Modern-day campaigns for civil rights and equal citizenship for queer folks tend to conjure up a progressive trajectory from exclusion to inclusion: from a dark past when the homosexual was excluded from equal citizenship (or forced to live closeted) to a not-yet-realized future in which one’s sexual identity, desires, and behaviors, do not exclude one from enjoying the rights and responsibilities of the American citizenry. The ability to apply for citizenship in the first place, the responsibility to serve in the armed forces, the personhood status to form legally-recognized kinship networks and access the welfare benefits distributed through those kinship systems. In our collective memory, we look backward in time to a period during which homosexual acts were illegal and homosexual identity stigmatized; we look forward to a period during which our bodies and relationships won’t ipso facto criminalize us (at worst) or shuffle us off as second-class or invisible citizens (still a precarious state of affairs).
Yet as Hanne Blank pointed out, in her recently-released Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, the notion of the heterosexual being (in opposition to the homosexual being) only developed in the late nineteenth century. While certain sexual activities (most obviously sodomy, commonly interpreted as anal penetration) were criminalized, the homosexual person was not constituted in either cultural or legal understanding until well into the twentieth century. In The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton University Press, 2009), historian Margot Canaday argues, in fact, that the identity category of “homosexual” developed in symbiosis with the United States’ state-building activities to such an extent that it was, in part, the legal conception of homosexual persons that led to the mid-century emergence of our modern-day gay or queer political identities:
An increasingly invasive state would in time also help to create rights consciousness for some queer individuals who, embracing the state’s own emphasis on legal rather than medical categories, began to ask not whether they might be sick, but whether they might be citizens. They came to agree with the state’s simple common sense definition of homosexuality, then, but could see less and less that was commonsensical about its placement outside national citizenship (254).
This is a fascinating argument, well-grounded in historical evidence. Canaday’s footnotes exhaustively document the hours she spent in the National Archives reading through years worth of military court marshals, personnel files, proceedings from immigration hearings, congressional records, and Works Progress Administration memoranda. What this detailed historical research reveals is how much our “common sense definition of homosexuality” was created through a process of trial and error, through attempts to police the bodies and social lives of those individuals coded undesirable. In example, let me glean from Canaday’s evidence a few instances of such creation that I found particularly delightful and thought-provoking.
First, in her chapter on immigration and “perverse” bodies during the first quarter of the twentieth century, Canaday discovered in reading INS records that aliens were generally turned away at the border or deported not for homosexual acts but for gender non-conformity. This is merely the most recent book in my readings on the history and politics of sex and gender that has made me think about how much policing of our sexual lives speaks to a (larger?) fear of bodies that fail to fit our ever-changing yet stubbornly dualistic notions of appropriate gender performance. As Tanya Erzen observes in her study of ex-gay conversion therapy literature, for people and institutions concerned with gender role divisions, same-sex sexual behavior becomes a marker of gender inversion or confusion, rather than something of primary concern. That is, a woman who has sex with another woman is worrying because she is becoming masculine or enacting a “male” role. Not because she’s enjoying same-sex sex in and of itself.
Along similar lines, Canaday suggests that those policing same-sex sexual acts among men in the military, particularly during the early years of the twentieth century, distinguished between men who penetrated during sex (the “male” role) and men who were — willingly or unwillingly — penetrated either orally or anally (the “female” role). Rather than imagining lovemaking as a more fluid series of encounters in which one might penetrate and be penetrated in turn, military police imagined that men’s sexual identities were constituted and static. To some extent, they were following the lead of the men whose activities they were punishing, since barracks culture appears to have encouraged the tom/bottom hierarchical dynamic. However, Canaday’s narrative suggests that the policing of same-sex sex, and the differential punishment meted out according to who fucked whom reinforced the notion that what one did somehow followed from (or led to) who one was. It made me wonder if, in these military proceedings, we were seeing the nascent beginnings of our modern-day notion (in some circles) that gay men are either “tops” or “bottoms.”
While the military was fairly clear about the illegality of same-sex acts between men (though their policing of such activity was uneven), some of the most hilarious passages in the book deal with the inability of military police to agree on what exactly women do together when making love. The perplexity with which society responds to lesbian sex never fails to amuse me. Is it really that difficult to understand? Seriously? Like — clits and tongues and fingers and natural lubricant? Hello? But apparently, for mid-century MPs, women doing it was just beyond the realm of possibility. When, in 1952, two military police on patrol happened across two women having energetic oral sex in the back of a vehicle, they were so “bewildered” by what was happening that they turned and went away in “shock.” “It was just one of those things that you read about and hear about but never see,” one of the MPs admitted during testimony when asked why the incident had gone unreported (191-192). Because of this mystification of female sexuality, Canaday demonstrates, the anti-gay purges of women in the military relied not on evidence of acts (as it did with men) but on extensive documentation of women’s homosociality, emotional ties, and gender performance. Canaday observes that, while men and women alike were harassed during the lavender scare (see David K. Johnson), discharge files for men are typically 1/4-1/2 inch thick while women’s routinely run 2-3 inches. Not a commentary on the relative suffering of men and women accused of homosexuality, this difference represents the comparable difficulty of evidence gathering when what you’re trying to document is something as nebulous as tendencies and identities rather than trying to answer the question of whether so-and-so gave John Smith a blow job.
Finally, in her two chapters on the Depression-era welfare state, Canaday explores the long-term effects of structuring the social safety net in such a way as to reinforce the heteronormative family. A precursor to the destructive obsession with marriage as an alternative to unemployment and welfare benefits, federal programs targeting the unemployed and itinerant in the 1930s, and the benefits of the G.I. Bill post-WWII, became tied to an individual’s ability and/or willingness to fulfill a role (mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter) within the ideal “straight” family. While this had little per se to do with one’s sexual identity, it had everything to do with domesticating individual human beings whose free-floating sexual desires were closely associated with criminality. Work programs for unemployed men, for example, often included some sort of requirement that the individual’s monthly allotment be sent to a designated “dependent,” usually a family member along the order of a parent, a wife, or children (118). Some “unattached” men were able to work around this requirement by designating a male friend as their dependent, but overall the government structured twentieth-century benefits schemes to encourage hetero-familial ties and discourage both sustained single-ness and unorthodox relationships. In the postwar era, this structural dis-incentive was joined by overt discrimination as those who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality were denied veterans benefits and experienced widespread stigma and economic hardship for suspected or actual same-sex attractions, behavior, and relationships.
Overall, Canaday’s study is one of the most impressive examples of historical inquiry into sex and gender that I’ve read in recent years, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the historical context of our present-day notions of gender, sex, sexual orientation, and citizenship.
Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.