Friday, June 01, 2012

New History

A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

A Queer History of the United States recently won the American Library Association’s 2012 Stonewall Book Award for nonfiction. This book is perhaps more valuable as a stimulus to thinking about the purposes of history and how history is created than as a chronicle of being gay in America, for it is apparent from Bronski’s brief account that there really isn’t much gay history that can be recovered before the middle of the 20th century in America. History, it becomes apparent, is made by those in power in the dominant culture. Our defective sense of the historical role of women in history is the example that most readily comes to mind. People who have not thought of themselves as part of a “group,” who do not have historical consciousness as members of a group and whose personal sense of identity does not come from a sense of belonging to such a minority group, don’t have a “history.” And when it comes to something so traditionally intimate as a “deviant” sexual orientation, individuals seldom leave a record of their “history,” and without such a record any construction of a historical past is largely speculative.

This is not to say that there have not always been gay people. But how gay people defined themselves and how they acted and how the culture in which they lived viewed them socially at any historical period is difficult to say. Bronski is right to caution against drawing such conclusions. For example he is hesitant about the meaning of 19th century expressions of intimacy between writers of the same gender. We simply do not know how or if these apparent period conventions of language translated into physical intimacy. But this reservation also means that Bronski is not able to write a very extensive “history” of gay people in America, because “history” implies a traceable continuity. We simply do not know how Emerson, or Dickinson, or Walt Whitman connects to modern “gay” history. And of course these possibly gay or bisexual writers of literature tell us nothing about the unrecorded and unarticulated desires and actions of the majority of gay people who lived at the time. You cannot look at the modern phenomena of gay culture and read its present understandings and assumptions into the past. The apparently persistent need and impulse to do so suggests something about the purposes of history. For a contemporary group, having a history is important because it has present-day cultural, social, and political uses; it helps to define group identity, values and aspirations.

Bronski’s discussion of modern gay history is the most valuable part of this book, but his interpretations may be met with some skepticism. It is a little troubling that the lines he is cautious about drawing to more distant and inchoate gay history sometimes seem overstretched when he discusses the modern “gay movement.” Bronski writes, “The flourishing of the 1960s youth culture, with its integration of sexuality and sexual freedom into everyday life, was the result of a slow, incremental, yet constant homosexualization of America.” Well, that may be just wrong, and if not wrong certainly seems overreaching and a simplification of something much more complex. But caveats of this sort also remind us that, if we disagree with some of the conclusions here, there is nonetheless merit in Bronski’s field of vision. He sees “gay” history not as something happening in isolation but as something that is being made in a dynamic relationship with changing issues and attitudes in the culture as a whole. In that reaction and reciprocity, we find that a dominant group defines itself by its relationship to minority groups just as a minority group defines itself with reference to the more prevalent culture. Bronski finds the queer history of the United States to be something inseparable from American history, and that is what makes A Queer History of the United States provocative and worth reading.

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