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LGBTQ History is OUR History --- Pass it On!

History is not passed on from parent to child in our community. It's rarely mentioned (if at all) in elementary school school and we don't learn much about it high school either. That's why it's important to learn and share as much as we can, so the voices of the past are not silenced. We, as elders, can pass the stories on to youth in our community. Each week we'll be bringing you a piece of LGBTQ history -- these stories are curated by SAGE Upstate Board Chair Margaret Himley, Professor of Writing and LGBT Studies (emerita). 

Historically, when did the word ‘gay’ stop meaning (just) happy or bright and lively looking, and start meaning same-sex identity? 


It might have started in the 16th century when some early meanings of ‘gay’ were associated with hedonism or frivolity. It might also come from the French word ‘gai,’ meaning full of mirth. It might also be associated with the German ‘gahi,’ meaning impulsive. 


In any case ‘gay’ evolved first from carefree to the implication that a person was unrestrained by morals and prone to promiscuity. A prostitute, for example, was called a ‘gay woman, and a womanizer, a ‘gay man.’ In the 18th century ‘gay houses’ referred to brothels. And ‘gey cat’ (a Scottish variant) was used to describe a vagrant who offered sexual services.

History of the word "Gay"


     In the late 19th and early 20th century, the more common word for same-sex relationships or for those who expressed any kind of same-sex or non-normative desire was, of course, ‘homosexual.’ It was believed that same-sex attraction was a psychological disorder that could be treated and cured. It was also considered illegal, with lots of sodomy laws that sought to criminalize any and all consensual gay sex. Some of these laws are still on the books in many states and countries.

   But the American Psychological Association denounced labeling same-sex desire an illness in 1973, and ‘homosexual’ became an offensive and negative term because it medicalized same-sex desire. It still carries all the clinical baggage that was heaped on it—like when Anita Bryant campaigned against ‘homosexual recruitment’ in the late 1970’s.

So when did ‘gay’ (mostly) replace ‘homosexual’ in the US? It took a while.

    At first people used ‘gay’ to express same-sex desire in a coded and underground ways. As historian George Chauncey says, someone could say, “I met a gay gal last night” and her lesbian friend would know exactly what she meant, while her straight boss would have no idea what she was talking about. You might remember that in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby Cary Grant dons a feathery robe, dances around, and ad libs the line, “I just went gay.”
     In 1951 ‘gay’ appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time as slang for homosexual.
    By the 1960’s ‘gay’ was repurposed for self-identification and communication. ‘Gay’ became a banner for communities who fought under the mantel of gay liberation, arguing for the decriminalization of same-sex relationships and equal rights in all aspects of public life. Frank Kameny coined the phrase ‘Gay Is Good’ in 1968 to help strip away negative associations.

     But it wasn’t until 1987 that the New York Times started to use ‘gay’ instead of ‘homosexual,’ and they set off the term ‘gay marriage’ in quotation marks until 2008.     

     Now there is a hateful political effort to try to associate ‘gay’ with the idea of ‘grooming.’ No way! “Just say gay!” is our well-earned marker of pride and equality – and happiness!

Article: “The Decline and Fall of the ‘H’ Word” --

First Gay Pride Parade in Syracuse


   In June 1985 the Gay/Lesbian Conference of Syracuse decided for the first time to have an outdoor public rally as part of their weekend celebration of Syracuse Pride '85. Harry Freeman-Jones, chair of the outreach committee, said, "The frustration in the gay community is so great, that we feel the need to make some kind of public statement."

   About 100 members of the LGBTQ community gathered in Columbus Circle to commemorate the birth of the modern gay rights movement after the Stonewall rebellion in June of 1969. They did so in defiance of a court ruling that required them to purchase $1 million of insurance coverage or sign a liability waiver. They claimed this request was a violation of their first amendment rights to free speech, as they prepared participants for possible arrest. 

   The police did not interfere, and Willard Doswell, then president of the conference, and Jeanne Staunton, a member, stood at the podium and declared "Gay and Lesbian Pride Day."

   The rally came one day after Rep. George Wortley (R-Fayetteville) had stated at a town meeting that homosexuals don't belong in public schools as educators. One participant said, "I have to protect my identity because there are many people who don't want homosexuals teaching in schools." He wore a banner that said "Support Gay Teachers. We Are Everywhere." A few rally participants wore paper bags over the heads to protect their identities and stood as a silent reminder of the closeted lives of all too many LGBTQ folks. 

   Jan Phillips called on participants to not be afraid, saying "it's time that we take some risks. That's what I'm here to encourage people to do." Harry Freeman-Jones directed the crowd to push for legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against us. 


Read the Post Standard articles about the event here.


Queer Spaces


As we look back at the lives and experiences of different LGBTQ people, we come across references to places and communities, to specific locations, which give us a glimpse into how LGBTQ folks fashioned their lives in different cultural and political contexts.  

In the early 1960’s cross-dressing men and transgender women spent weekends at Casa Susanna, a bungalow camp in the Catskills. This was a time when public cross-dressing was a crime, and weekends at Casa Susanna gave guests a chance to feel real and valued.  A weekend stay cost $25, which included food, lodging, and lessons in make-up. The book Casa Susanna is a collection of photographs of the guests who came – and inspired Harvey Feinstein’s play Casa Valentina. Check out this trailer from a new documentary about Casa Susanna (  

In the 1970’s the abandoned piers of the Hudson River in NYC became a site for extraordinary works of art, nude sunbathing, and anonymous sex. Artists collaborated to transform the decaying buildings of Pier 34 into art studios and exhibition spaces, and Pier 46 was what someone called ‘an arena for sexual theater.’ The book Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront by Jonathan Weinberg draws on works of art, interviews, and a variety of source material to look at this ‘golden age’ of art and radical sexuality between Stonewall and the beginning of HIV/AIDS.  

Founded in 1974 the Lesbian Herstory Archives were first housed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A volunteer-run archives, LHA gathered one of the largest collections of records ‘by and about lesbians and their communities’ with the goal of preserving lesbian heritage and culture. As one of the LHA’s coordinators said, “Most people would throw everything out about lesbians, or only keep the negative things…. But the Archives house the collective memory of what happened to us a group.” Check out the history of the archives and explore the digital resources (<>). 

Previous History Page Topics

1970s Gay Liberation Strategies: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries at (<


Uprisings before Stonewall: Queer Resistance. Find out more about: the seven riots that set the stage for Stonewall; the 1958 Do-Nuts riot in Los Angeles; the 1961 brawl at Black Nite in Milwaukee,  and the 1966 'sip-in' protests here. Find out about the Compton's Cafeteria riot in 1966 in San Francisco here

Should Marriage Between Homosexuals Be Permitted? A 1974 Debate

The Advocates was a series of debates recorded at Boston's Faneuil Hall, with a moderator facilitating a discussion of national and international issues. On May 2, 1974, the topic of debate was: Should Marriage Between Homosexuals Be Permitted? Enjoy the debate, video and transcript, here.

Digital Transgender Archive :  An extensive online hub that gathers digitized historical materials and born-digital materials from archival holdings throughout the world. See postcards of female and male impersonators and crossdressers between 1900-1931 here.  Listen to contemporary oral histories of trans people color in NYC recorded by SAGE here. View the board game, "All Dressed Up" here.

Reclaiming Early LGBTQ Cultures:  Queer Bronzeville:  (<>).

To learn more read around in Queer Bronzeville by Tristan Cabello, which tells this history of African American gays and lesbians on Chicago's South Side. Or learn more about early LGBTQ culture in NYC by reading around in When Brooklyn was Queer by Hugh Ryan. See (<>). 

Harry Hay, who helped to establish the Mattachine Society and Radical Faeires.

See the Mattachine Newsletter, One here and an interview with Harry here

Barbara Gittingsa lifelong proponent of LGBTQ rights, including work with the Daughters of Bilitis.

See a collection of her papers here.   See issues of Daughters of Bilitis Newsletter, The Ladder, here

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