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A black and white collage of people from various eras, some reading newspapers. The word Library appears at the top with a rainbow in the middle.
Screenshot from the video "Finding LGBTQIA+ History Hidden in Historic Newspapers," Serial and Government Publications Division.

Finding LGBTQIA+ History Hidden in Newspapers

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The following is a guest post by Meg Metcalf. Meg is the Women’s, Gender and LGBTQIA+ Studies Collection Specialist at the Library of Congress and a Reference Librarian in the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room. 

Historic newspapers are a rich yet often overlooked resource when it comes to studying LGBTQIA+ history. Learn search techniques and strategies unique to newspaper research by watching our new video presentation: Finding LGBTQIA+ History Hidden in Newspapers. This presentation provides recommended search tips and strategies, focusing primarily on the kinds of unique resources that can be found in our Chronicling America* historic newspaper collection.

For much of history, LGBTQIA+ people and places were generally hidden from plain sight due to social and legal persecution, which presents a number of research challenges. How can you find information about something or someone that had to hide in order to exist? One of the most important factors is finding the correct historical terms to employ in your search strategy. At this time, Chronicling America retrieves newspapers from 1770-1963, so modern terms will not generally bring up the results you are searching for.

Part of a newspaper page featuring images of a person in a men's suit jacket and the same person dressed as a woman.
“He Wears a Corset,” The Ogden Standard (Ogden, UT), May 22, 1915. This article uses the terms “feminine imitation” and “female impersonator.”

Let’s say you wanted to find articles about the history of LGBTQIA+ bars and community organizing and resistance in those spaces. Phrases like “gay bar” would not be advised, because the term “gay” was used differently in the time period covered by Chronicling America. Places of importance to LGBTQIA+ communities were also not limited to businesses, so “bar” is also a term that would limit your results. Here are a few search tips you can try using Chronicling America:

  1. Try using the “With the Phrase” search function using the names and/or addresses of known establishments, like the Pepper Hill Club in Baltimore, Maryland or Café Lafitte in New Orleans, Louisiana. In addition to searching various iterations of the name, try to search by venue address to potentially find additional results.
  2. Search by address or venue name with variations. Newspapers often referred to venues by their various local names. For example, searching for the early lesbian bar, “Mona’s 440 Club” doesn’t generate as many results as searching “With the Phrase” 440 Club. This is also due to the venue’s change in name from Mona’s 440 Club to Ann’s 440 Club. Name changes have been common in LGBTQIA+ spaces due to the need to stay secret, as well as the unique challenges of keeping the business or event running.
  3. Limit your time period. When I searched “Finocchio’s Club” without constraints, there were too many irrelevant results to look through. By limiting the years to 1936-later, and searching using “Finocchio” and the name of the venue owner, Joseph/Joe/Mr. Finocchio, it’s possible to further narrow your results down and find relevant articles.
  4. Vary your spelling. Notably, articles about the first known queen of drag, William Dorsey Swann, employ various spellings (such as Wm Dorsey Swann, Dorsey Swann) so be sure to include alternative spellings as part of your strategy.

    Text of a newspaper article.
    “Colored Men in Female Attire,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 13, 1888.
  5. Use terms, phrases or names associated with specific events. For example, drag balls were often referred to as pansy or fairy balls. The art of drag has also had many names for performers including femme mimic, male/female impersonator, female masquerade, and more.  You can also search for a specific performer, like Gladys Bentley.
A group of African American performers pose for the camera
“The Make Harlem Laugh and Relax,” The Detroit Tribune (Detroit, MI), June 6, 1936.

One of the most important considerations when undertaking research using historical newspapers will be your choice of search terms. Think carefully about what other terms may have been used to describe the places, events, or concepts you are trying to find. If you need help developing terms to use in your search strategy, or are having trouble locating resources for your research, write to our librarians and they will be happy to assist you. For additional search tips and strategies, watch Finding LGBTQIA+ History Hidden in Newspaper and Periodicals, or visit the LGBTQIA+ Studies Resource Guide.

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC

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Comments (2)

  1. Why is the term Queer NOT seen as a negative
    What is the history of the + sign and its meaning?


    • From Meg: Queer is a term that many people use to self-identify. This term has been in use since the 1980s and is widely embraced as a positive term. Because language is constantly evolving, new terms have been adopted which were not included in the original acronym. The + symbol represents those who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but whose identity is not captured by the acronym of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, Intersex or Asexual, but who use a different term to self-identify. Examples of identities covered by the + sign would be non-binary, pansexual, etc. I hope this is helpful!

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