Thursday, July 28, 2011

Same-sex Desire in the Colonies, Trenches, Wild West, Hollywood and More: "A Queer History of the US"

This is the book I have been waiting for, without even knowing it. Michael Bronski's "A Queer History of the United States" is deeply informative, surprising, and provocative. It's 500 years of queer history in 242 pages, and damn, it's good.

Bronski starts by explaining that the usual treatment of LGBTQ history is to pull out singular people, and claim them as our people (but indulge me for a second, Michael! Walt Whitman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, J. Edgar Hoover, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Bert Lahr, Jane Addams, Little Richard!). But he sees it as critically important to look at our queer ancestors in their cultural context, for a more full picture of their impact as well as a clearer sense of what it meant to have same-sex desire in their time.

I underlined so many passages, but some of the most thought-provoking included a section on the Puritan settlers and their antithesis, the Merrymount colony outside of Boston in the 1620s. Thomas Morton (who called himself "Lord of Misrule") supported intermarriage between natives and colonists, same-sex desire and behavior, and was just generally hilarious ("Merrymount" itself being a pun on "Mare-Mount and Mary-Mount, direct references to bestial sodomy and Roman Catholicism" [p. 14)). The Puritans nearby felt threatened enough that they got Morton sent back to England. 

Bronski's ruminations on the effects of war on LGBT people and their place in society were also fascinating. For instance, late 18th century literature embraced "the cross-dressed female warrior" (p. 37). The World Wars provided ample opportunities for gays and lesbians to exercise independence, work and live in single-sex environments, and seek each other out: "Lesbians who were economically and socially independent of men found the military a haven. Homosexual men could now avoid their family's heterosexual expectations" (p. 158)

Despite the potential for meeting other gays and lesbians and living a relatively more free life in the military, there was still major risk involved. Section 8 discharges publicly marked gay men and lesbians and made post-military living very difficult. The army (not even including the air force or navy) discharged between 49,000 and 68,000 men and women under Section 8. Bronski explains the after-effects:
"For homosexuals, receiving a Section 8--which essentially indicated mental illness--could be devastating. Women and men were often committed to hospital psychiatric units for examinations, grilled about their sexual thoughts and practices, and forced to give names of their sexual partners. Many men were physically and sexually abused, and public humiliation was commonplace." (p. 166)
Another theme that runs throughout the centuries of American queer history is the impact of the arts. Bronski reflects that,
"[E]ntertainment in its broadest sense--popular ballads, vaudeville, films, sculptures, play, paintings, pornography, pulp novels--has not only been a primary mode of expression of LGBT identity, but one of the most effective means of social change. Ironically, the enormous political power of these forms was often understood by the people who wanted to ban them, not by the people who were simply enjoying themselves" (p. xix)
A quick and engaging read, but a text I know I will keep coming back to. (Once I finished my library copy, I bought the book because I want it on hand at all times!) Bronski has written an insightful history of the United States, demonstrating how queer Americans have impacted us all.

(Poster image from Teaching for Change)

1 comment:

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