Monthly Archives: July 2014

History Is Personal

We Read to Know We're Not Alone

History is Personal:  
A Queer Southern Boy & the Power of Books

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his life inside a classroom, I know firsthand the liberating power of knowledge.  When you learn, the realms of reality expand, new possibilities arise, and doubts are swept away like dust in the wind even as new doubts blow in to take their place.  Learning to think critically, to analyze and draw one’s own conclusions is a profound process of liberation, a process of casting off the chains of ignorance.  The act of learning itself – whether from life’s experiences, the pages of a book, or from a teacher’s lessons – is empowerment, and if knowledge is power, then ignorance cannot be bliss.   For me, history has always been more than an interest in past events; it has been a source of legitimacy, granting me the courage to explore the many facets of myself and boldly accept my identity with the knowledge that there have been countless others like me in the past.

As I grew up in southwest Georgia, I didn’t quite understand what it was that made me feel different from those around me.  Let me rephrase that – I knew what it was that made me feel different, but, for the longest time, I didn’t understand the implications of that difference.  As I got older, I knew that I was inexplicably attracted to other guys even though I never considered myself gay.  In fact, I didn’t know what “gay” was.  Plus, I never felt different enough to need a whole new identity or label for myself.  I just knew that I could never really participate when my friends were checking out girls.  I also wondered if my friends struggled with the same fleeting thoughts and desires as I did, if their gazes skipped over the chicks in bikinis on magazine covers and lingered instead on the muscled men that graced the front of fitness journals.  I honestly thought that they must be dealing with the same issues, but just like I never mentioned it, they were keeping it a secret, too.

Even as I got older and my puberty-fueled fantasies became exclusively male-oriented, I never thought of myself as gay.  I didn’t know that gay existed as an option for me to “be.”  That’s because the knowledge wasn’t available to me, not yet.  I knew that there were men out there who had sex with other men, but I didn’t know that they constituted some thing known as “gay.”  In fact, the only things I knew about such actions between men came in the form of slurs, jokes, and – most powerfully for me at the time – from the pulpit of my Southern Baptist church.  What I learned in those pews was that homosexuality was a sin…and if it was a sin, then it had to be a choice, and an erroneous one at that!  Homosexuality, as I understood it, was just acts – something that some people did sometimes. I didn’t yet know that it was something that could be used to define – and segregate – a whole group of people as something fundamentally different.

And then I went to college.  By that point, I had realized that no matter how hard I tried or diligently I prayed, these urges and attractions I had weren’t going away; they were something permanent.  As early as my first year on campus, I became aware of people who openly identified as “gay” – that’s what they called it when a guy was attracted to other guys.  I heard people say they were born that way.  And they were fine with it.  I instantly recognized that within me – I knew at that moment that I must be “gay,” too.  It was the only explanation for why I had a crush on that guy in class, and why I couldn’t help it.  But the idea of telling anyone that I was gay terrified me.  In fact, it terrified me to even tell myself.

I vividly remember one evening in my university library:  I was taking a break from writing a paper by perusing the shelves.  As I was meandering along, the title etched into the spine of one book stopped me dead in my tracks:  Growing Up Gay in the South I remember my heart starting to pound as I looked around to make sure no one else was nearby.  I contemplated pulling it from the shelf, but how would I explain it if someone saw me reading such a book?  But, I did slide the book from its resting place and read it all there in the library that night.  The entire book was full of stories about people like me and I was exhilarated as I flew through the pages.

That night I had stumbled into the “HQ” section of our university’s library, which is the Library of Congress Classification System’s call number for the section on “family, marriage, women, and sex” (I find it odd that books on family, marriage equality, sexuality, pornography, and rape are all located on the same shelves, but that’s a topic for another day.)  I went back to that section often and read as much as I could, but was still too afraid to discuss anything I was reading – or even to check out the books – for fear of word somehow getting back to my hometown about my “dabbling” in gayness.

I eventually came out to family and friends, but I would have never had the courage if it hadn’t been for those books because they showed me that I wasn’t alone. And then when I entered grad school, I found out that there historians who only studied sexuality and gender!  They wrote dissertations, articles, and whole books not just on life stories of gays and lesbians – but on what it meant to be “gay” or “straight.”  I found books about how the ancient Greeks understood love between men, how the Native Americans accepted that there was a third gender in between men and women, and how science – and the search for a “gay gene” – wasn’t the only factor in defining gender or sexual identities.

With each book that I finished, I felt more empowered, more confident because I felt less alone.  I was blown away by the intricate, not-so-sub-cultures that George Chauncey deftly uncovered in his classic Gay New York.  Scholars like Jonathan Ned Katz and David Halperin taught me that words have power.  Above all others, Susan Stryker revealed to me the important difference between “sex” and “gender” and that our gender and sexual identities are fluid and malleable.  When I read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, I cheered on as working class lesbians in mid-twentieth century Buffalo, New York defied the odds and established their own bars and community by asserting power over their own lives.  I cried when I read some of the poignant life stories that Patrick Johnson eloquently captured in Sweet Tea.  And when I closed Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire after devouring it in a single sitting, I sat back in wonder as I realized that “gay history” is not on the margins of “real history,” like a quaint interest piece; it is absolutely fundamental to understanding the rest of history as we know it.

I no longer really identify as “gay” because I don’t feel connected to today’s gay culture.  But, of course, I’m not straight either.  I’m in love with a man, but I don’t accept all of the other baggage that comes with being “gay.”  So, I think of myself as queer, something different with no need of a further definition.  It’s more fluid, less confining, and I like that.  Moreover, the study of history has taught me that it’s okay to throw off labels and come up with my own identity – or collect many identities.  People have done it for millennia.  That’s why, for me, history has never been just a hobby, never just a profession.  It’s a path of reflection, a way to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to simply be.  You can’t put a price tag on such a journey.

C.S. Lewis once said that, “We read to know that we’re not alone.”  I believe that the truth of his words echoes throughout the ages.

 

 

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Categories: History, Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gay New York

Gay New York

 

Chauncey, George.  Gay New York:  Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940.  New York:  Basic Books, 1994.

 

Subject:  The existence of a myriad of complex homosexual identities and “gay spaces” that existed in New York City well before the gay liberation movement began in 1969.

Author’s Arguments: Chauncey challenges three central myths of gay life before the rise of the gay rights movements of the late 20th century: 1) the myth of isolation, that stated that before 1969, anti-gay hostility prevented the development of any extensive gay subculture(s) and forced men to lead solitary lives.  However, Chauncey shows that gay men had to be cautious, but like other marginalized peoples, they were able to construct spheres of relative cultural autonomy.  2) the myth of invisibility, which stated that even if a gay world existed, it was below the radar and hard for straight society (and even other gay men) to find it.  However, Chauncey does an excellent job of showing that gay men were highly visible figures in early twentieth century New York, and that before the world wars gay men mingled in the same places as everyone else.  3) the myth of internalization, which held that gay men uncritically internalized the dominant culture’s view of them as sick, perverted, and immoral, and that their self-hatred led them to accept the policing of their lives rather than resist it.  BUT, many gay men celebrated their difference from the norm, and organized to resist anti-gay policing.

Another main argument of the book is that the idiom of “the closet” that the gay community came out of in the 1970s is somewhat faulty, in that the “closet” is not as old as we once thought.  In fact, Chauncey argues that the closet (a system of repression in which gay men had to hide) wasn’t created by the dominant society until the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  The words left behind by early 20th century homosexuals show that while some of them adopted a total identity based on their preference for men, other (like the self-identifying “queers”) went back and forth between double lives (thus showing that they did not feel constricted by any “closet”).  In the prewar years, “coming out” was more of a “coming into” a homosexual society or gay world; in other words, it was more of an initiation into the gay world (and importantly:  it was originally something that gay men helped other gay men do, whereas now “coming out (of the closet)” is now something that a gay person primarily does to straight family members). 

So, this strikingly recent construction of the closet goes against any teleological or “Whig history” of homosexual emancipation (at least in NYC).  It shows that from 1890-1930, a homosexual/gay world thrived until it was driven underground (where it continued to flourish, albeit in a less-public manner).

Chauncey also charts the words that homosexuals used to define themselves, while also looking at the words that “normal” society used to describe homosexuals.  Pre-war homosexual identities were dependent on gender roles of masculinity/femininity.  “Fairies” were flamboyant and feminine homosexual men, while “queers” were often (middle class?) men who engaged in homosexual acts, but did not identify with the flamboyant fairies, and who could often pass as “normal” men.  “Trade” referred to men who had sex with feminine men, but who were otherwise “straight.”  They were not homosexual in the sense that they did not necessarily seek out sex with other men, yet when solicited by a fairy for instance, they did not turn down the sex.  At the same time, the “normalcy” of trade men was not questioned as long as their masculinity wasn’t endangered and they maintained a dominant role in the sexual encounter.

However, by the middle of the 20th century, the word “gay” had begun to gain dominance.  Whereas the term had been used early on as a code word that other homosexual men could use to communicate (to ask for “a place to have a gay old time” for instance, was code asking for a homosexual bar), it eventually became a word that more broadly referred to all homosexual men together.  “Gay” tended to group all of the previous types (fairies, queers, trade) together, to deemphasize their differences by emphasizing the similarity in character they had presumably demonstrated by their choice of male sexual partners. 

The result was the construction of a binary:  gay vs. straight, homosexual vs. heterosexual.  Trade virtually disappeared as a sexual identity within the gay world as men began to regard ANYONE who participated in a homosexual encounter as “gay” and conversely, to insist that men could be defined as “straight” only on the basis of a total absence of homosexual interest and behavior.  Now, more masculine men could identity openly as gay (because they enjoyed homosexual acts) but no longer had to “give up” their masculinity.  By 1960s, “trade” had disappeared because both gay and straight men had redefined the roles so that there was no middle ground.  One was either gay or straight.  (However, Chauncey does acknowledge that the new “gay” identity did not simply replace the others; for a time, all identities coexisted, until the new “gay” identity eventually became dominant.)This book challenges the assumption, for instance, that the 19th century medical discourse was solely responsible for constructing the “homosexual” as a personality type, and that the appearance of “the homosexual” in medical discourse should be taken as indicative of or synonymous with the homosexual’s appearance in the culture as a whole. The book argues that “the invert” and “the normal man” were not inventions of the elite, but were popular discursive categories before they became elite discursive categories.

My Comments:   I really enjoyed Gay New York, and I want to reread it again. Chauncey showed beautifully how this subculture was continuously defining and redefining itself.  I like that he showed how “gay spaces” weren’t just separated or “quarantined” from the rest of society, but instead were spread among “normal” life.  I also respect how he used even “traditional” sources such as police records, and simply read them in a new light to show how the new regulations of the 1930s and later did not eradicate the gay world, because the gay subculture provided men with resources that they needed to get around the new regulations.  This was also the first work that I’ve read that dealt directly with the words that homosexuals used to refer to themselves and a shift in terminology reveals a fundamental shift in they way gays thought about themselves, and in the way the straight community thought about the gay community.

His tracing of the evolution of the homosexual/heterosexual binary makes more sense to me (than the “power-based, medicalization and classification model”), and maybe that’s because Chauncey returns a powerful sense of agency to gays in (helping to) form their own identity

For more books on the history of sexuality and gender, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Jazz, Rock, and Rebels

Jazz rock and rebels

Poiger, Uta G.  Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics & American Culture in a Divided Germany.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

             In an interesting cultural history, Poiger studies the impact of American culture – specifically American films, music, dance, and fashion – on East and West Germany.  Poiger studies these aspects of culture as artifacts that are imbued with multiple meanings in both East and West Germany as those two nations try to (re)establish a stabile German identity.  Poiger specifically looks at the ways in which the influx of American culture affected German notions of race and gender.

In her introduction, Poiger demonstrates that the 1950s were not the first moment in which American culture entered into German life.  She provides thumbnail sketches of German reactions to American culture in both the Weimar and Nazi periods, showing how the Nazis took an ambivalent, but mostly anti-American stance.  By the 1950s, however, American culture flooded into the two Germanys.  Poiger’s study shows that ironically, despite their differing socio-political stances, East and West Germany both initially had similar reactions against the Americanization of the youth in their respective countries.  “In often vehement rejections of American culture, both sides conflated uncontrolled sexuality, African-American culture, and German lower-class culture, and linked all three to fascism” (6).  West German leaders related Americanization (jazz music and consumer culture) with the emasculation of German men.  At the same time, they also saw rock and roll music and the rebellious lifestyle of movies like The Wild Ones as inspiring hyper-masculinity in its youth, something that many feared mirrored Nazi youth culture. In East Germany, leaders did not have to walk any line between honoring political alliances with the United States and rejecting American culture.  East German authorities were therefore free to reject American-style consumerism as cultural imperialism.

But in the competition for which German state could most successfully provide material goods for its populace, West German authorities ultimately saw American consumer culture as a tool against East Germany’s legitimacy.  So, it depoliticized American cultural artifacts.  Going to a rock and roll concert or wearing Wrangler jeans – while still cause for worry about deviant gender norms – was no longer seen as a political rebellion against the West German socio-political structure; it was “simply” cultural.  Leaders adopted new modes of understanding from American psychologists who deemed such rebellion as a temporary, though perfectly normal, phase of life known as adolescence.  Moreover, the “decadent” jazz music was “whitened” and turned into an acceptable, middle and upper class expression of music.

Her book is full of interesting examples of reactions to American cultural artifacts, but Poiger’s greatest contribution is showing how cultural consumption was a system of power plays in both Germanys.  The youth involved sought to forge their own new identities, a new “Germanness,” even though it did not match their parents’ definition.  The quest of West German authorities to depoliticize rebelliousness as a psychological phase was, itself, a political act to establish authority (136).  Moreover, Poiger reveals that while biological (eugenic) racial hierarchies may have been discredited by the Holocaust, eugenic discourse was still deployed in the Germanys to classify cultural artifacts.  American culture, especially African-American culture, was described as “primitive” and “degenerative,” with the potential to ruin German high culture (104), emasculate German men, and enflame hyper sexuality in German women (168).  By the end of the 1950s, this discourse of racial/cultural degeneracy was replaced by psychological understandings of rebellion.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s a Little Late, but….

As Team USA was playing in the World Cup, I saw these pictures floating around the interwebs and they made me chuckle.  Our team may have been eliminated from the tournament, but the pictures are still worth sharing.

 

X Epic 'Murican Eagle

 

X Two Types of Countries

Categories: Humor | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold

Boots of Leather

 

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold:  The History of a Lesbian Community.  New York:  Routledge, 1993.

 

Subject:  The formation of a lesbian identity and community in Buffalo, New York.  The authors pay particular attention to the members of the working class and their creation of – and subsequent interaction with – a lesbian bar scene in Buffalo.

Research Questions:  What form did lesbian identity take in a Rust Belt city during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s?  In what ways did lesbian women form a sense of community?  How did community influence the gay liberation movement that began in the 1970s?  To use George Chauncey’s language, what were the “gay spaces” of the Buffalo lesbian community?  How do members of this community remember these decades and in what historical context do they place their lives?

Authors’ Arguments:  Kennedy and Davis show that the identity formation of lesbians in mid-20th century Buffalo involved a lot more agency than what might be expected.  The authors point out that this community was marginalized not only by the dominant heterosexual society, but also later scholars of feminist theory, who often dismissed the “butch-fem” lesbians as doing nothing more than passively accepting and mimicking the patriarchal structure of “normal” society.  However, the authors show that butches and fems did not passively (or blindly) adopt these roles totally; in fact, these butch-fem roles (Kennedy and Davis hesitate to use the term “roles” because the people involved were not simply “playing”) were adapted from the available model, but were then actively transformed to meet the particular needs of working class (and even middle class) lesbians.

Butch-fem lesbians not only transformed these roles, but these roles also became crucial to the formation of a sense of community.  How?  1) It gave the lesbian community a framework or structure within which it could function.  These roles “were a social imperative” (152) and only after adopting one could a lesbian “participate comfortably in the community and receive its benefits.”  2) Butch-fem roles also helped create a community in a more basic level:  the butch role in particular (with its specific mode of dress, speech, and mannerisms) made butch lesbians visible to other lesbians, and to the straight world.  “The possibility of recognizing one another was essential for the building of a distinct culture and identity.” (153)

The butch-fem roles gendered lesbian relationships, but they also took the sexuality of women firmly out of the hands of men.  Thus, the butch role was, in itself, an act of defiance and resistance.  The authors point out three main ways in which the butch-fem role was a form of pre-political resistance:  1) butches and butch-fem couples, by “not denying” their interest in women, were at the core of lesbian resistance by becoming visibly different than the dominant society and by forming their own culture; 2) in the 1950s, the butch, who was central to the community’s increased boldness, had little inclination to accommodate the conventions of femininity, and pushed to diminish the time spent hiding in order to eliminate the division between public and private selves; 3) the butches added a new element of resistance:  the willingness to stand up for and defend with physical force their fems’ and their own right to express sexual love for women.  (184).

This tripartite list emphasizes a main goal of the book:  to historicize Stonewall; by that I mean, to put the Stonewall Riots into their historical context by showing that the gay liberation movement that many claim began with the Riots in 1969, did not simply emerge spontaneously or randomly.  Instead, the formation of lesbian identities and lesbian community(ies) had been occurring slowly (below the radar) for decades before 1969, when the gay rights/liberation movement emerged and took this community-identity formation to a different scale.  But what’s most important is that the process explored by Kennedy and Davis was a necessary condition that allowed the Stonewall Riots to be successful in starting a nation-wide movement.

The authors also show the intersection of race and class in this community.  The community seemed to transcend race lines, but stop at class boundaries.  For instance, the masculine-feminine roles were present in both white and black couples, though the words used often differed:  white “masculine” lesbians identified as “butch,” while their black counterparts were known as “studs.”  The people at any given bar or house party (both places around which this new community organized) were usually mixed between black, white, and even some Native Americans.   The authors show why the working class was (and had to be) the driving force behind the formation of a lesbian community: while being “out” did not affect the livelihood of upper class lesbians (they could rely on personal wealthy if they lost their job), middle class lesbians often had to strictly distinguish between private and public lives; their life depended on the income of their job, so being “open” was not an option.  Instead, they went to the bars on the weekend to socialize.  A large portion of “fem” lesbians came from this social class, and were often white collar workers like nurses and teachers.  It was the working class group of lesbians, then, that had nothing to lose by being lesbian both in their private lives and in the public sphere.   Therefore, they asserted openly their lesbianism and laid the foundation for a lesbian community (It should be noted that all of the narrators commented that “we didn’t know what a ‘closet’ was” thus showing that the idiom of the closet either didn’t exist yet, or simply wasn’t prevalent in the way these lesbians thought about themselves.) 

The authors also show how these identities changed over the decades.  While in the 1940s, there seemed to be a dominant feeling to keep work and social lives separate (while not denying lesbianism), by the 1950s, the butch began assuming the firm resistance of the permanent, masculine role.  In the 1960s, a younger “rougher, tougher” generation of butch lesbians had emerged that was more aggressive in asserting a larger lesbian community while simultaneously resisting the straight world.  By the end of the 60s, this tension erupted in a national gay liberation movement.

Similar to Chauncey’s Gay New York, Kennedy and Davis show the importance that geographic spaces (namely bars – and also house parties) played in this identity formation.  Not only did it give lesbians a safe place to go and socialize (though, they were not always safe), they also helped to (re)enforce gender roles.  There were “rougher” bars, while there were also bars where the rough and tough butches were welcome, but it was made clear that violence wasn’t tolerated.  Often within these ‘safe places,’ the space was divided:  in the Carousel, fems and gay men often gathered in the front, near the windows (this was also used as a safety tactic, because the mixed appearance wouldn’t so quickly give away the bar’s status as a ‘gay bar’) while the rougher butches gathered in the back room.

Context & Method:  Like I’ve already said, this work seeks to challenge the feminist historiography that also, in its own way, marginalized the working class butch-fem couples of mid-20th century America.  This work also puts the formation of a lesbian community in its historical context (historicizing the liberation movement that began in the 70s and showing that there was resistance to anti-homosexual norms before Stonewall).  The methodology is noteworthy because it is an oral history – the voices of some of the lesbians from this community are given a central place, which also helps give agency to these women.  This work is also an ethno-history, meaning that uses the methodology of an ethnography, the intensive study of the culture and identity of a single community (which may be insightful and descriptive, but provides only a “snapshot in time,” a static glimpse into a culture), but adds the analytical approach of history, that is the analysis of change over time.

My Comments:  I really loved this book.  I liked that it was an oral history and we got to hear from the women themselves.  Because of the marginalization of this group of people, the “traditional” historical documents weren’t available to historians, so without the methods of oral history, this story would not be knowable.

For more works on the history of sexuality or gender, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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