Watch Your Language, Please: Researching Queer History

Evidence of queer history is often elusive, but it can be found throughout the historical record, in both expected and unexpected places. A challenge for the researcher, however, is that libraries and archives have not traditionally described these documents in ways that make them easily discoverable. Aside from its appearance in medical and penal records, queer experience might often not even have been recognizable to librarians, archivists, museum curators, and others charged with collecting and organizing historical documents.

A further challenge to the researcher is that LGBTQ individuals had many reasons not to document their own experiences. Allen Spear’s explains some of the reasons in his foreword to the gay memoir, Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s:

[Gay men and lesbians] lived in constant fear of exposure. A casual slip, the slightest crack in the facade could lead to loss of job, loss of social standing, rejection by family and friends, even criminal prosecution and jail.1

For LGBTQ individuals, choosing honestly to document their experiences could be a risk too great to assume, and often, as Spears explains, there was much incentive to leave a documentary trail of obfuscation, misdirection, and outright deception. The result is what Amy Stone and Jaime Cantrell describe as “a long history of LGBT life being ‘hidden from history,’ obscured within existing sources, or discarded entirely”.2

Compounding the problem was a legal regime aimed at restricting access to information about homosexuality. For a time, public library patrons could not even examine books on homosexuality without presenting a physician’s note authorizing the use of such books, and many who wrote about LGBTQ life had difficulty finding publishers due to the very real risk of legal prosecution.3 The Comstock Act attempted to limit the circulation of “obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile” publications, and the law was widely applied to publications treating homosexuality. Enforcement of the Comstock Act continued past 1950. In 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Post Office’s attempt to suppress a gay magazine, but the federal government continued using other laws to criminalize LGBTQ publications into the 1970s.4

In mainstream newspapers, you’re most likely to find evidence of queer experience in the crime reports. Crime reporting came of age in the 1830s, and for about 150 years the crime reports were the newspaper section most likely to include documentation of LGBTQ experience.

Crime reporters, not surprisingly, used the language of the penal code to describe queer experience, especially in the era before Stonewall, and like the penal code itself the language was morally charged. You will find that words like “lewd conduct”, “immorality”, and “dissolute conduct” frequently reference homosexual acts, and these are the kinds of words you will need to use to retrieve articles:

Gono Arrested on Immorality Charge
Crime report from San Francisco Chronicle April 5, 1918.

Unfortunately for the researcher, these words were also used to describe any sexual act between unmarried persons. “Sodomy” is another important keyword, though again “sodomy” could also describe criminal sexual acts between members of the opposite sex.

Vocabulary is a challenge not only in retrieving articles, but also in interpreting them. A major problem for students of queer history is deciding what a document is actually evidence of. For example, what can the article above be used to prove? Does it prove that Don A. Gono was gay? Certainly it is proof that he was arrested, in a hotel, and charged with practicing immorality. We would need to consult the relevant penal code to find out what acts fell under the umbrella of “practicing immorality”. Even then, being charged with practicing immorality does not mean Don A. Gono actually did what he was accused of doing. It also seems likely that Gono possessed an address book with the names of soldiers in it. Here is another document in Mr. Gono’s story:

Bureau of the Census, 1920 Federal Population Census, San Francisco County, California, popultion schedule, Assembly District 32, Precinct 58, sheet 217 (stamped), dwelling 54, family 277, Don Alvarado Gono, RG 29.
Bureau of the Census, 1920 Federal Population Census, San Francisco County, California, popultion schedule, Assembly District 32, Precinct 58, sheet 217 (stamped), dwelling 54, family 277, Don Alvarado Gono, RG 29.

This document is an enumeration form from the 14th Decennial Census. This document is evidence that Gono lived with another man at 526 O’Farrell Street. The other man (James Goodwin) is identified on the enumeration form as Gono’s “partner”. So does this document furnish evidence that Gono was gay?

To understand what is meant by “partner”, we would need to consult the Instructions to Enumerators manual for the 14th Census, where this term is defined. To a twenty-first century ear, the word “partner” seems to suggest a romantic relationship between the two men, but that is not what the census enumerator meant by the word, even if there was, in fact, such a relationship.

When researching queer history, therefore, be sure to watch your language!


1.  Allen H. Spear, foreword to The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s:  A Gay Life in the 1940s, by Ricardo J. Brown, ed. William Reichard (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press,  2001), xi-x.

2. Out of the Closet, into the Archives: Researching Sexual Histories, eds. Amy L. Stone and Jaime Cantrell (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2015), 3.

3. Alan D. Winter, “The Gay Press: A History of the Gay Community and Its Publications” (unpublished manuscript, 1976), 21.

4. William N. Eskridge, Jr., “Federal Law and Policy,” in Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, ed. Marc Stein (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), 375-381.

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