Reading Recommendations For LGBTQ History Month, 2017

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

While some members of the LGBTQ community may have believed Donald Trump when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, he said he would be an ally to the community, I was not one of them. To be perfectly honest, when Trump was photographed holding a rainbow flag on which a supporter had scrawled “LGBTs for TRUMP,” I felt sick. To watch a man who so carelessly and casually dispenses hate hold a sacred and universally recognized symbol of LGBTQ rights felt like a violation.

We must realize by now that Trump and his administration are no friend to the LGBTQ community. Far from being an ally, Trump’s views on LGBTQ rights are largely opportunistic, shifting when his political capital is in need of a boost from his core supporters. His administration has moved to rescind Title IX guidance for transgender students and ban transgender Americans from serving in the military. The Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Most recently, Trump joked in a meeting that reporters should not ask Vice President Mike Pence about LGBTQ issues because “he wants to hang them all.” The Vice President of the United States, in other words, wants to enact harm, whether physically or ideologically, against LGBTQ people. These attacks should not come as a surprise: the right has a long history of exploiting LGBTQ issues for their own political profit, and they will continue to do so as long as it helps them to remain in power.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it is important that we know the history of the LGBTQ community lest we allow much of the progress we have made, especially during the Obama years, to be undone. LGBTQ History Month was first established and observed in 1994 by a high school history teacher from Missouri named Rodney Wilson. Believing that LGBTQ history was an essential part of the American history curriculum, Wilson and other like-minded teachers and community leaders proposed that a month be dedicated to teaching the history of the LGBTQ community, whose experiences are often erased within mainstream narratives. October was chosen because it coincided with National Coming Out Day (observed on the 11th of the month) and the first march on Washington for LGBT rights, which occurred on October 14th of 1979.

A valid critique of the celebration of “history months” for marginalized groups is that while their history is foregrounded during a designated month, it then recedes into the background for the remainder of the year. I offer the following reading recommendations in celebration of LGBTQ History Month, 2017, and as a way of extending our conversations about LGBTQ history beyond the month of October. Knowing our history reminds us that we are not alone and that others have faced down injustice and lived to tell the tale. History and stories also provide us with tools to understand, act, and bring about the changes we most want to see.


The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman

Since it is LGBTQ History Month, my first recommendation is naturally a work of history. Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution (2015) is, arguably, the definitive history of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Faderman writes in an engaging and narrative style through which people and events take on a three-dimensional character. One feels as if they are alongside Frank Kameny as he pickets the White House for gay civil rights, Marsha P. Johnson as she throws the brick that ignites the Stonewall Inn Riots, or Edie Windsor as she goes to the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Faderman’s account, however, neglects the activism of transgender Americans within the broader LGBTQ movement, though The Gay Revolution is one of the most comprehensive histories of the struggle for LGBTQ rights to date.

Transgender History by Susan Stryker

Stryker presents a concise and accessible history of the modern Transgender Rights Movement in the United States that recounts much of what is neglected in Faderman’s telling. In particular, Stryker is responsible for bringing the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 to the forefront of LGBTQ history. This militant uprising, led by transgender women of color, drag queens, and sex workers in San Francisco’s tenderloin district, occurred a full three years before the Stonewall Inn Riots. Stryker suggests that this omission is largely due to the fact that the riot at Compton’s was led by poor and gender non-conforming street queens, who would not have been regarded as “respectable” members of the community. An updated version of Transgender History will be released on November 7th of this year.


Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s classic novel remains relevant to contemporary audiences by putting the issues of internalized homophobia and the closet into historical perspective. The novel centers on David, a closeted American expatriate living in France in the 1950s, and his doomed love affair with Giovanni, an Italian bartender. When I teach this novel, students are often frustrated by David and his choices, which directly contradict his true desires and inevitably harm others. However, a thorough and accurate reading of the novel requires us to place ourselves within the context of the 1950s and empathize with David’s fear and self-loathing. Baldwin focuses on white characters because at the time the novel was published in 1956, it would have been overly taboo to explore intersections between blackness and queerness. Baldwin’s original publisher told him to burn the manuscript because a novel about homosexuality would alienate him from his readership in the black community.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

Tales of the City was originally published as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle from 1978 to 1989 before being adapted into a series of novels published by Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). Maupin’s comedy of manners features a diverse cast of characters searching for love and identity in San Francisco. Though Tales is very much a period piece, Maupin’s witty observations remain relatable while simultaneously capturing the history of gay San Francisco. Babycakes, the fourth novel in the series, was the first work of fiction to discuss the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Maupin’s character Anna Madrigal, an eccentric pot-smoking landlady, is arguably one of the first fully-realized transgender characters in American fiction. While you’re at it, I would also recommend Maupin’s recently published memoir, Logical Family (2017), which gives further insight into events from Maupin’s life that shaped his iconic series and the social context in which he wrote.


When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones

In this distinctly American story of self-discovery, struggle, and dissent, Jones shows us that LGBTQ history is American history, and American history is LGBTQ history. A gay activist of over fifty years, Jones was San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s protegee before Milk was assassinated in 1978. Going on to become an activist and community hero in his own right, Jones created the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and advocated for marriage equality. When We Rise (2016) won a Lambda Literary Award for memoir and served as the inspiration for the ABC television mini-series of the same name, created by Dustin Lance Black. Jones’ impassioned and insightful story is American as apple pie, showing us that gay history is an integral part of our American story.


a place called no homeland by Kai Cheng Thom

Kai Cheng Thom is a Canadian writer, spoken word artist, and social worker. She is also the winner of the 2017 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers. I was moved by Thom’s articulation of a trans femme of color consciousness, exploration of personal and familial trauma, and exacting critique of mainstream queer culture in her debut poetry collection, a place called no homeland (2017). A place is one of the best books of poetry I have read in recent memory. Thom is also the author of the novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (2016) and the children’s picture book From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea (2017).


From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom, Wai-Yant Li, and Kai Yung Ching

As you can probably infer from my previous suggestion, my pick for kids is the picture book From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea (2017), written by Kai Cheng Thom and illustrated by Wai-Yant Li and Kai Yung Ching. From the Stars tells the story of Miu Lan, a magical gender-creative and shape-shifting child. Though Miu Lan faces questions about their identity, they are supported by their mother, who promises to love them no matter who they are or decide to be: “whatever you dream of / i believe you can be / from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea.” Thom’s sensitive and enchanting story, one of the first children’s books to feature a gender-fluid child, speaks to differences beyond gender and is illustrated in an immersive and magical style that will capture the imaginations of both children and adults. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea will be available for purchase in the U.S. on November 7th of this year.

If you read any of these suggestions, or have suggestions of your own, please tweet us @RadicalNotion1.

For more LGBTQ History Month reading recommendations, check out our list from 2015!