Queer Legal History: A Field Grows Up and Comes Out


Felicia Kornbluh is director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program and associate professor of history at the University of Vermont. The author would like to thank Mary Ann Case, Sarah Barringer Gordon, Dirk Hartog, Jon Goldberg-Hiller, and Mariana Valverde for reading and critiquing this essay, and her UVM colleagues Tom Streeter, Eleanor Miller, and Dan Krymkowski for participating in the panel discussion on social theory at which some of the ideas in this essay were first aired.


This essay examines recent scholarship on the legal history of sexuality in the United States. It focuses on Margot Canaday's The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Modern America (2009) and Marc Stein's Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (2010). It also reviews recent work on the history of marriage, including Sarah Barringer Gordon's The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (2010) and George Chauncey's Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today's Debate Over Gay Equality (2004), and the history of military law Defending America: Military Culture and the Cold-War Court Martial (2005), by Elizabeth Lutes Hillman. The essay argues that this scholarship is significant because it offers a different view of sex and power than the one derived from the early writing of Michel Foucault. “Queer legal history” treats the liberalism of the 1960s-1970s as sexually discriminatory as well as liberatory. It underlines the exclusions that were part of public policy under the federal G.I. Bill and the New Deal welfare state.