Posts Tagged With: lgbt 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  Unpublished paper delivered at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, August 2006.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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Movements & Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth

Photo courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Behind the Mask of Respectability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rethinking the Gay & Lesbian Movement

Marc Stein

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Straight State

Straight State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Desired Past

A Desired Past

Rupp, Leila J. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

 

Subject:  A brief survey of same-sex relations in North America from the colonial period to the late twentieth century, with attention to the changing understandings of relations between individuals who loved or desired members of the same sex.

Main Points:  Rupp’s book is a survey, so it covers roughly four hundred years in about two hundred pages.  So, as with any book of this nature, there’s not as much depth as some readers may like.  But, with that said, Rupp’s argument and analysis are thorough.  Moreover, she does everyone a service (scholars and non-academics alike) by synthesizing a vast quantity of secondary literature on the topic and presenting it in a well-written, easily approachable book.

Rupp’s main point with this book is to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of sexuality and gender.  In other words, she has purposefully chosen “same-sex” as the subtitle of her book, as opposed to “gay” or even “homosexual.”  And, that’s because she warns against looking for “gay men and women” back in the past since gay and lesbian identities are modern creations.  But, she does realize that there is “certain common patterns in same-sex sexual desires and acts, romantic liaisons, and gender transgressions across time and place” (10).  She offers three categories to help conceptualize the complexity inherent in the history of “same-sex sexuality”: 1) those who “experience love or sexual desire, or both, for someone of the same sex; 2) “others engaged in same-sex sexual acts;” and 3) those who “crossed the lines of gender completely and sometimes partially” (196-97).   By exploring these themes, Rupp exposes readers to the social constructionist approach, even without using that term.

The story that Rupp tells is now familiar to scholars of sexuality, but was innovative when she published her book 15 years ago.  In the colonial era, sodomy and same-sex sexual acts were seen as sinful behavior and were policed via religious laws.  Acts such as sodomy were understood as especially dangerous because they were temptations that anyone could give in to.  The early decades of the US Republic saw a shift, after which romantic friendships were accepted for both men and women.  By the late nineteenth century, the medicalization of sex and sexuality began to dominate the discourse, stigmatizing same-sex sex and love as inversions and pathologies.  The twentieth century witnessed a whirlwind of change, especially for women.  Economic change allowed middle class women more independence through jobs and women-only institutions (like women’s colleges).  In the latter half of the twentieth century, after the gay and sexual liberation movements, we start to see the rise of identity politics.  While Rupp spends a lot of space dealing with the dominant powers of sexual politics (those defining what was appropriate or not), she also provides enough individual agency to those people who felt different for loving someone of the same sex.   She even dedicates several pages to discussing Native American and African sexualities in the early colonial era.

My Comments:  I really like the way that Rupp literally puts her own voice into the book.  Each chapter starts with an anecdote from her own life.  Many stories involve her aunt, an unmarried woman that spent most of her life living with a partner, another woman.  I think the point of these anecdotes is to show that while Rupp may feel a connection to her aunt as a fellow lesbian, her aunt would never identify herself as a lesbian.  This proves Rupp’s argument that gender and sexuality (or sexual identity) “is not a fixed essence.”  We, in the present cannot project our own understandings onto the past, even if it is just one generation ago.

This is a superb survey and would be great to use in an undergraduate intro to the history of sexuality.

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

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The Lavender Scare

Johnson Lavender Scare

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

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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