To mark Pride Month 2023, we hunted through the Atlas Obscura archives for stories that have long been overlooked in mainstream American history: tales of people across the centuries—from as long ago as Colonial Williamsburg—who would now be thought of as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. “Desire is nothing new,” says Michael Bronski, a historian at Harvard University and author of A Queer History of the United States. “There’s no reason to think that everything that happens now in terms of desire and sexual activity didn’t happen back then.” The challenge for historians is finding these long-lost stories—from times when society demanded they be hidden.
by Sabrina Imbler
“I just want to tell the whole story of Colonial Williamsburg,” says Aubrey Moog-Ayers, an apprentice weaver at the Virginia living history museum. Several years ago, a gay male couple had asked her if anyone in Colonial Williamsburg is known to have been queer. Moog-Ayers began doing research on her own time, but she still didn’t really know what to tell people when the question came up. So she and other staff members signed a petition asking the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to dive into the city’s queer history—a now-ongoing inquiry to more fully understand the lives of those who lived and visited the community.
By Sabrina Imbler
People who did not conform to traditional gender norms were a part of daily life in the Old West, according to Peter Boag, a historian at Washington State University. While researching a book about the gay history of Portland, writes Sabrina Imbler, Boag stumbled upon hundreds and hundreds of stories of people who dressed against their assigned gender. Trans people have always existed all over the world. So how had they escaped notice in the annals of the Old West?
by Anya Jabour
At a time when women were considered “passionless,” romances between young women—often known as “smashes” and ranging from one-sided adoration to mutual devotion—were common at women’s colleges, and Valentine’s Day was the ultimate salute to these relationships. Anya Jabour explores the joy of the holiday at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the Victorian Era, and the societal fears that ended the tradition.
by Emma Banks
Queer archives are uniquely vulnerable, writes Emma Banks. Most operate on a shoestring budget, many with facilitators who are understandably skeptical of help from the government or mainstream institutions, both of which could potentially provide financial support. Queer archivists also confront the problem of erasure—materials being discarded out of bias, or because the current custodians simply don’t recognize the objects’ value. Banks explores how archivists in the Pacific Northwest are overcoming these obstacles.
by Sarah Durn
As part of Atlas Obscura’s She Was There series about female scholars who are writing long-forgotten women back into history, Sarah Durn interviewed Wendy Rouse of San José State University about her book Public Faces, Secret Lives: A Queer History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, detailing the queer suffragists of the United States, the female cavalries they led, and why so many of their stories have gone untold.