Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Gay History Month Author Event: Fragmented Citizens

This is the first year that LGBT history has been included in the curriculum of California high schools. For Gay History Month, the library wanted to do something that would support the Burbank Unified School District as it implements this new standard. We are hosting a program that we hope will be useful in explaining to teachers, students, and parents in the district exactly what gay history is, a program that explores how it has affinities to other late-20th-Century civil rights movements, such as the struggle of African Americans and that of women and the disabled, and how it differs. Too often thought of only as pride parades and same-sex marriage, gay history is more complex and contiguous than that.  It has been shaped by the major changes that have occurred in American society and politics during the last half century. We wanted to find a speaker who had a broad perspective and who could put gay history in that larger context.

In the spring, a book was published that does exactly that. In Fragmented Citizens: The Changing Landscape of Gay and Lesbian Lives, author Stephen Engel takes a broad overview of the major events and turning points of gay history in America. Engel’s concern is less with presenting a record of historical events than with explaining why they happened the way they did, of illuminating the dynamic—and sometimes unexpected—forces that shaped and drove change. He is interested in explaining how gay identity was formulated earlier in the 20th Century, how gay people became criminalized by law and governing institutions, and in tracing the halting and uneven process by which those formulations and laws have begun to be disassembled in recent years. The prism through which Engel looks at gay history is that of full citizenship in a democracy; how laws and institutions define and recognize citizenship and either include or exclude people in a society from full citizenship.

Following the twists and turns of gay history illuminates in a larger sense the structure, institutions, and mechanisms of American political development in general  Engel applies principles of political science, particularly APD (American Political Development) in order to create a dynamic and animated view of gay history. He shows that the disassembly of legal prescriptions and institutional policies is, because of the way our system of government in America is structured, necessarily complicated and piecemeal. As change unfolds, local laws may be at variance with state laws, but consistent with federal laws; federal laws may conflict with state laws, and there may be various combinations of agreement and dissonance between all of these; state courts may decide similar issues based on different legal criteria and interpretations; federal courts may decide similar cases by referencing different Constitutional criteria and leave those disparities unresolved as matters of Constitutional law. Federal, state, and local agencies that administer policy may derive varying interpretations of what they should do in all of these cases. Policies may vary among agencies even within a single branch or level of government. This is what has happened. It is what gay people have experienced in their lives. All of this has resulted in what for a generation of gay people has been a feeling of uncertainty about their legal status, their identity, and their rights as citizens, both absolutely and geographically. Thus, they are a class of “fragmented citizens.” This is the context in which gay history has unfolded, the landscape in which the quest for gay civil rights has taken place, and it explains some of the feelings of confusion that exist at the moment. Engel will tell you where he thinks that history is headed.

Fragmented Citizens explores the early years of the movement for gay rights, and readers will find familiarity in the opposing ideas about how gay people should identify themselves and disagreements over strategy that persist within the gay rights movement. Engel produces fascinating portraits of the two major gay advocacy groups-- the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National LGBTQ Task Force--relating their differing strategies, issue priorities, and goals to their organizational history and the changing political landscape. Fragmented Citizens concludes with an impressive review of the legal case history that has affected gay rights and citizenship, both at the state and federal level. It is an analysis in which the reader will learn that many of the things that were assumed about that legal history are wrong, that it is more disconnected, ambiguous, and unresolved than would be supposed. But above all, this review demonstrates in the most compelling way Engel’s major argument about the uncertain and often fragmented way in which American political development proceeds. Little in American democracy seems to happen at one fell stroke, in one whole piece, whether it be the creation of wrongs or the righting of injustice. Please come and join us in this fascinating conversation.

The book will be available for purchase, and the author will autograph.

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