Author Interview: Interpreting LGBT History

Susan Ferentinos, author of Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, is interviewed by CrossTies contributing editor Linda Shopes.
Susan Ferentinos. Photograph by Matthew Hicks, courtesy of Susan Ferentinos.

Susan Ferentinos, author of Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, is interviewed below by CrossTies contributing editor Linda Shopes. The book includes a concise narrative overview of LGBT history in the United States from the colonial period to the present and case studies of efforts to present this history at public history institutions. Also included are a well-developed rationale for doing LGBT history in public and discussion of key issues to consider when doing so.

This is the first in what we intend to be an occasional series of interviews, conducted via email, with authors of recent books of significance to work in public humanities. Interpreting LGBT history was published this year by Rowman & Littlefield for the American Association for State and Local History. MARCH welcomes readers’ suggestions for future author interviews.

Question: How did you come to write Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites?

Answer: The book is part of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) series Interpreting History, written for museum professionals and public historians. The editorial team for the series was very committed to including a book on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history as an early offering in the series. I had recently co-authored an article with Kenneth C. Turino on LGBT interpretation for AASLH History News (“Entering the Mainstream,” Fall 2012), and the series editors invited me to submit a proposal for the book. I initially hesitated to sign on to the project because I was already working on a different book, but luckily I mentioned the invitation to Lois H. Silverman, who also works in the museum field. She was very enthusiastic about the idea and encouraged me to pursue the Interpreting LGBT History project. We spent the better part of a lunch date throwing ideas around, and that inspired me to see what literature already existed on the topic. I realized that the information available to museum professionals wanting to interpret this subject is quite scarce, and I was inspired by the prospect of putting my knowledge of the fields of LGBT history and public history to good use by offering an easy-to-use interpretive guide.

Cover Design by Rowman & Littlefield, used with permission

Q: The book raises important issues about why and how to interpret LGBT history and offers sound advice without preaching or proscribing any particular interpretive frame. For an institution thinking about addressing LGBT history in some way, what would you say should be the first step?

A: If an organization is going to launch a major interpretive effort in LGBT history, the first step is to build consensus among board members, staff, and major funders. Frank discussion of the benefits and risks of such an endeavor will enable the organization to move forward cohesively and be better prepared for whatever arises once the interpretive effort goes public.

In these discussions, I encourage everyone to keep in mind that controversy is not necessarily something to avoid. If we understand museums to be sites of public dialogue, then presenting historical topics with contemporary relevance that spark discussion should be our goal.

Q: LGBT history deals with two “nervous” subjects: sex and same sex love. Yet all heterosexual domestic or family history – not to mention the history of public life – includes elements of sex. That is to say, whether we recognize it or not, sex is implicated in a definition of heterosexuality as it is in homosexuality, is it not? So what do we do about that, interpretively? Why interpret the “sex” part of homosexuality, while not interpreting the “sex” part of heterosexuality. Or maybe we should also interpret sex – or heteronormativity – as part of everyday life in the past. Or is that asking too much?

A: You raise an important point: heterosexuality – and thus sexuality – is evident throughout museum interpretation, in works of art, in discussions of the natural world, and in biographical data about historical figures. But because we live in a culture that sees opposite-sex relationships and reproduction as the “normal” state of affairs, this implicit sexuality escapes notice and commentary. In contrast, discussion of same-sex relationships seems somehow more explicitly sexual in nature and often receives criticism for this reason, even when the specific topic relates to the fight for civil rights or community formation rather than actual sexual relationships. In my book, I urge readers to interrogate their assumptions, to make sure that they aren’t exercising a double standard when it comes to evaluating the “sexual” nature of material. For example, a love letter between two women might initially seem inappropriate for public display, but is the content truly sexual? Or is it simply evidence of deep romantic bonds, which – if expressed between a man and a woman – would not raise eyebrows or draw concerns about propriety.

African American female couple, c. 1900. Different historical eras have understood same-sex desire and affection in different ways. Considering these changes over time can illuminate unexamined assumptions of our own era. Photograph courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photograph Division.

At the same time, one of the benefits of exploring the history of same-sex love and desire stems from the topic’s ability to get to the heart of questions of power in society. Studying society’s scapegoats and outsiders sheds light on the assumptions and values embedded in a historical moment. And for LGBT folks, their historical outsider status rests largely (though not exclusively) with their sexual choices. And because of that, I would argue that sex is more integral to the story of LGBT history.

Q: I’m struck, in both your narrative and in the case studies, about the general lack of public hostility or protest to efforts at interpreting LGBT history. Is this is an accurate representation of the level of public acceptance or tolerance or maybe just general unwillingness to make a fuss? Are public history professionals perhaps unnecessarily anxious about making LGBT history part of their programming? Or are other factors at play here, like where the interpretations took place, how they were done, etc?

A: The debate over same-sex sexuality and transgender identity has shifted in some very important ways in the last few decades. Same-sex desire used to be “the love that dare not speak its name,” and now in the United States you would be hard-pressed to go a day engaging with mainstream culture – popular culture, the news, etc. – without encountering discussion of LGBT identities. Because of that, it’s hardly breaking news when museums and historic sites choose to introduce the topic. Very few people in this country are still arguing that this is not a subject for polite conversation. Rather, the debate has shifted more to questions of legal protection, religious sanction, and personal social choices. In many regions of the country, these issues are open for debate, as witnessed recently in my own state of Indiana, which tried to restrict service to LGBT people under the guise of religious freedom, and museums can provide a place to explore these issues. But I think it’s becoming increasingly rare for organizations to come under fire simply for broaching the subject of same-sex desire or gender variance.

Author Walt Whitman with his friend Peter Doyle, 1865. Sexual identity is often far more complicated than can be explained in single word labels. As such, language is an important consideration when planning interpretive efforts in LGBT history. Photograph courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photograph Division.

Q:. You address briefly the issue of mainstreaming LGBT history vs. special programming on the subject. Can you say a bit more about how to think through or handle this? Does this question reflect divergent views within the queer community – the “normalizing” gay marriage narrative vs. those who relish the continuing challenge to heteronormative family life and sexual practices? And what about the whole issue of sustainability once an institution starts down this path?

A: I’m so glad you brought up the different views on assimilation that exist within LGBT communities, because this is a debate that doesn’t receive much attention in the mainstream press. There is a strong, rich tradition of queer people critiquing and challenging dominant assumptions about gender, desire, and sexual expression, and many LGBT activists argue that the recent emphasis on obtaining legal protections only for relationships that mirror dominant cultural norms has siphoned energy away from more pressing concerns, such as protection from job discrimination, access to appropriate healthcare for transfolk, and a more encompassing critique of social inequality within the United States that explores the interconnections between various forms of oppression.

When tackling the question of special programming vs. integrating LGBT experiences into larger narratives, museum professionals should be aware of this parallel debate within LGBT communities. However, there are compelling reasons for choosing either interpretive approach, and so I do not come down strongly for one or the other. And in the book, I do remind readers that this is not an either/or proposition. Ideally, particularly with regard to sustainability, organizations will incorporate a variety of interpretive efforts over time.

Q: I was happily surprised to learn of several efforts at presenting LGBT in museums, historic sites, and libraries in the mid-Atlantic – also a bit chagrined at my own ignorance of these initiatives. Are you aware of other initiatives underway in the region [an opportunity here to mention the forthcoming exhibit at the Constitution Center]? Are you aware of as yet unrecognized or untapped interpretive opportunities in the region?

A: I grew up in Delaware, and so the mid-Atlantic region holds a special place in my heart. As such, I was happy to report on the various LGBT interpretive efforts going on in this part of the country, such as the Library Company of Philadelphia’s exhibit That’s So Gay: Outing Early America and the ongoing interpretive efforts at the Alice Austen House in New York. No doubt the number will only increase in the next five years as we hit the fiftieth anniversary of a number of milestone events. For example, the National Constitution Center is currently partnering with Philadelphia’s William Way Community Center on an exhibit that will run in summer 2015 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the start of a series of Independence Day protests held at the Liberty Bell to demand fairer treatment of homosexuals.

Members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a street performance troupe, raise awareness about queer sexuality in New York City, 2008. LGBT historical interpretation has the potential to expand audiences and interrogate questions of power within society. Photograph by David Shankbone, used with permission.

The mid-Atlantic is a particularly fertile region for interpreting LGBT history because there are sources related to same-sex love and desire going all the way back to the colonial era and continuing to the present. This presents the rare opportunity to discuss changing understandings of desire over the course of centuries. What role did sexual practices play in defining who was and was not a democratic citizen in the period after the American Revolution? How did nineteenth-century bachelor culture in eastern cities provide a means for men to connect sexually with other men? Why did the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City spark a national movement, while earlier incidents in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and DC did not? The mid-Atlantic lies at the heart of these explorations.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? What surprised you the most? And where are you going next with interpreting LGBT history in public?

This book gave me a real opportunity to grow as a scholar because it forced me to report on current events, something I had not done since my undergraduate days. As I originally conceived this book, the historical overview ended at the turn of the twenty-first century because I’m a historian and historians deal with the past. The past fifteen years seemed far too recent to subject to historical analysis.

A: But of course my editor (wisely) said, there is no way you can talk about LGBT history without talking about the present. Despite my discomfort, I had to agree with him, so I took a deep breath and started wading into contemporary sources. It was difficult; I did most of the writing in the twelve months following the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision, which declared unconstitutional the federal government’s interpretation of marriage as applying to heterosexual unions only. This set off a domino effect of changes to laws governing LGBT people. I was initially uncomfortable analyzing a political and cultural landscape that was literally changing on a daily basis. I had to let go of the luxury of historical perspective, but I also learned some valuable lessons about how to approach times of great change in the past.

Introductory panel from the Revealing Queer?exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. 2014. Photograph by Susan Ferentinos.

Now that the book is out, I will be working with a variety of museums and historic sites that are moving toward their own LGBT interpretation. Getting into on-the-ground interpretation and staff training is proving to be a refreshing balance to the solitary act of writing. I’m also excited about engaging with a parallel conversation about LGBT history that is taking place within the field of historic preservation. The National Park Service has recently launched an LGBTQ History initiative within its park and programs, and part of this effort involves the creation of a National Historic Landmark Theme Study on LGBTQ History, whose goal is to facilitate historic designation of properties related to LGBT history. Historic designation is a crucial step in preserving the tangible evidence of this part of the past. I am one of the co-authors of this theme study, and I plan to further participate in the NPS initiative effort through a series of national register and national landmark designations related to LGBT history.

Susan Ferentinos is a public history researcher, writer, and consultant based in Bloomington, Indiana, where she specializes in historical project management and using the past to build community. Her website, with contact information, is at