Michael Bronski's A Queer History of the United States: What do 500 years reveal about gays in America?

Reading between the lines.
May 23 2011 6:48 AM

How Gays Helped Make and Remake America

A new history gives them a mission, and it isn't to embrace marriage.

(Continued from Page 2)

My view—since reading Andrew Sullivan's masterpiece Virtually Normal when I was a teenager—is that the point of the gay rights struggle is to show that homosexuality is a trivial and meaningless difference. Gay people want what straight people want. I am the same as my heterosexual siblings in all meaningful ways, so I should be treated the same under the law, and accorded all public rights and responsibilities. The ultimate goal of the gay rights movement is to make homosexuality as uninteresting—and unworthy of comment—as left-handedness.

That's not Bronski's view. As he has made more stridently clear in his previous books, he believes that gay people are essentially different from straight people. Why is his book called a "Queer History" and not a "Gay History"? It seems to be because the word "queer" is more marginal, more edgy, more challenging to ordinary Americans. He believes that while the persecution in this 500-year history was bad, the marginality was not. Gay people are marginal not because of persecution but because they have a historical cause—to challenge "how gender and sexuality are viewed in normative culture."

Advertisement

Their role is to show that monogamy, and gender boundaries, and ideas like marriage throttle the free libidinal impulses of humanity. So instead of arguing for the right to get married, gay people should have been arguing for the abolition of marriage, monogamy, and much more besides. " 'Just like you' is not what all Americans want," Bronski writes. "Historically, 'just like you' is the great American lie." He swipes at the movement for gay marriage, and Sullivan in particular, as an elaborate revival of the old social purity movements—with the kicker that gays are doing it to themselves. (It's easy to forget that when Sullivan first made the case for gay marriage, his events were picketed by gay people spitting this argument into his face.)

When Bronski argues this case, his prose—which is normally clear—becomes oddly murky and awkward, and he may not agree with every word of my summary: This is the best I can figure out his position. He does finally explicitly say that the gay movement should have fought instead to "eliminate" all concept of marriage under the law, a cause that would have kept gay people marginalized for centuries, if not forever. Of course some gay people hold revolutionary views against the social structures of marriage and the family—and so do some straight people. But they are small minorities in both groups. If you want to set yourself against these trends in the culture, that's fine. Just don't equate it with your homosexuality. When Bronski suggests gay marriage "works against another unrealized American ideal: individual freedom and autonomy," he is bizarrely missing the point. Nobody is saying gay people have to get married—only that it should be a legal option if they want it. If you disagree with marriage, don't get married. Whose freedom does that restrict?

It's bizarre that Bronski—after a rousing historical rebuttal to the right-wing attempt to write gays out of American history—ends up agreeing with Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, and Michele Bachmann that gay people are inherently subversive and revolutionary, longing for the basic institutions of the heterosexual world to be torn down. There's a whole Gay Pride parade of people marching through Bronski's book who show it isn't so—from the residents of Merrymount proudly carrying their giant phallus, to Deborah Sampson Gannett dressed in her military uniform as Robert Shurtliff, to the men in Physique Pictoral in their little posing pouches. They didn't choose marginality and exclusion. They were forced onto the margins. It would be a betrayal of them—not a fulfillment—to choose to stay there, angrily raging, when American society is on the brink of letting them into its core institutions, on the basis of equality, at long last.

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 j.hari@independent.co.uk or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.