Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Gay Heritage

A review of Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. by Jonathan Ned Katz (Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1976)

The task of reviewing a 690-page history textbook is not one with which I would normally boggle my mind, but in this instance it was greeted with more eagerness than trepidation, more excitement than foreboding. And I can give as my final report what must surely be the highest possible recommendation: I actually read it from cover to cover and enjoyed every minute of it. What is revealed by Jonathan Katz's amazing documentary is something heretofore inconceivable, that a gay heritage not only exists, but exists in abundance!

Obviously gay people do not have the same kind of heritage as other ethnic minority groups; unlike the Jews, the blacks, or the American Indians, we do not literally inherit a culture or a set of traditions: by definition, homosexuals do not receive a set of homosexual experiences and expectations from our parents, nor do we pass on such things to our offspring. Yet the outstanding achievement of Katz's work is that it gives us a sense of our own history despite the lack of a procreative transmission of values, and a pride in our own heritage despite the lack of genine forefathers and foremothers.

As far as I can determine, the accuracy of the scholarship is faultless, and seemingly comprehensive. It is clear that immense industry and devotion went into the making of this book, and the very large number of people who helped Katz with the research are fully acknowledged in the notes. On no account has Katz reserved all of the glory for himself, and it is most refreshing to realise that this is the product of the gay community as well as for the gay community.

The actual apparatus for presenting the material again deserves praise. Each document is given the emphasis it deserves, by being printed in a large, easy-to-read typeface, while Katz's own introductory and connecting commentary is relegated to a smaller typeface. The notes and bibliographies – a full one hundred pages of them! – are more detailed and comprehensive than any I have seen for any other history book. The reader will certainly be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, yet it is the kind of cornucopia one finds in a treasure-trove.

Let me hasten to add that this is not actually a history textbook in the ordinary sense, and each reader will no doubt have individual misgivings about the way in which Katz has gathered and presented material. The documents are not arranged straightforwardly throughout, but chronologically under six different subject headings. Some headings are clear: Native Americans, Passing Women; some are more general: Treatment, Resistance; some are ambiguous: Trouble, Love. The section on Love extends from 1779 to 1932; one inevitably asks: Why does love begin in 1779 and end in 1932?

Presumably Katz has included all of the very earliest documents he can find, beginning with accounts of sodomy among the American Indians in 1528, the murder of a French sodomite in Florida in 1556, the execution of a seaman in 1624, early Colonial records, and so forth. But something has gone seriously wrong with the research which leaves more than a century-long gap in the records, from 1655 to about 1780 (except for data on Native Americans). Why are there virtually no records for nearly the entire eighteenth century? Katz doesn't sufficiently account for such gaps, be they due to lack of materials, or lack of research, or lack of interest. Some nineteenth-century literary material seemed a bit superfluous; for example, an analysis of the novels of Herman Melville – better done elsewhere. Fortunately Katz does not analyse the poems of Walt Whitman, and instead prints for the first time extracts from Whitman's manuscript diaries, containing startling entries such as this: "Jerry Taylor, N.J. of 2d dist. reg't slept with me last night" – together with lists of other young men with whom he slept.

Inevitably my main reservations arise with respect to Katz's interpretation of the nature, scope and relevance of gay history. His claim that "the study of homosexual history suggests a new basis for a radical critique of American society" is dubious at best, pretentious at worst. The Jews have been engaged in a very similar history of a persecuted minority for donkey's years: no startling new historical critique has resulted, though admittedly they have expanded our awareness of antisemitism and have produced a number of quite good historians. I cannot believe that the study of gay history will revolutionise social attitudes. Nevertheless the primary material for such a critique is all here, unencumbered by a too-conspicuous theoretical framework, and readers are free to judge for themselves.

The other outstanding achievement of Katz's book is that it made me fully realise, for the first time, that gay men and lesbians beong to the same single gay community, that we are indeed brothers and sisters not as a matter of rhetoric but as a matter of fact. This is the first book on gay history which neither ignores lesbians nor relegates them to a footnote, but treats lesbians on a fully equal par with gay men. Obviously the proportion of material on gay men is greater than that on gay women, but more has been written about the former than the latter, yet the ratio of documents is nearly 6 to 4 rather than the more customary 10 to 1. Eighty of the 188 documents are highly lesbian-related, while half of the illustrations are of lesbians.

The first section of the book – Touble: 1566–1966 – documents the facts that during a period of four hundred years "American homosexuals were condemned to death by choking, burning, and drowning; they were executed, jailed, pilloried, fined, court-martialed, prostituted, fired, framed, blackmailed, disinherited, declared insane, driven to insanity, to suicide, murder,and self-hate, witch-hunted, entrapped, stereotyped, mocked, insulted, isolated, pitied, castigated, and despised."

Enmeshed within this array of unpleasant situations we hear about the beginnings of the American gay subculture in the 1890s, particularly among the black population of New York and St Louis; we are given a tantalising account of the lesbian affairs of black blues singer Bessie Smith; we are reminded that Horatio Alger, popular writer of boys' books, was separated from his church in 1866 because of homosexual activity; we are told about working-class lesbianism among white and black women in the 1920s. In short, we are presented with an absolutely fascinating survey and a host of astonishing revelations – mostly about the ordinary gay person in the street rather than the famous or the great or the eccentric.

The second section – Treatment: 1884–1974 – documents how homosexuals have been 'cured' by being castrated, lobotomised, shock-treated and psychoanalysed ad nauseum. A typical excerpt in this section is Dr La Forrest Potter's plea for treating "abnormals" in 1933: "Some we would probably kill. Others we would cure."

One of the most interesting chapters is devoted entirely to Passing Women: 1782–1920 – about women who have dressed as men and pursued their lives as men, sometimes even by marrying women. The women in this chapter include Civil War soldiers, a Tammany Hall politician, doctors, sailors and numerous others, such as Deborah Sampson (1760–1827), a soldier in the American Revolutionary Army who received a pension for military service on the petition of Paul Revere. This is the kind of history that doesn't get into the standard textboks.

The sections on Native Americans/Gay Americans: 1528–1976; Resistance: 1859–1972; and Love: 1779–1932 round out an extraordinarily vivid picture of our past, the latter section containing documents about Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Emma Goldman – well worth devouring despite the sentimental Puritanism that runs throughout American life and literature. One added bonus which ensures that the reader's attention will be held, and which immeasurably adds to the value of the book, is its inclusion of seldom-reproduced illustrations, such as early photograqphs of male–male dancing in the West, Henry David Thoreau's drawing of a phallus-shaped mushroom, and others too numerous to mention. The text truly comes alive with photographs of such people as Cora Anderson in both her male and female personas.

It is impossible to give a full picture of such an immensely varied book, but I hope this review gives adequate indication of its wide scope and its success in achieving its purpose. It is a magnificent accompolishment, a book in which gay people may take both pride and delight.

(This review was originally published in Gay News, Issue No. 126, 1977, p. 25. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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