Before I dig into the book for this week, a bit of an explanation. In the beginning of January, I had the idea of starting a chronological LGBT history series that would use foundational history books to educate the reader about a particular facet of queer history every month. I spoke with Dave in Northridge, and we decided that LGBT Literature would be the vehicle for this project. Then, I hit the brick wall of reality. As a Ph.D. student (soon to be Ph.D. candidate) and a research assistant, I just don't have the amount of time necessary to devote to that kind of project, as wonderful an idea as it is. Instead, Dave and I decided that the last LGBT Literature diary of each month would be devoted to reviewing an LGBT history book, without worrying about chronology. Someday, I would like to undertake a project like the one I conceived in January, but now is not the time. Until then, I'm confident that this arrangement will allow the reader to learn a great deal about LGBT history--and, more importantly, it will provide direction to the necessary resources to learn more.
I would also like to apologize for last month, when this project was supposed to begin. It was a rough end of the month, and something had to give. I don't foresee that happening again.
At some point when I was wrestling over which book to write about this month, I realized that the answer was (literally) under my nose. A tattered 1985 copy of Jonathan Ned Katz's Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. has been sitting on my coffee table for as long as I can remember. More than one visitor has picked it up and thumbed through it, and without fail, they have always found something interesting to stop and read. If you're an avid reader of this series, you may indeed already be familiar with the book. First published in 1976 in the wake of the gay liberation movement, this breathtaking collection of primary documents truly paved the way for future historians to continue to uncover the deep, vast, subterranean gay and lesbian world of which Katz scratches the surface in the book. The word "foundational" comes to mind, and perhaps that is an understatement given what Katz accomplished. Remember, this was 1976, and writing about gay history was not exactly in vogue. Needless to say, this is not an academic work. As Katz writes in the introduction:
Only recently have the first two Ph.D. theses on homosexuality been permitted in the history and political science departments of American universities. The writers were both warned that they were risking their academic careers by taking up this topic; both went ahead nevertheless. I know of two other recent instances in which a history department and an English department did not allow theses on homosexual subjects; another German department Ph.D. candidate was discouraged from writing on homosexual literature because the topic would impair future teaching prospects. Researching the present work without capitalization from academia took considerable ingenuity, and could not have been accomplished without the valuable voluntary assistance of a number of Gay people and a few heterosexuals, all named in the acknowledgments. This book is significantly not a product of academia; it does not play it safe; it is rough at the edges, radical at heart.
Radical indeed, and a trailblazer. A bit fitting to start this new project with one of the foundational works of LGBT history. In many ways, I owe my own academic career to the hard work and dedication Katz poured into this book by documenting LGBT history before it existed on paper.
While Gay American History is more a collection of documents than a narrative-driven history, it is a book you will want to read cover to cover. With bits of analysis from Katz, the sources mostly speak for themselves and poignantly (and oftentimes bluntly) provide their own narrative. Follow me below the fold for a taste.
Katz begins Gay American History with the following state of both the field of LGBT history (hint: it doesn't exist) and of the gay and lesbian struggle:
We have been the silent minority, the silenced minority--invisible women, invisible men. Early on, the alleged enormity of our "sin" justified the denial of our existence, even our physical destruction. Our "crime" was not merely against society, not only against humanity, but "against nature"--we were outlaws against the universe. Long did we remain literally and metaphorically unspeakable, "among Christians not to be named"--nameless. To speak our name, to roll that word over the tongue, was to make our existence tangible, physical; it came too close to some mystical union with us, some carnal knowledge of that "abominable" ghost, that lurking possibility within. For long, like women conceived only in relation to men, we were allowed only relative intellectual existence, conceived only in relation to, as deviants from, a minority of--an "abnormal" and embarrassing poor relation. For long we were a people perceived out of time and out of place--socially unsituated, without a history--the mutant progeny of some heterosexual union, freaks. Our existence as a long-oppressed, long-resistant social group was not explored. We remained an unknown people, our character defamed. The heterosexual dictatorship has tried to keep us out of sight and out of mind; its homosexuality taboo has kept us in the dark. That time is over. The people of the shadows have seen the light; Gay people are coming out--and moving on--to organized action against an oppressive society.
Phew! Katz does not mince words. Of course, he's absolutely right. By 1976, no other major work in American queer history existed. Katz clearly had his work cut out for him. Most of the documents he includes had never seen the light of day before the book's publication. And have I mentioned that he is covering the period from 1566 to 1976? Katz sees the gay liberation movement of the 1970s as being connected to a much larger gay and lesbian struggle that has existed all throughout this vast period of time (and even before). I'm reminded of Vincent Harding's similar argument about the African American struggle being like a mighty river in There Is a River
Gay American History is divided into six easier-to-digest thematic sections: "Trouble: 1566-1966," "Treatment: 1884-1974," "Passing Women: 1782-1920," "Native Americans/Gay Americans: 1528-1976," "Resistance: 1859-1972," and "Love: 1779-1932."
The first section on "Trouble" is all about the different ways in which gays and lesbians have been oppressed throughout history, stretching from the first known case of a homosexual being executed in America through the Cold War anti-gay witch hunts of the 1950s and 1960s. Again, Katz does not mince words:
During the four hundred years documented here, American homosexuals were condemned to death by choking, burning, and drowning; they were executed, jailed, pilloried, fined, court-martialed, prostituted, fired, framed, blackmailed, disinherited, declared insane, driven to insanity, to suicide, murder, and self-hate, witch-hunted, entrapped, stereotyped, mocked, insulted, isolated, pitied, castigated, and despised...Homosexuals and their behavior were characterized by the terms "abomination," "crime against nature," "sin," "monster," "fairies," "bull dykes," and "perverts." The vicious judgments such terms expressed were sometimes internalized by Lesbians and Gay men with varying results--from feelings of guilt and worthlessness, to trouble in relating to other homosexuals, to the most profound mental disturbances and antisocial behavior. External judgments internalized became self-oppression; reexternalized this might result in behavior destructive to the self and others. Heterosexual society conditioned homosexuals to act as the agents of their own destruction, to become victims of themselves. But always, finally, they were oppressed, situated in a society that outlawed and denied them.
The documents are both fascinating and horrifying. Take, for example, this excerpt from John Winthrop's 1646 History of New England
(Winthrop, of course, was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony):
Mr. Eaton, the governour of New Haven, wrote to the governour of the Bay, to desire the advice of the magistrates and elders in a special case, which was this: one Plaine of Guilford being discovered to have used some unclean practices, upon examination and testimony, it was found, that being a married man, he had committed sodomy with two persons and England, and that he had corrupted a great part of the youth of Guilford by masturbations, which he had committed, and provoked others to the like above a hundred times; and to some who questioned the lawfulness of such filthy practice, he did insinuate seeds of atheism, questioning whether there was a God, etc. The magistrates and elders (so many as were at hand) did all agree, that he ought to die, and gave divers reasons from the word of God. And indeed it was horrendum facinus [a dreadful crime], and he a monster in human shape, exceeding all human rules and examples that ever had been heard of, and it tended to the frustrating of the ordinance of marriage and the hindering the generation of mankind.
The "Treatment" section might well belong under "Trouble" given the disastrous results of the treatment of gays and lesbians by psychiatrists and psychologists, which Katz calls "one of the more lethal forms of homosexual oppression." "Treatments" discussed in the documents of this section include castration, hysterectomy, vasectomy, surgical removal of the ovaries and clitoris, the administration of hormones and sexual stimulants/depressants, hypnosis, shock treatment, aversion therapy, among others. Truly a house of horrors, this section.
For example, here is an excerpt from a paper presented at an international medico-legal congress in 1893 by Dr. F.E. Daniel of Austin, Texas. The paper is titled "Should Insane Criminals or Sexual Perverts Be Allowed to Procreate?" I'm sure you can guess what his answer to that question is.
In lieu thereof [execution], and as a solution to the most difficult problem in sociology which confronts the learned professions today, and as a measure calculated to fulfill all the ends and aims of criminal jurisprudence, castration is proposed. I say "castration" and not "asexualization," because that applies as well to women; and in sexual perversion the woman is usually passive; she can not commit a rape, at all events (though she can practice sexual abominations that shock morals, wreck health, and worse, can transmit her defects to posterity)...
...I would substitute castration as a penalty for all sexual crimes or misdemeanors, including confirmed masturbation.
I'm sure Dr. Daniel never masturbated in his entire life.
I'm not going to go through all of the sections (the titles of which are self-explanatory), but I would like to conclude by visiting the "Resistance" section. Katz casts a wide net with a broad definition of resistance encompassing not only the overtly political of the twentieth century, but also the letters, poems, and book-length treatises that came long before. Katz couldn't be more spot-on here. Even acts of resistance that were seemingly unsuccessful are important to the broader arc of our history.
When I gave a lecture a couple of semesters ago, I took a multiple-choice poll of the students and asked when they thought the first American gay rights organization was formed. Very few guessed 1924, and there were audible gasps when I revealed the answer. But yes, the Chicago Society for Human Rights (which I wrote about here), founded in 1924 by German-American Henry Gerber, was the earliest documented gay emancipation organization in the United States. They even had a publication, Friendship and Freedom, which only saw one issue.
The charter states that the organization's purpose is
to promote and to protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness which is guaranteed them by the Declaration of Independence, and to combat the public prejudices against them by dissemination of facts according to modern science among intellectuals of mature age. The Society stands only for law and order; it is in harmony with any and all general laws insofar as they protect the rights of others, and does in no manner recommend any acts in violation of present laws nor advocate any matter inimical to the public welfare.
Katz provides a copy of the charter:
Unfortunately, the organization came to an end in the summer of 1925, when the wife of one of the organizers called the police, who shut the society down. The headline in the next day's Examiner read: "Strange Sex Cult Exposed."
Another interesting document in this section is an interview from 1974 with Barbara Gittings, a founder and the first president of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), a lesbian homophile organization first formed in 1955 (which I wrote about here). Gittings recalls the founding of the New York chapter:
DOB had its four-part statement of purpose printed inside the front cover of The Ladder, and that, supposedly, provided guidelines for us. The Daughters of Bilitis was definited as "A Women's Organization for the Purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society..." The word Lesbian was not used once. Four purposes were listed:
1. Education of the variant...to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society...this to be accomplished by establishing...a library...on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions...to be conducted by leading members of the legal, psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
"Education of the variant," not even the word "Lesbian!" "Adjustment" became a major controversy phrase later on. The idea of having Gay people speak was totally foreign to us at the time.
2. Education of the public...leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices...
3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual, proposal of changes,...and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.
Really fascinating stuff, both for those who know LGBT history and those who don't. Like I said, this is a book well worth reading from cover to cover. At just over 550 pages of text, it's a doorstopper, but it's a page-turner at the same time.
If you haven't read Gay American History yet, it belongs on your shelf, so pick up a copy. And, if you're hungry for more primary documents, you can visit OutHistory.org, which Katz founded and currently directs.
Other LGBT History Books Covered by LGBT Literature:
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman
Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants by Phil Tiemeyer
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule: