Rupp, Leila J. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Subject: A brief survey of same-sex relations in North America from the colonial period to the late twentieth century, with attention to the changing understandings of relations between individuals who loved or desired members of the same sex.
Main Points: Rupp’s book is a survey, so it covers roughly four hundred years in about two hundred pages. So, as with any book of this nature, there’s not as much depth as some readers may like. But, with that said, Rupp’s argument and analysis are thorough. Moreover, she does everyone a service (scholars and non-academics alike) by synthesizing a vast quantity of secondary literature on the topic and presenting it in a well-written, easily approachable book.
Rupp’s main point with this book is to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of sexuality and gender. In other words, she has purposefully chosen “same-sex” as the subtitle of her book, as opposed to “gay” or even “homosexual.” And, that’s because she warns against looking for “gay men and women” back in the past since gay and lesbian identities are modern creations. But, she does realize that there is “certain common patterns in same-sex sexual desires and acts, romantic liaisons, and gender transgressions across time and place” (10). She offers three categories to help conceptualize the complexity inherent in the history of “same-sex sexuality”: 1) those who “experience love or sexual desire, or both, for someone of the same sex; 2) “others engaged in same-sex sexual acts;” and 3) those who “crossed the lines of gender completely and sometimes partially” (196-97). By exploring these themes, Rupp exposes readers to the social constructionist approach, even without using that term.
The story that Rupp tells is now familiar to scholars of sexuality, but was innovative when she published her book 15 years ago. In the colonial era, sodomy and same-sex sexual acts were seen as sinful behavior and were policed via religious laws. Acts such as sodomy were understood as especially dangerous because they were temptations that anyone could give in to. The early decades of the US Republic saw a shift, after which romantic friendships were accepted for both men and women. By the late nineteenth century, the medicalization of sex and sexuality began to dominate the discourse, stigmatizing same-sex sex and love as inversions and pathologies. The twentieth century witnessed a whirlwind of change, especially for women. Economic change allowed middle class women more independence through jobs and women-only institutions (like women’s colleges). In the latter half of the twentieth century, after the gay and sexual liberation movements, we start to see the rise of identity politics. While Rupp spends a lot of space dealing with the dominant powers of sexual politics (those defining what was appropriate or not), she also provides enough individual agency to those people who felt different for loving someone of the same sex. She even dedicates several pages to discussing Native American and African sexualities in the early colonial era.
My Comments: I really like the way that Rupp literally puts her own voice into the book. Each chapter starts with an anecdote from her own life. Many stories involve her aunt, an unmarried woman that spent most of her life living with a partner, another woman. I think the point of these anecdotes is to show that while Rupp may feel a connection to her aunt as a fellow lesbian, her aunt would never identify herself as a lesbian. This proves Rupp’s argument that gender and sexuality (or sexual identity) “is not a fixed essence.” We, in the present cannot project our own understandings onto the past, even if it is just one generation ago.
This is a superb survey and would be great to use in an undergraduate intro to the history of sexuality.
For more books on the history of sexuality and gender, see my full list of book reviews here.