Reassessing 500 years of American history

A scholarly look at the LGBT experience

By Eric Liebetrau
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2011

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In 1980, the late Howard Zinn published “A People’s History of the United States,’’ a landmark book that elevated the importance of common people in the study of history. Acclaimed gender studies scholar Michael Bronski, a professor at Dartmouth, takes a Zinn-like approach in his similarly titled “A Queer History of the United States,’’ a succinct distillation of the history of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders in America.

Bronski makes it clear that he intends to attack his subject from a point of view different from the “family album approach’’ that many such histories take — “here is Oscar Wilde, here are the Stonewall Riots, here are queer couples being married in Boston.’’ The author finds this approach misleading; seeking to avoid the limitations of compartmentalized timelines and strict dichotomies, he illuminates the interconnected strands of cultural, social, economic, and religious history that have played a role in the development of the gay consciousness and community.

Bronski begins with the Puritans, examining how the necessity of maintaining a stable society resulted in the persecution of any type of behavior, especially sexual, considered outside the norm. For the Puritans and other religious and social groups of the 17th and 18th centuries, sex for any other reason than procreation was considered unacceptable — and was often punishable by law.

The necessity of keeping same-sex desire private was further ingrained in the American consciousness with the spread of slavery. “The acceptance of slavery as a philosophical concept and political reality,’’ writes the author, “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.’’

As such, homosexuals were considered deviants though that did not stop the literary world from beginning to openly express homosocial, if not homosexual, feelings. Bronski points to such pioneers as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Emily Dickinson as leaders in the emergence of queer culture.

The author employs insightful close readings of canonical works of 19th-century literature that display overt homoerotic tendencies, including Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick’’ and “Typee,’’ as well as James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.’’

Indeed, the significance of the work of artists is a principal motif in Bronski’s history. Writers, musicians, and other cultural icons often led the charge for the gay community, most visibly on the vaudeville stage and, later, in the pulp novels of the mid-20th century, which became major avenues for discovery of homosexual subculture, for both the gay and straight communities. The popularity of physique magazines also led to more acceptance — not due to any significant rise in progressive tolerance, but mainly because they reflected the gay community as a consumer culture in a time where consumerism was paramount.

Bronski is at his best in his discussions of the revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, which appropriated the expressive power of the burgeoning gay arts scene and moved it into the political arena. “The flourishing of 1960s youth culture, with its integration of sexuality and sexual freedom into everyday life,’’ writes the author, “was the result of a slow, incremental, yet constant homosexualization of America.’’

The increased exposure for the gay community eventually led to the creation of a variety of activist groups, including the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and ACT UP, all of which Bronski highlights. The author closes with the tragic development of the AIDS epidemic (unfortunately blamed on the gay community because it was first detected there) and examines, in an epilogue, further trends after 1990: same-sex households, openly gay characters on TV, and the continuing devastation of AIDS.

Bronski’s impeccable research bolsters his arguments, but general readers are likely to find the narrative too academic. Broad in scope and scholarly in tone, the book has “course adoption’’ written all over it — not just for classes in queer studies, but also in American cultural studies and alternative history. It should also serve as a useful handbook for LGBT activist groups and other interested members of the gay community.

Eric Liebetrau, managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkusreviews .com.


Beacon, 287 pp., $27.95