Sexuality & Gender

The Construction of Queer Memory: Media Coverage of Stonewall 25

Stonewall 25

Avila-Saavedra, Guillermo.  “The Construction of Queer Memory:  Media Coverage of Stonewall 25.”  Unpublished paper delivered at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, August 2006.  Accessible here.

 

Subject:  An examination of the role of media in the shaping of the role of the Stonewall riots in the gay collective memory.

Main Points:  The author studies the media attention given to “Stonewall 25,” the 1994 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NYC Stonewall riots.  It’s an interesting paper that deals with collective memory, collective identity, and heritage building.  So, he spends some time spelling out his theoretical approach/understanding of the concepts of memory and identity formation.  He then specifically focuses on the media’s role in shaping a specific Stonewall narrative.  He argues that “the media are complicit in shaping a memory of Stonewall that reflects the political goals of the American queer movement in the 1990s.”

This narrative portrayed by Stonewall 25 organizers and the media was one that portrayed the gay community as a diverse, but ultimately singular or united community.  In this sense, the “unity through diversity” discourse was forced back onto the 1969 riots themselves.  In none of the New York Times articles or Stonewall documentaries that appeared for the 25th anniversary was it mentioned that the Stonewall Inn was primarily a hangout for drag queens, transvestites, and gays and lesbians of color; in other words, it was a place for individuals who did not fit into the white, middle class, male gay culture that was dominant at the time.  But as Avila-Saavedra demonstrates, all of the media for the 1994 anniversary rewrote history and portrayed the Stonewall Riots as a coming together of diverse peoples, gays and lesbians of all walks of life united in their ‘gayness.’

Even the reporting of the Stonewall 25 events themselves were portrayed in a particular way.  Reporters focused on the celebration of diversity and unity of queer America, overlooking the fact that a large fissure had emerged during the planning of the parade and events.  The Stonewall Veterans Association, members of NY ACT UP, and other more radical activists protested that the radical and revolutionary origins of the gay liberation movement (and the Riots themselves) were being purposefully ignored, in place of a “Eurocentric,” assimilationist, middle class definition of “gay.”  One newspaper did report that the radical groups had been left out of Stonewall 25, and that “the spirit of the riots had been lost on a celebration of middle-class assimilation dream with its patriarchal and racial components intact” (7).  Few media outlets reported that these protesters decided to have their own parade, or when it was reported, the media focused instead on the fact that, at the end, the two parades merged together in a display of harmony.  Therefore, Avila-Saavedra claims that the media reports of Stonewall 25 not only commemorated the Stonewall riots, but helped turn them into a myth as well, a myth that was useful for the LGBT politics of the 1990s (coming out, lobbying for rights like marriage, etc.).

To back up such claims, Avila-Saavedra looks at several media outlets.  The New York Times, he shows, ran completely uncritical accounts of the Stonewall riots, displaying them in a Whiggish, progressive account of triumph, leaving out all of the people who did not fit into this coherent story.  The Village Voice, an alternative newsweekly published from NYC’s Greenwich Village, on the other hand, gave more attention to the radicals’ protests of the Stonewall 25 celebrations.  Moreover, the Village Voice published interviews with witnesses of the Stonewall riot that challenged the neat and tidy narrative being told by gay rights leaders.  Therefore, “the coverage in the Village Voice is less concerned with consensus.”  The Advocate focused not on the significance of Stonewall riots, the meaning of which was taken for granted, but instead focused on the forms of celebration by questioning whether parades and concerts can adequately commemorate such momentous events.  The Advocate article “fails to voice dissenting memories and interpretations of the riots and implicitly endorses their mythical significance” (8).  He then analyzes how Stonewall was portrayed on TV through the PBS special “Out Rage 69,” the official Stonewall 25 documentary “Stonewall 25: The Future is Ours,” and ends with a description of the Stonewall movie, produced by Nigel Finch.  All of these, Avila-Saavedra shows, present an uncritical reproduction of the Stonewall Myth that has been circulated and then commemorated by the celebrations of 1994.

My Comments:  This is a really fascinating paper, and it deals with a lot of the same themes that my own research will.  I like its focus on the media in forming collective memories.  In particular, the paper reveals the legitimizing nature of the American media. “This obsession with media attention is exemplary of the queer movement’s search for legitimization through one of the most ubiquitous institutions in American culture. It did not happen if it was not on TV.”  So, these types of events are a part of what David Lowenthal would call heritage formation – fashioning a past that is useful for the present.  But, like this paper shows, such endeavors – especially ones that focus on unity and singular narratives – often leave people out.

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

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Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities

D'Emilio

D’Emilio, John.  Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: the Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.  

Subject: An examination of the early homophile movement of the 1940s, 50s, & 60s, and the subsequent emergence of a gay liberation movement in 1969 and the 1970s.

Main Points:  I know realize how fundamental this book has been to other scholars.  Many of the authors’ books I’ve read, including David Johnson’s, Margot Canaday’s, and Marc Stein’s, all build on D’Emilio’s work.  With that said, the story in Sexual Politics is now familiar to me, but it’s always nice to read the original work!

D’Emilio explains that World War II was a defining historical moment for the creation of a homosexual identity in the USA.  The mass mobilization of young people for the war effort (either as soldiers, laborers, or clerical workers for the expanding bureaucracy) took individuals far from the watchful eye of family, friends, and the church and placed them in new places (anonymity) that were often sex-segregated (like the military).  As a result, individuals who desired members of the same sex were able to realize that they weren’t alone and that there were others like themselves.  After the war itself was over, most of these same-sex desiring men and women (who were now thinking of themselves as a distinct group, defined by their same-sex interests) stayed in major ports of call like San Francisco and New York City, thus creating emerging gay sub-cultures.

As McCarthyism hunted out homosexuals in the government, the individuals who were forced out became politicized and joined (or formed) ‘homophile’ movements like the Mattachine Society (1951) or the Daughters of Bilitis (1955).  According to D’Emilio, this period from 1930-1950 was pivotal in the transformation of homosexual acts into definitive homosexuality – from a series of acts to an identity.

By the late 1960s, the sexual revolution and civil rights movement inspired some members of the homophile movement to radicalize their demands and goals.  The 1969 Stonewall Riots acted as a sparking point to ignite decades’ worth of movement and activism.  Out of this arose the gay liberation movement, which partnered (initially) with feminism and other groups calling for radical social revolution.

My Comments:  I think the greatest contribution of this work is that it historicizes Stonewall and shows that it was the culmination of decades of work that had been carried out by groups; it was not the start of the gay movement.  Later authors have built on D’Emilio’s work, providing more detail and nuance, but D’Emilio’s argument for the importance of the WWII era still holds true and this book was really groundbreaking in 1983.  Good stuff.

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

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Movements & Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth

Photo courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.cbsnews.com

Armstrong, Elizabeth A. & Suzanna M. Crage.  “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth” in American Sociological Review, Vol. 71, No. 5 (Oct., 2006):  724-751

Subject:  The authors seek to explain why the Stonewall riots secured such a dominant place in the collective memory of gay rights activism while other similar events prior to Stonewall did not.

Main Points:  The authors lay out a sociological approach to the study of creating and maintaining collective memories through public commemoration.  Because the authors are sociologists, this article reads more like a lab report than it does the typical narrative of historical articles.  But they do provide some helpful ways of thinking about how collective memory works.  The main point of this article is to help explain why the 1969 events at the Stonewall Inn acquired such significance while previous similar events did not.

Even though their argument is more nuanced, it can be summed up as follows:  Stonewall is remembered because it is marked by an international commemorative ritual: an annual gay pride parade.  Moreover, the commemoration of Stonewall riots was able to be successful because of a confluence of historically specific conditions:  It was the first commemorable event to occur at a time and place in which homosexuals had enough capacity to produce a commemorative vehicle like an annual parade event.  While other events may have been seen as worthy of being commemorated, activists did not have the exposure or capability to produce a lasting commemorative event (or “vehicle” as the authors call it).  In this sense, context (time and place) was the decisive factor.

In an introductory section, the authors explain the concepts they feel are necessary for successful collective memory formation:  1) Commemorabilty (something worth being commemorated); 2) Mnemonic capacity (skills, network, and resources needed to create commemorative vehicles such as annual parades); 3) Resonance (this includes a receptive audience as well as the institutionalization of the commemoration event so that it has duration over space and time).

The authors study five different events that had the potential to be the spark that ignited a national movement, but because they lacked some of the necessary factors listed above, were not commemorated, and as such, were eclipsed by the myth of the Stonewall Riots.  The first was the police raid on a gay New Year’s party in San Francisco, January 1965 (commemorable, but lacking mnemonic capacity).  Second was the San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria Disturbance of August 1966 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability). Third:  Black Cat bar raid, LA in January 1967 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability).  Fourth was the Stonewall Riots in NYC, June 1969 (commemorable and activists had mnemonic capacity, able to create resonance).  Lastly, the Snake Pit bar raid in NYC in March 1970 (not commemorable because it was not “the first” – even though there was mnemonic capacity).

Why was Stonewall so commemorable?  Because those at the Stonewall Inn broke the “script” of normal police/homosexual interaction.  This time, Stonewall patrons fought back, spilling the incident onto the street where it gathered momentum and lasted for days.  A gay liberation mindset led activists to see the political possibilities of the developing situation (737).  The riots happened late in the 1960s, after homophile movements and, later, radical activists had pushed for the rights and visibility of homosexuals for years.  So, by 1969, radical gay liberation activists (especially in New York) had the necessary “capital” (exposure and connections) to turn this riot into a symbol for their cause.  “Without a radical political approach, activists would not have responded by escalating the conflict.  They would not have created or circulated grand narratives of its importance, nor would they have planned commemorative rituals” (744).  The authors show that while there were riots in other cities, many of the liberal (or, according to gay liberationists, ‘conservative’) activists who sought to fight for rights within the socio-political system did not see a violent riot as something worth commemorating, and did not want to be tied to the radicals of the New Left (733).  The authors argue that this also helps explain why San Francisco (a ‘headquarters’ for homophile movements) did not participate in gay pride/Stonewall commemoration for two years.

The authors contribute the success of the “Stonewall Myth” in LGBT history’s collective memory to the fact that, while Stonewall was not the first riot, Stonewall activists were the first to claim to be first (725).  Prior riots were intentionally glossed over while later riots weren’t as important because they weren’t first.  Already in July 1970 pamphlets passed out as a summary of the first commemoration of Stonewall, stated that the 1969 Stonewall Riots “marked the first time that large numbers of gay people stood up against repression” (743).  This ‘unique’ place in history granted the Stonewall riots with the most commemorability, and has thus built the “wildfire narrative” in which Stonewall/NYC was the “spark” that “ignited” the gay rights movement all across the nation.

Despite scholarship demonstrating that Stonewall was not the first instance of gay resistance, the myth has continued to hold its ground because simpler narratives (collective memories) are more useful and easier to transfer than messier, more complicated ones.

Armstrong & Crage’s article also demonstrates the complexity of myths – their formation and longevity.  It clearly shows us that myths are more than fairy-tales, and that they shouldn’t be simply dismissed for containing factual inaccuracies.  Myths, anecdotes, and histories combine to inform our collective memories of the past, and thus, myths are as important to understanding our views of the past as scholarship is.

 

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

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Behind the Mask of Respectability

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society  Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society
Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

Meeker, Martin.  “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and the Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s.”  Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol 10, No. 1 (Jan., 2011):  78-116. 

Subject: A reevaluation of the Mattachine Society’s place in the gay rights movement that specifically addresses just how “radical” or “conservative” the Society actually was.

Meeker’s main argument is that the history of the Mattachine Society has become so standardized in the last twenty years that scholars have stopped looking at primary documents for their judgments and instead have simply repeated what other scholars have said before them.  Meeker singles out John D’Emilio for forming our current understanding of the Society as initially radical, but eventually ousting its radical leaders and then taking on a passive role in which it urged homosexuals to adopt an image of respectability and assimilate into mainstream society.  By the end of the 1960s, the Society was almost useless and was left by the wayside by other, more radical and activist groups.

But Meeker urges us to take a closer look at the Mattachine Society by not only looking at the documents it prepared for a wider, mainly heterosexual and homophobic public.  Instead, we should look “behind the mask of respectability” and observe the inner workings of the Society.  This, Meeker argues, reveals a Society that was much more radical than they are given credit for today.

Meeker asserts that scholars have been right in pointing out that the original leadership of the Mattachine Society was vocally more radical than later leaders.  He calls this period between 1950-1953 the “Mattachine Foundation” (80).  Its successor, the Mattachine Society (1953-1967) was vocally more conservative.  Meeker’s essay “demonstrates that the Society was much more complex and far-thinking in its philosophy than earlier accounts suggest” (80).  In trying to demonstrate that the Society was more radical than previously thought he says that “a closer look reveals that rather than being a cowardly retreat, the Mattachine Society’s presentation of a respectable public face was a deliberate and ultimately successful strategy to deflect the antagonisms of its many detractors…This practice of dissimulation disarmed some of the antigay sentiment in American society while it also enabled the homophiles to defend and nurture the gay world” (81).

The body of the essay presents five major reevaluations about the organization of the Mattachine Foundation/Society.  First, he demonstrates that the ideology and practice of sexual politics of the Foundation was not so definitively radical when compared to the later Society.  “The Mattachine Foundation, accessible only through a post office box, its leaders surrounded in secrecy, and publicly represented on its letterhead by three married women, did not directly challenge the social requirement that homosexuals remain invisible.”  Moreover, Meeker asserts that while the organization sought publicity for its cause, its actual leaders chose to remain hidden.  Even the more “radical” Foundation urged its members to “try to observe the generally accepted social rules of dignity and propriety at all times…in conduct, attire, and speech” (90). This leads Meeker to the conclusion that, “the Foundation was not yet ready to confront unswervingly the demon of public invisibility” (89).

The second reevaluation Meeker demonstrates is that there is much more to the Mattachine Society than its public image.  Through its publications, it established social needs and help lines for homosexuals throughout the nation who felt alone or isolated. “In responding to the needs of troubled homosexuals, the Mattachine Society took many risks.”  Even in an era when “the homosexual youth” wasn’t believed to exist (the medical and psychiatric establishment believed one could still be cured), the Society “transgressed the greatest taboo of all: it quietly guided underage homosexuals out of their isolation into self-acceptance.” “At the same time that it was presented to the public as a group of staid professionals in suits and ties who remained within the law and the realm of good taste, the Society quietly expanded the boundaries of acceptable social behavior and political activism” (98-99).

A third reevaluation shows how the Society built a productive and innovative alliance with sexologists as well as other sex radicals in the 1950s and 1960s in order to change Americans’ attitudes towards homosexuals (instead of just sheepishly accepting whatever the sexologists told them about homosexuality).

The fourth reevaluation has to do with the Society’s relationship with the gay bar scene.  Meeker shows that the Society demanded that all homosexuals receive the same civil rights as everyone else.  This included the right to congregate, assemble, and socialize.  The Society was “vehemently opposed to any laws prohibiting homosexuals from enjoying the right o seek partners in public, yet it was publicly in favor of laws that punished sexual acts that occurred in public places” (106).  Meeker reveals the Society’s middle class propriety and its beliefs that no one – homo or heterosexual – should have sex in public places.

The final reevaluation traces the contributions made by the Society’s leadership even as the Society’s membership and budget dwindled as it went on into the 1960s.  Meeker argues that the Society died not because it had become inherently unimportant, but because it’s success in reaching out to more gay people meant they overspent on trying to provide more services to them.  Additionally, more specialized gay groups appeared on the scene in San Francisco, drawing membership away from the Society (112).

Meeker’s ultimate conclusion is that the Mattachine Society donned the mask of respectability not to bend to hetero-normative demands, but instead as a political maneuver that would allow them to operate under the radar. “In the 1950s, to agitate for fair and nonsensationalized representation, to ask that homosexuals be shown to the mainstream public as being just like everyone else, was not a conservative demand.  For the homophiles to insist that they were just like other Americans and were therefore deserving of the same rights was to demand what they did not yet possess:” equal rights (116). This made them more radical than they are given credit for.

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

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Rethinking the Gay & Lesbian Movement

Marc Stein

Stein, Marc.  Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement.  New York: Routledge, 2012. 

 

Subject:  A compact synthesis of the American gay and lesbian movement from 1950 to the early 1990s.

Main Points:  This is a slim book, but one packed full of information.  In a great introduction, Stein highlights the development of gay and lesbian scholarship, as well as the newer fields of queer theory and the history of sexuality.  He points out that there have been many great monographs dealing with a vast variety of topics, but asserts that it has been decades since someone has produced a synthesis account of the gay and lesbian movement in all of the United States.  This book is meant to fill that gap.  Scholars of gay & lesbian studies/queer theory/history of sexuality won’t really learn much new information from the book, but he does succeed in bringing together the latest research into one place and presenting it in a clear, understandable way.  It’s an insightful and academically serious book while also avoiding scholarly jargon and prose so that it’s open to readers who are just stepping into the field.  In that respect, this is meant to be more than just a textbook that tells what happened.

In the intro, Stein introduces readers to the idea of the socially constructed nature of gender, biological sex, and sexuality, though he never uses the term ‘socially constructed.’  He explains that when talking about different periods, one has to use different labels, since it’s inaccurate to speak about “queer activists” in the 1920s or “LGBT individuals” in the 1940s, for example.  Instead, he speaks about the homophile movement of the 1940s-1960s.  He then shows the development of gay liberation and lesbian feminism from 1969-1973, and the subsequent gay and lesbian activism that extended to 1990.  After that, he explains, it’s more appropriate to speak of LGBT and queer activism.

Early on Stein makes it clear that this book is not meant to be a history of all people who have sex with people of the same sex.  Instead, it is meant to chronicle the important developments of those men and women who identified as gays and lesbians (he pays less attention to bi and trans individuals) and who were politically and social active during this time period.  “As defined in this book, the gay and lesbian movement has been a small but influential component of a much larger gay and lesbian world, which in turn has been a small but influential component of a much larger universe of people who engage in same-sex sex.  Most people who engage in same-sex sex do not think of themselves as gay or lesbian and most gay and lesbian people are not activists” (9).  He then defines a “movement” as having four components:  a movement is an (1) organized, (2) collective, and (3) sustained (4) effort to produce, prevent, or reverse social changes.  Based on this definition, the gay and lesbian movement did not start in American until the 1950s.

In the first chapter, he provides a very brief overview of same-sex sex in North America between 1500 and 1940.  The content is oversimplified, but his point (which he makes clearly) is that understandings of sexuality have changed over time.  He provides many examples of how the history of gender variance is intertwined with the history of sexual variance, but these are not necessarily the same histories.  The second chapter deals with homophile activism (1940-1969) and shows how thousands of people who engaged in same-sex sex did not think of themselves as gay or lesbian – and did not become political activists, but who pushed for homosexual rights nonetheless.  He reveals that, in the years between 1950-1953, these groups had leftist political leanings, while between 1953-1961, homosexual rights advocates were predominantly liberal.  The years between 1961 and 1969 saw a diversification and radicalization of homophile organizations.  The main contribution of this chapter is to historicize the Stonewall riots and show that while these homophile organizations remained small in comparison to later movements and did not achieve the mass mobilization that occurred with post-Stonewall activists, they did have achievements and laid the foundation for the movement’s future successes and failures (41).  In this respect, this chapter reminded me of The Lavender Scare (D. Johnson, 2004) and The Straight State (Canaday, 2009) in that it points out that “the politicization of people who engaged in same-sex sex occurred in part because of the unjust policies and practices they experienced and witnessed in the context and aftermath of the [second world] war” (42).

In the third chapter (1969-1973), our attention is turned away from groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.  He shows that the Stonewall riots of 1969 (set in a larger socio-political context of revolution and reform) acted as a rallying point for men and women who came to identify themselves as gay and lesbians.  Radical gay liberation and radical lesbian feminism dominated the beginning of this period and called for a complete sexual revolution and overthrow of social norms.  By the end of this period, more liberal gay and lesbian reformist controlled the movement.  These reformers called for gay and lesbians to come out and fight for rights, but did not call for a complete overhaul of US society; they sought to reform the system through political lobbying.

Chapter four deals with the era of conservative backlash between 1973 and 1981.  While gay and lesbian reformers won a victory in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder, soon the New Right and new Christian Right began mobilizing to fight the “gay agenda.”  This forced the gay and lesbian activists to become more politicized, reforming their self-image into a minority group that deserved political protection (as opposed to the expression of a sexual way of being that potentially all could express).  While the gay liberationists had rebuked politics, the media, and the medical establishment, the gay liberals were forced to rely on these establishments for aid against the New Right.

The fifth chapter deals with the age of AIDS (1981-1990) and Stein meticulously charts out how the AIDS epidemic helped to mobilize more gay and lesbian individuals while also bolstering the Christian Right’s attacks against the immorality of homosexuality.  He shows how hundreds of new gay and AIDS organizations sprang up across the nation, and how the failure of the Republican-led government to efficiently react to the epidemic led to the radicalization of these new gay/AIDS groups (like ACT UP).

In the last chapter (beyond 1990), Stein looks at the emergence of the LGBT and queer movements.  He sees this development as coming out of the identity crisis that AIDS forced on the gay and lesbian communities.  AIDS activists had re-radicalized the movement, claiming that the gay and lesbian movement since the mid 1970s had grown complacent and assimilationist.  Many threw off the identities of “gay” and “lesbian” because they were seen as embodying the white, middle class bias of the movement.  Instead, the acronym LGBT was adopted, purposefully putting the movement’s diversity front-and-center.  Still other political and cultural activists chose to fight identity politics altogether and thought of themselves as ‘queer’ – or simply non-conformist.  Therefore, queer could include people who had opposite-sex sex (non conformist straight folks) while also rejecting those who had same-sex sex (gays and lesbians) who were part of the monogamous, marriage regime.  However, Stein questions whether queer is really a non-identity or if it has simply become a new identity in itself.

My Comments:  This is a dense book.  It’s full of useful information and would be perfect as a textbook for an intro-level class (grad or undergrad).  I think I’m going to have to purchase a copy so that I can keep some of the chronology straight;  he highlights essentially all of the important groups, actors, events, and legislation.

One of the book’s greatest strengths, besides all of the factual information, is that he takes great pains to show that not everyone who had/has same-sex sex identified as gay or lesbian, and thus did not feel the need to be a part of this movement.  Moreover, he shows that this was not a single, united movement; there was tons of strife, especially since people of color pointed out that they were being left out of both the lesbian and gay organizations.  Therefore, Stein does a great job of showing “the movement’s” successes and failures (as defined by their own self-professed goals).

As a last note, the book has a great, extensive list suggested further reading.  The list is 15 pages long and is broken down thematically, with everything from “general studies” to “Native Americans and Native Alaskans” to “studies of pre-Stonewall trans activism.”  This is a really great resource.

 

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

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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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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 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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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

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