Media Resource

The LGBTQ Community in American History

Demonstrator outside the State Steamship Lines, circa May 1969
Photo caption

Demonstrator outside the State Steamship Lines, circa May 1969, during an event organized by Troy Perry and Jim Kepner.

Courtesy of ONE Archives/USC.

The Backstory episode "Out of the Closet: The LGBTQ Community in American History" explores the history of gay rights in the U.S., with segments on the career of Harvey Milk and a look at movements for change in California, New York, and the Midwest. Supplemental materials for studying gay rights are also provided. 

Audio file

A full transcript of this episode can be found at the BackStory website.

Milk for Supervisor (00:00-09:14)

The opening segment of this episode entitled "Milk for Supervisor" dives into the life of the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the U.S., Harvey Milk. 

Guiding Questions:

  • How did Harvey Milk come to be involved in politics?
  • What challenges did he encounter and how did he overcome them?
  • How did Harvey Milk change local politics?
  • What is the legacy of Harvey Milk with regard to gay rights in the U.S.?
Finding Gender Fluidity in the Old West (9:15-21:11)

In this segment, historian Peter Boag disrupts gender roles and gender identity in the "Old West" and discusses the role films have played in mythologizing gender and sexuality during that era.

Guiding Questions:

  • What stereotypes are associated with the "Old West" in U.S. history?
  • Who was Mrs. Nash and how did the press respond to her death?
  • According to Boag, how did romantic notions of the American frontier impact sexuality and identity in the U.S.?
  • To what extent do issues addressed in this segment of the program remain relevant today?
"Gotta Give 'em Hope" (37:12-49:03)

"Gotta Give 'em Hope" delves deeper into the political career of Harvey Milk and the legacy of his assassination on gay rights in San Francisco and across the country. 

Guiding Questions:

  • How did Harvey Milk become involved in politics in New York City and nationally during the 1960s?
  • What tensions between gay men and gay women did Milk encounter in San Francisco?
  • Why should people care about Harvey Milk today?
From Policing Queerness to a Diverse Force (49:05-1:18:00)

This segment entitled "From Policing Queerness to a Diverse Force" examines how violence against Black and gay people led to a shared resistance and also addresses the experiences of gay men and women across the U.S. who serve as police officers.

Guiding Questions:

  • How did violence against Black and gay communities affect each group separately and similarly?
  • What did the civil rights movement mean for gay people in the U.S.?
  • How did local and national politics during the 1970s and 80s impact gay rights?
  • What challenges have gay people who work as police officers encountered and overcome?
NEH Connections

The National Endowment for the Humanities has funded archival projects to preserve and share the stories of LGBTQ history in the U.S.

Documenting the LGBTQ Movement: This article provides an overview of two projects funded by the NEH Division of Preservation and Access that focus on materials that help tell the many stories of gay rights in the U.S. Learn more with the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives (University of Southern California) and the Gerber Hart Library and Archives (Chicago, IL).

Writing Gay History: This digital feature about historian, playwright, author and gay rights activist Jonathan Katz, whose research and publications on LBTQ history became foundational to scholarship on gay rights, culture, and identity.

Rochester, NY's LGBTQ History: The University of Rochester and the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley were awarded an NEH grant in 2017 to "preserve and provide wider access to a significant collection of documents focused on the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the Rochester, New York area."

Gulf Coast LGBT Radio and Television Digitization and Access Project: An NEH grant was awarded to the University of Houston Libraries to digitize and archive over 5,000 hours of Houston-area radio and television history created for and by local Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans communities. 

Idaho’s LGBTQ Community: Oral Histories: The University of Idaho was awarded an NEH grant develop a multimedia project on the experiences and lives of LGBTQ people, while also examining social, cultural, political and legal issues in Idaho.