6 Essential Books on the History of LGBT Rights in America

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We’re in a cultural moment in which the voices of many American citizens and residents are being silenced. It’s terrifying, especially because in recent years much progress has been made, especially when it comes to the rights of the LGBT community. Lest we forget how far we’ve come, here are six books about LGBT history in the United States. This is by no means a comprehensive list – in so many ways, all American stories are queer stories – but it’s a good primer in the many colors in that iconic rainbow.

  • The cover of the book A Queer History of the United States

    A Queer History of the United States

    A Dartmouth College professor, Michael Bronski takes a scholarly approach to this topic, rather than the “family album” approach that might only calls out landmark moments in LGBT history. He examines how deeply ingrained patterns of repression in Puritan culture influenced American attitudes toward sexuality in general and same-sex attraction in particular. Using art and literature as his chief lens (homosexual themes in Moby-Dick get serious air time), he traces queer identity from the transcendentalists through the Gay Liberation Front, the AIDS epidemic, and the “mainstreaming” of queer culture, including openly gay characters on TV and the normalization of same-sex families.

  • The cover of the book The Right Side of History

    The Right Side of History

    In his collection of anecdotal histories, Adrian Brooks takes great pains to correct the myth that queer activism began with Stonewall – though it in no way minimizes the importance of those landmark 1969 riots. In a series of carefully curated first-person accounts and profiles, the longtime queer activist highlights the presence of queers in all key U.S. activist movements, from the 1930s trade union struggles, the Civil Rights movement, the fight against Anita Bryant and her “Save Our Children” campaign, and the Names Project, to the campaign for the passage of several anti-hate crime laws, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In addition to emphasizing how LGBT folks have always been in the forefront of U.S. progress, it acknowledges the necessity of intersectionality, especially in such chapters as “Black, Gay, and Muslim.” The chronicle of these brave warriors and the obstacles they overcame – including violence, unlawful firings, and imprisonment – are vital models for the battles many are waging now.

  • The cover of the book The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

    The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

    Alison Bechdel is best known for her award-winning book Fun Home, but for decades before that graphic autobiographic novel’s release she was revered in the queer community for her comic strip about a multiracial, multireligious community of dykes, gay men, and transpeople in a fictional lefty town. We read it month after month not only because of its endearing drawings and characters but because nothing else captured the daily reality of queer life – not just the overarching political struggles and triumphs, but the smaller details that otherwise were so invisible to mainstream America: lesbian bed death, tofu casseroles, debates over sexual fluidity, womyn’s bookstores, and the adoption of what some perceived as hetero-normative practices. The strip was active from the early 1980s to the late 2000s – a powerfully transformative era in LGBT history – and doubles as a hilarious time capsule for all our worst fashion faux pas.

  • The cover of the book Transgender Warriors

    Transgender Warriors

    Long-term queer activist Leslie Feinberg first became known through her memoir, Stone Butch Blues, a brilliantly personal distillation of trans identity in mid-twentieth-century America. This landmark 1996 anthology, Transgender Warriors, celebrates the presence of trans-people in U.S. history, from Native American tribes to the life and lifestyle of Martine Rothblatt, the trans CEO who has launched a “trans-humanist” movement.

  • The cover of the book This Bridge Called My Back

    This Bridge Called My Back

    Originally released in 1981, this ever-evolving homage to twentieth-century women-of-color feminism explores, as co-editor Cherríe Moraga writes, “the complex confluence of identities – race, class, gender, and sexuality – systemic to women-of-color oppression and liberation.” The criticism, essays, poetry, profiles, and nonfiction stories here underscore how the historical, social, political, and economic realities of queer American women of color reflect the health of our country and world overall. This landmark anthology doesn’t just endorse intersectionality; it demands it, beautifully.

  • The cover of the book The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

    The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

    I include The Laramie Project because it distills the oft-overlooked reality that the much-hallowed American small town often presents profound challenges for its queer residents despite the rise of LGBT rights in cities. Created in the months after gay twenty-one-year-old Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, severely beaten, and left to die while tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, this is a collection of moments from more than 200 interviews conducted by Moises Kaufman and other members of the Tectonic Theater with people of that town. One of the most performed plays in America today, it addresses the various issues surrounding this tragedy, which has become nothing short of a symbol for America’s continuing struggle with hate and intolerance.