A Brief Early History of LGBTQ Studies in the United States

By Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Campus Pride Guest Writer

The 1960s was a time of tumultuous social change as growing numbers of people began to challenge basic underlying assumptions concerning authority and relationships of power. People, many of whom were young, challenged the serious inequities in the distribution of resources, the oppressive systemic structures plaguing our nation, the potentially irreversible attacks on the global environment, and the U.S. incursion into Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam.

There are moments in history when conditions come together to create the impetus for great social change. At Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, in what is known as the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, trans people and sex workers joined in fighting police harassment and oppression in August 1966.

Many historians and activists, though, place the beginning of the modern movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality at the Stonewall Inn, a small bar frequented by trans people, lesbians, bisexuals, gay males, street people, students, and others located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Out of the ashes of Compton’s Café and the Stonewall Inn came several militant groups organized primarily by young people in their teens and early twenties.

The development of lesbian and gay studies, as it was initially referred to, was inextricably connected with these political and social movements on and off campus. Bisexuals, who had since the beginning organized alongside gay and lesbian activists, began to organize for the rights of bisexuals by the mid- to late-1970s.

Transgender people who likewise have been there since the beginnings of the movement, have increasingly come out of another closet in large numbers. Many include young people emerging from a new generation of activists who are on the cutting edge in the movement for equality and pride. They are making the links between transgender oppression and all the other forms of oppression.

The increased visibility and activism of transgender activists (including within popular media and academic discourse) has had the effect of shaking up traditionally dichotomous notions of male/female and gay/straight. They are creating a vision of social transformation as opposed to mere reform by contesting and exploding conventional gender constructions, most notably the limiting and destructive binary conceptualizations and definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity,” “male” and “female.”

“One of the signal achievements of the campus turmoil of the 1960s was the recognition that universities are not ivory towers where individuals engage in the disinterested, dispassionate, and detached pursuit of knowledge and truth. Rather, universities are intimately connected to the society of which they are a part” (D’Emilio, 1992, p. 162).

As such, identity groups previously disenfranchised from curricular decision making from the socially produced process of generating knowledge itself, gained a certain ascendency during this era of instability.

D’Emilio coined the term a “politics of knowledge” (1992, p. 162) to refer to the intellectual climate, which people of color and women reshaped during the destabilization of university administrators within this moment of social upheaval with the development of black studies, women’s studies, and other racial and ethnic studies programs.

Lesbian and gay caucuses formed within academic organizations by 1973, and historical collections began to appear, for example, the Lesbian Herstory Archives in NYC and the Bay Area Lesbian and Gay Historical Society forming the cutting edge.

Sparked by the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and from the growing gay and feminist movements, the first officially recognized college student group organized as the Student Homophile League at Columbia University in 1967 in New York City, followed closely by groups at MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and others.

Earlier in the 1920s, a group calling itself the “Oberlin Lesbian Society” organized at Oberlin College, a women’s group devoted to writing poetry (Faderman, 1991). By the mid to late 1970s, approximately 1000 groups emerged on campuses throughout the U.S.

By 1972, student campus groups organized regional and national conferences around issues of sexuality and gender. In addition, individual organizations sponsored smaller subgroups generally referred to as “consciousness-raising” to discuss issues of “coming out” and internalized oppression. The consciousness-raising groups usually did not have a “leader” or trained psychotherapist and were based solely on the input of each participant.

Beside the nationwide rise of these campus organizations, other “firsts” included an “out” student body president, Jack Baker, in 1970 at the University of Minnesota, and in 1971, the University of Michigan was one of the first institutions to hire counselors, Cynthia Gair and Jim Toy, specializing in serving the campus counseling needs of LGBTQ students.

Following an emotional and heated battle, Columbia University in 1971 set aside the first dormitory lounge for LGBTQ students, and in 1973, the first college faculty group (the Gay Academic Union) formed in New York City, which organized its initial conference the same year drawing over 300 participants.

Created by Dr. Ronni Sanlo, a Jewish lesbian who was denied the opportunity to attend the graduations of her birth children because of a suit filed by her former husband based of her sexual identity and encouraged by the Dean of Students at the University of Michigan, Dr. Sanlo designed the first Lavender Graduation Ceremony in 1995 with 3 graduates.

College and university administrators have denied official recognition to several lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and ally (LGBTA) groups over the years. Examples include Sacramento and San José State Universities, Florida State University, Penn State University, University of Kansas, University of Texas, and others.

One of the first nationally focused organizations to serve the needs of LGBT students was the National Gay Student Center (NGSC), a project of the National Student Association in Washington, DC founded in 1971 by its first coordinator, Warren J. Blumenfeld.

By the 1990s, publishing houses released increasing numbers of works in LGBTQ studies, for example the anthology, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (Abelove, Barale, & Halperin, 1993) following publication of ethnic and women’s studies influenced by critical theory of the Frankfurt School, as well as the growth of academic journals including the preeminent Journal of Homosexuality (1976) based at San Francisco State University under the editorship of John DeCecco.  

A significant component of the emergence of “queer nationalism” throughout the 1980s and 1990s was academic scholarship that has channeled major theoretical labor into issues of identity, sexuality, and corporeality on college and university campuses.

What has come to be referred to as “Queer Theory,” “Gender Theory,” and “Queer Studies,” with such notable writers as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, among many others, has since had enormous impact in the “academy.”

Queer theory is founded on the notion that “identities” are not fixed and are instead socially rather than biologically determined. Queer theorists insist that identities comprise many and varied elements, and that it is inaccurate and misleading to collectively categorize people based on one element only (for example, as “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual,” or as “woman,” “man,” and others).

Among the very first undergraduate university courses on LGBT studies was at the University of California, Berkeley, spring 1970, followed soon by similar courses at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The first university program in gay and lesbian studies was founded at the City College of San Francisco in 1986 and “the first Gay and Lesbian Studies Department in the United States,” in 1989 (CCSF website).

In addition, Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York were among the first to offer a full major in LGBTQ Studies in the late 1990s. The current trend includes several previous LGBTQ stand-alone studies programs being incorporated into Women and Gender Studies programs across the U.S.

Programs, research, courses, doctoral dissertations, campus organizations and organizational caucuses, and publications continue to expand and burgeon today.


Abelove, H., Barale, M. A. and Halperin, D. H. 1993. The lesbian and gay studies reader, New York and London: Routledge.

City College of San Francisco: http://www.ccsf.edu/Departments/Gay_Lesbian_Bisexual_Studies/department_history.html, retrieved 6/9/2018.

D’Emilio, J. (1992). Making trouble: Essays on gay history, politics, and the university. New York: Routledge.

Faderman, L. (1991). Odd girls and twilight lovers: A history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America. New York: Penguin.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of God, Guns, Capitalism, and Hypermasculinity: Commentaries on the Culture of Firearms in the United States (Peter Lang Publishers), The What, The So What, and The Now What of Social Justice Education (Peter Lang Publishers), and Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

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