A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski;Beacon Press; 288 pages; $27.95.
In 1984 Michael Bronski published Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility. Since then, Bronski has maintained his standing as a major chronicler and critic of LGBT life and culture. For two decades, Bronski wrote book and movie reviews for the late, great, gay monthly The Guide where I was also a contributor. His 2003 book Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps won a Lambda Literary Award. When not writing books, Bronski is senior lecturer in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College.
A Queer History of the United States is Bronski’s most ambitious book, a narrative history of LGBT people in America from 1492 to 1990. As Bronski recalls, “two years ago Beacon Press decided to start a series titled Revision America which would be a multi-volume look at American history from alternative, and minority, points of view. While I am not an academically trained historian, they asked me to write the LGBT history. I was a little daunted at first, but finally decided that this was a challenge I could meet and one that would really let me pull together so much of my knowledge, ideas, theories, and analysis into one text.”
Bronski’s book goes beyond the “great gays in history” model of so much LGBT history. Instead, Bronski proposed “two crucial concepts to consider when examining LGBT history in the United States. The first is that the contributions of people, which we may now identify as [LGBT] are integral and central to how we conceptualize our national history. The second key concept is that LGBT history does not exist.”
How does Bronski reconcile those two “counterintuitive” concepts? “Of course there have always been ‘queer people,’” he notes. “But these groups existed in so many different contexts that to group them all in a big tent with the name ‘LGBT history’ seemed misguided. On the other hand, they are there and their lives, adventures, thoughts, hardships, and triumphs have to be acknowledged as distinctly their and distinctly American.”
Bronski refers to historian R. I. Monroe’s concept of the “persecuting society” in which “minorities were stigmatized and persecuted as groups and often physically separated from society. In that view, the founding of modern society was predicated on the creation of minority groups whose only purpose was to be vilified as unclean and persecuted for the illusion of societal safety.”
How did that apply to LGBT people in the USA? As Bronski puts it, though “’LGBT people’ did not exist in the 17th, 18th or 19th century, there were plenty of people who existed who loved members of their own sex, desired them sexually, and frequently had sex with them. While they were not called ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ they were often labeled by their behaviors.”
“It is important to remember that the Puritans saw very little difference (as we do now) between sins and crimes. When people were cast out for being unclean (and they were for any number of reasons) it was, as in the Medieval period Moore write about, to secure the safety of the entire society. But it is instructive to remember that the categories of sexual identity (or what we now call sexual orientation) did not exist in the ways that they do now.”
One of the most interesting sections in Bronski’s History deals with Merrymount, a dissident community established in 17th century Massachusetts “that allowed greater sexual freedom, racial equality, and economic justice.” Unfortunately, Merrymount “was crushed by Governor Bradford because these freedoms were a threat to the very structure of the Puritan community.”
Bronski writes that “many of the most important changes for LGBT people in the past five hundred years have been a result of war.” He adds “that the main way war effects ‘queer people’ is in its direct effect on gender. Certainly after the American Revolution, gender roles in the colonies changed radically. We had to invent a ‘new’ American man who was the anthesis of the British man. The Civil War, in which 620,000 men (many of them under 21) lost their lives was also a turning point in defining what it means to be a man. I would also argue that the Vietnam War changed the lives of LGBT people in conjunction with the youth counter culture, feminism and Black Power movements.”
Though Bronski ends his history in 1990, he includes an Epilogue that deals with the issues of same-sex marriage and assimilation in the LGBT community. In this he was criticized by Slate’s Johann Hari and other critics. Actually, as Bronski reminds us, “I write very little about same-sex marriage in the book and essentially say that some of the marriage arguments are about regulating sexuality, not unlike the 19th century social purity movements. There is nothing new or radical about this. I am not against same-sex marriage as a question of equality under the law, although I do see the push for marriage in tension with the other great push in the LGBT movement, which is for personal freedom and independence. What I found most curious about this flap about my marriage opinions is that, for some people, uncritically supporting same-sex marriage has become the litmus test for being pro-gay. If you have any critiques of same-sex marriage (or marriage itself) then you are homophobic or a crazy radical. This is not good for community discussion or the free exchange of ideas.”