The Straight State

Straight State

Canaday, Margot.  The Straight State: Sexuality & Citizenship in Twentieth Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Subject:  The simultaneous formation of the American bureaucratic state and the formation of a homosexual identity through the notion of sexual citizenship.

Main Points:  This book is what Canaday calls a “social history of the state,” meaning that she believes we can study the actions of the state itself by studying “what officials do” (5).  Ultimately, she is studying how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the US state became increasingly concerned with the existence of ‘sexual perverts’ and ‘gender inverts’ within its borders.  As time went on, this aversion to a more general gender inversion became an obsession with a specific form of being: homosexuality, an identity that the state itself played a fundamental role in defining.  As Canaday makes clear, the state began to define citizenship and homosexuality as mutually exclusive terms: one could be one or the other, but not both.  The bureaucratic state turned these views into reality by implementing policies that “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behavior as either outside of or degraded within citizenship” (13).

Basically, Canaday’s main argument is that the growth of the bureaucratic state went hand-in-hand with its surveillance of sexual and gender inversions and eventual creation of a hetero-homo binary.  In order to substantiate this claim, she focuses on three spheres of the modern US state: immigration, the military, and welfare.  Between 1900 and 1924, the US federal government had to decide what to do with the influx of European immigrants coming into its borders.  Canaday argues that the bureaucrats used the label of “perverse” to map out and decide who would be allowed into the country.  Supposedly perverse individuals, such as effeminate men, were denied entrance into the US because, being perverse (gender inverted), they were more likely – almost guaranteed – to be weak and dependent on the state for support.  Women were targeted for being prostitutes since ‘being dependent’ was considered normal for a woman (26).  By the 1950s, however, the old understanding of “perverts” or “inverts” was replaced by a more systematic, and simplified binary of hetero/homosexual (you were either hetero or homo; there was no middle ground – a single same-sex action could brand you as a homosexual for life).  The McCarran-Walter Act barred all homosexuals from entering the United States, and Canaday calls this act the “culmination of nearly a century of federal regulation of homosexuality – a consolidation that definitively made homosexual sex…irrefutable evidence of homosexual identity” (216).  Through its surveillance and bureaucratic power, the state had turned same-sex sex into a defining characteristic of a deeper personal identity. 

She also looks at the role of the military in the creation of a “straight state.”  By the First World War, the military began to see homosexuality as a psycho-pathology and thus, they followed the lead of psychiatrists and began to do screenings to weed out homosexuals (66).  The ‘active’ or penetrative man in homosexual sex had been traditionally excused for his transgression, because he had not inverted his dominant gender role – in other words, his masculinity (gender) was still intact since he had not allowed himself to be penetrated by another man.  However, under the new view of homosexuality as an illness, it was object choice that was the sole factor in defining someone as homosedual.  In other words, if a man “chose” another man as his object of sexual desire, both men were automatically homosexual; gender (or more accurately, the inversion of gender roles) was no longer the defining factor.  So, afterwards, all men involved in homo-sex were discharged.  This psychological definition led to a hardening of the hetero/homo binary, and this shift affected women as well.  Defining the parameters of female homosexuality became less important than the fact that it was homosexuality – and thus the same as male homosexuality (187-188).

Her discussion of welfare and the state’s definition of sexuality and gender is centered on the crisis of the Great Depression and the definition of dependency.  At first we see the same connection between perversion and dependency as we did with immigration.  Civilian Conservation Corps camps were built partially to instill masculine characteristics in drifting, out of work teenagers.  Allowing them to wander around jobless would supposedly assure that they would sink further into weakness, degeneracy, and dependence on the state.  Therefore, the state had a financial motivation to help make sure that its male citizens upheld traditionally masculine gender roles.  It did not help that CCC camps were sex-segregated and many homoerotic encounters came from prolonged stays in these all-male camps where masculinity (hard work, being the bread winner) was exalted.

Canaday also talks about one of the most powerful ways the state defined homosexuality through its bureaucracy: administering veterans’ benefits.  “Blue discharges” were given to release solders from military service without a full “dishonorable discharge,” but under a stigma nonetheless.  Men with a blue discharge were ineligible for benefits from the Veterans’ Administration or under the GI Bill; the common denominator was that the blue discharges were predominantly given to men who were accused of having sex with other men.  Therefore, the blue discharge (and its denials of benefits) became associated with homosexuality.  Therefore, she argues that through bureaucratic mechanisms like a blue discharge, the state effectively created a “closet,” a reason for men to hide their desires for other men.  The state’s medicalized vocabulary also led same-sex desiring men and women to think of themselves as a particular type of man or woman who would have to hide in order to get state benefits.  Therefore, the state “institutionalized heterosexuality” (171).

Conclusions & My Remarks:  Canaday’s book makes several important contributions, and it reminds me of David Johnson’s the Lavender Scare (2004) in that it shows how the federal government first had to define homosexuality before it could police it.  So, “homosexual,” “gay,” and “lesbian” were not just grass root identities which the government reacted to.  Instead, the government was instrumental in defining homosexual, gay, and lesbian as identities.  I think she was convincing in showing that a more simplified (easier to police) understanding of sexual desire emerged – one that was based on sexual object choice rather than gender inversion (moreover, homosexuality was turned into a medical issue and thus under the domain of the state).

So, I think Canaday’s book is good at showing the how, but I’m still not clear on the why?  Why did, in the twentieth century, the US state become so interested in defining sexuality?  I’m guessing it was because it wanted more power over its citizens, and in order to do that, it had to define who its citizens were.  So, now we’re talking about Foucault’s biopower – the state’s power over life and the reproduction of life.  Homosexuals were not denied sexual citizenship (or legal citizenship) because of any moral or religious grounds, but because they were seen as a degenerative threat to the state.  So, in this case, I can see where a growing bureaucracy would go hand-in-hand with defining sexuality.

The idea that the state helped create homosexual identity(ies) is really interesting, and helpful to our understanding of LGBT history.  I think what I got out of this is that the state helped form a politicized homosexual identity through its definition of and attempt to police homosexuals.  Johnson (Lavender Scare) also shows this:  by denying political & welfare rights to homosexuals, people (who were slowly and because of a myriad of reasons, starting to think of themselves as a common, homosexual group) began to see themselves as a political minority that would have to fight for political rights.  So, the state inadvertently created gay rights activists.

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

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Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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