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A Queer History Of The United States

by Steve Weinstein
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Monday Jun 20, 2011
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I wanted to love "A Queer History of the United States." Author Michael Bronski wrote "Pulp Friction," a delightful book about paperback gay pulp fiction of the 1950s. There hasn’t been a comprehensive gay-oriented history of the United States since Jonathan Ned Katz’s landmark "Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A." in 1976.

The book starts with an explanation that Bronski sees history books as either photographs or a film. It’s a potentially useful analogy: Of the two fathers of history, Herodotus is the photographer; Thucydides, the filmmaker. He also states that he uses Howard Zinn’s "People’s History of the United States," a landmark work that manages to be lively and informative while taking a distinct and polemical point of view.

But Bronski, who is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth University, succumbs to the most unfortunate impulses of those (pseudo?) disciplines. As someone who has suffered through the tortures of would-be reporters and reviewers, recent graduates of such departments, I can testify that way too much of what passes for scholarship therein are spit-up catch phrases and buzzwords.

And so proceeds Bronski’s beat. The problems come early. Take a sentence like this: "France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain viewed the Americas as potential financial and political windfalls, and they embarked on myriad destructive colonization projects."

While that’s not something I disagree with, it’s historically controversial. Yes, there are certain things a reliable historian can take for granted. Slavery was evil. The Holocaust happened. The United State government did not carry out the attack on the World Trade Center.

To reduce the European adventure in America to something simply "destructive," however, at the very least necessitates background. Otherwise, leave it out. The book is full of such simplistic statements, given as fact.

The chapter on the Puritans is more responsible, largely because Bronski relies on reliable sources, such as a court survey by the Boston Gay History Project. There is the now-typical discussion of the benign view of same-sex relationships and intersexed person among Native Americans. While I certainly believe these peoples got the worst possible treatment by settlers, Bronski (along with others) doesn’t convince me of the "noble savage" argument that they were inherently superior to white men in their structure or behavior.

There’s some good stuff in here, especially about the Civil War, when affection among men seemed to have been looked on as an extension of Christ-like love, and women were downright expected to have emotional resonances with each other. But then there are long passages and even whole chapters that deal with abstract concepts like the formation of an American vision of manhood, or the women’s movement.

In a book about such a vast subject that barely runs 250 pages, this is a waste of valuable real estate. For example, there is a long passage about Teddy Roosevelt’s personal triumph over his childhood ailments.

Where Bronski really goes off the rails, however, is in the continual conflating of the struggles of women, blacks, the poor and immigrants with gay men and lesbians. This is a passage typical of such broad statements: "The labor movement profoundly influenced the LGBT movement by conceptualizing workers not as individuals, but as a class of people who are treated unjustly."

Sorry, but I don’t see the labor movement -- at least until very recently -- as having anything to do with our rights. In fact, organized labor was traditionally anti-gay. Furthermore, the sentence makes an unfounded assumption. One might as well say that the dominant Protestant sects, with their championing of the underdog, "profoundly influenced the LGBT movement." It isn’t that it might or might not be true; it’s a flabby assumption, being doled out like an instructor magisterially enunciating pronunciamentos to eager-beaver Ivy League students.

He gives the labor movement too much credit throughout the book. He states that labor was the impetus for women becoming politically involved. But a book about the Temperance movement -- where women dominated in a way unknown in labor circles -- could make the same claim.

As part of his desire for inclusiveness, he has long passage about women who are irrelevant to an LGBT history, such as Jeannette Rankin, a very early congresswoman. "While she had no apparent intimate relationship with a woman or a man, she did have a network of women confidants" [sic; "women confidants" would be redundant with the more specific "confidantes"]. Only one is gay, but even if they all were, it’s a slender thread that binds Rankin to a gay history.

Bronski asserts that the emerging psychological explanations of gay men as effeminate and lesbians as mannish in the late 19th century would dominate the public discussion. But nowhere does he acknowledge what I see as a foundation of irrational hatred of a group: the uniting of two diametrically opposed world views.

Thus, for instance, Jews are proto-capitalists and crypto-communists. Black men are lazy Stepin Fetchits or sexual omnivores. And gay men may be limp-wristed aesthetes; but they are also street toughs, gym-obsessed musclemen, fascistic Brown Shirts. Lesbians are overweight, sport mullets and wear flannel shirts; but they’re also super-sexy vamps, tongue-expert nymphomaniacs.

Bronski demonstrates his professorial tendencies, a long-time willingness by his audience to accept his rhetoric as gospel. Thus, he states, "Although rarely stated in anti-Red material, clearly the new visibility of the invert ..." In any nonfiction book, when the author uses adverbs like "obviously," "clearly" and "of course," it either means he can’t or he won’t bother to back up what he’s saying.

I could go on with example after example of a general sloppiness. He gives "This Is the Army" as an example of the routine cross-dressing that went on during military shows in World War II, instead of the far, far better-known "South Pacific." While he goes into detail about Downtown Manhattan experimental theater that was seen at best by several hundred people, he mentions "The Boys in the Band" only much later, as an aside, even though the play and movie were epochal as being the first fully rounded depiction of a group of urban gay men as individuals living and loving without pretense or perversion.

I was especially bothered by his mentioning Harvey Milk only in passing. This is only one of the most important near-contemporary gay rights leaders who are given short shrift. More on Milk, less on Rankin and Roosevelt, please! He also mentions Gay Pride demonstrations only in passing; he doesn’t even bother to mention, let alone describe, the first such march the year after Stonewall.

While there are individual bits of history, such as George Chauncey’s "Gay New York: Gender, Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940," our history on the North American remains to be written.

by Michael Bronski

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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