In the United States, queer people, facing centuries of discrimination and persecution, have been victims of erasure from the American narrative. Only a select few have broken through the “rainbow ceiling” into popular historical and literary study, and most of them have been in the past fifty years. Queer people have either been pushed out all-together, or as in the cases of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, have had parts of their identity erased to allow them to exist in the American narrative.
This collection strives to include work both by canonical authors like Whitman and Dickinson, and by lesser well-known authors like Jennie June and Publick Universal Friend to demonstrate the spectrum of erasure queer people have historically been subject to.
These eleven authors are a small sampling from the overwhelming amount of queer, American authors available, and the work selected, an even smaller sampling. However, they are compiled to offer a small glimpse into the world of queer existence in each time period as well as proof of centuries of queerness in the United States.
The authors here have complex relationships with their sexual and/or gender identities. The works included have been carefully selected to represent their unique queerness to best respect each author’s identities.
For this collection, I define a person as “queer” if they do not exhibit cisgender or heterosexual identities, and would therefore fit into contemporary definitions of LGBTQIA+ identity. I realize the issue of putting historical figures into contemporary language, especially considering how definitions of sexuality and gender have changed over time, however, this collection focuses on expressions of queerness as opposed to queer identification.
While reading works from the first two sections, it is important to keep in mind the historical context in which each was written. While each author has their own introduction and small biography before the excerpt, I would like to express that gender and sexuality identity is a very broad concept and our current understanding, as well as our historical understanding, are just best guesses at categorizing an identity spectrum. Just like our culture today, each author’s understanding of their identity is influenced by social constructs in place. For example, Jennie June often refers to herself as an “introvert,” a term of late nineteenth century psychology, and Publick Universal Friend’s apparent genderless identity often being intertwined with their sexual abstinence.
Two authors of this collection, namely Publick Universal Friend and Jennie June, are often referred to in academic studies by their birth names: Jemima Wilkinson and Earl Lind respectively. However, out of respect for the authors, I insist on using each author’s preferred name and pronouns. So I will refer to Jennie June with feminine pronouns and Publick Universal Friend with gender neutral pronouns.