Three Questions with Wesley Phelps
Three Questions is an initiative to share the value that our faculty, students, and others in the UNT community derive from using The Portal to Texas History at UNT Libraries.
How important are Unique Collections in your teaching, learning or research?
The LGBTQ Collection at the University of North Texas is indispensable for my current book project on legal challenges to Texas sodomy laws between 1867 and 2003. From complete runs of dozens of local newspapers and newsletters to organizational records and correspondence, this collection enables me to chronicle how local activists and organizations developed a legal strategy in the mid and late twentieth century that eventually produced a victory in the Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated all remaining state sodomy laws in 2003. The documents in this collection reveal an evolution of thought about laws regulating sexuality that helps us understand not only the historical significance of the legal battle, but also its lasting relevance to current struggles for social justice.
How have Unique Collections changed the way you approach your research, teaching or learning?
One of the ways the LGBTQ Collection changed my research project was by deepening my understanding of a case titled Baker v. Wade, which was the most important case challenging Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law prior to the Lawrence case. Before conducting research at the University of North Texas, I had constructed a broad outline of the Baker case and developed an analysis based on the official court documents that are available. It was not until I discovered Don Baker’s personal papers in the LGBTQ Collection, however, that I began to understand just how much Baker’s own history as an activist and his desire to use his experience as an exercise in public education influenced the development of the case. With the kinds of documents found in UNT’s Special Collections, I will be able to write a book that gives these early cases like Baker v. Wade the thorough analysis they deserve.
What do you want others to know about your research, teaching or learning?
I want others to know that the recent gains of the movement for gay and lesbian civil rights did not come out of nowhere. Many people I know, myself included, have marveled at how quickly marriage equality became a reality in 2015. Yet while we can rightly acknowledge the relative swiftness of that victory in light of where we were, say, between 2004 and 2006, we still must recognize that these advances have deep historical roots. I also think it is important to recognize that constitutional change comes from below – from the grassroots activists and organizations that push for change using the court system. In order to explain where change comes from, often we say things like “the time had simply come for a change” or “society developed to the point where this change was possible.” These cases, however, show us that, in fact, people fought and sacrificed for the political and legal changes we have seen over the past several decades. Finally, I want others to see that these cases reveal the importance of grassroots activism in a democracy. It was the local activism of people like Don Baker and the Texas Human Rights Foundation that produced these gains, and they did it through old-fashioned organizing, mobilizing, and agitating. Perhaps most important for the current state of our democracy, the stories of these cases suggest that it will also be grassroots activism that will protect these advances, not only the recent gains for queer Americans, but also women’s reproductive rights, civil rights for racial minorities, and even the social safety net that was built throughout the mid-twentieth century. It was grassroots activism that delivered those gains, and it will be grassroots activism that determines whether or not we keep them around.
Wesley G. Phelps received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of North Texas and his Ph.D. in history from Rice University. He is currently an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where he teaches courses on recent United States history, the American South, and LGBTQ history. His first book, A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2014. His current research focuses on gay and lesbian political activism in the late twentieth century.