‘Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History’
by Kit van Cleave
An updated and ongoing project involving teaching the history of gays in America is available this month. Two women historians have edited some 17 essays into the second installment of the Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History.
One of the intriguing aspects of the recent gains in American life for gays is the “near consensus among queer historians…that societies shape the way sexual desires are understood, the sexual practices in which people engage, meanings people attach to their sexual desires and behaviors, and the identities people embrace,” write Susan K. Freeman and Leila H. Rupp, editors of Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History.
The two remember that when editors of the Harvey Goldberg Series approached them about a volume on LGBT history, their first response was that since “only researchers in the field teach courses on this topic,” no one would need such a book. But personally, they had a “missionary zeal for the topic” and knew some states were changing what was taught in high school history classes.
In 2011, for example, California passed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Responsible (FAIR) Education Act, the nation’s first legislation requiring public schools to teach about the contributions of LGBT and other marginalized Americans.
Freeman and Rupp also observed that “young people grow up in the 21st century in a media-saturated environment where queer is remarkably visible,” yet students were also still taught myths about gays by uninformed teachers, parents, and religionists who oppose gay rights. So the two accepted the project.
After sending out a request to submit papers for their upcoming volume, the editors chose 27 authors. While Freeman and Rupp clearly state, “This book…is designed for teachers of U.S. history,” the chapters are so varied that anyone can enjoy reading them. Here are only a few:
In “Sexual Diversity in Early America,” Thomas Foster recounts that in 1528 Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca observed “one man married to another” while he was held captive among Native Americans in Florida. Studies of native same-sex sexual behavior have largely been centered on the berdache, a third gender or a cultural, social, and religious space for a blurred gender category. Other scholars argue that the berdaches were male prisoners of war subject to a degrading status, as women, but virtually all agree on “Native American gender blurring.”
David D. Doyle Jr. discusses male friendships in “Nineteenth-Century Male Love Stories and Sex Stories,” noting that the middle-class ideology which emerged early in the century increasingly segregated men and women. The former went out to the workplace or marketplace, while the latter remained in the home. In preindustrial America, men and women tended to work in a household or farmstead at the same time.
In this newly ordered society, “those of the same sex spent the majority of their time together, and it was into organically emerging same-sex relationships people poured their passions.” In tandem with marriage, same-sex romantic friendships were central to many people’s lives, most commonly among white Anglo men and women.
Interestingly, photographs of men from the middle of the 19th century show friends holding hands or embracing without shame or stigma. From the 1930s on, men separated themselves from each other, standing in rows, hands crossed, and rarely allowing their bodies to touch.
Following Doyle’s essay, Dasa Francikova discusses modern categories of sexuality, love, and desire between women in “Romantic Friendship.” Her title refers to a term used in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe “a particularly close and socially accepted type of same-sex relationship” most frequently formed between women.
Again, the social reorganization of the middle and upper classes sent men out to jobs away from home and into public activities. Women were to devote themselves to domestic duties, their families, and children; this “made them invisible in the more highly valued public sphere.” So they spent their lives in the company of other women “and formed close, often physically affectionate and lifelong relationships that played a central role in their lives.”
In “Men and Women Like That,” Colin R. Johnson researched regional identities and rural sexual cultures in the South and Pacific Northwest. He points out that “throughout much of U.S. history the question of how what one did sexually related to one’s identity was a contextually specific and therefore surprisingly open one.” Noting “the segregated conditions under which most wage-paying labor was performed” in America through the first half of the 20th century, he recalls Ang Lee’s 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, showing how sheepherding, cattle ranching, mining, and the timber trade depended heavily on the labor of young unmarried men.
Alfred Kinsey noted in 1948 that “the highest frequencies of the homosexual which we have ever secured anywhere have been in particular rural communities in some of the more remote sections of the country.” Kinsey also reported that “men who had sex with other men in the context of all-male rural labor communities seldom thought deeply, or possibly even at all, about what engaging in such activity said about them as people.”
Eventually, urban reformers and law enforcement officials began to target such workers, and “effectively extended the reach of a newly emerging understanding of homosexuality as…pathology to an enormous group of people previously untouched by such an idea,” Johnson writes.
Other chapters deal with men together during World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, and the growth of fear- mongering during the Cold War.
Rupp, professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Freeman, chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies department at Western Michigan University, are both well credentialed to assemble these essays by other historians. The volume is highly detailed, and each entry also has a strong bibliography for readers searching other sources. Highly recommended.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.