Sexuality & Gender

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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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. 

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Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South

 

 

sweet tea

Johnson, E. Patrick. Sweet Tea:  Black Gay Men of the South.  Chapel Hill:  the University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 

Subject:  Johnson looks at the stories of 63 gay black men that grew up in or continue to live in the Southern states of the U.S.  The book addresses themes of race, gender, class, and sexuality.

Research Questions:   Is the black community actually more homophobic than white society?  In reality, how constricted is the life of a gay black man growing up in the South?  Which parts of Southern culture (across the racial divide) allow gay subcultures to develop and thrive?  The South is stereotyped (and rightly so) as being ‘more religious’ than other areas of the U.S., so what role has church played in the lives of these men?  How have these men themselves perceived their racial, gender, and sexual variance?  How do they conceptualize, contextualize, and express their life experiences? 

Arguments:  According to Johnson, despite stereotypes and preconceived notions, gayness is not completely suppressed in Southern culture (or, as is the focus of this book, in Southern black culture).  This is not because of a broader acceptance of homosexuality per se; instead, Johnson attributes it to an aspect of Southern culture that he feels to be special (if not perhaps unique) to the South:  a prevailing sense of “respect” or “dignity.”  The need to keep a “respectable” image for both the individual and the family dictates that while a transgression (any transgression: alcoholism, abuse, adultery, homosexuality, etc.) may be known, it must not be flaunted, made public, or even explicitly addressed; doing so could tarnish the respectability and name of those involved.  “The gentility, acts of politesse, and complicity of silence that form around taboo issues in southern tradition often take precedence over an individual’s need to name that identity” (4).  In other words, respect reigns.  While this may, upon first glance, be interpreted as the continuation of oppression and suppression, Johnson argues that this system actually creates a space within which gay men can exist, create relationships, and create spaces of their own.  So, while Southern society may set boundaries for gay men (indeed, it sets boundaries of transgressions on all members of society), this does not eliminate gay (sub)culture.  The men in this book found other intricate ways to navigate relationships, meanings, connections, and their own identity – often (or perhaps always?) using the very structures of “acceptable” Southern society, such as the church to meet other men like themselves, as well as using the passive-aggressive Southern “politeness” in new, nuanced ways as their own codes.  In this way, the men in Johnson’s book resemble the gay men of Chauncey’s New York City study (and some of the terminology is there too – some of these gay men still use the term “trade,” for example; page 277).

Johnson’s book reveals that all of these men (who ranged from men in their twenties to men in their nineties at the time of the interview) had experienced some form of overt racism and/or segregation.  The focus of many of the narrators’ stories was also on their childhood and their family situation.  Many spoke of how it was the “Southern way” for the entire neighborhood to help raise you, and their stories indicate that the notion of most black families being single-parent families is ungrounded.  What’s interesting is that those narrators who grew up without a father or any other strong male figure in their life did not associate this lack of a male-figure with having any influence on their being gay.  (I think that Johnson includes these sections on childhood, race, and education to try to demonstrate that their gayness [he shies away from ‘homosexuality’] was only one aspect of their life, and was often not the defining axis around which their life revolved; in other words, they had to wear multiple identities at once: black, Southern, poor, country, educated, middle class, gay (or “sissie,” “different”), etc.

Johnson also addresses “the closet” and notes Marlon Ross in saying that “the closet” is not necessarily an apt metaphor for the place where black men who choose not to announce or visibly articulate their (homo)sexuality in a pubic way find themselves” (109).  This is because, many of the men in the book did not “come out” in the sense of making their homosexuality visible.  Most only revealed (it was always in the framework of a “secret”) their gayness to their immediate family.  The men felt the strong dictates of trust compelled them to tell their immediate family members, “because that’s what families do; thy trust each other.”  However, Johnson reveals the irony in this “private gayness” or “complicit silence”:  in many instances their homosexuality IS public, because they live with their partners, or they have brought partners home.  However, it is seldom explicitly discussed.  This goes back to the “Southern politeness” thing, in that sexuality (not just homosexuality) was not seen as an appropriate topic for direct conversation.  Johnson asserts that this private acceptance without public acknowledgment (while seen as internalized self-hatred by some) is a way to accommodate taboo sexuality while still sustaining the veneer of southern religious morals (109).  Another point to note:  many of the narrators explained that they never had to “come out” (as in a direct conversation in which they had to explicitly tell straight members of their family that they were gay) because most of their family “just already knew.”  (And just a point that I found particularly interesting:  more narrators than I expected expressed the fact that their fathers responded more positively to the news than their mothers did.)

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book was the chapter “Church Sissies:  Gayness and the Black Church.”  Johnson explains how the relationship between the Black Church (which has overt anti-homosexual tenets) and gay black men is not one of mutual exclusion; the Church does not unrelentingly hunt out its gay community members (despite the biblical rhetoric), and gay black men do not (all) avoid the church, because the church plays such a central role in Southern black culture.  However, this relationship is obviously full of contradictions (for example, Johnson believes that the church often exploits the creative talents of its gay members even as it condemns their gayness).  But Johnson explains that the church is often the place where young gay men first felt a sense of belonging in a community.  The church choir in particular provided an acceptable outlet for young men to perform, to sing and dance, when such behavior would not be acceptable outside of church (and Johnson points out that the fact that the long choir robe resembled a dress didn’t go unnoticed).  As Johnson puts it, “Participation in the church choir provides a way to adhere to the religiosity of southern culture but also build a sense of community within what can sometimes be a hostile space” (184)  (It is also interesting to note that in the chapter(s) on sexual experiences, many narrators told that their first (and many subsequent) sexual experiences with other boys/men occurred in the church!  Johnson doesn’t find this surprising, given the central role the church played as a gathering spot and given the large amount of time that young boys spent together at church during the normal week and during summer camps.)

Method:  The fact that Johnson’s book is an oral history makes it incredibly better than it would have been without the narrators’ stories.  First of all, like with Kennedy and Davis’ Boots of Leather, these stories would have been impossible to retrieve without oral history and interviews.  Secondly, oral history lets these men tell their stories in their own words – how they experienced, remembered, and dealt with growing up gay in the South.  It also grants them agency on another level because it now gives them a say in how their history will be written.

Johnson does make some interesting points about the methodology of oral history, too:  First, he sweeps aside the notion that an interview is some type of academic transaction, in which the narrator hands over nuggets of “historical information” to the interviewer.  He acknowledges the power of personal experience, time, and memory to shape our recollections of past events, therefore moves away from the notion of “the Truth” and moves towards “truths” as the narrators experienced them.  He also notes that he does not use the “traditional” hierarchical position of interviewer (higher/more power) and interviewee (lower/less power), because the interviewee actually has a good deal of “power” – he has information that the interviewer wants.  So, instead it is a reciprocal relationship and Johnson provides the analogy of being invited as a guest to a Southern family’s home for dinner:  you are the guest, but you are asked to help shell peas, chop onions, and set the table.  In other words, both parties involved must work and provide input, but both also get something out of the interview experience.  The interviewer gets information and insight into a research question, while the act of telling the story to someone else (and a “professional” at that) often provides a sense of validation for these narrators’ life.  Such validation can come in the form of a feeling that their life story is important enough for a scholar to capture it and include it in history.  There is power in storytelling.

My Comments:  I really enjoyed Johnson’s book.  It was fresh and thus refreshing.  Perhaps it was because he was not a historian by training, and so he didn’t feel compelled to completely conform to academic standards of writing (there were a lot of exclamation points, and he often said stuff like “so-and-so took shit from no one.”)  So that makes it entertaining as well as insightful!

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

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Male Homosexuality in West Germany

Whisnant

 

Whisnant, Clayton J.  Male Homosexuality in West Germany: Between Persecution and Freedom, 1945-69.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 

 

Subject: A re-evaluation of male homosexual life in Germany between the end of World War II and the start of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s.

Main Points:  Whisnant argues that historians of German sexuality have too often overlooked the twenty five years after the end of the Second World War in their study of significant moments in homosexual life in Germany.  There is a bourgeoning historiography on homosexuality under the Nazi regime and scholars have given ample attention to the start of Germany’s “second gay rights movement” that began in the arly 1970s.  Indeed, modern gay rights activists have mostly overlooked the 1950s and 1960s and placed their roots with the “first” gay rights movement led by the likes of Magnus Hirschfeld at the turn of the twentieth century.  But in this book, Whisnant shows that homosexuals, homophiles, and gay men (he uses the popular contemporary term for each decade) in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s actually set the stage for the flashpoint of the “second gay rights movement” that began in the 1970s, even if their movements were less radical than those of the gay rights/liberation movements.

In particular, Whisnant identifies three major contributions that the period between the 1940s-1960s made, which the homosexual movements and gay scenes of the 1970s era (and later) would build:  1) First, the time between the 1940s and 1960s was an era in which gay scenes were re-established after being virtually destroyed by the Nazis during the 1930s and early 1940s (Whisnant talks about “scenes” rather than “sub-cultures” because “scenes” better illustrates how fluid and diverse these spaces were.)  He shows how gay scenes arose in many of West Germany’s larger cities: West Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne.  In the 1950s, Hamburg was able to surpass Berlin as the major gay hot spot in Germany until a renewed police campaign repressed these scenes.  2) Second, this period witnessed a transformation of the concept of homosexuality, allowing for a masculinized vision of same-sex desire to become widespread.  While the effeminate Tunte (fairy) did not disappear, a new “normal” homosexual man (usually referred to himself as a “homophile”) became the dominant stereotype of homosexuality.  This allowed new opportunities for self-identification among same-sex desiring men, but society and the state latched on to this image with negative consequences for gay men: now the state was able to portray the homosexual who preys on the youth as being able to blend in as a “normal” man.  3) Third, this period ended with the reform of Paragraph 175, which signaled the start of Germany’s gay liberation movement.  Whisnant argues that this reform (which decriminalized homosexual acts between men as long as both were 21 or over) should not be seen as the inevitable culmination of a general process of sexual liberation happening over the twentieth century.  Instead, he convincingly shows how a transformation of legal thought (not only about homosexuality in particular) allowed for the reform of Paragraph 175 and the formation of the modern gay rights movement.

My Comments:  Whisnant’s book is incredibly helpful for my research, because it is essentially the “prequel” to my period of study.  It helps contextualize how the West German gay liberation movement was able to emerge so suddenly in 1969-71.  He shows that while knowledge of the Stonewall riots played a role, it was the reform of Paragraph 175 that allowed for the movement in Germany to flourish without fear of legal reprisal.  While his description of the 1940s and 1950s is incredibly interesting (especially the particular importance that homosexual publications held in West Germany), I think Whisnant’s greatest contribution is his chapter on the reform of 175.  He shows that, beginning in the 1950s, a reevaluation of “the homosexual” took place that led to both more repression by moral conservatives, but also the chance for more freedom.  This push for more freedom came from “progressive attorneys, doctors, scientists, Christian theologians, politicians, and other public figures who saw the decriminalization of homosexuality as a key aspect of a much more comprehensive transformation in West Germany’s system of criminal law” (168).  Moreover, this was somewhat of a moderate “project” to redefine Western liberalism in the face of the new radical Left and the Right.  Therefore, this reform was the fruit of policy makers, not from “grass roots” activists.

At least in my mind, this changes the way I contextualize the gay rights movement that erupted in West Germany in the following two years.  According to Whisnant’s view (if I understand it correctly), these activists were more the heir of political reform rather than the instigators of it.   This is a very good book, one which I recommend highly.

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

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Coming Out Under Fire

Berube - Coming out under Fire

 

Berube, Allan.  Coming Out Under Fire:  The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II.  New York: Free Press, 1990.

Subject:  An examination of World War II’s repercussions on the development of a gay identity and subculture in the United States.

Main Arguments:  Berube focuses primarily on military life for gay men and women during the Second World War, and spends less time on the post-war period.  One may expect that a history of gays in the military would be one dominated by oppression, but Berube shows that, while there was plenty of oppression to go around, this period was actually a vital stage in the development of a gay identity and subculture.  The history Berube tells is one in which the gay women and men acknowledge institutional oppression, but then go on to navigate the system and carve out a niche for themselves.

As other scholars have shown (John D’Emilio in particular), the WWII era was one of mass movement; individuals were shipped off to distant places and forced to interact with people who were different from themselves.  But, this movement also allowed for people who may have felt different to meet others who were also “different.”  More specifically, Berube argues that the mass mobilization of WWII allowed gay men and women (who had either volunteered or who were drafted into the service) to achieve a level of anonymity by leaving the watchful eye of family and friends.  This granted them the courage to act on feelings that usually had to be suppressed, allowing them to experiment with their desires.  Moreover, it’s not insignificant that the armed forces were single-sex communities; worlds were created in which men only interacted with men, and women only with women.

Before the WWII period, individual homosexual acts were persecuted by the military.  But, Berube argues that reformers and humanitarian psychiatrists were successful in WWII in convincing the military leaders that homosexuality was not a criminal act, but instead a medical disorder.  Psychiatrists pushed for this reform because they felt it would lead to more humane punishment, or an honorable discharge from the military instead of prison time or a dishonorable discharge.  Instead, what happened was social isolation, dishonorable discharges, times in hospital wings, or even confinement to “Queer Stockades,” where they were forced to eat together under armed guard, sleep with the lights on, and other such conditions.  But as mentioned before, this is not a history solely of oppression.

Berube shows that the need for manpower during the war had drastic effects for the military’s treatment of gays and lesbians.  First and foremost, the military simply needed soldiers to fight, so leaders were more willing to overlook even cases of blatant homosexuality.  In fact, Berube shows that sometimes intimate bonds between the soldiers were seen as helpful to the war effort by forging camaraderie among the men.

But the military’s views towards gays also created a set of unintended consequences.  First, because homosexuality was now officially defined as a personality disorder (and therefore potentially affecting a specific set of the population), the military needed a regimented, formal, anti-homosexual policy.  But this then helped to create homosexuals as a specific group, helping to form “gay” as a set identity, rather than just a set of acts.  Being labeled as member of a group also allowed gay men and women to think of themselves as belonging to a community whose underlying connection was their gayness.  Gay men in particular began using “camp” and lingo to develop a semi-secret identity within the military culture.  Berube depicts that “drag shows” in the military allowed gay men to openly expand their secret subculture.  In a world of only men, female characters had to be played by men as well, and Berube says that, “The joke was on the unaware members of the audience – a subplot about homosexuality was being created right before their eyes and they didn’t even know it” (72).

In the final chapters, Berube shows that changes of discourse during WWII, along with a growing awareness of gay people as a group, set the stage for the heightened scrutiny of homosexuality after the war.  But these changes were not all liberating or repressive, but simply changes in policy, language, and social spaces, ultimately leading to the “redefinition of homosexuality as a political issue” (253).  Different groups then used this new discourse for either gay witch-hunts or the starts of gay activism.

Gay women soldiers actually get ample attention in his book, though it is less than gay men receive.  Berube explains that this stems from differential treatment of male and female homosexuality.  For one thing, the stereotype of the masculine dyke often lent itself to the belief that gay women would make good soldiers (unlike the stereotypical effeminate male homosexual).  Moreover, the military leadership wanted to keep any discoveries of gay women in its rank as secret as possible, because they were simultaneously campaigning that if women joined the military, they would “remain” womanly, feminine, and thus able to return to being good wives and mothers when the war was over.  Berube also notes that female sexuality was also easier to mask because of the greater social acceptance of women expressing physical affection to each other.

My comments: First of all, Berube does an excellent job of showing how World War II was a watershed moment in gay history, essentially acting as a “coming out” moment for countless individuals across America.  But more specifically, I like that he shows the power of discourse, the power of words, even to create unintended consequences.  While the military sought to repress homosexuality, it first had to define it (and thus create an character type that hadn’t existed as such before).  This discourse of “homosexuals” allowed men and women to identify themselves as a homosexual, a specific type of person.  Also, in a slightly different context, the psychiatric evaluation of homosexuals that resulted from the shift in identification led to conclusions that 1) not all gay men were effeminate, and that most of them were actually good soldiers; 2) most men identifying as gay liked their own behavior and didn’t want to be “cured”.  And lastly, I like that Berube didn’t get stuck in using binary definitions of “gay/straight,” but instead showed that individuals created a myriad of identities in between the two.

This is one of the best history books that I’ve ever read! I simply love it.

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

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Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany

Fout

Fout, John C.  “Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany: the Male Gender Crisis, Moral Purity, and Homophobia,” in Fout, John C., ed.  Forbidden History: the State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Subject: A reevaluation of the fight between homosexual rights advocates and moral purity reformers in late Imperial Germany.

Main Points: In this chapter, Fout gives a good deal of biographical information on many of the leading homosexual rights advocates (Hirschfeld, Kraft-Ebbing, etc) as well as the emerging moral purity groups of the period.  What makes his chapter interesting is that he argues that while the medicalization of sexuality was obviously a central issue in the story of modernity and sexuality, the role played by Protestant moral purity organizers was just as, if not more, important in shaping understandings of homosexuality (at least in Germany).

This is because Fout’s main focus – and he argues that it was the purity organizers’ focus as well – is gender norms, not “sexuality” in the form of object choice determined by biology.  In this sense, “the moral purity organizations increasingly saw their role as championing the existing – and, in their minds, divinely ordained – gender order” (261).  He goes on to say that the “debate was only outwardly about the sins of sexual vice; in reality it reflected an implicit crisis in gender relations, primarily in the form of a growing concern about eroding gender boundaries on the part of a large segment of the middle-class male population as well as a part of the male working class” (262).

Fout makes clear that an important part in this history is the purity organizations’ relationships with the Protestant and Catholic churches.  These close ties with the Church allowed the organizations to speak with authority in restating the dominant sexual and gender paradigm (277).  This paradigm called for traditional, “natural” roles:  sex was procreative only, and only allowed in monogamous, heterosexual marriages.  Men were meant to be hardened and masculine, dominating over the private, weak and feminine women.  This is why homosexuals were seen as abhorrent, because they blurred gender divides.

While studying these organizations more closely, Fout discovers what he argues is an underlying cause for the widespread homophobia in the late years of the German Empire.  100% of membership in these organizations was men; moreover, 70% of membership had a university education; only 4% came from the working class.  Therefore, the idea of “normality” that these organizations were campaigning for was a very specific, bourgeois notion of acceptability.

Moreover, Fout argues that it was sexism that was underlying these organizations’ homophobia and overall plans.  The “moral purity movement was in reality a male-dominated, clerical-led response to the growing presence of women of all classes in the workplace and in the public domain” (279).  The attack on homosexuality, then, was a tool in the overall attempt to keep women in the private sphere.  “The concern was to “keep men on top” literally and figuratively, and that meant the preservation of the myth of male sexual dominance and female submissiveness in all things sexual” (280).  Male homosexuals threatened this dominance by transgressing gender and sexual norms by being sexually passive.

A last interesting point:  Fout concludes that contrary to Hirschfeld and the entire sexology movement, which sought to establish an essentialist understanding of (homo)sexuality (that homosexuality was inborn and had existed throughout all of history), the moral purity movement advocated for what we would now call a social constructionist view of sexuality: that society and individuals could shape and define appropriate sexual behavior.  “While homosexuals in part may have been victims of their biological makeup, the individual’s intellectual and moral capacities made it possible to overcome the body” (288).

My Comments:  Overall, I thought this was an interesting chapter.  I hadn’t read anything in much detail about the opposition to the emerging homosexual emancipation movement in late 19th century Germany (all of the stuff I’ve read tended to be very focused on the emancipation organizers themselves).  I also thought it was important that Fout reminds us that homosexuality was only one of a number of issues that these moral purity organizations were concerned with.

But, the chapter left me with a couple of questions. Number one: where are the women?  Of course, this is a male-dominated story, but you can’t have a chapter about “sexual politics” and never mention lesbians (or never even mention that you’re not going to mention lesbians).  Did they not receive attention from these purity organizations because they weren’t seen as eroding masculinity (but what about the fact that lesbians were taking “their” women away from them and cutting men out of the picture?).

Also, I’d like to know what middle class women had to say about homosexuals – men and women.  Did they view masculine lesbians as an infringement on traditional femininity?  Or would scholars like Marcus and Vicinus say that there was no “lesbian” at this point in time – only a number of female-female relationships that were seen as acceptable?   \

 

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

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What Difference Does a Husband Make?

Heineman

 

Heineman, Elizabeth D.  What Difference Does a Husband Make?  Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany.  Berkley: University of California Press, 1999. 

Subject: A triangular comparison between the legal status of (un)married women in Nazi Germany, and then in West and East Germanys, and how these states used marital status to define role of women.

Main Points: Heineman shows that single women (whether they were widows, divorcees, or simply spinsters) were all defined by their status in relation to married women.  Under Nazi rule, the married woman was seen as the bearer of the German Volk, quite literally: good German mothers gave birth to good German citizens and passed on good German morals.  Unmarried women were often viewed as “asocials.”  While this is nothing particularly new, Heineman shows the extent to which the state was involved in encouraging women to marry; financial and legal incentives were implemented in an attempt to inspire women to settle down with a man.

Another of Heineman’s arguments is that an inferior view of unmarried women survived the upheaval that the loss of WWII and the subsequent occupation caused.  There was a moment in the final years of the war and the initial years of occupation in which the instability meant the state could no longer influence marital status.  But as two new Germanys were established by the Allies, the place of the state returned.

In East Germany, economic necessity along with the Communists’ favorable view of workers (including working women) meant that the state narrowed the gaps between married and single women.  Equality, including equal pay for women was established early on.  Unmarried women held almost no stigma as long as they were 1) contributing to the labor force, and 2) still raising children.

In West Germany, however, the dominance of married womanhood soon returned.  The previous 10 years when women were forced to work and take on “manly” roles because their husbands were off fighting, dying, or being taken prisoner were seen as an inconvenient, shameful necessity that had to be overcome.   This was a part of Chancellor’s Adenauer’s family politics that was meant to restore the true and “normal” family dynamic that had been disrupted by the war’s end.  Critics claimed that this Adenauer family looked too similar to Hitler’s ideal of family.  But marital status remained the main signifier of female identity, and welfare state entitlements and some legal rights were all tied to whether or not a woman was married.

Heineman concludes that 1945 was a lost opportunity for German feminism because that moment of instability could have been seized to put forth a new understanding of female identity, one that was not tied to marriage with a man.  Instead, traditional roles were reinstituted in West Germany.

My Comments:  This book doesn’t really deal with sexuality itself, but instead focuses more in gender.  But I picked it to read because the Adenauer era of family politics was an incredibly important stage in the development of the history of homosexuality in Germany.  During this time, the monogamous, heterosexual married life was reinstituted as the norm, and homosexual movements were forced to come up with a new image for themselves to get a chance of dialogue with policy makers.  Conservative, masculine, “respectable” homosexuality replaced the flamboyant “fairy” image.

Also, I think another important point from this book is in showing how concerned the state was with gender and sexuality.  It attempted to (and in many cases was successful) control the definition of “woman” by dictating that women should be married.  By passing laws, or restricting benefits, the state meant to control womanhood and manhood.  But this book shows that the female population was divided in one way that the males were not: marital status.

 

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

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The Institutionalization of Homosexual Panic in the Third Reich

 

Pink Triangle

Giles, Geoffrey J.  “The Institutionalization of Homosexual Panic in the Third Reich,” in Gellately, Robert and Nathan Stoltzfus, eds.  Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

 

Subject:  An article about how the Nazi regime defined and persecuted homosexuality in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

 

Main Points:  Giles is, in my opinion, the preeminent US scholar of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, and his work is always based on meticulous scrutiny of German primary sources.  This article is no different.  Giles breaks this article into 6 subsections:

  1. “Hitler’s Indifference and Himmler’s Homophobia” – In this section, Giles shows that homophobia was not one of Hitler’s obsessions. Instead, he remained rather indifferent to homosexuality (even against allegations that there were homosexuals in the highest of Nazi ranks), focusing instead on the consolidation of power and the elimination of the “Jewish question.”  Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was indeed homophobic, Giles argues, possibly stemming from an incident in his youth.  After the purge of high-ranking Nazi homosexuals in June 1934, Giles argues that Hitler hyped up homosexuality as the excuse for the purge to assuage his guilt at having a long-time loyal supporter murdered (Ernst Röhm).
  2. “The Dimensions of Homophobia” – This section explores four different dimensions to the Nazis’ anti-homosexual policies.  First, there was a cultural side to these policies: outrage at nudist or homosexual organizations, publications, and nightclubs.  Second, ideological opposition to homosexuality complemented cultural hostility.  Ideological opposition includes the definition of “manliness” and how homosexuality was essentially a defilement of manhood.  Though, there was a fine line to balance, because it was believed by most German (not just Nazis) leaders at the time that homoeroticism could actually strengthen the bonds between men (238), though the preferred term for this bond was “comradeship.”  Homosexual acts were a perversion and violation of the close-knithomosocial world of many of the Nazis’ “men leagues.”  Third, was the political dimension of Nazi homophobia.  It was believed by many that homosexuals would band together by a sense of loyalty to one another that superseded loyalty to the state and party.  As a result, if homosexuals were allowed into leadership positions, they would only offer promotions and new positions to fellow homosexuals, until a series of gay cliques ran the Nazi party, and thus, Germany.  And lastly, there was a social dimension to the Nazi policies against homosexuals.  Giles explains this dimension in terms of population control.  “The German population had suffered a serious bloodletting in the First World War,” he writes (239).  So, any challenge to a growing birth rate was a threat to the German people and nation, which is why abortion and homosexuality were policed by the same bureaucratic office.
  3. “Definitions of Homosexuality” – This section was most interesting, but one of the shortest unfortunately.  Here, Giles shows how there was no clear definition of what homosexuality actually constituted.  Most homosexuals at the time went by the original definition of Paragraph 175 (anti-sodomy law), which labeled only anal penetration as “unnaturally indecent.”  So, mutual masturbation, caressing, and even kissing were not necessarily considered homosexual at all – by those doing the caressing or by those enforcing the law.  In fact, Giles gives evidence that suggest such male-male sexual acts (like mutual masturbation) were fairly common in the homosocial world of the military and labor service and was viewed as normal, healthy men letting out some sexual frustration in the absence of women.  Therefore, when the definition of indecency in Paragraph 175 was purposefully generalized in 1935, there was a lot of outcry from all sides when men who by no means considered themselves “homosexual” were being arrested and permanently labeled as such.
  4. “Modes of Persecution” – Explores the different types of punishment that “175’ers” faced.  Himmler believed that sexologists were wrong about homosexuality being inborn – at least for the most part.  He felt that 98% of “homosexuals” were actually men who had been seduced by “true” homosexuals.  That is why, most men prosecuted under 175 were sentenced to a time of hard labor, or a stint in a concentration camp for reeducation.  This was meant to get them back on the right track.  A harsher punishment was reserved for “true” homosexuals (pedophiles and rapists):  castration or a life sentence in a concentration camp.
  5. “Denunciation” – This section shows that most arrests of homosexuals were made because of denunciations by fellow citizens.  Beyond some anecdotes, this section is not particularly enlightening, except in reiterating the common confusion about what actually constituted a “homosexual” act.
  6. “Wartime Radicalization” – Giles concludes by showing in this section how there was a radicalization of the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals during once the Second World War broke out, reaching 168 convictions under Paragraph 175 per month during the war years.  But, Giles curiously doesn’t really make a conclusion as to why this radicalization happened.  I can only conclude that it probably had more to do with a fear of needing to shore up manhood and reproductive goals during wartime.

 

My Comments:  This article was helpful in gaining some statistics as well as showing that, even though Hirschfeld was German and writing during this time, the medical discourse of a total and separate “homosexual” hadn’t taken hold in larger parts of the public and military yet.  The result was that men who had been placed in a homosocial environment, where even homoerotic bonds were somewhat encouraged, were taking part in what we’d today label “homosexual” acts without ever considering themselves homosexual, or even abnormal.  This is just more evidence for the socially constructed nature of (homo)sexuality.

For more book reviews on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Nationalism & Sexuality

Mosse Nationalism

Mosse, George L.  Nationalism & Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe.  New York: Howard Fertig, Inc., 1985.

Subject:  An exploration of the transformations of bourgeois respectability in 19th and 20th century Germany & England and the ways in which these transformations interacted with nationalism and race.

Main Arguments: Mosse’s main argument is that bourgeois respectability and nationalism shaped attitudes toward sex, and these sexual attitudes contributed powerfully to militant nationalism and even the rise of fascism.  While the subtitle of his book refers to all of modern Europe, he focuses mainly on Germany and to a lesser extent on England (with a few references to France and Italy).  He justifies this by stating that in Germany “we witness the ultimate consequences of trying to direct and control human sexuality: the concerted effort under National Socialism to regenerate respectability” (2).

Though he doesn’t really give us a glimpse of what came before this new mode of respectability (sexual “normality”), he claims that the cause of this transformation was religion, and Protestant religious revivals in particular:  German Pietism in Germany, that encouraged Germans to observe a silent obedience to a higher power, and Evangelism in England, that encouraged its followers to get involved with politics.  What emerged out of this transformation was a new sense of respectability, which defined “decent and correct” behavior, as well as the proper attitude one should have toward that behavior.  The supposed “natural” distinctions between men and women were highlighted, creating and enforcing public/private spheres.

These new understandings were harnessed by nationalists to promote nationalistic goals.  Sex was meant for “normal” reproduction, and anything outside of that norm was ostracized as not only unnatural, but unpatriotic and damaging to the nation as well.  In other words, patriotism was equated with sexual normality, and “unnatural” sex, with national decline and racial corruption.

“Outsiders” – or those who did not fit into the realm of respectability, such as homosexuals – were attacked as enemies of the state.  The same can be said for Jews, who were accused of using sex as a weapon to undermine the nation’s health through racial and moral pollution.

He has an interesting chapter on the ways the state imposed its control over the friendships of its citizens.  Whereas the Enlightenment had emphasized the individual’s right to cultivate relationships – even erotic ones with members of the same sex – nationalism dictated that individuals should only have non-erotic friendships with members of the same sex, and erotic relationships would be saved for husbands and wives (and again, for only reproductive purposes to create future generations for the state).  The challenge, however, was to keep homosocial relationships from turning into homosexuals ones, because, the state encouraged deep and even passionate bonds among its male citizens.  In fact, these powerful male friendships were prerequisite of masculinity.  The state wanted men who felt a deep sense of camaraderie with one another, which bolstered the solidarity and power of nationalism.  In this sense, these homosocial relationships always bordered on homoerotic (because of the passion of the friendship); but this also bothered the nationalists because that passionate characteristic always ran the risk of developing into a homosexual bond.  (He also makes the claim that in Germany, the “ideals of personal friendship were most clearly articulated” because the Germans hoped these bonds would act as “a surrogate for lost national unity” – – which I think is a gross over generalization (67).

The Nazis are seen as the logical endpoint for these developments; so instead of being viewed as an abhorrent misuse of sexuality and nationalism, I get the feeling that Mosse sees these developments as leading almost inevitably towards such abhorrent uses.  National Socialism promised to harness and enforce respectability to re-forge the nation in the face of the chaos of modernity.  While men run and protect the nation with physical force (monuments of nude men are erected throughout Germany, displaying the ideal masculinity and the “return” to the natural body), women (who are ultimately inferior) have the duty of literally reproducing the racially and morally pure nation.

My Comments:

I think this must have been a good and maybe even controversial book back in 1985, but it’s dated now.  The way he presents the material is as if there is some un-named “they” who are concocting these new ideas and powers.  There’s no sense of interplay between culture, politics, and ideas.  The result is that the people in the book have absolutely no agency, and are just pawns of the powerful nation-builders.

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

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Intimate Friends

Intimate Friends

Vicinus, Martha.  Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Subject:  A reevaluation of the ways in which upper class white women in Britain and France expressed and sought to define their love for other women.

Main Points:  The main objective of Vicinus’ book is to complicate or replace a linear understanding of the historical development of “the” lesbian identity.  In this new, piecemeal, kaleidoscope view, medical discourse is downplayed and she focuses on the “lesbian-like” women themselves.  By using diaries, letters, essays, fiction, newspapers, and even court cases, Vicinus discerns how these women understood themselves, their relationships, and their connection to society.  By approaching the subject from this angle, Vicinus succeeds in showing that these women employed many different discourses at different times to describe themselves, thus achieving her goal of complicating the emergence of a singular “lesbian” identity.

In fact, in her introduction, Vicinus explicitly questions the usefulness of “identity” in historical analysis.  Is it too simple to assume individuals were motivated by an impulse to construct an identity for themselves?  Perhaps these women never saw themselves as embodying only one identity (“lesbian” for example), and moreover, perhaps they never wanted to.

Her book is divided into four parts, each of which discusses a particular type of arrangement between intimate women.  Part 1 looks at “husband wife couplings,” though I think it could be more generalized simply as “coupling,” because the pairs of women discussed in these chapters aren’t necessarily trying to mimic the heteronormative marriage of masculine husband and feminine wife.  They simply lived together in monogamous (for the most part) relationships, in the countryside, separated from the rest of society.  It was society that then forced the “husband and wife” rubric on to them.  Part 2 discusses what Vicinus calls “queer relationships” in which complicated love triangles were formed between a husband, his wife, and the woman that the wife still loved.  Far from the traditional understanding of these triangles, which posits that the man viewed his wife’s desire for another woman as trivial, Vicinus paints a portrait in which the relationship among all three is deeply entangled.  In some cases, the man respected his wife’s desire and used his marriage to her as a shield, protecting his wife’s same-sex relationship from the view of society.  His role then shifts from lover to “male mother” who gives a platonic and paternalistic love (132).  Part 3 then addresses “cross age” relationships; in other words, the ones that were built upon an age difference and took on the role of mother/daughter, aunt/niece, or teacher/pupil.  “Whereas same-sex marriages could be more equal than heterosexual marriages, cross-age love accentuated inequalities…disparities of age and power increased the opportunities for intense emotional dramas between women” (109).  These cross age relationships were not always physical, but they often led to ‘husband-wife’ marriages.  And part 4 discusses the “modernist refashioning” of these erotic friendships into a lesbian identity.  At the same time, the medicalization of sexuality provided a wider array of vocabulary with which these same-sex desiring women could express themselves, but it also offered fewer roles for them.  Vicinus highlights the ways in which these emerging, modern lesbians (those who embraced that identity) did not simply subscribe to the medical identities, but negotiated and forged identities on their own terms.

In all of these varied relationships listed above, Vicinus emphasizes that the women involved used their knowledge of family, religion, education, and nature to talk about and understand their desires.  This challenges the traditional view of same-sex relationships among women as characteristic of either romantic friendship or gender inversion (“male”/female marriages).  Her book also shows that sexual, genital contact was not always a defining factor of an erotic relationship.  In fact, sometimes it was part of the drama of self-restraint that added to the passion of the relationship.

My Comments:

The stories that she includes in the book are fascinating, but I think the obvious contribution Vicinus has made is complicating the story of women who have loved women.  Moreover, I think her book has returned agency to these women by showing how they actively maneuvered societal norms and gender roles to define their relationship with their lover.  At first I was skeptical – or just didn’t fully understand – her critique of “identity” as an analytical lens, but after finishing her book, I think I better understand it.  I wonder though, if it’s helpful at all to talk about multiple identities?  Because, I’m convinced that these women (and us today) aren’t ever trying to form a single identity, but that we utilize multiple identities depending on our situation – and one identity is no less sincere or “real” than the other.

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

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