June is GLBT Pride month, which means for most (including myself) festivals, parades, 18-dollar cosmopolitans, and picking glitter out of my hair until early August. At the West Hollywood Pride parade last weekend, the marching pageantry of floats and performers compressed the collective unconscious of gay culture into a one mile long rainbow yoking together sobering identity politics with unfettered bacchanalia under the all-encompassing banner of pride. We queue the Trevor Project volunteers and their solemn reminder of queer youth suicide a few slots after a float filled with go-go boys in Speedos and yet somehow neither disrespect the memory of those tragically never given the chance to join us nor completely kill the buzz of merriment and libido. Rather it reminds us of the broad spectrum of what we must fight for: the right to be subjects of our own desire. This is a desire that ranges from a teenager’s right to realize his or her gender and sexual identity without shame or persecution to an adult’s right to mould and sculpt their own body into the shape of their own desire.
Yet, Pride festivities also remind me of the diversity of individuals squirming uncomfortably within the confines of their designated letter in the acronym of GLBT identity politics. When GLBT identity goes to Washington to lobby or sits in front of cameras on CNN, it wears a collared shirt, smart but not intellectual glasses with clean-cut professional graces while restraining the gestures, inflections of voice, and attitudes that the assumed heterosexual audience finds threatening. This campaign for GLBT rights sends one specific message: that we are worthy of a right like marriage because we are “just like you”. In the just over 40 years since Stonewall and the birth of the modern GLBT rights movement, the brave struggles of gender and sexual non-conformists to have the right to be not like everyone else has resulted in an identity politics of assimilation where we are now told to embrace the contradiction that the right to be different means closeting those differences. Sure, we may have public visibility on the streets of West Hollywood during pride, but when the world is watching, the body paint, the sequins, the leather, must come off and the polo shirt and pleated khakis must be put on. We are encouraged to be “out” as gays and lesbians in our offices, classrooms, and churches so long as we leave the queer stuff closeted. This is where the work of queer theory reveals that the current stakes of GLBT politics is not so much about same-sex object choice as it is about as it is about our society’s continual anxiety over sex in general and everything about personal identity that we attach to it. Instead of asserting our right and the rights of all people to their sexual expression, GLBT advocacy has sought to desexualize homosexuality.
What the “we are just like you” message misses is the real way in which we are just like the heterosexual majority. We are like them because, gay or straight, we are all abnormal. Everyone in the hetero/homo continuum possesses quirks, eccentricities, wells of nerdiness, closeted desires and fantasies, and dissatisfactions with the status quo that we repress, sublimate, and release only within a charmed circle of sympathizers. Instead of sending the message that gay men and women deserve rights because we are equally adept at self-repression and conformity, we must re-brand our efforts and offer a coalition with all individuals toward building a non-repressive society and unhooking the straight jacket of normality that all people invariably wear. Just as gay novelist James Baldwin argued in The Fire Next Time, that black liberation must come through freeing whites from the self-destructive hatred that their own racism wreaks on their psyches and souls, so too must queer liberation come from the liberation of all heterosexuals who have been equally repressed by the imperative of straightness and normality.
With aforementioned politics in mind, I list below a collection of queer histories and fictions that detail the pre-stonewall history of queer identity. By looking at gay and lesbian history, what we learn is that our present state of identity politics is not the irreversible expression of some essential character stamped in our DNA, but the product of specific social developments tied to changes in politics, economics, and cultural values. If the present political consciousness of the modern queer subject is not inevitable but socially constructed, then we have the power to reconstruct it and reclaim the radical, outsider orientation to society that has historically afforded queers both the critical lens to peer into the heart of repression and the imagination to envision and live alternatives.
The following list aims to reacquaint us with this spirit through history.
The History of Sexuality (1976) by Michel Foucault
Not a history of events, but a history of ideas, French philosopher Michel Foucault’s history of sexuality traces a genealogy of discourses since the renaissance that accounts for how the emergence of liberalism and empirical science changed the way we view the human body and the individual state-subject. Foucault claims that the homosexual was created in 1870, and while it is true that this is when the word was coined, what Foucault means is that this is when same-sex desire became a category western culture used to designate a biologically and psychologically distinct species of humanity. Through Foucault’s analysis of the power that state apparatuses and scientific discourses have to construct distinct types of individuals, we also see that power is a relationship exercised between authority and the individual and that individuals have the power to infiltrate discourse and reclaim the ability to define their selves.
Gay New York (1995) By George Chauncey
In this thoroughly researched chronicle of gay American culture from the turn of the century until World War Two, George Chauncey challenges the misperception that gay men were invisible in the pre-Stonewall era. Chauncey’s archive reveals a vibrant, visible gay culture that flourished in New York between the wars populated by fairies, inverts, trade, and other queer identities with their specific codes of dress, behavior, and expression. The book reminds us that the stark divide between heterosexual and homosexual that dominates our concept of sexuality is a relatively recent invention of the post-war era and that dalliances on both side of the binary without it revealing the “truth” of the individual’s soul are possible in a world where the barrier is not so stringently policed.
Political Inversions (1996) By Andrew Hewitt
How did Berlin, one of the most queer-friendly cities in interwar Europe become a staging ground for the Third Reich in only a decade? Hewitt’s history of homosexuality and fascism in 19th to 20th century Germany reveals a nation that had a schizophrenic relationship with homosexuality. It was the birthplace of the word “homosexual” in 1870, the site of Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering research into sexuality, and home of the first modern homosexual rights movement, yet also the originator of the most notorious anti-gay law, 1871’s Paragraph 175 which Hitler used to send queer men and women to the concentration camps. Hewitt’s book reveals that while effeminate gay men were persecuted under the Nazis, many masculine gays were attracted by the Nazis’ valorization of manliness and were initially drawn to the movement and complicit in their crimes. Thus, Hewitt’s history bravely pulls out the skeletons in our closet and reminds us that history does not inevitably lead toward a progress narrative, but that regressions toward barbarism are always threatening and the progress we think we are making can always turn out to be the opposite.
“Capitalism and Gay Identity” from Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University (1992) By John D’Emilio
John D’Emilio’s short essay examines how industrialization, the growth of urban environments, and the emergence of wage labor all factored into the birth of the gay community in the late 19th century. Love or hate capitalism, it played an integral part in creating an opportunity for queer men and women to leave the traditionally family-based economies of the 19th century, assert their independent identities in the public sphere, and build alternative communities based on same-sex desire. Understanding capitalism’s role in the creation of gay identity equips us with the tools to question GLBT advocacy’s strategy of proving our worthiness for rights as useful servants to capital instead of confronting the class disparities that fracture the gay community.
Miss Knight and Others (1991, stories originally published 1926) By Robert McAlmon
In this collection of three short stories, American expatriate Robert McAlmon paints the portraits of three American sexual nomads finding refuge in the underground queer scene of 1920s Berlin. Described as “grim fairy tales”, McAlmon’s stories that predates Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories by a decade, depict a shady, pre-cabaret Berlin where Americans came because post-world war one Berlin’s economic destitution invited anyone with an appetite for cheap drugs and sex. Yet, McAlmon understands in his stories that while some of his compatriots came for a vacation of cheap thrills, for his gay and lesbian friends, expatriation and was a way of life when you grow up queer and you have no home in your country of origin.
We Too Are Drifting (1935) By Gale Wilhelm
In 1935, Random House boldly published and promoted Wilhelm’s unapologetic tale of a lesbian love triangle to the masses. Yet, Wilhelm and her work has been largely forgotten and been out of print for over 25 years. Unlike previous lesbian works more interested in pleading for tolerance, Wilhelm’s novel instead looks at the lived experience of three lesbian women, the independent artist Jan Morale and her two loves who both experience the pains of compulsory heterosexuality: a married woman in an affair and a young student who must choose between her same sex desire and the imperative to marry a man and reproduce.
The Young and Evil (1933) By Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler
Ford and Tyler’s novel is an artifact from George Chauncey’s interwar gay New York. Written in the most avant-garde of modernist prose, The Young and Evil as a text reads like an experiment in finding a literary voice that parallels the journey of sexual discovery and identity that Ford and Tyler’s fictional counterparts in the novel take on in the balls, bars, and flophouses of the New York gay scene. More than anything else, Ford and Tyler’s novel speaks to the complexities of visibility—placing their characters out in the public sphere, but adorning them with the vestments and behaviors and describing them in language that would make their appearance legible only to their kindred spirits in the community and to readers of modernism. The novel is an exercise in inventing language in order to invent the self.
The Angel and the Perverts (1930) By Lucie Delarue-Mardrus
A fixture at Natalie Clifford Barney’s lesbian literary salon in Paris, Delarue-Mardrus depicts the complex sexual politics of her circle of women writers and artists through an intersex protagonist who alternates between putting on women’s vestments and attending salon functions and dressing in menswear and cruising the gay soirees. Delarue-Mardrus’ novel both illuminates an oft-neglected period of lesbian artistic history and constructs an alternative model of lesbian identity based on the figure of the hermaphrodite who can account for both the masculine and feminine features and attitudes of lesbian sexuality.