Jesse Monteagudo

Bronski's American History

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | August 10, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Michael Bronski, queer history

Bronski_Queer_History.jpgA Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski; Beacon Press; 288 pages; $27.95.

In 1984, Michael Bronski published Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility. Since then, Bronski has maintained his standing as a major chronicler and critic of LGBT life and culture. For two decades, Bronski wrote book and movie reviews for the late, great, monthly The Guide. (I was also a contributor.)

His 2003 book, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps, won a Lambda Literary Award. When not writing books, Bronski is senior lecturer in the Women's and Gender Studies Program and Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

A Queer History of the United States is Bronski's most ambitious book, a narrative history of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people in America from 1492 to 1990. As Bronski recalls, "Two years ago Beacon Press decided to start a series titled 'Revision America' which would be a multi-volume look at American history from alternative, and minority, points of view. While I am not an academically trained historian, they asked me to write the LGBT history. I was a little daunted at first, but finally decided that this was a challenge I could meet and one that would really let me pull together so much of my knowledge, ideas, theories, and analysis into one text."

Bronski's book goes beyond the "great gays in history" model of so much LGBT history. Instead, Bronski proposed "two crucial concepts to consider when examining LGBT history in the United States. ... The first is that the contributions of people which we may now identify as [LGBT] are integral and central to how we conceptualize our national history. ... The second ... key concept is that LGBT history does not exist."

How does Bronski reconcile those two "counterintuitive" concepts? "Of course there have always been 'queer people,'" he notes. "But these groups existed in so many different contexts that to group them all in a big tent with the name 'LGBT history' seemed misguided. On the other hand, they are there and their lives, adventures, thoughts, hardships, and triumphs have to be acknowledged as distinctly theirs and distinctly American."

Bronski refers to historian R. I. Monroe's concept of the "persecuting society" in which "minorities ... were stigmatized and persecuted as groups and often physically separated from society. ... In that view, the founding of modern society was predicated on the creation of minority groups whose only purpose was to be vilified as unclean and persecuted for the illusion of societal safety." How did that apply to LGBT people in the USA? As Bronski puts it, though "'LGBT people' did not exist in the 17th, 18th or 19th century, there were plenty of people who existed who loved members of their own sex, desired them sexually, and frequently had sex with them. While they were not called 'gay' or 'lesbian' they were often labeled by their behaviors."

"It is important to remember that the Puritans saw very little difference (as we do now) between sins and crimes. When people were 'cast out' for being unclean (and they were for any number of reasons) it was, as in the Medieval period Moore write about, to secure the safety of the entire society. But it is instructive to remember that the categories of sexual identity (or what we now call 'sexual orientation') did not exist in the ways that they do now." One of the most interesting sections in Bronski's History deals with Merrymount, a dissident community established in 17th century Massachusetts "that allowed greater sexual freedom, racial equality, and economic justice." Unfortunately, Merrymount "was crushed by Governor Bradford because these freedoms were a threat to the very structure of the Puritan community."

Bronski wrItes that "many of the most important changes for LGBT people in the past five hundred years have been a result of war." He adds "that the main way war effects 'queer people' is in its direct effect on gender. Certainly after the American Revolution, gender roles in the colonies changed radically. We had to invent a 'new' American Man who was the anthesis of the British man. The Civil War, in which 620,000 men (many of them under 21) lost their lives was also a turning point in defining what it means to be a man. I would also argue that the Vietnam War changed the lives of LGBT people in conjunction with the youth counter culture, feminism and Black Power movements."

Though Bronski ends his Queer History in 1990, he includes an epilogue that deals with the issues of same-sex marriage and assimilation in the LGBT community. In this he was criticized by Slate's Johann Hari and other critics.

Actually, as Bronski reminds us:

I write very little about same-sex marriage in the book and essentially say that some of the marriage arguments are about regulating sexuality, not unlike the 19th century social purity movements. There is nothing new or radical about this. I am not against same-sex marriage as a question of equality under the law, although I do see the push for marriage in tension with the other great push in the LGBT movement, which is for personal freedom and independence. What I found most curious about this flap about my marriage opinions is that, for some people, uncritically supporting same-sex marriage has become the litmus test for being pro-gay. If you have any critiques of same-sex marriage (or marriage itself) then you are homophobic or a crazy radical. This is not good for community discussion or the free exchange of ideas.

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Why on Earth did he end it in 1990? The movement has had some of its biggest moments since then. Amendment 2 leading to Romer v. Evans, Bill Clinton and DADT and DOMA, protease inhibitors which turned AIDS from an automatic death sentence to a chronic illness, Matthew Shepard in 1998 leading to the expansion of hate crime laws to LGBT citizens in 2009, Lawrence v. Texas, the entire same-sex marriage issue which began in 1993 in Hawaii and has since (as he acknowledges) taken over the entire movement...

Did he seriously stop it at 1990 just so he could avoid talking about same-sex marriage? Because the past 20 years have been pretty damn important for LGBT rights, and yes, marriage was a huge part of that. I feel like any objective chronicle of gay people in America has to include that. In fact, that he sees it as "in tension" with "personal freedom and independence" makes it more important for him to include it in his book, because that assimilationist vs. revolutionary tension has been a major theme in LGBT history since at least the Mattachine Society.

This man wrote, "While I am not an academically trained historian...." (By the way what IS this man's "training?") "Bronski is senior lecturer in the Women's and Gender Studies Program and Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College." Do co-eds at Dartmouth College register for his "lectures?" If I were female, I'd want to study with an instructor who has actually gone through life whose female gender has directly been impacted by sexism, misogyny, and patriarchalism . Even though not academically prepared, he forges on. He writes on and on about our "history." Addressing his critics, he writes, " marriage opinions is that, for some people, uncritically supporting same-sex marriage...." (opinions ARE, not opinions IS.) Generally speaking/writing, Gay human beings (all sexual minorities) in our culture are self-aware and have to be critical in order to survive. Gay human beings have been critical regarding marriage equality and support of marriage equality: it's a part of our survival. Lastly, as to criticisms that this man stopped writing Gay American "history" at the end of the 1980s, my criticism is that he attempted to write at all. Much better would have been that he not gone back to 1492 and began writing at all.

Another unfounded nasty comment. This is why I have stopped coming around Bilerico as often as I used to. Michael Bronski is a thoughtful and important queer historian, and I for one squealed when I read about this book!

Om Kalthoum | August 10, 2011 12:45 PM

You claim:

Addressing his critics, he writes, " marriage opinions is that, for some people, uncritically supporting same-sex marriage...." (opinions ARE, not opinions IS.)

Since you're picking nits, what he said was:

What I found most curious about this flap about my marriage opinions is that, for some people, uncritically supporting same-sex marriage has become the litmus test for being pro-gay.

See? Singular subject, singular verb. No problem!