Queer across the pond

This originally appeared in BCN issue 113.

Holly reads A Queer History of the United States.
I read a review of Michael Bronski’s book A Queer History of the United States that was written by Johann Hari, a gay man, who questioned why the book was called a ‘queer history’ rather than a ‘gay history’ and decided that it must be because the word ‘queer’ is “more marginal, more edgy, more challenging to ordinary Americans.”

Maybe it’s still asking a lot of a gay man in the public eye to understand that the word ‘gay’ doesn’t include everyone.

Bronski starts off doing a better job of this.  He immediately addresses the careful choice of the book’s title, saying he wanted to “queer” American history, and that “America is not one thing or the other [good, bad, generous, unwelcoming, etc].  America is queer.”  In the introduction he says “history has shown [sexual identity] to be more than a simple either/or question.”

This gave me some hope that the book might be as friendly to an audience like BCN’s as to a straightforwardly ‘gay’ one, and I wasn’t too disappointed.  Here are some examples:

“Throughout American history there is a pattern of persecuted groups, like the Puritans, treating other outsider groups in a similar manner.”  Of course, this is as true in the history of other places – it seems to be a human trait everywhere – and indeed the present as well as history: in some contexts bi people have faced more ostracism from lesbian or gay people than from straight people (I’ve written about this in the contexts of Manchester Pride and a trade union’s LGBT network for previous editions of BCN).

“One of the lasting legacies of colonial social and legal culture was the application of laws prohibiting and punishing sexual activity between people of the same sex.”  And of course this continues in most of the U.S. to this day, with people who are or might want to be in same-sex relationships facing a life of potential social ostracism and fewer legal rights.  To bis it may seem even more frustratingly arbitrary, as some relationships we might have can be met with the utmost respect by religion, law, culture and so on, while others can case violence, estrangement, and a lack of human rights unless we really fight for them…despite the bisexual person being the same person all along.

Bronski suggests, when talking of pioneers and westward expansion in the nineteenth century, this sort of ‘home on the range’ could have been particularly attractive to people who didn’t fit cultural norms of gender or sexuality.  This sense of people outside civilzation but at home with themselves reminded me of BiCon attendees who, when asked to create art representing what they thought of as home, often chose to depict BiCon as their ‘home away from home’ rather than their everyday lives.

A woman named Julia Ward Howe – who has such diverse accomplishments as writing the popular song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and inventing Mother’s Day in America – wrote an unfinished novel, The Hermaphrodite in the mid-ninteenth century.  Bronski says, “Not having a specific langauge for a love between men that can co-exist with a love between a man and a woman, Howe imagines a man-woman who is capable of both.”  It’s interesting to see how the apparent impossibility of one person experiencing both same- and different-gender attraction is reconciled.

Once a ‘homosexual’ culture emerged around the turn of the last century, its ghettoized clubs and bars were sometimes visited by people who were slumming in this culture as well as working-class and African-American ones – the best music was understood jazz, and similarly there was an aesthetic to homosexual culture that was appealing to outsiders.  But both the quoted primary sources (“queer people despise jam people”) and the author divides people into homosexuals who belong and “jam” heterosexuals who are visitors, with no other categories.

In a rare advantage for bi invisibility, when military recruiters started screening out homosexuals (who were thought to have ‘psychopathic personality disorder’), one man said that the only question he was asked his sexuality was “Do you like girls?” to which he could truthfully answer “yes,” even though they weren’t all he liked.

As the book goes on, though, it’s increasingly less fun for me.  Perhaps it’s easier to read about earlier periods of history with my ‘bi goggles’ on, because when it was all ‘underground’ there was no problem with labels; no one could or wanted to be labeled.  As soon as the concept of homosexuality was developed, the false dichotomy of straight-or-gay became embedded in people’s thinking.  The invisibility and erasure that all sexual and gender minorities used to endure quickly become bi-invisibility and bi-erasure.

Thirty pages from the end of the book, bisexuality is mentioned only to say “homosexuality is literally spreading” to bis, and to quote unflattering things psychoanalysts have said about us.  Other groups are represented in the book with their own words, art, stories or politics, explicit bisexuality is solely represented by a magazine article that I can only assume isn’t written by a bisexual, as it’s full of allusions to bis’ instability, ruined relationships, and damage caused to children.

The book stops at 1990, by that point using ‘LGBT’ as a monolithic label for the ‘community’ and ‘movement’ although there is precious little T and worse than no B in that section.  It’s always so disappointing to see ‘LGBT’ used as a synonym for ‘gay.’  The epilogue briefly mentions Glee as “gay male and coded lesbian,” when BCN tells me it’s a little more complicated than that!

At the end of the book is a practical demonstration of the difference between the two gay movements that developed in the 60s: ‘gay rights,’ which sought to achieve legal equality  in family, employment Glee, housing and so on, and ‘gay liberation,’ which seems to be about rejecting and overthrowing society because of all the problems with it.  The gay rights movement flourished and brought about repeal of sodomy laws, the ability of same-sex couples to adopt or foster children and in increasingly-many states to have civil unions or marriages.

The author of this book, however, shows himself to be on the ‘gay liberation’ side, bemoaning that some ‘homosexuals’ are eager to embrace what he sees as the ‘conservative’ desire to get married.  He implies that there is inherently something marginal or revolutionary about homosexuality or queerness, and that to want marriage is somehow un-American, somehow promoting violence and inequality.

I think this is an argument very unfriendly to bisexuals – and trans people for that matter – many of whom are married.  Being married doesn’t make me feel like a conservative ‘part of the problem.’  Indeed, I am campaigning this year both in the U.S. state I’m from (which will have an anti-same-sex marriage amendment on the ballot in November) and the UK (whose government is currently running a consultation in how to implement equal civil marriage) to allow marriage for any couple that wants it.  Believing that people should have the choice not to be radical marginalised queers if they don’t want to be is a reason I’m a queer activist in the first place.

The book is a chronological survey of LGBT history in the United States, though it starts long before “LGBT” meant anything and even before the land was called the United States.  It’s full of lovely anecdotes concerning a variety of people of different races, genders and classes, often in their own words.  But the fascinating and fun historical stuff gave way to bi invisibility and erasure, not to mention the author’s own politics, which are hostile to many kinds of queerness.

In the end, I start to have a bit of sympathy for Johann Hari’s assertion that this guy’s just trying to be edgy and marginal.

You can buy “A Queer History of the United States” online here.