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Q&A with Dr. Randall Sell: The Importance of LGBT History

October 22 2012

Randy Sell

Dr. Randall Sell, an associate professor in the School of Public Health, said that as recently as the early 19th century, discussions about the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community were only communicated via word of mouth.

“There were a few novels that people passed around, as well as a few scientific books about homosexuality, but for the most part, people mostly just talked about it in private,” said Sell, whose work has focused on defining and measuring sexual orientations and sampling sexual minorities for public health research. “If you were gay and living in a rural area, there were a lot of people who spent their lives thinking they were sick or ill. There was an invisibility about LGBT [issues].”

Today, Sell is the director of the program for LGBT health, a certificate whose existence Sell says—despite the lack of substantial information available on sexual orientation and gender identity issues—shows strides in the general understanding and acknowledgement of the LGBT community.

In honor of LGBT history month, DrexelNow talked to Sell about his role as an academic and community historian in the LGBT community—and why learning about gay history is crucial to a comprehensive education.

Tell us about your background in studying LGBT history.

I started searching the literature and books, looking at how people have collected information on sexual orientation in the past. When I was in Boston doing my dissertation [at Harvard University] in the early ‘90s, I would go into bookstores and ask if there were any books on homosexuality or sex. Most of the time the books they had were kept in boxes in the back. Looking back, most of these books were probably from collections of people who were dying with AIDS.

Now, most of my research is involved in the collection of sexual orientation data. The government conducts tens of thousands of surveys, and in them they monitor all sorts of health concerns. But if you don’t collect data on sexual orientation, you don’t know the rates [at which LGBT people] are affected. The same goes for gender identity—if you don’t have information, you can’t fully understand the health and potentially help those who are transgender.

When I started doing this 25 years ago, there was not a single survey from the federal government about LGBT people, so we knew very little, and what people believed to be true, we had very little evidence to show.

For context, the volume of literature on how to collect race data—an incredibly complex subject—would probably fill the Bellet Building. I would say that literature on sexual orientation and gender identity would fill a file cabinet in my office at best. Even so, there is very little about lesbians and bisexual people—the vast majority of the little information out there is about gay men and transgender people.

What kinds of historical memorabilia have you collected over the years?

I have the first gay guide to any city ever published—The Gabriel’s Guide to New York. If you had owned this and someone found you with it, you would have been fired. You could have even been put into an asylum for mental health issues.

I have the first editions of the very first gay magazine, [One: The Homosexual Magazine], which was published in 1953. The magazine was just filled with stories, poetry—nothing even slightly offensive. But the publishers of One were sued [for essentially] sending pornography through the mail. The case went to the Supreme Court, and the court ruled that it was not pornography. It was the first ruling ever in favor of gay rights.

I have a print from the late 1870s, which people would print and give to people getting off of boats. They were sort of comical on the front to grab people’s attention, and on the back there were advertisements—one with a fairy or very effeminate gay man on the front.

The Kinsey Reports were highly criticized studies on human sexual behavior, and there was a well-known statistical analysis funded to see how well Kinsey had done by [William] Cochran, [John] Tukey and [Frederick] Mosteller. I have one of Mosteller’s copies of their report—I know this because there was as letter inside from Mosteller addressing it to someone.

I have also found invitations to the openings of some of the most famous gay bars. I even have someone’s pass to Studio 52—I have lots of little things like that, too.

What is the importance of learning about LGBT history—whether you identify as gay or otherwise?

People have asked me why we created the LGBT certificate [offered in the School of Public Health], and it came to me that the answer was simply, someone needs to teach this. For people studying public health or medicine, the amount of content they’re getting on LGBT health is so small that to understand anything they would have to go out and learn it on their own. It’s one of these things that’s just not represented in history books—there’s this invisibility.

Over the years, I have seen this shift of people not being afraid to study [LGBT issues.] It used to be that if you cared or wanted to know about the topic, you would be labeled as gay, and there’s a fear of stigma that comes with that. Now, people are actually wanting to learn about it because they understand there’s an importance to it, like we’ve learned there is for certain other topics like race or gender.

With LGBT people, there’s this whole history of trying to cure sexual orientations. The use of medicine to control behavior is fascinating, and understanding that makes you think twice about what we are using medicine to control today, and also question if the things we label as diseases today as things we won’t label as diseases in the future. Law, religion and medicine have sort of each taken their turn in trying to deal with “the homosexual problem,” as it’s been labeled. Now what’s fascinating is that looking back, it’s all put into context. It wouldn’t be so fascinating if you didn’t understand the history behind it.