A Queer History of the United States
Michael Bronski’s new book A Queer History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2011) is to the history of sexuality in this country as Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States is to the history of class struggle. And while Bronski’s book is not officially a part of the A People’s History series, it really should be. Like Zinn’s work and those who have followed in his footsteps, Bronski’s new book is about providing a more complete account of our history.
American History, as taught in our public education system, is often presented in a very narrow fashion that tells the stories of presidents, members of Congress, military leaders, and leaders from the business community (with a sprinkle of everyday people who made a big impact). History is often left to the study of political events and students are simply taught to learn names, dates, and places. Then they take a test and that is all. To make matters worse, history is often sanitized so that students only learn what is “proper,” or as it is for my state of Texas. Throughout social studies in Kindergarten-Grade 12, students build a foundation in history [that] enables students to understand the importance of patriotism, function in a free enterprise society, and appreciate the basic democratic values of our state and nation as referenced in the Texas Education Code (TEC), §28.002(h).
Students learn that Martin Luther King Jr. had a “dream,” but they do not learn that he was growing more radical against war, militarism, and capitalism. And students learn that Helen Keller overcame the adversities of being blind, deaf, and mute, but learn nothing of her socialist and feminist views. And what of the sexuality of Walt Whitman or Eleanor Roosevelt? There is a wide gap in what students learn for it is these ignored social elements that were a big part in defining who these people were. This gap, at least in regards to sexuality (though he does touch on race, gender, culture, class, and politics), is what Bronski goes a long way to fill in with his book.
Bronski is quick to point out that history is more than politics or economics. It’s not always sanitary (it can be very messy and outrageous to prevailing senses of normalcy) and it’s not about just knowing general information about particular events. It’s about knowing who we are, even those considered to be on the fringe, and how who we have been and where we have gone has brought us to where we are today. Do we want right-wing Christians using mob rule to limit the constitutional rights of other citizens, or for the government to use epidemics to police the sexuality of those deemed deviant simply because they do not reflect the lifestyles of the “general community?”
And as far as our collective sense of sexuality is concerned, Bronski explores our history from the earliest days of when Europeans set foot on the continents of the Western Hemisphere to 1990, at which point he says we are leaving history and entering the realm of “news.”
In this reviewers opinion the book is a valuable contribution to American History. In fact, when I finished reading the book last night I thought to myself, “I may not be queer [outside of my absence of bigotry I am a pretty “normal” heterosexual male], but if I were I would be loud and proud about it.” Because what Bronski shows is that a liberated sexuality—the advancement in personal freedom to explore and discover one’s self is always a good thing—has come a long way from colonists dismembering indigenous people to feed to dogs because those Europeans were disturbed by the natives different culture of sexuality.
The social purity movements, the wars, the urbanization, the move from biological families to social communities, the emergence of a consumer market for LGBT people, and the social achievements in labor and race and gender have all impacted the queer community—because they too were workers or of a certain skin pigmentation or were women or were natives or immigrants—and helped give them a sense of identity and community. These social achievements of the oppressed, the persecuted, and disenfranchised have a rich history in civil disobedience, agitation, and direct action. Bronski touches on these actions and I bring this up because it is something students are too often robbed of understanding. The progress we have made in this country has not been by voting or leaving our struggles to political leaders to decide the outcomes. Just as slaves did not vote for abolition so too did women not vote for suffrage or workers for labor rights or African Americans to end Jim Crow laws or LGBT people for broader tolerance, acceptance and equal protection under the law. The ongoing issues of getting protection from the law while also getting government out of our personal lives is likely to come from a variety of tactics to aid our struggles, and though voting may in some settings be a useful tool, community organizing, civil disobedience, direct action, and other activities outside of lobbying politicians or voting will undoubtedly be necessary, as history ought to show us.
I would like to imagine that one day our government under pressure of successful social movements will establish a Queer History Month so that students can learn about our history of sexuality and Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States will be an important reference. That would be the first step and who knows? Maybe from there it—as well as Black History Month or maybe even Class History Month—won’t be limited to a month, but will be incorporated into history classes as a complementary view of history. Because as Bronski concluded in his epilogue: “All of which goes to prove that LGBT people are simply Americans—no less and no more. The idea of America has existed, in some form, for five hundred years. LGBT people, despite enormous struggles to be accepted and to be given equality, have made America what it is today—that great, fascinating, complicated, sometimes horrible, sometimes wonderful place that it was in the beginning.”
Their history is our history and ought to be recorded and taught as such.
Michael McGehee is an independent writer and working class family man from Kennedale, Texas.