The Meaning of LGBT History

| 11/4/2011 11:05:30 AM


In the latest issue of Utne Reader (Nov-Dec 2011) Mattilda Bernstein reviews Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States. Here, Bronski offers some insights into the book and his reasons for writing it. Special to Utne Reader. 

A decade ago, when I first began teaching lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies at Dartmouth College, I was invited to a fraternity house to moderate a group discussion entitled “Don’t Yell Fag from the Porch.” The frat was renown for its rowdiness and, indeed, someone had recently yelled “faggot” at a student passing by. Undoubtedly not for the first time. After being publically challenged on this behavior, they decided to host a public forum on homophobia in the Greek system. The discussion went well and became an annual event. “Faggot” was yelled with less frequency and, in a few years, the fraternity even had a few “out” gay members. But that evening, and over the years, what bothered me was that the entire discussion was predicated on the idea that Dartmouth College, and its fraternities, was essentially a straight place that had to be open to “gay people.” But that makes no sense. We all know that life – and history – is far more complex and complicated than that. Or do we?

            All too often most of us think in terms of simple dichotomies – including gay and straight; but who might answer to the call of “fag” when its history has been shown to be more than a simple either/or question? Here are a few lines from a letter Daniel Webster, a Dartmouth alumnus and hero to the College wrote in 1804 at the age of 22 to the 23-year-old James Harvey Bingham, his intimate from their college days: “I don’t see how I can live any longer without having a friend near me, I mean a male friend. Yes, James, I must come; we will yoke together again; your little bed is just wide enough.” Was Daniel Webster gay? Did he love James? Did they have a sexual relationship? If so, what did this mean for his two marriages later in life? Is this queer history?

            The last ten years of teaching LGBT studies has been a continual process for me of trying to figure out what is LGBT history. How do we understand it?  How do we use it to think about the past? How do we use it to think about the present, and the future? I certainly would have liked to quote Webster’s words while moderating “Don’t Yell Fag from the Porch.” What would the students have thought about Webster’s obsessive desire to lie in bed with his friend James once again and hold him fast to his body? Or, what if I had told them that poet Richard Hovey, who wrote the school’s Alma Mater, was also a lover of men, and although married and an ardent feminist, socialized in gay male circles in America and Europe. (Oscar Wilde once famously hit on him at a party.) Would it have been another reason for their not shouting “faggot” as frequently? Would this have “queered” Dartmouth for them? One of the reasons my book is titled A Queer History of the United States is that it is attempting to “queer” how we think about American history.

            The questions of the book are much larger. Over the past forty years there has been a great deal of incredible scholarship on LGBT history and I have drawn extensively upon, rethought, and synthesized it in the book. What follows is a long meditation not only on LGBT history but, because it is inseparable, on all of American history. After two years of thinking and writing, I want to start by suggesting that there are two crucial concepts to consider when thinking about LGBT history in the United States.

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