Book Club: A Queer History of the United States

Beacon Press, the nonprofit publishing company of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a long history of publishing books that have informed and inspired civil rights and social justice movements, from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son to Tucson author Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land. In that tradition, Beacon has launched a new book series called ReVisioning American History. The first in that series is Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, which was released in hardcover in May 2011 and will be released in trade paperback on May 15, 2012.

Bronski frames LGBTQ history as one that is woven into the fabric of U.S. history — not separate from or additional to it.

Bronski explains in the introduction to his book that he is interested in providing something more than a history of “who might have been ‘gay’ in the past or had sexual relations with their own sex.” In fact, his mention of individuals is often pared down to the sheerest character sketches and profiles. Far from a collective biography of LGBTQ Americans, Bronski’s interest in individuals is often limited to a person’s role as agents in a process of evolving gender expectations, agents who sometimes shape those expectations and other times act independently of them. He explains that he doesn’t want to reduce history to “names, dates, political actions, political ideas, laws passed and repealed.” Instead, borrowing the words of Shulamith Firestone, he wants to present history “as process, a natural flux of action and reaction.”

To inform this view of history, Bronski draws on past literature and research on LGBTQ history, adds to it, and rethinks it to create his own retelling. His retelling begins with a glimpse of the Americas on the cusp of contact with Europe, looking briefly at the role of Two-Spirit people (individuals considered to have a mixed or third gender role) in indigenous societies. It moves forward chronologically to arrive in the 1990s (and then touches on the recent past and the present in an epilogue).

For many readers, Bronski’s book will add new dimensions to familiar history. For example, he argues that the institution of slavery had a significant impact on LGBTQ history, because “acceptance of slavery as a philosophical concept and political reality laid the groundwork for the justification of ‘othering’ — designating a group of people as ‘different,’ placing them outside of the legal, social, and moral framework granting full citizenship.” The introduction of the birth-control pill, on the other hand, had a more positive impact on LGBTQ history, because it undermined the argument that same-sex sexual activity, because it did not lead to reproduction, was unnatural; the introduction of the birth-control pill normalized “the separation between sex and reproduction.”

The interaction of phenomena that are known to general U.S. history and phenomena that are more specific to LGBTQ history is a theme throughout Bronski’s book, and it’s central to how he wants to write his chronicle. His book frames LGBTQ history as one woven into the fabric of U.S. history — not separate from or additional to it. His hope is “to give a secure and realistic sense of how the lives, thoughts, and actions of LGBT people have made this nation into the country it is today, and show all non-LGBT people how this history has affected them as well.” The influence of LGBTQ people on this country’s historical landscape is seen from their role in the earliest intentional communities to their political influence in the Roosevelt years and beyond.

Ambitious in its approach, at times Bronski’s book does seem to shortchange history a bit by focusing on processes first and the people in those processes second. While some readers might like to read about ideas rather than people, for others, the personal framework can give history a more meaningful and concrete narrative. Another shortcoming is Bronski’s occasional reliance on prose and poetry to reveal historical episodes of same-sex bonding and intimacy. This shortcoming is understandable, given that any scholar of LGBTQ history has to deal with a scarcity of frank and forthright documentary evidence of private behavior that was often shunned and persecuted by social purity movements. Bronski does make up for it by using very compelling evidence from literature — evidence that, while subject to interpretation, has obvious interpretations that are hard to ignore.

One of the first books of its kind, Bronski’s work won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award after its hardcover release. Soon to be released in paperback, it should be a welcome resource for the LGBTQ community, as well as its allies (like this blogger).