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We're Here, We're Queer, and We're in the Public Record! The LGBTQ Movement and Life as Seen Through Government Information


Terminology: labels, abbreviations, and more

Surfacing many of the documents in this exhibit was not easy. There is no single database that allows searching for these materials. Indexing is also very problematic. In doing this kind of research, we had to use the terms of the time period — many of which are considered offensive today — because contemporary terms were not used in older indexes, and past library cataloging practices reflect the prevailing discriminatory attitudes of the time against not just LGBTQ but also African Americans, women, and other minority groups. Strategies for discovering these documents include reading the published literature on LGBTQ history (see bibliography) and searching full-text databases such as ProQuest Congressional, NexisUNI, the American Presidency Project, HathiTrust, etc. Terms used depend on what time period is being researched:

Pre-WWII: buggery, sodomy, sodomite, pederasty, sexual perversion/inversion/pervert, hermaphrodite, homosexual, (homosexual coined in 1860s), berdache, sapphic, lesbian

WWII-present: homosexual, homophile, gay, lesbian, bisexual, GLB/LGBT/LGBTQ/LGBTQx, queer, sexual orientation, sexual/affectional preference, cross-dresser, transvestite, transsexual, transgender, CIS, etc.

At the same time, some of these terms can be problematic because they fail to retrieve anything relevant. For instance hermaphrodite in the early-to-mid 1800s describes a type of ship. Gay was used to describe happiness for most of U.S. history. Queer described anything different or unusual. Lesbian was used for anyone from the Island of Lesbos.

Similarly, as curators of this exhibit we have used a variety of terms -- including homosexual, LGBT, LGBTQ*, same-sex and queer -- with the recognition that language is used differently within subcultures, ethnicities and generations, and in different contexts from the academic to the informal. As the editors of Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America (Gale, 2004) wrote in their preface, we believe these terms “ if used carefully and consciously, can be used analytically to refer to a broad range of same-sex sexual and cross-gender desires, acts, identities, communities, cultures, and movements.”