Notes on terminology:
The word Homosexual did not enter the English language until about 1890, and it wasn’t in common usage until perhaps the 1920s or later. Other words were used instead, and many of them were often considered acceptable among LGBT people themselves. A deviate or deviant was just someone who “deviated from the norm” long before the word became a pejorative.
Other historic terms include: sodomite, saphic, urning, invert, variant, third sex, intermediate sex, psychosexual hermaphroditism, variant, or, more euphemistically, sensitive, artistic, or temperamental. We can find examples as far back as the 1920s of LGBT people calling themselves gay, although that expression didn’t become widely mainstream until well into the 1960s. Lesbian was a surprisingly enduring identity throughout the twentieth century. On the other hand, bisexual was almost never talked about and rarely came up.
Queer started out simply meaning strange or unusual. In the 1920s, it was sometimes used by society to describe LGBT people, and it was even sometimes used among LGBT people themselves. Later, especially during the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, queer became a particularly aggressive pejorative, comparable in intensity to faggot or cocksucker, and many LGBT people, through personally traumatic experiences, came to associate it with the threat of imminent violence. Today it is being reclaimed, especially by younger people, as an all-purpose word to describe full spectrums of sexual and gender identities, despite the fact that many older LGBT people can still find the word triggering.
All of this is to say that language constantly changes. Throughout this project, I have chosen to the terminology that was commonly used during the time period in which I am discussing. My purpose here is to more accurately convey the atmosphere and sensibilities of the people, places and events at the time they took place. I do this because I believe that when we yank history out of its original context and polish it up for modern sensitivities, we erase an important part of history and the people who lived it.
I believe it is best to use the words our fore-bearers used to describe the communities they created for themselves so that we can better understand better how they saw themselves and how society saw them. At no point should my use of these terms be construed as a lack of awareness about or insensitivity towards of the ways these terms can cause pain or discomfort with contemporary readers.
Notes on epithets:
When discussing any history that touches on acts of bigotry, there is the dilemma of how to treat epithets. One solution is to cloak it with asterisks or resort to other means to protect readers from disturbing and harmful language.
I do not do this. My reasoning is two-fold. First, if my purpose here is to more accurately convey the spirit of the times, it is essential to fully reproduce the language of the times.
And secondly, these words really were spoken or written, with impunity, and often with pride. It is not anyone’s job to clean up someone else’s words and make what they said at all more comfortable for modern eyes and ears. In fact, to do so is to commit an act of erasure, both of the persons uttering those words as the trauma experienced by those who those words were directed against.
If we preserve those words along with the names of those who uttered them, then we ensure their legacy, such as it is, is never forgotten. Maybe it will serve as a lesson for those who today think nothing of expressing similar or other forms of bigotry. If that is the legacy they want to leave to their descendants, so be it.
Notes on identity, pronouns, and “dead-naming”:
The use of identity labels throughout LGBT history is a messy and fraught with controversy. If we could travel back in time to just fifty or sixty years ago, we would find that today’s ideas about sexuality, gender, and gender norms would be quite baffling to most people we might encounter.
One particular area of difficulty arises when one tries to work out who was gay and who was trans. Because the overriding way in which gender norms influenced how gender and sexual identity were conceived, trans people were often assumed to be gay and vice versa, both among LGBT people and the broader straight world. A couple of examples can help to illustrate the point.
In the 1800s, stories about of men who were “discovered” to actually be women. In today’s understanding, we would assume that we have encountered a transman. And perhaps we did. But we must also remember how powerful ways in which gender roles informed how people saw themselves in those days. A woman was as much who she was as it was what she did. Economic opportunities for single women were extremely limited. If a woman wanted to enter the workforce in most trades or professions, she might find that her success would be all the greater of she could present herself as a man. For lesbians, it also afforded an added advantage of being able to enter into relationships without raising suspicions.
Parallel examples for men do exist, but they are much more rare. Men adopting female presentations tend to be more social and performative — drag parties, sometimes including elaborate “wedding” ceremonies were common. Sometimes men adopted female identities in order to facilitate same-sex relationships, whether they be for romantic pursuits or for sex work.
And so it can become extremely difficult to figure out who was gay, lesbian or bisexual, who was trans, or (among women especially) who was pursuing economic opportunities that otherwise would have been closed to them. That difficulty is only compounded by the often-sensational manner in which their stories typically appeared in newspapers, where they had little or no control over how their stories were told.
For that reason, I try to avoid assigning contemporary labels to people who had never heard of them and who had no opportunity to declare for themselves who they were using language we can understand. I will tend to use the predominant pronouns as they were presented in published sources at the time. I will also present all of the names (including those that we today would consider “dead names”) the individual went by.
My work is to preserve and make available the historic record as it is, with all of its warts. To correct, revise, or assign modern-day identities to those who did not have the opportunity to adopt them themselves would constitute an act of erasure of a different sort. At no point should my repeating of pronouns and names that were in circulation at the time be construed as a lack of awareness about the many ways in which misgendering or dead-naming is insulting, aggressive and insensitive in modern contexts.