How Gays Helped Make and Remake America
A new history gives them a mission, and it isn't to embrace marriage.
The American right presents homosexuality as something alien to the American experience—an intruder that inexplicably gate-crashed America in 1969 in the form of a rioting drag queen clutching a high heel in her fist as a weapon. The statements of Michele Bachman, Rick Santorum, or Mitt Romney insistently hint that the fag does not belong under the flag. But there's something odd here. For people who talk incessantly about honoring American history, they have built a historical picture of their country that can only be sustained by scrubbing it clean of a significant part of the population, and everything they brought to the party (if not the Tea Party).
In his new book, A Queer History of the United States, the cultural critic Michael Bronski runs the film backward, through 500 years of American life, showing there were gays and bisexuals in every scene, making and remaking America. They were among some of the country's great icons, from Emily Dickinson to Calamity Jane to perhaps even Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt. The rioting drag queens of the Stonewall Inn arrive only on page 210 of a 250-page book that argues gay people weren't merely present at every stage—they had a historical mission in America. It was to expose Puritanism, scolding, and sexual intolerance. Yet in a strange and disagreeable turn, Bronski concludes that in the final act of this story, gays have en masse abandoned their mission by demanding the most domestic and Puritan goal of all: monogamous marriage.
The gay alternative to Puritan America began before the first white settler ever arrived. The day before Christopher Columbus set foot in North America, it was a safer place for gay people than it was ever going to be again for centuries. The limited but sturdy evidence provided by historians that Bronski draws on suggests homosexuality was treated matter-of-factly among most Native American tribes. In the records of the Lewis and Clark expeditions, Nicholas Biddle observes: "Among the Mamitarees, if a boy shows any symptoms of effeminacy or girlish inclinations he is put among the girls, dressed in their way, brought up with them, and sometimes married to men." Among the Crows, a horrified white observer wrote, "men who dressed as women and specialized in women's work were accepted and sometimes honored; a woman who led men in battle and had four wives was a respected chief." This shouldn't be entirely romanticized. One tribe "accepted" homosexuality by raising young men to be "passives," available as "sexual resources" to the tribe, which sounds uncomfortably close to rape. But in most places, different sexualities were granted room for expression, much of it consensual.
The Europeans looked on in revulsion, like Jerry Falwell in a powdered wig. In the 1775 diary of Pedro Font, a Franciscan on a trip to what is now California, he warns that "the sin of sodomy prevails more among [the Miami] than in any other nation" and concludes with a cluck: "There will be much to do when the Holy Faith and the Christian religion are established among them." A lot was indeed done, and with extreme violence. The Europeans who arrived in North America had a fierce sense of how gender and sexuality should be expressed. They had fled Britain because they felt, among other things, that it had become a syphilitic den of decadence.
The Puritans aspired to build instead a pure theocratic homeland in America. As the research of historian Jonathan Ned Katz shows, they meant it: Many people were executed for sodomy. Yet he also uncovered cases that suggest this isn't the whole story. From the start, there were Americans who dissented from the Puritanism–often in the most blatant way—and it is these dissenters who interest Bronski most. In 1624, a large group of people led by a man named Thomas Morton decided to found a town based on very different principles, in an area that is now Quincy, near Boston. They called the town Merrymount—popular slang at the time for illicit forms of sex—and built an 80-foot phallic symbol in the town center. They freed any indentured servants who joined them, befriended the local Native American tribe, and began to intermarry with them, suggesting many of their members were heterosexuals sick of Puritan strictures and open to other ways.
Merrymount sounds as quintessentially American as Salem—and a lot more fun. But the conflict that runs through American history—between fundamentalism and sexual freedom—mowed down Merrymount. In 1629, after a five-year-long prefiguring of life in South Beach or West Hollywood, the local Puritans invaded the town and dismantled it brick by brick. (History doesn't record what they did with the phallus.) Morton was deported back to London, where he became one of the most eloquent critics of the genocide of the Native Americans in all of Europe.
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.