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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 11.4 (2005) 605-625
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Theoretical Politics, Local Communities
The Making of U.S. LGBT Historiography
More than twenty years have passed since John D'Emilio turned his PhD dissertation into Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, the first scholarly monograph in what is now generally called U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history. D'Emilio was not working in isolation in the 1970s and 1980s; researchers inside and outside U.S. college and university history departments shaped the field's development.1 D'Emilio's 1982 dissertation was not the first of its kind: Salvatore Licata produced "Gay Power: A History of the American Gay Movement, 1908–1974" in 1978, and Ramón Gutiérrez finished "Marriage, Sex, and the Family: Social Change in Colonial New Mexico, 1690–1846" in 1980. Outside the discipline of history, Toby Marotta's Politics of Homosexuality, which was based on his 1978 dissertation and covers some of the same ground as D'Emilio's book, was published in 1981. From outside the university, Jonathan Ned Katz's Gay American History (1976) featured not only an extraordinary collection of primary documents but also influential interpretive commentary.2 Nevertheless, D'Emilio's book, more than any other, established the framework in which most U.S. LGBT historians have operated for more than two decades.
Working in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall riots, D'Emilio challenged the myth that homosexual life before Stonewall was marked invariably by "silence, invisibility, and isolation" (1).3 This view was popular not only in straight society but also among post-Stonewall gay liberationists and lesbian feminists, whose generational hubris discouraged respectful recognition of predecessors. Influenced by the new social history, which focused on ordinary people, everyday life, and the worlds of workers, women, and ethnoracial minorities, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities concentrated on the "homosexual emancipation movement" of [End Page 606] the 1950s and 1960s, but it established a broader framework that emphasized the existence of same-sex sexual desires and acts across U.S. history, the emergence of homosexual identities and communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the development of organized LGBT activism after World War II. In an often-cited passage, which conceptualized relationships between politics and communities, D'Emilio wrote: "The [homosexual emancipation] movement constitutes a phase, albeit a decisive one, of a much longer historical process through which a group of men and women came into existence as a self-conscious, cohesive minority. Before a movement could take shape, that process had to be far enough along so that at least some gay women and men could perceive themselves as members of an oppressed minority, sharing an identity that subjected them to systematic injustice...