How Gays Helped Make and Remake America
A new history gives them a mission, and it isn't to embrace marriage.
But gay people didn't stop breaking the strict bounds of Puritan America. In 1782, at the age of 22, Deborah Sampson Gannett dressed as a man and enrolled in the army as Robert Shurtliff. She fought bravely in several battles, until she was wounded and exposed. Her memoirs became a best-seller, including her titillating accounts of flirting with women (and hinting at more). Again, there are hints that America at that time was more open to alternative sexualities than we have been led to believe. She sparked a popular genre that ran through the civil war of tales of disguised women who fought in battle. Some were even awarded military pensions.
The ideas of the Enlightenment were at the core of America's founding, yet they didn't percolate into its view of sexuality until far later. In France, the implications of Enlightenment values for gays were obvious almost immediately. In 1789, the French National Assembly declared that "liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else" and abolished all punishments for sodomy two years later. The United States kept, elaborated on, and enforced its sodomy laws for another 212 years. Why?
The historian R.I. Moore has tried to unpack how societies create "dangerous" groups that need to be shunned—Jews, heretics, lepers, gays—in his book The Formation of a Persecuting Society, and Bronski subscribes to his perspective. Nothing helps to solidify a group, and to make its members feel they belong, more than identifying an enemy, or somebody who has to be expelled from the tribe. To have Us, you need to have Them. Perhaps precisely because America was admirably a country of immigrants, it needed to cling to the embers of Puritan homophobia to reinforce a sense of unity.
It was only in 1869 that the Hungarian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the word "homosexual" and began to try to describe the phenomenon scientifically. But as Bronski tells it, the real break in the American conversation about gays came from a source that is often overlooked, the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Please, nobody tell Glenn Beck, or we'll have a flow chart proving that gay marriage ineluctably leads to anarchy, which ineluctably leads to George Soros.) Writers like Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman were the first to put forward three crucial points that transformed the debate. Bronski celebrates their challenge to narrowly constrained domesticity: "They argue that sexuality is natural and positive, that sex can be solely about pleasure, and, if consensual, should not be the subject of any laws." In their suspicion of all rules and all laws, they were the first to see the nasty codes surrounding sexuality served no positive purpose, and only spread misery. Intriguingly, the first great open champions of homosexual freedom in America were, it turns out, almost all heterosexual.
Public discourse, of course, was not radically transformed, but it's around this same time that gay people began crafting their own narratives, albeit awkwardly and painfully, for the first time in the American story. A leading neurologist in 1894 wrote down these words of one of his patients: "The knowledge that I am so unlike others makes me very miserable. I form no acquaintances out of business, keep mostly to myself, and do not indulge my sexual feelings." The scattered, and still furtive, confessions and reflections of gays as a new century approached ache with this sense of pure isolation. Many of them believed they were the only homosexual in the world—a human dead-end. But when gay people began to be able to whisper, they began to find each other. Bronski pores over the letters pages of magazines like Physique Pictoral, which starting in 1951 depicted bodybuilders in small posing pouches. The letters whisper ever louder: "I know that I am not alone in my beliefs"; "You are truly doing a wonderful job in uniting young men from all over the world who share a common interest."
A series of historical trends were colliding to make gay liberation possible. For the first time, it was becoming normal for single adults to live alone, apart from their family unit. The apartment, the car, and the city: All made anonymity possible, and with anonymity there came the flickers of freedom. Then, in 1960, a small white tablet turbo-charged the cause of gay equality. The contraceptive pill separated sex and reproduction for heterosexuals, so that for them, sex became what it had always been for homosexuals—a joyous and exuberant end in itself. Straight people were no longer so inclined to tut—they were doing it themselves. The gradual expansion of straight sexuality—its de-Puritanization, so to speak—brought with it greater tolerance for gay sexuality, as the two converged.
But the most decisive turning point arrived when gay people began to band together to demand to be treated decently. The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950, named after a French Renaissance secret fraternity of unmarried men. But it couldn't agree on its central goal. The battle in that society—which created a deep split in the group within three years—runs through gay history from that point on, and eventually breaks apart Bronski's book. It boils down to this. Is the point of the gay struggle to say we are essentially the same as straight people, or is it to say we are different and glad to be so? Does history—with its slow trajectory of convergence in greater sexual openness—have any light to shed?
Johann Hari is a Slate contributing writer and a columnist for the Independent in London. He was recently named newspaper journalist of the year by Amnesty International. You can e-mail Johann at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101.
Photo of Michael Bronski by Marilyn Humphries.