The Library Company of Philadelphia



How can we tell whether someone was gay? There are many answers to that question, but ultimately we cannot know whether a person who lived in the past would be considered lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender today.


That does not mean that we cannot study gay history. Individuals took part in same-sex relationships, wrote poems and novels celebrating such relationships, deviated from gender norms, and suffered for transgressive behavior in ways that are well-documented in the historical record.


Beneath the covers of our books there are many stories. To paraphrase the late gay activist Harry Hay (1912-2002), history knows more about gay people than it knows it knows.


Frances E. Willard

Frances E. Willard. Glimpses of Fifty Years. Chicago: Woman's Temperance Publication Association, 1889.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, 1855.



According to Cornelia King, who curated the 2014 exhibition:


"The title I chose was deliberately provocative. But I was very careful not to say that the people who lived in the late-18th and the 19th centuries were gay. After all, words like "lesbian" and "homosexual" as labels to identify people by sexual preference first came into the language in the 20th century. In fact, the big challenge was to present early same-sex relationships and the culture in which they flourished in a way that represented their moment and not our own. I attempted to show that, in the 19th century, same-sex relationships were hallmarks of good character in what I refer to as the "homosocial fabric of culture." Schoolgirl smashes, David-and-Jonathan relationships, and Boston marriages were just a little farther along on the continuum. In this exhibition I sought to show that textual and visual material related to gay history has long been abundantly represented on our shelves."


For a list of secondary sources on LGBT history, click here for PDF