The best books on gay history before Stonewall

Jim Elledge Author Of An Angel in Sodom: Henry Gerber and the Birth of the Gay Rights Movement
By Jim Elledge

Who am I?

In post-Roe America, gay people face the very real possibility of our rights being stripped from us, underscoring the importance of this adage: “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” That's why years ago, when I realize that many gay men were ignorant about gay history before Stonewall, I began editing anthologies of gay writings from the past. That led me to writing biographies and histories in which I explore gay men’s experiences, hoping my work shines a light on our forgotten past.


I wrote...

An Angel in Sodom: Henry Gerber and the Birth of the Gay Rights Movement

By Jim Elledge,

Book cover of An Angel in Sodom: Henry Gerber and the Birth of the Gay Rights Movement

What is my book about?

Henry Gerber faced homophobia in his hometown of Passau, Germany and emigrated to Chicago. Sent back to Germany after World War I with the American Army of Occupation, he discovered Berlin’s vibrant gay-rights movement and swore to advocate for gay rights at home. He founded the Society for Human Rights and was arrested for his efforts. He moved to New York, wrote essays about homosexuality, planned another gay-rights organization, and directed a correspondence club while working for the Army in the Recruiting Publicity Bureau. After retiring, he moved into the Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. where he joined the Mattachine Society, a gay-rights advocacy group founded by Harry Hay after learning about the Society for Human Rights. Gerber died on New Year’s Eve 1972.

The books I picked & why

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Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.

By Jonathan Ned Katz,

Book cover of Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.

Why this book?

Gay American History was an epiphany for me and thousands of other gay men and women who were eager to learn about our history because books about it were few. I can’t describe the wonder I felt as I opened the book to thousands of rare documents (letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, book excerpts, medical and legal reports, etc.) that connected me to LGBT individuals who lived centuries earlier. Puritans, indigenous people, cross-dressing (“passing”) women, military personnel, artists of every ilk, government officials—their struggles, their defeats, and their victories, I learned, were no different in essence from those of the LGBT individual of the 21st Century. Gay American History is, in short, a treasure trove of information.

Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.

By Jonathan Ned Katz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gay American History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A collection of documents provides a continuous chronicle of homosexuality in America, from colonial times to the present, and of the persecution of gay males and lesbians throughout American history


Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

By George Chauncey,

Book cover of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

Why this book?

New York has long been considered the epicenter of gay history and culture, and Chauncey wrote its single most comprehensive chronicle. What was going on in the lives of gay New Yorkers at any given moment in gay history was also going on in the lives of gay men living in other cities across the U.S. Consequently, Gay New York is a wonderful guide to gay life in Boston, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and cities between. I’ve relied on it time and time again in my nonfiction to steer me through the complicated culture gay men created for themselves. Katz’s Gay American History supplied me with the documents from our history. Gay New York narrated that history. 

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

By George Chauncey,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Gay New York as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The award-winning, field-defining history of gay life in New York City in the early to mid-20th century

Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Drawing on a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, George Chauncey constructs a fascinating portrait of a vibrant, cohesive gay world that is not supposed to have existed. Called "monumental" (Washington Post), "unassailable" (Boston Globe), "brilliant" (The Nation), and "a first-rate book of history" (The New York Times), Gay New Yorkforever changed how…


The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

By David K. Johnson,

Book cover of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

Why this book?

One of the darkest events in gay history has been brought to light in Johnson’s book. During the late 1940s and ’50s, the Federal Government engaged in a purge of gay men (and women) who worked in its offices by linking them to communism, an association politicians strengthened as the Cold War progressed. Fueled by their lies and guided by FBI Director (and closeted gay) J. Edgar Hoover, the persecution, called the “Lavender Scare,” spread from Washington, D.C. across the U.S. The government-sanctioned homophobia cost thousands their jobs, families, and friends when their sexuality was made public. Some committed suicide. Having this book at hand helped me understand the complexities of gay men’s lives during this horrific period.

The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

By David K. Johnson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Lavender Scare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Cold War America, Senator Joseph McCarthy enjoyed tremendous support in the fight against what he called atheistic communism. But that support stemmed less from his wild charges about communists than his more substantiated charges that "sex perverts" had infiltrated government agencies. Although now remembered as an attack on suspected disloyalty, McCarthyism introduced "moral values" into the American political arsenal. Warning of a spreading homosexual menace, McCarthy and his Republican allies learned how to win votes. Winner of three book awards, "The Lavender Scare" masterfully traces the origins of contemporary sexual politics to Cold War hysteria over national security. Drawing…


Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement

By David K. Johnson,

Book cover of Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement

Why this book?

Before reading Buying Gay, I couldn’t imagine how physique photography—nude and semi-nude pictures of buff models that appeared in bodybuilding magazines and were available by mail-order—qualified for a place in gay history. In discussions of gay libido, of course, but history? Naw! Johnson showed me the light, revealing how important desire coupled with American capitalism was in the development of gay identity and community. Through the efforts (and talent and chutzpah) of men like photographer Bob Mizer and publisher H. Lynn Womack, gays won the right to express desire more openly than ever before after decades of battles against obscenity laws. In short, Johnson enabled me to see more deeply into the private lives of some of the men I’ve written about.

Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement

By David K. Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Buying Gay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1951, a new type of publication appeared on newsstands-the physique magazine produced by and for gay men. For many men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these magazines and their images and illustrations of nearly naked men, as well as articles, letters from readers, and advertisements, served as an initiation into gay culture. The publishers behind them were part of a wider world of "physique entrepreneurs": men as well as women who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogs, pen-pal services, book clubs, and niche advertising for gay audiences. Such businesses have often been seen as peripheral to the gay…


Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall

By James Polchin,

Book cover of Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall

Why this book?

As with physique photographs, I never associated murder with gay history, but newspapers were full of reports of it, often in coded and lewd language, as early as the 1920s. The cases were virtually identical. An older man meets a younger, attractive one and invites him home. In a fit of “homosexual panic” after the older man’s “indecent advance” toward him, the younger kills the older but, tried, is found innocent, given a light sentence, or paroled. Juries, judges, newspaper reporters, and the police engaged in and promoted such extreme homophobia. Indecent Advances helped me understand a principal excuse our society used in an attempt to cover up its hatred of gay men. 

Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall

By James Polchin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Indecent Advances as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A grisly, sobering, comprehensively researched new history.' - The New Yorker

Indecent Advances is a skilful hybrid of true crime and social history that examines the often-coded portrayal of crimes against gay men in the decades before Stonewall.

New York University professor and critic James Polchin illustrates how homosexuals were criminalized, and their murders justified, in the popular imagination from 1930s 'sex panics' to Cold War fear of Communists and homosexuals in government. He shows the vital that role crime stories played in ideas of normalcy and deviancy, and how those stories became tools to discriminate against and harm gay…


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