Katz Publishes First Lesbian and Gay History Anthology

The publication of the first major compilation in English of documentary sources on gays and lesbians in the United States, from colonial times to the early 1970’s, helped to establish the legitimacy of gay and lesbian historical research.

Summary of Event

The question of the demonstrable existence and value of gay and lesbian history is an important one, because knowing one’s history is critical to the coming-out process for individuals. Also, documenting gay and lesbian history provides a verifiable historical grounding and framework for the GLBT rights struggle, a framework that had been ill-defined within the field of history in the United States in the mid-1970’s, when Jonathan Ned Katz compiled, edited, and published the anthology Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., a Documentary History (1976). [kw]Katz Publishes First Lesbian and Gay History Anthology (1976)
[kw]Publishes First Lesbian and Gay History Anthology, Katz (1976)
[kw]Lesbian and Gay History Anthology, Katz Publishes First (1976)
[kw]Gay History Anthology, Katz Publishes First Lesbian and (1976)
[kw]History Anthology, Katz Publishes First Lesbian and Gay (1976)
Gay American History (Katz)
Queer studies
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1976: Katz Publishes First Lesbian and Gay History Anthology[1160]
[c]Literature;1976: Katz Publishes First Lesbian and Gay History Anthology[1160]
[c]Publications;1976: Katz Publishes First Lesbian and Gay History Anthology[1160]
Katz, Jonathan Ned

Lesbian and gay history that had been recognized dealt almost exclusively with famous public figures, such as the Emperor Hadrian. It also was recognized by those activists who had some prior knowledge not only of same-gender civil rights campaigns but also of the destruction of the first homosexual rights movements. For example, attempts by the Nazis to discredit the work and findings of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld on homosexuality was part of a larger campaign of domestic repression leading up to World War II. The Nazis closed Hirschfeld’s clinic, the Institut füer Sexualwissenschaft, in 1933.

Academic research on homosexuality at the dissertation level (a subject that had been discouraged because of the imputed damage it would do to a graduate student’s academic career) was barely beginning to be accepted at U.S. universities; only two projects by 1976—in history and in political science—addressed at some level same-gender sexuality. Among the grounds used to justify resistance to scholarly inquiry into homosexuality was the absence of a collection of identified and verified primary source texts that could serve as the core of a new field of study.

The appearance of Gay American History forever changed the landscape of gay and lesbian historical research and laid the foundations for the crystallization of LGBT studies as a separate academic field. Katz began his research in 1971 while he was a member of New York City’s Gay Activist Alliance, with the assumption that the unknown and often deliberately suppressed historical record of the lives of gay and lesbian Americans did exist and could be recovered. Katz wanted to close the gap left by international surveys of sexual history. His initial researches led him to conceive of the idea of presenting the subject first in visual form, in this case as the topic of a play. Coming Out! A Documentary Play About Gay Life and Liberation in the U.S.A. Coming Out! (play)[Coming Out] premiered in June, 1972. It wove together accounts of men and women drawn to their own gender from the seventeenth century to then-contemporary newspaper coverage of the movements for gay and lesbian rights, demonstrating for the first time on the American stage the realities of the gay and lesbian past.

Katz had gathered his documentary sources by 1975. For his introduction to Gay American History, he reviewed philosophical treatments of and approaches to homosexuality and homosexuals in historical writing, and was sure to include works in the collection that had a philosophical focus on gay and lesbian liberation. He emphasized how a historical identity for gays and lesbians had been established in the struggle to create a positive and balanced self-image.

The work itself is divided into six sections and covers some four centuries. Subjects include the legal status and social repression of homosexuals between 1566 and 1976, the history of approaches to “treating” homosexuality by the psychiatric and psychological professions between 1884 and 1974, and the history of women who passed as men between 1872 and 1920.

In the realm of primary sources, the collection includes colonial Spanish documents from 1566, documentation ranging in date from 1528 to 1976 on the variety of social roles played by male and female homosexuals in Native American cultures, records of intimate same-gender relationships between 1779 and 1932, and modes of resistance by individuals as well as the first organizations that challenged legal and social limits and oppression. Among the notable discoveries made by Katz in this last section was the charter issued in 1924 by the State of Illinois to Chicago’s Society for Friendship and Freedom, the first short-lived homosexual rights group in the United States.

Katz noted that because his research had been conducted independently, it is free of the limitations imposed by the academic establishment. The model set by Gay American History was followed by Katz’s Gay/Lesbian Almanac
Gay/Lesbian Almanac (Katz)[Gay Lesbian Almanac] (1983) and later compilations, such as the collection edited by Robert Ridinger of gay and lesbian speeches and rhetoric, Speaking for Our Lives (2004).


The publication of Gay American History effectively shattered the idea that lesbians and gays in the United States, and around the world, were social deviants without a place in history. The work demonstrated that lesbians and gays—and homosexuality—always had been present, even if marginalized or unrecognized. The collection’s primary documents inspired the growth of gay and lesbian historical research and helped lead to the founding of gay and lesbian archives, where similar sources could be collected and preserved. Gay American History (Katz)
Queer studies

Further Reading

  • Hall, Richard. “Reclaiming Our Gay American Past: Jonathan Katz, Activist in the Archive.” The Advocate, January 12, 1977, 19-21.
  • Katz, Jonathan Ned. Coming Out! A Documentary Play About Gay Life and Liberation in the U.S.A. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
  • _______. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., a Documentary History. New York: Crowell, 1976. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1992.
  • _______. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary in Which Is Contained, in Chronological Order, Evidence of the True and Fantastical History of Those Persons Now Called Lesbians and Gay Men. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
  • National Museum & Archive of Lesbian and Gay History. The Lesbian Almanac. New York: Berkley Books, 1996.
  • Ridinger, Robert B., ed. Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights (1892-2000). New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004.
  • Wright, Les K. “Jonathan Ned Katz.” In Gay and Lesbian Biography, edited by Michael J. Tyrkus. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1997.

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