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Lesbian American history addresses the history of lesbians in the United States. Primary resources for lesbian American history are scant.
Laws against lesbian sexual activity were suggested but mostly not created or enforced in early American history. In 1636, John Cotton proposed a law for Massachusetts Bay making sex between two women (or two men) a capital offense, but the law was not enacted. It would have read, "Unnatural filthiness, to be punished with death, whether sodomy, which is carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery, which is carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls ". In 1655, the Connecticut Colony passed a law against sodomy between women (as well as between men), but nothing came of this either. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law stating that, "Whosoever shall be guilty of rape, polygamy, or sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro' the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least," but this also did not become law. However, in 1649 in Plymouth Colony, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were prosecuted for "lewd behavior with each other upon a bed"; their trial documents are the only known record of sex between female English colonists in North America in the 17th century. Mary was only admonished, perhaps because she was younger than sixteen, but in 1650 Sarah Norman was convicted and required to acknowledge publicly her "unchaste behavior" with Mary Hammon, as well as warned against future offenses. This may be the only conviction for lesbianism in American history.
In the 19th century lesbians were only accepted if they hid their sexual orientation and were presumed to be merely friends with their partners. For example, the term "Boston Marriage" was used to describe a committed relationship between two unmarried women who were usually financially independent and often shared a house; these relationships were presumed to be asexual, and hence the women were respected as "spinsters" by their communities. Notable women in Boston Marriages included Sarah Jewett and Annie Adams Fields, as well as Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith. However, in the 19th century openly lesbian women were thought to be mentally ill. Those admitted to insane asylums often faced forced marriages. While in asylums, furthermore, they were subject to being sexually abused and raped under the care of their physicians in the belief that sexual encounters with men would "cure" them.
The earliest published studies of lesbian activity were written in the early 19th century, and many were based on observations of, and data gathered from, incarcerated women. Margaret Otis published "A Perversion Not Commonly Noted" in the 1913 Journal of American Psychology, coupling a decidedly Puritanical moral foundation with an almost revolutionary sympathy for lesbian relationships; her focus revolved more around her revulsion for sexual contact between those of different ethnic backgrounds, yet offered an almost radical tolerance of the lesbian relations themselves, as Otis noted "...sometimes the love [of one young woman for another] is very real and seems almost ennobling ". This document provided a rare view from a tightly controlled setting monitored by a corrections supervisor. Kate Richards O'Hare, imprisoned in 1917 for five years under the Espionage Act of 1917, published a firsthand account of the life of incarcerated women In Prison complete with frightening accounts of lesbian sexual abuse among inmates. So wrote O'Hare: "...A thorough education in sex perversions is part of the educational system of most prisons, and for the most part the underkeepers [sic] and the stool pigeons are very efficient teachers..." O'Hare then recounted a systematic induction of women into a cycle of forced prostitution to which authorities turned a blind eye: "...there seems to be considerable ground for the commonly accepted belief of the prison inmates that much of its graft and profits may percolate upward to the under officials...the...stool pigeon...handled the vices so rampant in the prison...she, in fact, held the power of life and death over us, by being able to secure endless punishments in the blind cell, she could and did compel indulgence in this vice in order that its profits might be secured ".
Lesbians also became somewhat more prominent in American literature at this time. In the early 20th century Paris became a haven for many lesbian writers who set up salons there and were able to live their lives in relative openness; the most famous Americans of these were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who lived together there as a couple for many years, and wrote much acclaimed and famous literature. In 1922, Gertrude Stein published "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene", a story based on the real-life American lesbian couple Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars, who had come to see Stein and Toklas in Paris. In 1923, lesbian Elsa Gidlow, born in England, published the first volume of openly lesbian love poetry in the United States, titled "On A Grey Thread."
Yet openly lesbian literature was still subject to censorship. In 1928, British lesbian author Radclyffe Hall wrote a tragic novel of lesbian love called "The Well of Loneliness"; after the book was banned in England, Hall lost her first American publisher. In New York, John Saxton Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and several police detectives seized 865 copies of The Well from her second American publisher's offices, and Donald Friede was charged with selling an obscene publication. But Friede and his publishing partner Pascal Covici had already moved the printing plates out of New York in order to continue publishing the book. By the time the case came to trial, it had already been reprinted six times. Despite its price of $5 — twice the cost of an average novel — it would sell over 100,000 copies in its first year. In the US, as in the UK, the Hicklin test of obscenity applied, but New York case law had established that books should be judged by their effects on adults rather than on children and that literary merit was relevant. Morris Ernst, co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, obtained statements from authors including Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, Ellen Glasgow, and John Dos Passos. To make sure these supporters did not go unheard, he incorporated their opinions into his brief. His argument relied on a comparison with Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier, which had been cleared of obscenity in the 1922 case Halsey v. New York. Mademoiselle de Maupin described a lesbian relationship in more explicit terms than The Well did. According to Ernst, The Well had greater social value because it was more serious in tone and made a case against misunderstanding and intolerance. In an opinion issued on 19 February 1929, Magistrate Hyman Bushel declined to take the book's literary qualities into account and said The Well was "calculated to deprave and corrupt minds open to its immoral influences". Under New York law, however, Bushel was not a trier of fact; he could only remand the case to the New York Court of Special Sessions for judgment. On 19 April, that court issued a three-paragraph decision stating that The Well's theme — a "delicate social problem" — did not violate the law unless written in such a way as to make it obscene. After "a careful reading of the entire book", they cleared it of all charges. Covici-Friede then imported a copy of the Pegasus Press edition from France as a further test case and to solidify the book's U.S. copyright. Customs barred the book from entering the country, which might also have prevented it from being shipped from state to state. The United States Customs Court, however, ruled that the book did not contain "one word, phrase, sentence or paragraph which could be truthfully pointed out as offensive to modesty". Paperback editions of The Well became available in the 1950s.
Most literature of the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s presented lesbian life as tragedy, ending with either the suicide of the lesbian character or her conversion to heterosexuality. This was required so that the authorities did not declare the literature obscene. Furthermore, the Hays Code, which was in operation from 1930 until 1967, prohibited the depiction of homosexuality in all Hollywood films. For example, The Stone Wall, a lesbian autobiography with an unhappy ending, was published in 1930 under the pseudonym Mary Casal. It was one of the first lesbian autobiographies. Yet as early as 1939, Frances V. Rummell, an educator and a teacher of French at Stephens College, published the first explicitly lesbian autobiography in which two women end up happily together, titled Diana: A Strange Autobiography.. This autobiography was published with a note saying, "The publishers wish it expressly understood that this is a true story, the first of its kind ever offered to the general reading public"  The first American magazine written for lesbians, "Vice Versa: America's Gayest Magazine," was published from 1947–1948. It was written by a lesbian secretary named Edith Eyde, writing under the pen name Lisa Ben, an anagram for lesbian. She produced only nine issues of Vice Versa, typing two originals of each with carbons. She learned that she could not mail them due to possible obscenity charges, and even had difficulty distributing them by hand in lesbian bars such as the If Club.
Many lesbians found solace in the all-female environment of the U.S. Women's Army Corps. But this demanded secrecy, as from World War I until 1993 lesbians were not allowed to serve in the U.S. military. From 1993 until 2011 lesbians were only allowed to serve in the military if they kept their sexuality secret which was known as the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. Over the years the military not only dismissed women who announced their lesbianism, but sometimes went on "witch hunts" for lesbians in the ranks. In 1947, Johnnie Phelps, a member of the Women's Army Corps (WACs) and a lesbian, was told by General Eisenhower, "It's come to my attention that there are lesbians in the WACs, we need to ferret them out...." Johnnie Phelps said, "If the General pleases, sir, I'll be happy to do that, but the first name on the list will be mine." Eisenhower's secretary added, "If the General pleases, sir, my name will be first and hers will be second." Phelps then told Eisenhower, "Sir, you're right, there are lesbians in the WACs – and if you want to replace all the file clerks, section commanders, drivers, every woman in the WAC detachment, I will be happy to make that list. But you must know, sir, that they are the most decorated group – there have been no illegal pregnancies, no AWOLs, no charges of misconduct." Eisenhower dropped the idea.
"Spring Fire," the first lesbian paperback novel, and the beginning of the lesbian pulp fiction genre, was published in 1952 and sold 1.5 million copies. It was written by lesbian Marijane Meaker under the false name Vin Packer, and ended unhappily. 1952 also saw the publication of lesbian classic "The Price of Salt", written by lesbian Patricia Highsmith under the false name Clare Morgan, in which the women break up but are implied to possibly get back together in the end. In the middle of the 1950s the obscenity regulations began to relax, and happy endings to lesbian romances became possible. However, publications addressing homosexuality were officially deemed obscene under the Comstock Act until 1958. Another landmark in lesbian literature of the 1950s came in 1953, when Alfred Kinsey published "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," in which he noted that 13% of the women he studied had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm (vs. 37% for men); while including homosexual experience that did not lead to orgasm raised the figure for women to 20%. In addition, he noted that somewhere between 1% and 2% of the women he studied were exclusively homosexual (vs. 4% of the men).
In the 1950s the lesbian rights movement first began in America. The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was founded in San Francisco in 1955 by four lesbian couples (including Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon) and was the first national lesbian political and social organization in the United States. The group's name came from "Songs of Bilitis," a lesbian-themed song cycle by French poet Pierre Louÿs, which described the fictional Bilitis as a resident of the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho. DOB's activities included hosting public forums on homosexuality, offering support to isolated, married, and mothering lesbians, and participating in research activities. Del Martin became DOB's first president, and Phyllis Lyon became the editor of the organization's monthly lesbian magazine, "The Ladder", which was launched in October 1956 and continued until 1972, having reached print runs of almost 3,800 copies. Kay Lahusen, the first openly gay or lesbian photojournalist of the gay rights movement, photographed lesbians for several of the covers of The Ladder from 1964 to 1966 while her partner, Barbara Gittings, was the editor; previously there had been drawings of people and cats and such on the covers. The first photograph of lesbians on the cover was done in September 1964, showing two women from the back, on a beach looking out to sea. The first lesbian to appear on the cover with her face showing was Lilli Vincenz in January 1966. Daughters of Bilitis ended in 1970.
The first public protests for equal rights for gay and lesbian people were staged at governmental offices and historic landmarks in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. between 1965 and 1969. In DC, protesters picketed in front of the White House, Pentagon, and the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Lilli Vincenz was the only self-identified lesbian to participate in the second White House picket. The other two women at that picket were heterosexually married, though one, J.D., identified herself as a bisexual. Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings was also among the picketers of the White House at some protests, and often among the annual picketers outside Independence Hall.
The modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement began in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots, when police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. Lesbian Stormé DeLarverie was clubbed by the police, which was the pivotal moment in the street disturbances that spurred the crowd to start rioting. Lesbian Martha Shelley was also in Greenwich Village the night of the Stonewall Riot with women who were starting a Daughters of Bilitis chapter in Boston. Recognizing the significance of the event and being politically aware she proposed a protest march and as a result DOB and Mattachine sponsored a demonstration. According to an article in the program for the first San Francisco pride march she was one of the first four members of the Gay Liberation Front, the others being Michael Brown, Jerry Hoose, and Jim Owles.
Lesbians were also active in the feminist movement. The first time lesbian concerns were introduced into the National Organization for Women came in 1969, when Ivy Bottini, an open lesbian who was then president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, held a public forum titled "Is Lesbianism a Feminist Issue?". However, National Organization for Women president Betty Friedan was against lesbian participation in the movement. In 1969 she referred to growing lesbian visibility as a "lavender menace" and fired openly lesbian newsletter editor Rita Mae Brown, and in 1970 she engineered the expulsion of lesbians, including Ivy Bottini, from NOW's New York chapter. In reaction, at the 1970 Congress to Unite Women, on the first evening when all four hundred feminists were assembled in the auditorium, twenty women wearing t-shirts that read "Lavender Menace" came to the front of the room and faced the audience. One of the women then read their group's paper "The Woman-Identified Woman", which was the first major lesbian feminist statement. The group, who later named themselves "Radicalesbians", were among the first to challenge the heterosexism of heterosexual feminists and to describe lesbian experience in positive terms. In 1971 NOW expanded its agenda to include lesbian rights.
Lesbian separatism became popular in the 1970s as some lesbians doubted whether mainstream society or even the LGBT movement had anything to offer them. In 1970, seven women (including Del Martin) confronted the North American Conference of Homophile [meaning homosexual] Organizations about the relevance of the gay rights movement to the women within it. The delegates passed a resolution in favor of women's liberation, but Del Martin felt they had not done enough, and wrote "If That's All There Is", an influential 1970 essay in which she decried gay rights organizations as sexist. In the summer of 1971, a lesbian group calling themselves "The Furies" formed a commune open to lesbians only, where they put out a monthly newspaper. "The Furies" consisted of twelve women, aged eighteen to twenty-eight, all feminists, all lesbians, all white, with three children among them. They shared chores and clothes, lived together, held some of their money in common, and slept on mattresses on a common floor. They also started a school to teach women auto and home repair so they would not be dependent on men. The newspaper lasted from January 1972 to June 1973; the commune itself ended in 1972.
Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings remained in the LGBT movement and worked to make female and male homosexuality acceptable to psychiatry. She was a discussion leader for the American Psychiatric Association panel on "Life Styles of Non-Patient Homosexuals," which included Del Martin as one of six panelists. In 1972, she organized the appearance of "Dr. H. Anonymous," a gay psychiatrist who appeared wearing a mask to conceal his identity and joined a panel that she and others participated in titled "Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals? A Dialogue". This spurred the beginning of an official homosexual group within the APA. Also in 1972, and again in 1976 and 1978, Barbara organized and staffed exhibits on homosexuality at yearly APA conferences. Largely due to these efforts, the APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973. Gay rights activist Frank Kameny called Barbara the "Founding Mother" of the movement.
In the 1970s open lesbians also began their first forays into American politics. In 1972, Nancy Wechsler became the first openly gay or lesbian person in political office in America; she was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in 1972 as a member of the Human Rights Party and came out as a lesbian during her first and only term there. That same year, Madeline Davis became the first openly lesbian delegate elected to a major political convention when she was elected to the Democratic National Convention in Miami, Florida. She addressed the convention in support of the inclusion of a gay rights plank in the Democratic Party platform. In 1974, Elaine Noble became the first openly gay or lesbian candidate ever elected to a state-level office in America when she was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She had come out as a lesbian during her campaign. Furthermore, the first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to any political office in America was Kathy Kozachenko, who was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in April 1974. In 1977, Anne Kronenberg, who was openly lesbian, was Harvey Milk's campaign manager during his San Francisco Board of Supervisors campaign, and later worked as his aide while he held that office. In 1978, Sally Miller Gearhart fought alongside Harvey Milk to defeat Proposition 6 (also known as the "Briggs Initiative" because it was sponsored by John Briggs), which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools in California. Gearhart debated John Briggs about the initiative, which was defeated. A clip of their debate appeared in the documentary film The Times of Harvey Milk, which also included Gearhart talking about working with Milk against Proposition 6, and appearances by Anne Kronenberg.
In 1979, the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was held, in Washington, D.C. on October 14. It drew between 75,000 and 125,000 lesbians, bisexual and transgender people, gay men, and straight allies to demand equal civil rights and urge the passage of protective civil rights legislation. The march was led by the Salsa Soul Sisters, a lesbian group, who carried the official march banner. Charlotte Bunch and Audre Lourde were the only lesbians who spoke at the main rally. The march was organized by lesbians Lucia Valeska and Robin Tyler, as well as two other activists.
Lesbians had some success in being integrated into religious life in the 1980s. In 1984 Reconstructionist Judaism became the first Jewish denomination to allow openly lesbian rabbis and cantors. In 1985 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ordained Deborah Brin as the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi in Judaism. In 1988 Stacy Offner became the first openly lesbian rabbi hired by a mainstream Jewish congregation, Shir Tikvah Congregation of Minneapolis (a Reform Jewish congregation). Years of debate in the 1980s also led to Reform Judaism deciding to allow openly lesbian rabbis and cantors in 1990.
In the 1990s lesbians became more visible in politics. In 1990, Dale McCormick became the first open lesbian elected to a state Senate (she was elected to the Maine Senate). In 1991, Sherry Harris was elected to the City Council in Seattle, Washington, making her the first openly lesbian African-American elected official. In 1993, Roberta Achtenberg became the first openly gay or lesbian person to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate when she was appointed to the position of Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity by President Bill Clinton. Deborah Batts became the first openly gay or lesbian federal judge in 1994; she was appointed to the U.S. District Court in New York.  In 1998 Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay or lesbian non-incumbent ever elected to Congress, and the first open lesbian ever elected to Congress, winning Wisconsin's 2nd congressional district seat over Josephine Musser.
Entertainment also began to show more lesbian stories and openly lesbian performers. In 1991, the first lesbian kiss on television occurred on "L.A. Law" between the fictional characters of C.J. Lamb (played by Amanda Donohoe) and Abby (Michele Greene). Singer Melissa Etheridge came out as a lesbian in 1993, during the Triangle Ball, the first inaugural ball to ever be held in honor of gays and lesbians. Subsequently her album "Your Little Secret" went multiplatinum, making her one of the most successful openly lesbian singers ever. She also won a Grammy Award in 1995 for Best Female Rock Vocalist. In 1996, the first lesbian wedding on television was held for fictional characters Carol (played by Jane Sibbett) and Susan (played by Jessica Hecht) on the TV show "Friends". In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian, one of the first celebrities to do so, and later that year her character Ellen Morgan came out as a lesbian on the TV show "Ellen", making her the first openly lesbian actress to play an openly lesbian character on television.
There were several prominent legal successes for lesbians in the 1990s. In 1993 the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was enacted, which mandated that the military could not ask servicemembers about their sexual orientation or go on "witch hunts" to find and expel homosexual service members. However, until the policy was ended in 2011 service members were still expelled from the military if they engaged in sexual conduct with a member of the same sex, stated that they were lesbian, and/or married or attempted to marry someone of the same sex. In 1994, fear of persecution due to sexual orientation became grounds for asylum in the United States. Domestic partnerships were legalized in California in 1999 - the first state to do so, and therefore, the first state to legally recognize same-sex relationships. Lesbian legislator Carole Migden was the primary author and sponsor of the domestic partnership bills. Several other states have legalized domestic partnerships since.
In 2000, civil unions were legalized in Vermont (the first state to do so) and Carolyn Conrad and Kathleen Peterson became the first couple in the United States to be civilly united. Several other states have legalized civil unions since. Same-sex marriages also began to be legally recognized in the 2000s. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in the United States in 2004., when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed city hall to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples  However, all same-sex marriages done in 2004 in California were annulled. After the California Supreme Court decision in 2008 that granted same-sex couples in California the right to marry, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon remarried, and were again the first same-sex couple in the state to marry. Later in 2008 Prop 8 illegalized same-sex marriage in California, but the marriages that occurred between the California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the approval of Prop 8 illegalizing it are still considered valid, including the marriage of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. However, Del Martin died in 2008. In 2004, same-sex marriage was legalized in the state of Massachusetts, and Marcia Hams and Sue Shepard became the first same-sex couple to marry in Massachusetts,. In March 2004, same-sex marriage was legalized in part of Oregon, as after researching the issue and getting two legal opinions, the commissioners decided Oregon's Constitution would not allow them to discriminate against same-sex couples. The Chairwoman of the Board of Commissioners ordered the clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses. Mary Li of Portland and her partner, 42-year-old Becky Kennedy, became the first same-sex couple to marry in Oregon. However, later that year, Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as involving one man and one woman. The same-sex marriages from 2004 were ruled void by the Oregon Supreme Court. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Connecticut in 2008, and state Rep. Beth Bye and her girlfriend Tracey Wilson became the first same-sex couple to marry in Connecticut. That same year, at the request of a lesbian couple (Kitzen and Jeni Branting), the Coquille Indian Tribe on the southern Oregon coast adopted a law recognizing same-sex marriage. Tribal law specialists said the Coquille may be the first tribe to sanction such marriages. In 2009 Kitzen and Jeni Branting married in the Coquille Indian tribe's Coos Bay plankhouse, a 3-year-old meeting hall built in traditional Coquille style with cedar plank walls. They were the first same-sex couple to have their marriage recognized by the tribe, of which Kitzen was a member. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Iowa in 2009, and Shelley Wolfe and Melisa Keeton became the first lesbian couple (and the second same-sex couple) to marry in Iowa. same-sex marriage was legalized in Vermont in 2009, and Claire Williams and Cori Giroux became one of the first same-sex couples to marry in Vermont (others including them married the moment same-sex marriage was legalized). In 2010, same-sex marriage was legalized in the District of Columbia, and Sinjoyla Townsend and Angelisa Young became the first same-sex couple to marry in the District of Columbia. That year same-sex marriage was also legalized in New Hampshire, and Linda Murphy and Donna Swartwout became one of the first same-sex couples to marry in New Hampshire (others including them married the moment same-sex marriage was legalized). In 2011, Courtney Mitchell and Sarah Welton, both from Colorado, were married in Nepal's first public lesbian wedding ceremony, although the marriage was not legally recognized in Nepal. Same-sex marriage was legalized in New York state in 2011, and Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd became the first same-sex couple to be married in New York state. Also in that year, the Suquamish tribe of Washington State adopted a law proposed by a young lesbian tribal member (Heather Purser) recognizing same-sex marriage.
There were three significant legal victories for lesbians in this time. In 2009, due to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act being signed into law, the definition of federal hate crime was expanded to include those violent crimes in which the victim is selected due to their sexual orientation; previously federal hate crimes were defined as only those violent crimes where the victim is selected due to their race, color, religion, or national origin. In 2011, the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was ended, allowing lesbians in the U.S. military to be open about their sexuality. The FAIR Education Act (Senate Bill 48) became law in California in 2011; this law requires the inclusion of the political, economic, and social contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and people with disabilities in California's educational textbooks and the social studies curricula in California public schools.
Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, one of the first celebrities to do so, and later that year her character Ellen Morgan came out as a lesbian on the TV show "Ellen", making her the first openly lesbian actress to play an openly lesbian character on television. In 2007 she became the first open lesbian to host the Academy Awards. She is currently a talk show host, for which she has won four Emmys.