Book Review

A Desired Past

A Desired Past

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. 

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The Destruction of the European Jews

Hilberg - Destruction of Jews

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. With a new postscript by the author. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979.

 

The result of twelve years of research, this book is an important work for understanding the Nazis’ infamous “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” But, as Hilberg makes perfectly clear in his preface, despite the title, this book is not a piece of Jewish history. Instead, readers should understand that this is a work of German history. He writes, “let it be pointed out that this is not a book about the Jews. It is a book about the people who destroyed the Jews…The focus is placed on the perpetrators” (v). As such, we learn the gradual radicalization of the Nazis’ plans to create a Jew-free Europe. Because it’s based on a wide range of Third Reich documents, this book opened up a vast source of information for English-speaking scholars to study this period of history.

Hilberg begins by situating the Nazi persecution of Jews into a larger, Western context. In fact, he places this persecution into a Christian tradition that dates back to the fourth century. Since that time, he argues, there have been three anti-Jewish policies in the Western world: “conversion, expulsion, and annihilation” (3). Ultimately, what makes the “Final Solution” unique in history is its scale: the sheer magnitude of the operation and the extreme totality of its goals. Otherwise, Hilberg states, “we discover that most of what happened in those twelve years had already happened before. The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void” (3).

Hilberg then studies, in minute detail, the three steps of the destruction process. The first was a matter of defining exactly who should be classified as a Jew (43). Science played a crucial role in helping Nazis label Europe’s Jews. But Hilber’g book also reveals how these scientific (and legal) definitions of Jewishness could also cause problems for the bureaucracy intent on getting rid of Jews within its jurisdiction. Some Nazi officials, like Ministerialrat Bernhard Lösener were able to use the ambiguous term Mischling (mixling) to appropriate some Jews as predominantly German, thus saving their lives (272). The second step of destruction was the expropriation of Jewish land and wealth. Meticulous research reveals how the German bureaucracy maneuvered property taxes, wage regulation, and “Aryanization” of German profession campaigns. The third, and most gruesome stage was the actual destruction of the Jews themselves. Hilberg provides disturbing details about the industrialized, “conveyer belt” efficiency with which the Nazi killing centers ran (624-629).

This study can be placed in the “functionalist” camp in the debate about the ultimate aims of the Nazis regarding the Jews. Hilberg shows that as time went on, Nazi ambition changed. It was no loner feasible to continue pushing Jews eastwards since the war aims became to conquer that same land for Lebensraum. The most famous death camp, Auschwitz, was first built as a labor camp and only later equipped with gas chambers (574). Even the method of gassing went through evolutions: carbon monoxide was eventually replaced by the more efficient Zyklon B, even though it was more expensive (568, 628). Ultimately, Hilberg concludes that the focus of Nazi visions shifted from creation (of an Aryan race) to more closely focusing on destruction (of the Jews) to fulfill that vision.

Ultimately, I question his conclusions about the role of Jews in the process. They appear throughout the book as passive victims, marching to their own doom. Hilberg claims that this has been a historical tactic used by Jews to alleviate the persecution of their people (17). “In two thousand years they had deliberately unlearned the art of revolt,” he states (624). The outcome of this argument is as clear as it is questionable: “The Jewish community, unable to switch to resistance, increased its co-operation with the tempo of the German measures, thus hastening its own destruction” (17).

Hilberg’s book is an excellent source for encyclopedic knowledge. I learned several things that, even after studying this period for the past eight years, I didn’t know. And I think he pretty adequately shows that the Holocaust was the result of a process of radicalization. While it was Hitler’s vision all along to control a Jew-free Europe, Hilberg shows that this didn’t always mean killing all Jews. Only by 1941 did Nazi leadership come up with the “final solution.”  However, as I mentioned before, I do find Hilber’s conclusions about the level of Jewish complicity in their own destruction troubling to say the least.  But, perhaps this is a result of the fact that he chose to focus his study solely on the perpetrators.

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

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The Lavender Scare

Johnson Lavender Scare

Johnson, David K.  The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays & Lesbians in the Federal Government.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

Subject:  An examination of the persecution of homosexual federal employees in Washington, D.C. during the 1950s and 1960s.

Main Points: It’s no big secret that gay men and lesbians working in the U.S. federal government were persecuted during the Cold War.  But, most histories view this persecution as part of a larger Red Scare (purge of Communists) or era of McCarthyism.  But, in this book, Johnson reveals that the Lavender Scare (purge of homosexuals) was a specific & distinct phase of Cold War persecution in which McCarthy played a very small role.  In fact, Johnson shows that more suspected homosexuals were purged from the federal government than were suspected Communists!  As such, Johnson argues that the Lavender Scare should be viewed as central to the story of Cold War American politics.

Johnson builds on the work of scholars like John D’Emilio and George Chauncey in that he shows how D.C. became one of America’s gay cities.  As the nation’s capital, D.C.’s population soared as the federal government expanded under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and again after the successful conclusion of the Second World War.  The enlarged bureaucracies meant more jobs – for white men and women.  Urbanization (autonomy, individuality, money) combined, like in other big cities, to create the perfect conditions for gay and lesbian subcultures, and Johnson argues that D.C.’s gay subcultures thrived.  Therefore, starting from the time of the Great Depression, the District of Columbia became a “very gay city” (41).  Unfortunately, this increased visibility of gay subcultures meant that once the crackdown began in 1950, gay men and women were more easily targeted.

Interesting is how Johnson shows that Republicans (opposing the Democratic administration) made homosexuality a political issue.  Conservative Republicans accused the Truman and Eisenhower administrations of fostering sexual perverts, thus creating an effeminate bureaucracy that wasn’t willing or able to protect America from its enemies.  Key to the use of homosexuality as a partisan tool was the notion of loyalty.  Homosexuals, it was asserted, were used to hiding who they really were and were good at living with secrets.  Therefore, they were more likely to be spies for the Communists and enemies of the American state. Having effeminate and gay men in the State Department also meant that they’d be soft and give in to foreign demands.  Conservative radio personality Walter Winchell even told his listeners that a vote for Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, “was a vote for Christine Jorgensen,” the first famous male-to-female transsexual (122).

Cold War policies towards homosexuals, Johnson demonstrates, are important, because he argues that the persecution of gays and lesbians was crucial to the development of a national security state.  It shows how the purges, led by State Dept. undersecretary John Peurifoy, Senator Kenneth Wherry, and R.W. Scott McLeod, allowed conservatives to shift the focus from Communists to homosexuals in order to gain support for a strengthening of the national security state (protect America from foreign and domestic enemies) and a gradual dismantling of the soft welfare state.

But Johnson also argues that the purges also had a profound impact on the gay and lesbian communities – and not just because they lost their job or were ‘outed’ from a state-created closet. In order to persecute homosexuals, the state first had to identify and define them.  After trying many different ways to define homosexuals, the government ultimately decided that a homosexual was someone who had ever had even one homosexual experience.  Therefore, Johnson argues that the state played a vital role in the shift from a gender-based notion of (homo)sexuality (based on gender inversion, ie a effeminate man, or manly woman) to a sexual object-defined definition (an individual who ‘chose’ a member of the same sex as their object of their desire).  However, he also points out that this shift was not simple and that the new definition did not simply replace the old gender based one.  Defining a homosexual by who they have sex with was difficult because that made homosexuals hard to identify; as such, picking out “soft and effeminate” men and “manly” women was still the main way government officials identified homosexuals.

But, gays and lesbians were able to create and use a “reverse discourse” (in the words of M. Foucault) to renegotiate a new, political gay identity.  Johnson argues that the persecution forced gay men and women together into a group, a group of individuals who had dedicated their lives to working for their government.  Therefore, the claim that they were somehow un-loyal to their country was preposterous.  Therefore, a new gay political activism emerged in DC (before Stonewall) in which gays and lesbians affirmed their loyalty and patriotism.  Also highlighted in the book is the role of the Mattachine society of Washington and Frank Kameny in organizing gay and lesbian activists for a political cause; thus, Johnson sees this era in DC as incredibly important to the story of gay rights activism.  These men and women who had been fired were now organizing politically to demand protection from discrimination based on their homosexuality (Johnson provides some great pictures of picket lines, pamphlets and fliers).  Such political organizations acted as rallying points for gays and lesbians, further creating a gay identity and subculture.

My Comments: It’s a really fascinating book and helpful in a number of ways.  First, it helps contextualize the beginning of the gay rights movements and shows that Stonewall maybe shouldn’t be taken as the starting point for political gay activism.  Gays and lesbians were organizing and marching in DC ten to fifteen years before the Stonewall riots happened, thus helping to create a homosexual identity in the first place.

I think it also does a great job of showing how gay & lesbian history is directly relevant to larger, political history as well.  Johnson shows that definitions of homosexuality, and gender, and masculinity were linked to loyalty, strength, and security.  Therefore, Cold War politics and sexual politics went hand in hand.

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

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The Making of the Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan - Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan, Marion A. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

In this entertaining cultural history, Marion Kaplan explores the ways in which Jewish women were instrumental in the formation of the Jewish middle class in the German Kaiserreich (1871-1918). Her study highlights the ways in which these women navigated their lives in a manner that shaped religious, national, gender, and class identities for their entire families. This book calls into question the notion that Jews in imperial Germany simply assimilated into German culture. Instead, Jewish identity was renegotiated and reconstructed during this period, and Kaplan shows that this negotiation took place largely in the private sphere thanks to these Jewish women.

The dynamic of separate spheres is important to Kaplan’s work, and she shows that the private and public spheres were actually only rarely separate. While Jewish men went into new professions to earn more income, and thus position their family more firmly in the middle class, “it was in the household and family…that the most marked embourgeoisement took place” (4). Jewish women were expected to reign over the bourgeois realm of domesticity, and keep up appearances of respectability. They were meant to rear good, cultured German children who knew good manners and would conform to the expected bourgeois standards. In essence, the home and family members were supposed to display the family’s Bildung, or “authentic respectability” gained through self-cultivation (9). Kaplan argues that too many historians have focused only on men in their studies of Bildung because, until the twentieth century, women were barred from higher education and most jobs. But, this focus overlooks the central role that women played in setting the tone for the family’s Bildung: teaching manners, exuding Gemütlichkeit, and steadying support of her husband and family (25).

The home was an important site for another reason; this is where the mothers practiced acculturation, rather than the full-scale assimilation that has been suggested in other studies. By looking only at the public sphere, one gets the impression of assimilation, of Jews trying to become as “German” as possible. But turning one’s gaze to the private sphere, one sees that many women “continued to perform rituals, cook special Jewish dishes, and think and act in terms of Jewish life cycles, family networks and the Jewish calendar” (63). Women picked and chose how “German” their families would become, and by no means did they intend to give up their Jewish heritage. In fact, Kaplan argues that as the number of men going to synagogue and sticking to Jewish rituals steadily declined, women increasingly became the sole guardians of Jewish traditions in the German middle class (64). With the development of “optional ethnicity” for Jews, the “significance of women’s religious practices moved from periphery to core” (84).

The second half of Kaplan’s book describes the difficulty Jewish women faced when trying to enter the public sphere by entering higher education or the work force. In both of these ventures, they faced double discrimination as women and as Jews. These chapters remind readers that anti-Semitism was an everyday aspect of life in imperial Germany. One area that Jewish women were able to flourish in was social work. This endeavor explicitly connected the private and public spheres by extending the feminine (private) care of the sick, impoverished, or hungry in the public arena. “They then insisted that their traditional household duties extended, with the blessings of religion, to local and then national benevolent duty” (226). Kaplan sees this as a secularization of Jewish philanthropy, a transformation from religious to national duty.

Ultimately, Kaplan shows how these developments shaped not only Jewish middle class life, but also German middle-class life in general. Bourgeois Jewish leisure activities, higher average marriage ages, expanded role of domesticity and motherhood, and other factors all impacted German culture at large.

For more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here.  

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Shattered Past

Jarausch & Geyer

Jarausch, Konrad J. and Michael Geyer.  Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

In this book, Jarausch and Geyer have attempted to set the new direction for writing twentieth century German history.  Gone is the Sonderweg thesis; gone is national history; gone are master narratives of any kind.  What the authors offer as replacement is a collage of German histories that come closer to truly representing what happened in Germany during the last century.  Shattered Past offers new analytical and interpretive frameworks that the authors hope will help explain how Germany went from the devastating Third Reich to the prosperous Federal Republic of Germany.

At the heart of this book lies the contention that there are no master narratives that are adequate to explain Germany’s turbulent past.  The title phrase “shattered past,” refers to the fact that Germany’s past is fractured politically, socially, and even geographically.  The narrative of national history lost credibility when it was used for legitimizing mass violence by the Nazis.  And while Marxist history sought to create an “emancipatory history” (61), it ultimately became nothing but the mouthpiece of the SED dictatorship in East Germany.  Lastly, the authors assert that a liberal, progressive narrative – even one that ‘admits’ that the Great War, the Third Reich, and socialist East Germany were ‘detours’ – is not a satisfying narrative.  Instead of seeing 1918, 1933, 1945, and 1989 as aberrations of a teleological German history, the authors ultimately conclude that “uncertainty might be the principle of twentieth century history rather than an abnormality to be explained away” (350).

While Jarausch and Geyer are leery of single master narratives, they do suggest a historical approach that they feel is most able to create these new, alternate German histories.  By using the methodologies and approaches of cultural history, we may be able to rewrite German histories “from the margins to decenter received conceptions of what it meant to be German at a given time” (83).  In this light, Jarausch and Geyer are interested in German identities.  “Cultural history explores the ways and means by which individual and social bodies constitute themselves, how they interact with each other, and how they rip themselves apart” (15).

The book lays out seven themes that should act as “guideposts in deciphering the shifting map of territories and people that make up the twentieth century German past” (18).  These themes include: war and genocide, the contested nature of German governance, the decline of German power in Europe, migration of German peoples, the struggle over German identity, competing visions of German womanhood, and lastly, the rise of consumerism.

By viewing Germany’s twentieth century past through these seven themes, we may gain a more complex, and thus accurate understanding of the shattered past.  More focus would then be given to peoples that previous master narratives had marginalized, like women and homosexuals.

Women’s history would no longer be a separate “critical counternarrative,” but would be central to understanding the gendered nature of power and identity (247, 268).  Part of these German histories would be the fact that national boundaries would no longer be as important, and people who still claimed a German identity but who did not live within Germany’s geographic borders (emigrants and refugees, for example) could still have an important place in their histories.

The book also has an interesting chapter on individual and collective memory in which the authors demonstrate that just as there are no adequate master narratives for historians, there is a vast array of personal narratives competing to make sense of Germany’s shattered past.

For more books on Modern German History, see my full list of book reviews here

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Intimate Matters

Intimate Matters

D’Emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman.  Intimate Matters:  A History of Sexuality in America.  Third Edition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Subject: An overview of the history of sexuality in North America from 1600 to the present.

Main Points: The authors have put together this well-written synthesis of the history of American sexuality from the colonial period to the present (two more chapters have been added in this third edition to bring the story up to the early twenty-first century).  The book is full of information, based on both original research and secondary literature, and as such, it can be used as a great textbook for a history of sexuality class.  Beyond providing excellent information, the authors set up an interpretive framework that primarily challenges the notion of a Whiggish trajectory of continual sexual liberation and progress.  In fact, freedom and repression actually play small roles in the authors’ story.

The main argument is that “over the last three and a half centuries, the meaning and place of sexuality in American life have changed: from a family-centered, reproductive sexual system in the colonial era; to a romantic, intimate, yet conflicted sexuality in the nineteenth-century marriage; to a commercialized sexuality in the modern period, when sexual relations were expected to provide personal identity and individual happiness, apart from reproduction” (x-xi).

Throughout the book, the authors are dealing with three main questions or topics.  First, they wish to show that notions of gender and sexuality are socially constructed, and thus historically specific. The changing nature of the economy, the family, and politics has shaped sexuality throughout American history. They also go further to show that sexual relations are a significant source of inequality between men and women.  They also focus on how sexual discourses also helped shape understandings of class and race.  Blacks were portrayed as sexually depraved beings, while the working class was understood as immoral and weak.

The second concern of the book is to show how systems of sexual regulations have changed.  “By sexual regulation, we mean the way a society channels sexuality into acceptable social institutions” (xv).  Here, they study authority: who has the power to determine what is normal or deviant (doctors, legislators, clergy)?  How are these mores enforced? In early America, “a unitary system of sexual regulation that involved family, church and state rested upon a consensus about the primacy of familial, reproductive sexuality” (xvi).  Deviants could be punished through the law or even publically humiliated until they repented.  By the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, the role of the state and church in sexual regulation diminished as commercialization and industrialization created more emphasis on individuals.  Women (as keepers of homes and morality) were meant to create self-regulating sexual beings.  Reproduction became less important as a legitimizing factor as sex became seen as a source of romance and intimacy for married couples.  The focus on individuals led to the greater acceptance of deviant forms of sexuality (like same-sex intimacy), though they always remained marginalized.  The media were saturated with “sexual images that promise free choice, but in fact, channel individuals toward particular visions of sexual happiness, often closely linked to the purchase of consumer products” (xvi).  So, by the 1880s, the beginning of a more liberal sexuality was starting to emerge, though sexuality became more and more commercialized.

But by the end of the nineteenth century, moral and purity reform groups attacked these new expressions of sexuality, passing anti-abortion, anti-pornography, and anti-prostitution legislation.  In other words, the state was expected to take a greater role in regulating sexuality. Between the 1920s and 1960s, the liberal model of sexuality became more dominant until the 1970s witnessed a radical challenge to the norm by the radical Left, calling for more sexual freedom and the end to hetero-normative marriage (more personal freedom, less state control).  Beginning in the 1980s, there was a conservative backlash that gained momentum as AIDS was portrayed as symptomatic of America’s moral breakdown.

The third concern of the book, sexual politics, is related to sexual regulation.  Rather than looking at the structures of power, the notion of sexual politics focuses more closely on the struggle among different groups over a given sexual order (i.e., the competition to reshape the dominant sexual meaning or impose standards of morality).  The authors identity three critical patterns that recur in the history of sexual politics in America:  1) “political movements that attempt to change sexual ideas  and practices seem to flourish when an older system is in disarray and a new one forming; 2) there is a consistent relationship to inequalities of gender and sexual politics.  “Even more than its relationship to class and race, sexual politics arise from efforts of male authorities to define female sexuality and of women either to resist such definitions or to counter through efforts to reshape sexual values and practices; 3) the politics of sexuality responds to both real and symbolic issues, meaning that while “real” things such as abortion, disease prevention, and marriage are affected by sexual politics, these debates are often symbolic for larger issues like impurity and disorder.

My Comments:  I’ll definitely be using this as a textbook when I end up teaching my own class.  I’m looking forward to being able to go back and read it more thoroughly, but the framework for the synthesis is convincing and enlightening.  They take care to (in the Intro and throughout) explain their arguments carefully without academic jargon. The third edition also ends with a really helpful historiographical essay that summarizes the state of the field.

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

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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.

 

 

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. 

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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

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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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