quiet libraries, and quiet
exclamations on noisy subways.
I’ll never forget my first reading, on the
subway coming home from the Columbia
University Psychiatric Library, of the detailed,
novel-like, case history of Alberta Lucille Hart,
who had sexual affairs with a succession of women until settling down, passing
as a man, and marrying a wife. (Later, it’s been discovered, after a divorce,
Hart married a second wife.) That medical journal report of 1920 about an
anonymous subject gave so many clues to Hart’s life that I was later able to
track down her original name and college yearbook pictures. Still later, I
discovered that Alberta took the name Alan, became a doctor, and published
four social realist novels. One of those novels turned out, as I hoped, to include
a sympathetic homosexual character. In the book, he’s hounded to his death
by a society unforgiving of sexual difference.
Another time I was on the subway reading Henry Gerber’s account of
his founding, in 1924, of the Chicago Society for Human Rights, this country’s
earliest-known homosexual rights organization. When Gerber mentioned in
passing that “we even got a charter from the state,” a document alarm went
off in my head. I soon after wrote to the State of Illinois, and one day received
in the mail a copy of the charter of that historic group, organized “to protect the interests of people who
by reason of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of
happiness which is guaranteed them by the Declaration of Independence, and to combat the public
prejudice against them . . .” There in my mailbox was the Magna Carta of the American homosexual
rights movement, unknown and unread for some 40 years.
It was on the subway that I first read that the Mattachine Society, the homosexual rights organization
founded in 1950, had been preceded by a group called Bachelors Anonymous or Bachelors for
Wallace (Henry Wallace, running, in 1948, as the Progressive Party candidate for U.S. President,
supported by American Communists and other leftists). As a 10-year-old, with my father, I had marched
for Wallace in a New York City May Day Parade. In the 1970s, on that subway car, it suddenly dawned
on me that those Bachelors for Wallace, the Mattachine’s founders, were probably pinko queers. That
was surprising and moving to me because, as a homosexual and leftist before gay liberation, I had met
few others who combined both sexual and political persuasions. It was even more amazing to learn that
the original Bachelor for Wallace, Harry Hay, the Mattachine Society founder, was then still alive and
kicking, and to finally meet and interview him, and learn more about his leftist past.
Expecting, from the start, to find a few gay history documents, I was soon finding a great
abundance. I recall my surprised realization that no lack of evidence explained the lack of serious
research on gay and lesbian history. It was the illegitimacy in academia of that research that kept this
history from being better known. I was in the stacks of the New York University library when I
experienced a Sci-Fi moment, a revelation that my evidence discoveries were revealing a secret, parallel
universe — an invisible world of same-sex intimacies existing side-by-side with the visible universe of
male-female relationships. That mysterious shadow-world was well-documented and hidden in plain
In 1976, it seemed that the publication of Gay American History might be the one and only chance
I or anyone might have to inform the visible world of the shadow world’s existence. So I stuffed my fat
book with every citation I’d found. Today, though gay American history research is more commonly
undertaken within academia, it has yet to provoke the wide-scale reevaluation of the American past that
the evidence suggests. One would think that documentation of a same-sex eros in the lives of such
canonical figures as Abe Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller,
Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Susan B. Anthony would force a major rethinking of nineteenthcentury
American history, at least. Disappointingly, it has not.
Now, a quarter-century into the sex history trade, I’m still thinking about how to publicize that
shadow world, and I have two, persistent, unrealized, grandiose fantasies. The first is to see my theater
piece, Comrades and Lovers, about the conflicted relationship between Walt Whitman and John
Addington Symonds, turned into a first-rate film. The second fantasy is to put all the known data of gay,
lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual American history on an ever-expanding, public web site,
in a form entertaining and educational for the general public, as well as useful for scholars. Perhaps,
talking publicly about these dreams will help to realize them. u
Jonathan Ned Katz is an independent scholar whose books include The Invention of Heterosexuality, Love
Stories: Sex Between Man Before Homosexuality, and Gay American History: Lesbian and Gay Men in the
USA: A Documentary History.

On the snowy night of
December 6, Jonathan Ned
Katz delivered the 11th
annual David R. Kessler
Lecture, which honors an
individual who has made a
lifetime contribution to
LGTBQ Studies. Katz, a
pioneer in the field, was
introduced with a
testimonial (with revealing
slides) by Bert Hansen and
with warm accolades from
Leila Rupp (delivered on her
behalf by Alisa Solomon as
Rupp got stranded at the
airport by weather on her
way from California).
Afterwards, the crowd
shmoozed and discussed
Katz’s lecture at a reception.
We are pleased to offer an
excerpt of Katz’s lecture
here along with some
photos of the festivities.