This October marks the 27th anniversary of LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to recognize the many landmarks and trailblazers within our community’s long history. The event originated in the mid-90s with Rodney Wilson, an openly gay high school history teacher from Missouri. But our history month also has a more extensive past, one that predates Wilson’s proposal by almost a century.
It all began in 1875, when Carter G. Woodson, often referred to as “the father of Black history,” was born in Virginia to formerly enslaved parents. He became the second African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, and in 1915 he used his credentials to establish The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson was a firm believer in the fact that progress could not be achieved without a careful study of the past. “The conditions of the day have been determined by what has taken place in the past, and in a careful study of history we may see more clearly the great theatre of events in which the Negro has played a part,” wrote Woodson in his 1933 book, The Miseducation of the Negro.
In 1926, Woodson founded the first "Negro History Week" to preserve the narratives of his people. February coincided with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. In 1946, President Harry Truman endorsed Negro History Week, and in 1970 it grew from a week to an entire month.
In the post-WWII era, other marginalized groups followed in Woodson’s footsteps. They proposed their own history weeks, which were eventually endorsed and extended into months. Such was the case for Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, and Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which all found their beginnings in the 60s and 70s.
In 1994, Rodney Wilson decided that the same care and attention ought to be paid to the history of the gay and lesbian community. Studying queer history in college had given him the courage to live as an openly gay man in a relatively conservative society, and he wanted folks like him to find solidarity through knowledge of their community’s history.
Inspired by Woodson’s Black History Month, Wilson chose the month of October for Gay and Lesbian History month, which coincided with the already-established National Coming Out Day and the anniversaries of the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. October also falls within the academic calendar. When he wrote the original proposal for the first LGBTQ+ history month, Wilson had a picture of Dr. Woodson on his desk.
He sent out his proposal by mail to several academics and community organizers for endorsements, and he encountered overwhelming support. The Board president of the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives and the founder of GLSTN (now GLSEN) joined Wilson and a small committee of established academics to create an official curriculum packet, to organize the national event, and to promote and publicize the first-ever Lesbian and Gay History Month (the addition of Transgender and Bisexual to the name didn’t happen until later, after intense debate).
With the support of the committee, Wilson’s proposal received support from almost every major queer advocacy group at the time: Project 10, GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, Gay & Lesbian Americans, NGLTF, and several esteemed historians like William Percy and Martin Duberman. On October 3, 1994, a film series at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where Wilson was a graduate student, served as the inaugural event for the inaugural observance; and on October 29th, the first national Lesbian and Gay History Month conference was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That same year, official proclamations came from the governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Oregon, plus the cities of Boston and Chicago.
In 1995, over 9,000 delegates at the National Education Association’s annual Representative Assembly passed a resolution to support the new history month. Though the vote represented a major achievement for the movement, it triggered a vehement backlash from NEA’s membership of over two million educators. Hundreds of teachers threatened to quit, and conservative advocacy groups bought full-page newspaper ads warning parents about the effect it could have on their children. “Parents should scream bloody murder at any school district willing to adopt this,” said one Congressman in response to the NEA’s decision.
Overwhelmed with over 22,000 letters of protest, at the 1996 Representative Assembly, the NEA didn’t just revoke its support of LGBTQ history month, it stopped explicitly endorsing all history months, including Black History Month and Women’s History Month. It replaced them with a generic encouragement of “affiliates and members to become part of programs and observances that may include cultural and heritage celebrations and/or history months.”
But despite the backlash, the celebration still organically spread to high schools, colleges, and libraries over the next decade. In 2006, Philadelphia’s Equality Forum founded LGBTHistoryMonth.com to highlight, each year, the contributions of queer icons across time.
Today, LGBTQ+ History Month is celebrated in schools and institutions across the nation, but none of our history months would be celebrated if it hadn’t been for the pioneering efforts of Dr. Woodson almost a hundred years ago. It’s an important reminder that we must study not just the history of our own communities, but also the histories of all marginalized groups. After all, the lives and liberation of all persecuted communities have always been inextricably bound.