The Meaning of LGBT History

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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.

            The first is that the contributions of people who we may now identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are integral and central to how we conceptualize our national history. Without the work of social activists, thinkers, writers, and artists such as We’Wha, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary, Edith Gurrier, Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Bayard Rustin, Roy Cohn, Robert Mapplethorp, Cherrie Moraga, and Lily Tomlin, we would not have the country that we have today. Women and men who experienced and expressed sexual desires for their own sex and those who did not conform to conventional gender expectations have always been present, both in the everyday and the imaginative life of our country. They have profoundly helped shape it, and it is inconceivable, and ahistorical, to conceptualize our traditions and history without them.

            The second key, and slightly counterintuitive, concept is that LGBT history does not exist. By singling out LGBT people and their lives – what some people now call LGBT history – we are depriving them of their centrality in the broader sweep and breadth of American history. The impulse to focus on lives that have been shunned, marginalized, censored, ignored, and hidden in the past, and in previous histories of the United States, has been revolutionary in the growth of a vibrant LGBT community. It is part of a larger social and political movement of Native American, African American, Latino/a, and other marginalized identities and cultures to reclaim and celebrate our “lost” histories. But it is equally important to understand that this is a transitional moment in history that has only emerged in the past forty years precisely because they were so deeply dismissed.

            If LGBT history resides in the queer space of being both enormously vital while simultaneously not even existing, can we even write and speak about it? How do we explicate and uncover the past so that it brings new understandings to both popular culture and scholarly pursuits alike? How will it resonate with our understanding of our own contemporary and historic lives?

            We have been taught, in our nation’s fairly unimaginative educational system, that history is a stable linear narrative with a fixed set of facts–names, dates, political actions, political ideas, laws passed and repealed. In The Dialectic of Sex, a groundbreaking book of radical feminist theory, Shulamith Firestone writes that this conventional way of understanding the historical process as a series of snapshots–here is the American Revolution, here is the Declaration of Independence, here is the Emancipation Proclamation–is both limiting and ultimately unhelpful. History, she states (drawing loosely on Marxist theory) is “the world as process, a natural flux of action and reaction, of opposites yet inseparable and interpenetrating…. history is a movie rather then a snapshot.” (Firestone, p2-3)

            Much of the popular LGBT history that has been published in our newspapers and magazines and blogs falls into the category that Firestone criticizes. It is essentially a list of famous lesbian or gay people and events used to justify contemporary understandings–here is Oscar Wilde, here are the Stonewall Riots, here are queer couples being married in Boston. This family album approach is appealing as it provides a sense of identity and history, but it is ultimately misleading. In past decades women’s and gender studies scholars called this method of analysis “add one woman and stir.” The “important” women were added to the mix to create a gender balance, but there were no new layers of complexity, or nuance, as to what these women’s lives, thoughts, desires, and actions might actually mean for a shared historical past.

            More serious writing on LGBT history has avoided this approach. Historians such as Jonathan Ned Katz, Lillian Faderman, Allan Berube, George Chauncey, and Esther Newton among so many others have written how LGBT history complicates and enriches the American imagination and the national story we already know. I have drawn extensively upon these writers, and many other sources, to present a daringly complex vision of the past, one that forces a fundamental rethinking of what we thought we knew, but one that also makes us rethink the present, and even the future. Its broad use of facts, historic personalities, and events is an invitation to join in a larger intellectual project of reinterpretation. As Firestone argues, history is a movie – not a Hollywood film with a traditional narrative, but rather an experimental film that presents a reality that only makes sense when we appreciate its intrinsic narrative complexity. History is an ongoing process through which we understand and define ourselves and our lives.  

Image by Shockingly Tasty, licensed under Creative Commons

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