How Queer-Friendly Are U.S. History Textbooks?



Ms. Eaklor, professor of history, is the chairperson of the Division of Human Studies at Alfred University.

Note: This article was delivered as a paper at the recent meeting of the American Historical Association at a panel sponsored by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History.

In the summer and fall of 2003 I looked at U. S. history survey textbooks designed for college-level courses. Not only was this to be part of an American Historical Association panel on "Queering the U. S. Survey," but it was also designed as a follow-up to my previous study done in 1988-91, and subsequently published in AHA Perspectives.

For the 1991 study, I had examined 23 titles and simply arranged them into two categories according to their content relative to homosexuals/ity: "some mention" (18 titles) and "no mention" (5 titles). I then described strengths and weaknesses in narrative form.

This time around I was able to see 27 titles, and decided to rate them, using the following subjective system (and arrived at only after I had seen all the texts and consulted my notes):

A = more detail on basics and/or more than 1960s-1990s and/or more than two columns/one page

B = the basics, 1960s-1990s - some on each of these areas, or detail on one-two: Stonewall, gay liberation (with or without specific organizations), gay culture; 1980s backlash, AIDS, marches; military ban, legal issues/marriage, violence, culture/media

C = minimal depth/breadth - confined to 1970s, or scattered brief references (most of the texts examined in 1988-91 would have fallen into this category)

D = minimal to basic, with negative tone or language


My method was fairly simple: I consulted the index of each text, consistently looking under four headings: "AIDS," " gay," "homosexuals(ity)," and "lesbian." I noted the headings and page numbers (and any headings I had not anticipated, such as "ACT UP!" "GLF," "gay liberation," etc.). I then read all pages listed and noted the amount of coverage, the topics, and the general "tone" (positive, negative, neutral). I noted also any features, graphics, pictures, etc. as well.


The news, surprisingly, is generally very good. As opposed to the previous situation, all the texts have at least some mention of GLBTQ (G and L, actually) issues or people. The majority, in fact (21, or 78 percent), have more than minimal coverage, which was rare in 1991, when only three books had more than a paragraph. Further, the ratings breakdown, reflecting not only amount of coverage but also "sophistication," is extremely encouraging: 11 A/A-; 10 B+/B; 4 C+/C; 2 D+/D [see list of ratings by title, at end].

From my perspective, this is positive not just because of the present coverage, but because it seems to denote some "progress" in thinking about inclusion in texts on the one hand, and the influence of scholarship in GLBTQ history on the other. Again, in 1991, five of the texts under scrutiny failed to mention homosexuals/ity at all; of those, only one is still available ( America: A Narrative History ) and I gave it a B+.

Actually, since ten titles carried over from the 1991 study, a bit more comparison was possible, again with results denoting "progress." No text was worse than before, four were roughly the same, and six had more extensive and/or more positive coverage. Of the four that stayed the same, two were still good (The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society and A People and a Nation ), and two were still bad, due to minimal content and negative tone (The American Pageant and The American Past). The six that improved are those, other than the four above, that are designated with a * in the list.

So if the most obvious change is simply more GLBTQ content, there are four specific areas worth mentioning: indexing; detail; contexts; and "extras" (features, photos, etc.). The indexing is interesting; "AIDS" is the most common addition while "lesbian" continues to be rare. Actually, of the 9 texts that do have "lesbian" in their indexes, only 2 are actual entries, with page numbers; the rest are cross references only. This led me to a question and an unsettling conclusion: I began to wonder, "Who will follow Lenin this time?" (once it was Oscar Levant - !), and conclude that women's invisibility continues in subtle ways ("Lenin" and " Levant " but not “lesbian”?). “Homosexuality" or “homosexuals” is still a preferred main entry (18 times).

As to actual content, I was especially surprised to find greater detail on the "movement" in the 1960s and 1970s, and many more scattered references to sexuality/homosexuality both before the Stonewall riot and since the 1980s, with a few even before World War II. For example, rarely in 1991 were any specific organizations mentioned, or any "landmark" actions; now the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists' Alliance appear here and there, and 11 texts include the American Psychiatric Association's decision to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders. Oddly, though, no more recent organization (NGLTF, HRC GLAAD) appears except ACT UP! (This could be interpreted negatively, since it links GLBTQ activism only with AIDS and only with a specific type of activism.)

The most common references before Stonewall are in relation to World War and the Cold War: homosexuals in the military and on the home front, the first homophile organizations to last (Mattachine, Daughters of Bilitis), the persecution of homosexuals during the Second Red Scare, and the Kinsey studies. Relatively rare, there are even a few references to the existence of GLBTQ life before WW II: romantic friendships among women; urban subcultures and visibility, and most commonly, as victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Of more recent events besides the ubiquitous AIDS, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise on homosexuals in the military appears most often (16 times), usually in the context of passages critical of Clinton (for failing to lift the ban, not for trying in the first place). Other topics include the issue of same-sex marriage, Bowers v. Hardwick, and a few individuals ranging from Rock Hudson to Matthew Shepard (misspelled twice, incidentally).

To me the most impressive addition since 1991 is in the form of features and graphics. Pictures of marches and the AIDS quilt are popular, but most heartening are the five boxes devoted wholly or partly (and sympathetically) to queers, like “David Kopay, The Real Score: A Gay Athlete Comes Out” (p. 993) excerpted in America's History as part of the running feature, “American Voices.” At the same time, extended treatment like this can be negative, as in the American Past feature (pp. 730-731), “Sex: From No-No to Obsession," which states, in part,

Homosexuals benefited from the new openness and relaxation of sexual attitudes. . . . they formed lobbies, soon supported by the “politically correct,” to push for laws preventing discrimination against homosexuals in housing and employment. The din was such that someone remarked, “The sin that dare not speak its name cannot sit down and shut up.” . . . . . . into the 1990s, [AIDS] was not described as threatening only gays and junkies, in part because it was not politically correct to do so, in part because researchers would have had great difficulty getting funds to research a disease thought to be the exclusive problem of groups on which conventional Americans looked with distaste.

For those questioning my ratings system, it is worth noting that the panel and audience thought I'd been generous is giving this book a “D.”

Overall, I'd say that the texts that best incorporate queer people into their narratives as a "natural" and recurring part of American life are Created Equal, Making a Nation, and A People and a Nation . Again, though, there has been remarkable progress here, as evidenced by the number of "A's" and "B's"--even a "C" is adequate, and hardly a condemnation. There is little to criticize, in fact, except some very minor mistakes or misleading statements.

For GLBTQ people, academic or not, the news is very encouraging. As I stressed in my first study, we probably underestimate the impact of texts (when students read them at all), since few American college graduates will have much exposure, beyond the required courses and texts, to any historical scholarship beyond what the media provide (and that's an entirely different issue!). While it is true that we are still "ghettoized" to some extent--seen as people in relation only to a "movement" for rights--this is hardly unique (and a phenomenon I've written about elsewhere), and somewhat offset by sympathetic treatments and more general integration into the American story. For scholars, especially CLGH members, the obvious "trickle-down" of the work of John D'Emilio, Estelle Freedman, Allan Bérubé, and George Chauncey shows us that even the most neglected or rejected areas of study might eventually make a difference.



(Two current titles, The Great Republic and Nation of Nations, do not appear because I never received them from the publishers.)

*Titles that appeared also in my 1991 study.


* America : A Narrative History . Vol. 2. 6th ed. George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi. NY: Norton, 2004.



* America and Its Peoples: A Mosaic in the Making . Vol. 2. 5th ed. James Kirby Martin, et al. NY: Longman, 2004.



* America : Past and Present . Vol. 2. 6th ed. Robert A. Divine, et al. NY: Longman, 2002.



American Destiny: Narrative of a Nation . Vol. 2. Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty. NY: Longman, 2003



The American Experiment . Vol. 2. Steven M. Gillon and Cathy D. Matson. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2002



American History: A Survey . Vol. 2. 11th ed. Alan Brinkley. Boston : McGraw-Hill, 2003



The American Journey . Vol. 2. 3rd ed. David Goldfield, et al. Upper Saddle River , NJ : Pearson, 2004.



* The American Nation . Vol. 2. 11th ed. Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty. NY: Longman, 2003



* The American Pageant . Vol. 2. 12th ed. David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas A. Bailey. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2002



American Passages . Edward L. Ayers, et. al. Vol. 2. 2nd ed. Belmont , CA : Wadsworth / Thomson, 2004



* The American Past . [one-vol ed] 7th ed. Joseph R. Conlin. Belmont , CA : Wadsworth / Thomson, 2004



* The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society . Vol. 2. 6th ed. Gary B. Nash, et al. NY: Longman, 2004



The American Promise . [one-vol ed] 2nd ed. James L. Roark, et al. Boston : Bedford , 2002



* America 's History . [one-vol ed]. 4th ed. James A. Henretta, et al. Boston : Bedford , 2000



Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States . Vol. 2. Jacqueline Jones, et al. NY: Longman, 2003



* The Enduring Vision . Vol. 2. 5th ed. Paul S. Boyer, et al. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2004



Firsthand America . Vol. 2. 7th ed. David Burner, et al.. St. James , NY : Brandywine Press, 2002



Inventing America . Vol. 2. Pauline Maier, et al. NY: Norton, 2003



Liberty , Equality, Power: A History of the American People. Concise 3rd ed. John M. Murrin, et al. Belmont , CA : Wadsworth/Thomson, 2004



Making a Nation: The United States and Its People . Combined Vol. Jeanne Boydston, et al. Upper Saddle River , NJ : Prentice-Hall, 2004



Out of Many . Brief Combined Vol. 4th ed. John Mack Faragher, et al. Upper Saddle River , NJ : Prentice-Hall, 2004



* A People and a Nation . Vol. 2. 6th ed. Mary Beth Norton, et al. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001



A People's History of the United States . Vol. 2. Abridged Teaching Ed. Howard Zinn. NY: The New Press, 2003



A Short History of the American Nation . 8th ed. Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty. NY: Longman, 2001



These United States : The Questions of Our Past . Concise Ed., Combined Vol. 2nd ed. Irwin Unger. Upper Saddle River , NJ : Prentice-Hall, 2003



This Land . Vol. 2. Philip J. Deloria, et al. Maplecrest , NY : Brandywine Press, 2003



The Unfinished Nation . Vol. 2. 4th ed. Alan Brinkley. Boston : McGraw-Hill, 2004




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More Comments:

David Battle - 2/4/2004

I don't know, but being called "Gay" sounds, well....gay.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 1/30/2004

What as a homosexual person would you prefer we be called?

David Battle - 1/28/2004

I truly dislike the way the word "gay" is thrown around, as if all homosexuals think it's a positive way for us to be described. Some of us don't.

Leisa Diane Meyer - 1/27/2004

Great piece! I believe the panel about which Professor Eaklor speaks was sponsored by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History of the AHA. Just an fyi. Leisa

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 1/27/2004

I truly dislike the way the word "queer" is thrown around as though all gay people think it's a positive way for us to be described. We don't.

I've never read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and can't say anything about the fairness of Vicki Eaklor's ratings, but it doesn't surprise me to see an old leftie's book get a C on gay history. A lot of old lefties, especially northeastern ones, aren't especially good on gay issues.