Wayne Dynes

Review of Michael Bronsky, A Queer History of the United States,
Boston, Beacon Press. 2011
Originally published in Dyneslines, June 5, 2011
Reproduced here by permission of the author

The Salon des Refusés--or “exhibition of rejects”--was a phase of the Parisian art world that began with the first such event in 1863. In that year artists took direct action to counter the rejection by the official Salon’s jury of more than 3,000 works. This provocative assemblage included such now-famous paintings as Édouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) and James McNeill Whistler's Girl in White. Subsequent Salons des Refusés were mounted in Paris in 1874, 1875, and 1886. In due course the rejects (that is, the progressive artists) became the mainstream, while their academic counterparts, previously dominant, gradually lapsed into obscurity.

This Umwertung der Werte--or inversion of values--to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase, was confined to the realm of aesthetics. Could there not be, though, a more general reappraisal in which the outcasts of an entire society come to be perceived not as marginal, but as actually  c e n t r a l  to that society? This conceptual shift is what the Boston-based writer Michael Bronski has boldly attempted to accomplish.

Bronski’s endeavor is not entirely new. He owes a large debt to the late Howard Zinn (1922-2010), the left-leaning author of the problematic  A People’s History of the United States (1980). In fact, Bronski’s is scarcely the first such Zinnian offshoot. Among his predecessors in this realm are A People's History of Australia from 1788 to the Present, edited by Verity Burgmann; and A People’s History of the World, by Chris Harman--both of general import. Then there are volumes addressing more specific groups, such as A People's History of Sports in the United States, by Dave Zirin; A People's History of the Supreme Court, by Peter Irons; and A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks, by Clifford D. Connor.

Bronski’s undertaking seems to fall between the two Zinnian stools. Like the last three volumes, it foregrounds a specific group, or rather a cluster of groups. At the same time, though, through the device of “queering,” a kind of free-floating signifier, it aspires to universality. The latter aim is, in my view, unsuccessful. What remains is, to put it bluntly, a collection of fruits, nuts, and sluts.

Even in its specific focus on LGBTQ people Bronski does not break fresh ground, for he has purloined many of his examples from Jonathan Ned Katz’s fundamental collections, Gay American History of 1976, and Gay/Lesbian Almanac of 1983.

Put briefly, Bronski’s ambition is to elevate the XYZ roster of conventional American history--comprising a motley crew of cross-dressers, assertive women, gay-male littérateurs, entertainers, sex workers, political activists, advocates for people of color, anarchists, and other outsiders--to the high rank of the ABC. The last, it seems, shall be first. But if the formerly abnormal types become the new normals, what is to happen to the certified members of the establishment’s A-List? Perhaps this reversal means that such hateful creatures as the president of the Stock Exchange, economist Larry Summers, Phyllis Schlafly, and the late Reverend Falwell--duly relegated to the lower depths--must take their place as the new queers. This is an interesting paradox.

The names of many Americans, some familiar, others less so, pass in review through Bronski’s pages. To qualify for inclusion it helps if the figure happens to be a woman or a person of color; white males are less welcome. Some folk are scarcely heroic: “San Francisco’s Jeanne Bonnet was repeatedly arrested for cross-dressing and petty theft; at the end of her short life she organized prostitutes to leave their work and make a living [sic] shoplifting.” (p. 42).

Photographs of five heroes adorn the book’s dust jacket: four are women, one is a person of color (Bayard Rustin). This selection is affirmative action, but is it history?

At the heart of the book stands Chapter Five (“A Dangerous Purity”). The account begins with a succinct but apt characterization of the 19th-century Purity movements, which ascribed various social ills to the unbridled exercise of male lust. Sodomy--male homosexuality--was of course one egregious outcropping of this lust; as such, it had to be firmly suppressed. Yet Bronski fails to note how the malaise of the Purity quest resurfaced in the latter decades of the 20th century in the antipornography invectives of such feminist scolds as Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller. Pornography thus ranks as a wedge issue that divides one set of Bronski’s favorites--gay men and men of color; that is, people who consume porn--from another privileged set, comprising many women and a few censorious men who are porn haters. This is but one of several divisions that prevent his motley crew from coalescing into a cohesive social and political force.

At all events, however, Bronski is probably correct in regarding the Purity trend as a major precursor of one branch of today’s same-sex marriage movement--the branch that views the change as a cudgel to be wielded against the supposed horror of promiscuity among gay men. Again, though, gay marriage (which our author seems to disdain) is a wedge issue.

At the forefront of Bronski’s miscellaneous army are the trans people, now honored for their seeming defiance of constricting gender binaries. It was not always so. Dating from thirty years ago was the fierce attack feminist Janice Raymond mounted on the “constructed female.” For their part, drag queens were assailed for their supposed mockery of women; I well remember how in the seventies we activists were all instructed that we must toe the line on this issue--or else. By contrast, the boy-love championed by NAMBLA--if not fully accepted (and I have always harbored reservations about it)--was nonetheless understood to rank as an aspect of the sexual revolution that needed to be acknowledged. Yet NAMBLA does not rate a mention in Bronski’s book: some people are apparently just “too queer” for inclusion.

Basically, Bronski’s narrative stops in 1990, but he offers a few comments on later trends in the “Epilogue.” He seems uncomfortable with the assimilationist strategy that has been dominant for the last twenty years, centering on the quest for an end to DADT (discrimination against gays in the military) and recognition of gay marriage. In one muddled passage he seems to suggest that the ideal of equality itself may be suspect, apparently because it serves to advance such reformist causes as those mentioned--instead of the revolution which, it seems, he still privately cherishes as his goal.

So what does it all amount to? The currently popular acronym LGBTQ seeks to weld together several disparate groups in a process that has been called “making up people.” Instead of unifying the disparate components, Bronski (doubtless contrary to his intention) has given us new grounds for questioning the coherence of the construct.

In my lifetime, “homosexual” has yielded to “gay,” gay in turn to “LGBTQ”--and in some quarters to “queer.” Doubtless in due course the latter two monikers will also pass away.