Learning That I Do Exist: Why LGBT History Matters

Written by Aud Traher, Quist

I remember handing in my preliminary research on bisexual history to my history professor in college. I was so excited. I’ve always been a history nerd, spending my Saturdays reading in a comfy chair — my preferred M.O. over sports or anything else.

This paper was going to be a chance to delve deeper into the bits of history I had already picked up, a chance to nerd out over all things bi and queer. I remember walking into my professor’s office to pick up my prelim paper and talk things over. She gave it back to me, and it was covered in red ink. My heart sank in my chest. She said I would have to pick a new topic. According to her it was “too recent” because “gays and lesbians don’t really have much history before Stonewall” and it is more “mainstream” than bisexuals who “only started doing things in the 90s.”

I was shocked and didn’t know what to say. I asked if I could instead do my paper on transgender history. Again no. Again it was because transgender history “didn’t exist” or “wasn’t enough.” I could feel my heart cracking as I resigned myself to doing a paper on something else. The irony of the “LGBTA Safe Space” placard on the office door did not escape me. I felt humiliated, rejected and depressed as I drove home that day.

At home I looked over my research again. It was good. It was solid, and I knew I had a paper there. I wanted to prove her and everyone else who thought like that wrong. So alongside my ”official” paper on a suitably non-LGBTQ and boring topic, I researched bisexual history. I devoured books and documents, asked bi elders for input and wrote an A+ paper.

I first learned about the word bisexuality. Its current use (meaning attracted to more than one gender) was first used in 1892 by the American neurologist Charles Gilbert Chaddock, in his translation of Kraft-Ebing’s book, Psychopathia Sexualis. Before then it was used to mean intersex people, and before that it had been used in botany to describe how some flowers reproduce. From that I learned how bisexual people had reclaimed the word as our own, giving it new meaning and life.

I researched more and found out that the protagonist of the world’s first novel, Genji in The Tale of Genji, was bisexual. Alexander the Great, Sappho of Lesbos, Oscar Wilde — all of them were bisexual! It was an amazing uplifting feeling. As I continued my research I learned that the first ever GSA (Gay Straight Alliance), the Student Homophile League, was founded by bisexual activist Stephen Donaldson (AKA “Donny the Punk”) and recognized by Columbia University in 1967. Even Pride month was created by a bisexual. Brenda Howard, a bisexual activist, organized the first ever commemoration of the Stonewall Riots the year after they happened. This event is what gave us the now worldwide LGBTQ Pride events every June around the world.

Having fought back my biphobia-induced depression with a dosage of bi history, I switched gears and began to research transgender history as well. Transgender people have a rich and long history worldwide. Many cultures have three or more genders instead of the western binary of two. During the civil war a trans man named Albert Cashier served in the American Civil War as a soldier, and upon his death was buried in his uniform and his tombstone inscribed with his rank. Transgender people had also begun to organize in early 1895 when a group of self-described androgynes in New York organized a club called the “Cercle Hermaphroditos” to lend support and friendship to each other. Not only were there many transgender groups prior to Stonewall, the Stonewall riots began when a transgender woman, Sylvia Rivera, had finally had enough of police harassment. Much of the early “gay liberation” movements work was done by transgender people like Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.

I quickly learned that not only was there a history that I fit into, that history was long, varied and incredibly important. I not only connected to the past though this research, but I found community in the present. My love of history led me to interning at Quist, the free LGBTQ history app that’s filled with stories like the ones from my research.

So many LGBTQ people suffer from feelings of depression, isolation and loneliness. Living in a world that tells you that you don’t exist or have history is incredibly trying. But through learning our history, a connection can be made and bridges built over time and space to make us all feel less alone. No one should ever be told that they don’t have a history and be made to feel isolated and disconnected from themselves and their community’s history. The excitement of finding out that yes, there is history, and yes, you are a part of it too, is such an immense joy.

October is LGBT History Month in the U.S., and I hope you’ll join Quist’s campaign #QuistoryMatters to celebrate with us. This is my story about why queer history (“quistory”) matters to me. What’s yours?

Photo credit: Thinkstock

50 comments

Leia P.
Leia P.2 years ago

nice

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Linda McKellar
Past Member 3 years ago

What I find extremely ironic & sad is that the AIDS crisis, while it decimated the gay population, was also the impetus for LGBT people to stand up & say "We are here & we are suffering". What an horrendous way to be heard & to get your rights.

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Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Heather G.
Heather G3 years ago

We're all human but we're not all male, straight, white, Christian and able-bodied.

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Ken Y.
Ken Y3 years ago

we are all humans...must everything be broken into gender and alphabet soup?

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Mademoisell LeBel
Melanie LeBel3 years ago

Im more and more becoming proud of who i am with no shame.

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Magdalena J.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you!

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Tim W.
Timothy W3 years ago

Vicky P.
Yes of course many men hid/hide who they are and get married. It is not only sad for them but the family as well. When I was young I had a friend who's father was a mean angry old man. As a closeted gay teenager, I used to suspect he was gay. I felt bad for my friend, but I always wondered if being stuck in a life that he wasn't meant to be in was why he was always so mean.

As far as history goes, I can't imagine how any person who claims to teach history could deny the existence of LGBT people.

Physical changes to the body is not what makes a transgender person, but it can be what helps make a transgender person happier with his/her life.

It is important to include LGBT history in our schools to help people understand that we are hear, and basically the same as anyone else. Some of us help make great advancements in science and technology, and some of us have been evil villains. We are as diverse as straight people. Understanding our history is important to helping society understand, know, and accept us.

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Vicky P.
Vicky P3 years ago

interesting, I do think it's important to know gays/bi's/trans exist before the 90's..it would hopefully shut some people up about how gay people didn't exist before and it's just them wanting attention now/people choose it, as certain religions took hold though, they were forced to hide and many that weren't attracted to the opposite sex probably pretended they were and married anyway.

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Phil M.
Phil M3 years ago

John M. "When a chick with a dick has cosmetic surgery and delivers an offspring after nine monthes of pregnancy,THEN and only then should there be Trans-Gendered rights..."

How about when a douche named John is so bigoted and is exhibiting this over and over again we should take his rights away and give them to a deserving person preferably a LGBT member .......

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