Posts Tagged With: gay history

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  Unpublished paper delivered at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, August 2006.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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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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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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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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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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Hidden from History

Duberman

Duberman, Martin, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds.  Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past.  New York: Meridian, 1989. 

Subject:  An anthology of 29 essays on gay and lesbian history, from the ancient world to the post-World War II era.

Summary & Main Points from the Introduction:  The introduction is actually a helpful, if brief, historiographical essay on the main trends of the study of homosexuality in the past 150 years.  I don’t want to summarize it all here, but I do want to point out the two developments that the editors believe have led to an “unprecedented outpouring” of work done on gay and lesbian history since the 1970s.  First has been the success of a lesbian and gay movement in creating a more tolerant climate in which scholarship could be done.  They also note that activists – like Jonathan Katz – were among the first to do this research.  The second development has been a change in the notions of what constitutes acceptable topics for researchers.  LGBT topics and sexuality and gender have been “approved” as part of a larger movement that made social history acceptable.

After scholars began reclaiming (or “finding”) the “gays and lesbians” in the past, they started focusing on specific themes: the oppression of homosexuality through politics, morals, and through pathologization.  Some scholars, though, began focusing on the oppressed subcultures themselves and the way that they resisted oppression.

The introduction then summarizes the impact of social constructionism on our understanding of (homo)sexuality, though Carole Vance warned against the “oversimplified and undifferentiated use of the theory,” insisting that just because the modern homosexual or “gay” person didn’t exist in the past, we should not deduce that no type of identity based around homosexual acts ever existed.  In other words, “Most recent work argues that the homosexual role, as we currently think of it, developed only in the modern period, but it also establishes that the modern role is not the only homosexual role possible” (9).

The most interesting part of the introduction – and the most helpful for me in my research – is when the editors discuss the “unusually” close relationship between professional historians, gay rights activism, and a collective identity.   “The gay and lesbian communities have increasingly recognized that some of the most important issues facing, agitating, and sometimes dividing them today, personally and collectively, are best addressed historically” (11).  Because their past has been ignored or denied, gay people’s “hunger for knowledge of their past is strong.  Having struggled to create a public presence for themselves in the world today, they seek to reclaim their historical presence.  For many, gay history helps constitute the gay community by giving it a tradition, helps women and men validate and understand who they are by showing them who they have been” (12).

Selection of essays from the book:

Robert Padgug, “Sexual Matters:  Rethinking Sexuality in History”

Denying that the categories of sexual behavior currently familiar to us (hetero/homosexual) are predetermined and universal, Padgug argues that our sexuality is neither a fixed essence nor even, necessarily, an individual’s innermost realit. To the contrary, human sexuality, unlike animal sexuality, is never more than a “set of potentialities,” rich and ever-varying, tied above all to whatever is currently viewed as social reality.  Just as social reality changes radically through time, so do the sexual categories that reflect it.

Vivien W. Ng, “Homosexuality and the State in Late Imperial China”

In the seventeenth century, China experienced a burst of public interest in male homosexuality.  Confucian scholars made references to it in their jottings, and novelists and playwrights celebrated it in their works.  This open discussion of homosexuality led to a conservative backlash by the new Manchu rulers of the new Qing dynasty.  Responding to the widespread perception that homosexuality had become “rampant” in China, the Qing government, in 1740, decreed that consensual sodomy between adults was a punishable offense.  Ng’s essay first establishes the social milieu of seventeenth-century China, then explores descriptions of homosexual love in literature and the relations of such descriptions to Confucian ideology, and finally, analyzes the response o Chinese officialdom.

Randolph Trumbach, “The Birth of the Queen:  Sodomy and the Emergence o Gender Equality in Modern Culture, 1660-1750”

Trumbach argues that a major shift occurred in the conventions governing male homosexual relations in Europe’s large cities around 1700.  Whereas before then, many citizens of cities such as London accepted the existence of adult male “rakes” who had sex with both women and boys, after 1700 they were increasingly likely to think of homosexual behavior as the forbidden activity of a deviant, effeminate minority of adult males.  Groups of such men actually appeared about then, and were best known because of raids on the “molly houses” where they gathered.  Trumbach argues that their emergence should be understood in the context of a growing gender equality between men and women (equality in the new, heterosexual norm, with the deviant being “the other.”)

James D. Steakley, “Iconography of a Scandal:  Political Cartoons and the Eulenburg Affair in Wilhelmin Germany”

From 1907 to 1909, Imperial Germany was rocked by a series of courts-martial concerned with homosexual conduct in the army as well as five courtroom trials that turned on the homosexuality of prominent members of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s entourage and cabinet.  National honor was palpably at stake in the Eulenburg Affair, as it had come to be known.  While it was unfolding, the scandal led to an unprecedentedly detailed discussion homosexual practices in the German and even foreign press, including a wealth of (anti-)gay images in political cartoons.  These representations provide vivid insights into the nation’s values, anxieties, and cultural norms, revealing that homophobia was yoked with anti-Semitism and antifeminism as part of a broader antimodernist backlash that ultimately led to Germany’s entry into WWI.  Yet, at the same time, increased public awareness of homosexuality undoubtedly caused some individuals to reconceptualize their sexual activities and thus contributed to the making of modern homosexuals.

George Chauncey, Jr., “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion?  Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era”

Using evidence generated by a navy investigation of homosexuality at the Newport Naval Training Station in 1919-1920, Chauncey reconstructs the social organization and self-understanding of homosexually active sailors.  Newport’s sexual culture was surprisingly different from our own, and Chauncey shows how large numbers of sailors were able to have sex with men identified as “queers” without its affecting their image of themselves as “normal” men.  This is due to a highly developed and varied gay subculture in which multiple identities (queer, fairy, trade, etc) could allow some men – usually playing the dominant and masculine roll – could have sex men (of another category) without becoming “a homosexual” themselves.  Also striking is his analysis of the relative insignificance of medical discourse in shaping homosexual identities, the class differences in sexual ideology, and the diversity of sexual cultures.

Erwin Haeberle, “Swastika, Pink Traingle, and Yellow Star:  the Destruction of Sexology and the Persecution of Homosexuals in Nazi Germany”

This one is particularly central to my own research, though it wasn’t particularly enlightening.  Haeberle shows how several forms of discrimination culminated in Magnus Hirschfeld: he was Jewish, homosexual, and a socialist.  His work in sexology put yet another target on his back, because Haeberle argues that sexology was focused primarily on critiquing the prevailing sexual attitudes and traditional assumptions about sex (while the Nazis were trying to re-implement traditional roles).  His discussion of the actual persecution of homosexuals is rather accurate – though he admits that activists and early historians who didn’t have access to Third Reich records produced an exaggerated narrative.  Yet, he also falls in the trap of taking the Nazis at their word.  He presents statements from the Party about their views on homosexuality, without actually examining what was happening on the ground.  So, while this is a good start for this research, it needs to be taken further (which is what I intend to do!)

John D’Emilio, “Gay Politics and Community in San Francisco since World War II

In this essay, he picks up a tradition of community history by focusing on San Francisco, a city especially identified with the gay experience.  He explains how San Fran became a “gay space” – one reason being men and women discharged from the military for homosexuality did not want to return home to face the stigma, so they stayed and helped contribute to a forming community.  He adds that the repression of the postwar decade heightened consciousness of belonging to a group.  D’Emilio makes it clear that the emergence of San Francisco as a gay space, and eventually as a hotbed of gay activism can only be understood in lieu of larger social changes at the time.  San Francisco was home to other radical movement, like the beat/hippies, as well as a literary tradition that questioned traditional moral values.  Gays and lesbians felt more at home in this liberal atmosphere.  As the community grew, the consciousness of community led to political activism, and the activists borrowed from the women’s lib, black power, and civil rights movements.  Backlash from the New Right provided the stimulus of the potential of the politically active gays and lesbians (which were just a minority of the gay and lesbian community) into a force with real power.

My Comments:

Overall, I think it’s a helpful book, and there definitely needed to be an anthology of gay and lesbian history by 1990.  The introduction is helpful in tracing the major trends in the field, and each of the essays raise important questions about essentialism vs. constructionism and the relationship between medical knowledge, sexuality, and politics.

Unfortunately, this is a very male-dominated book.  It was also a very Western book.  It would have been greatly improved if there was more work dedicated to the unique lesbian experience, as well as the multiple different ways in which same-sex desire has been understood in non-Western societies.

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

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The Lesbian & Gay Studies Reader

Lesbian & Gay studies reader

Abelove, Henry, Michéle Aina Barlale, and David M. Halperin, eds.  The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

Subject: A collection of 42 essays meant to represent “some of the best and most significant recent English-language work in the field of lesbian/gay studies” (xv).

Points from the Introduction: Lesbian/gay studies cannot be defined exclusively by its subject, its practitioners, its methods, or its themes.  In this way, it’s women studies, which does not simply add women into the story, but instead urges scholars to look at the central role of gender in defining power relations in history.  In this vein, lesbian/gay studies does for sex and sexuality approximately what women’s studies does for gender.

Some of the essays:

Barbara Smith, “Homophobia:  Why Bring it Up?”

Homophobia, Smith argues, should be recognized as one of the “isms” (sexism and racism) that pervade American society.   Instead, she said, homophobia remains the one ism that is tolerated by people who would be averted to sexism and racism.  This is predominantly due to the fact that we do not recognize that all of these discriminatory “isms” are intricately intertwined.  “Ironically, for the forces on the right, hating lesbians and gay men, people of color, Jews, and women go hand in hand.  They make connections between oppressions in the most negative ways with horrifying results.  Supposedly progressive people, on the other hand, who oppose oppression on every other level, balk at acknowledging the societally sanctioned abuse of lesbians and gay men as a serious problem” (100).

Several misconceptions that help homophobia continue to run rampant:  1) a false distinction between a political vs. private concern, in which homophobia is seen as a private concern; 2) Thinking narrowly of gay people as white, middle class, and male, which is just what the establishment media want people to think, undermines consciousness of how identities and issues overlap.

Martha Vicinus, “”They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong”: the Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity”

In this essay, she traces the pitfalls accompanying some historians’ concern with the origins of individual and group identity – a concern that can limit its possibilities for inquiry by focusing solely on Euro-American instances where identity and sexuality are intertwined and where identity itself is a cultural value.  Ultimately, she argues that lesbian history must be written so as to include not only the dyke, butch, witch, and amazon, but the invert, femme, androgyne, and even the merely occasional lover of women (432).

Another interesting point is that because the “femme” defied the definition of deviant (because they weren’t inverted…they were still “feminine” and normal), the “butch” homosexual emerged before the “femme.”  The prerunners to the “butches” combined the outward appearance of the cross-dressed woman and the inner, emotional life of a romantic friendship (440) – They combined the two main forms of woman-woman desire that Leila Rupp identified (cross dressing/gender inversion and erotic friendship).

John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity”

D’Emilio explains that lesbian and gay people have not been present throughout history, that in the United States for instance there was no lesbian or gay identity and subculture until sometime in the nineteenth century, when the development of capitalism made our emergence possible.  Capitalism required a system of labor based on wages, rather than on either a largely self-sufficient household or slaver; and wage gave individuals a relative autonomy, which was the necessary material condition for the making of lesbianism and gayness.   He concludes that a new more accurate theory of gay history must be part of a political enterprise of gay/lesbian studies.

His essay not only explains the rise of the possibility for a gay/homosexual identity (and communities based on that identity) came from the rise of capitalism, but the rise of “the individual” was a result as well. Interestingly, he also concludes that scientific theories of homosexuality did not represent scientific breakthroughs, elucidations of previously undiscovered areas of knowledge; rather, they were an ideological response to a new way of organizing one’s personal life.  The popularization of the medical model, in turn, affected the consciousness of the women and men who experienced homosexual desire, so that they came to define themselves through their erotic life  (470-71).

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