Cover image for A queer history of the United States
A queer history of the United States
Publication Information:
Boston : Beacon Press, c2011.
Physical Description:
xx, 287 p. ; 24 cm.
"A Queer History of the United States is groundbreaking and accessible. It looks at how American culture has shaped the LGBT, or queer, experience, while simultaneously arguing that LGBT people not only shaped but were pivotal in creating our country. Using numerous primary documents and literature, as well as social histories, Bronski's book takes the reader through the centuries--from Columbus' arrival and the brutal treatment the Native peoples received, through the American Revolution's radical challenging of sex and gender roles--to the violent, and liberating, 19th century--and the transformative social justice movements of the 20th. Bronski's book is filled with startling examples of often ignored or unknown aspects of American history: the ineffectiveness of sodomy laws in the colonies, the prevalence of cross-dressing women soldiers in the Civil War, the effect of new technologies on LGBT life in the 19th century, and how rock music and popular culture were, in large part, responsible for the great backlash against gay rights in the late 1970s. More than anything, A Queer History of the United States is not so much about queer history as it is about all American history--and why it should matter to both LGBT people and heterosexuals alike"--Provided by publisher.


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Book 306.76 BRO 1 1
Book 306.76 BRO 1 1

On Order



Winner of a 2012 Stonewall Book Award in nonfiction

The first book to cover the entirety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history, from pre-1492 to the present.

In the 1620s, Thomas Morton broke from Plymouth Colony and founded Merrymount, which celebrated same-sex desire, atheism, and interracial marriage. Transgender evangelist Jemima Wilkinson, in the early 1800s, changed her name to "Publick Universal Friend," refused to use pronouns, fought for gender equality, and led her own congregation in upstate New York. In the mid-nineteenth century, internationally famous Shakespearean actor Charlotte Cushman led an openly lesbian life, including a well-publicized "female marriage." And in the late 1920s, Augustus Granville Dill was fired by W. E. B. Du Bois from the NAACP's magazine the Crisis after being arrested for a homosexual encounter. These are just a few moments of queer history that Michael Bronski highlights in this groundbreaking book.
Intellectually dynamic and endlessly provocative, A Queer History of the United States is more than a "who's who" of queer history: it is a book that radically challenges how we understand American history. Drawing upon primary documents, literature, and cultural histories, noted scholar and activist Michael Bronski charts the breadth of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history, from 1492 to the 1990s, and has written a testament to how the LGBT experience has profoundly shaped our country, culture, and history.
A Queer History of the United States abounds with startling examples of unknown or often ignored aspects of American history--the ineffectiveness of sodomy laws in the colonies, the prevalence of cross-dressing women soldiers in the Civil War, the impact of new technologies on LGBT life in the nineteenth century, and how rock music and popular culture were, in large part, responsible for the devastating backlash against gay rights in the late 1970s. Most striking, Bronski documents how, over centuries, various incarnations of social purity movements have consistently attempted to regulate all sexuality, including fantasies, masturbation, and queer sex. Resisting these efforts, same-sex desire flourished and helped make America what it is today.
At heart, A Queer History of the United States is simply about American history. It is a book that will matter both to LGBT people and heterosexuals. This engrossing and revelatory history will make readers appreciate just how queer America really is.

Author Notes

Michael Bronski is professor of practice in media and activism in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Harvard University. He has written extensively on LGBT issues for four decades, in both mainstream and queer publications, and is the author of three other books and editor of several anthologies.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

This enthralling history spans 500 years of evolving perspectives on sexuality in America-from the European settlers' violent responses to the more fluid gender roles of Native Americans to how the birth control pill, which separated sex from reproduction, contributed to the cause of LGBT liberation. Bronski (Pulp Friction), senior lecturer in women's and gender studies at Dartmouth, argues that a queer history of the U.S. is inextricably tied to the more well-known accounts of migrations, wars (his book describes hundreds of Civil War soldiers who were women disguised as men), economics, and philosophical evolutions. Attitudes to sexuality in the U.S. embody a characteristically American "tension between securing personal freedom for individuals" and "desire to protect people." In chapters that deftly balance narrative and history, personal stories and trivia gems (Dr. John Harvey Kellogg promoted Corn Flakes as a diet capable of curbing "the pernicious habit of onanism"), he chronicles not only the public and private lives of gays in America but the changing attitudes toward sex and marriage in the mainstream population. A savvy political, legal, literary (and even fashion) history, Bronski's narrative is as intellectually rigorous as it is entertaining. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Choice Review

Gender studies professor Bronski (Dartmouth) takes an interesting approach to solving the problem of integrating gay history into a mainstream survey. Deliberately avoiding the "add a gay person and stir" approach, the author instead focuses on the many ways in which gay individuals, and the culture they created for themselves, have influenced larger US social trends. The result is a highly readable monograph. Bronski begins with the first European explorers and their contact with those Native American tribes for whom cross-dressing was an acceptable practice. He demonstrates that the colonizers saw this social peculiarity as an indication of the Natives' barbarism. He moves on through the intense single-sex friendships of the Colonial era and the 19th century and includes a thorough discussion of the pitfalls of trying to define sexuality in an era that did not understand the term as such. The author then considers the impact of 20th-century industrialization and urbanization on the evolution of a newly self-aware gay community that was both decimated and politically charged by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Bronski's book provides an excellent overview for readers new to the field of gay history. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. R. A. Standish San Joaquin Delta College

Kirkus Review

Illuminating history lesson integrating the homosexual movement into America's historical landscape. This is the first book in the publisher's ReVisioning American History series.LGBT expert Bronski (Women's and Gender Studies, Jewish Studies/Dartmouth Coll; Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps, 2003, etc.) contends that gay men and women's contributions to the nation's historical fabric have not always been recognized for their impact. To prove his point, the author ambitiously chronologically traces five centuries of significant, transformational events, people and places in gay history. Bronski reaches back to 1492 to highlight the sexually progressive European influence explorers like Christopher Columbus had on colonial culture and how those ideals locked horns with Puritanical mores. The author equates the injustice of slavery to homosexual oppression and explores the Revolutionary era's strict ideas of gender conformity and the proliferation of same-sex "romantic friendships" in the 18th century. Drawing on countless references from literary texts, gay classics, poetry, journals, newspaper articles and letters, Bronski gives readers a grand tour of queer cultural vantage points. These include the "outlaw culture" of San Francisco, the erotic prose of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, the homoerotic novels that indelibly shaped American literature and the pivotal revolution at the Stonewall Inn riots. The author suggests that as the United States grew in size, so did the tyrannical promotion of the heterosexual union as the "ideal relationship." Evidence of abundant gay soldiers in World War II surprises almost as much as the lengths they took to interact with one another. Considering more recent events, Bronski ends with the AIDS activism of late-'80s radical group ACT UP and the still-simmering gay-marriage argument.A lucid, cerebral treatise on gay culture from the point of view of a clever historian who maintains that "the heritage of LGBT people is the heritage of Americans." Required reading for both established and newly emerging members of the gay communityand far beyond.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

This panoramic survey is less a history of homosexuality in the United States than a reexamination of American mores through a queer lens, a thematic analysis of the ways in which same-sex desire has reflected and shaped American morality over the past 500 years. Calling to mind Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, this is the first title in Beacon's new "ReVisioning American History" series. Bronski (women's and gender studies and Jewish studies, Dartmouth Coll.), who has been writing on LGBT topics for several decades, emphasizes the recurring historical tension between integrationist and anarchist paradigms of homosexuality, and he explores how various political and social movements-including transcendentalism, feminism, progressivism, and the labor and Civil Rights movements-have intersected with and diverged from the struggle for sexual freedom. The epilog covers the past two decades, which Bronski deems too recent to be treated as history. VERDICT Bronski does an impressive job weaving together existing LGBT scholarship with his own theoretical analysis. Recommended for anyone interested in gender, sexuality, or American history and culture.-David Gibbs, Georgetown Univ. Lib., Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From Chapter 3: Imagining a Queer America   Writing a New National Culture: The East   Paradoxically, as westward expansion made the country geographically larger, new technologies--the invention of the telegraph in the late 1830s, the growth of a national railway system, and the telephone in the 1870s--facilitated travel and communications, making the country smaller and more cohesive. In these conditions we see the eventual flourishing of a distinctly American intellectual and literary culture. Washington Irving's 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" promotes the ideal of robust, decidedly heterosexual masculinity, as embodied by "Brom Bones" Van Brunt, over that of the lanky, effeminized schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. Both men are courting young Katrina Van Tassel until Brom Bones frightens Crane out of town. Irving's gender and sexual message is clear. Crane's first name means "inglorious" in Hebrew, which Bible-literate contemporary readers would know. And as literary critic Caleb Crain points out, much of the action of the story takes place by "Major Andre's tree." This is a reference to Major John Andre, the British officer--generally thought to be a lover of men--who collaborated with Benedict Arnold and was hanged by George Washington as a spy in 1780.7 For Irving, nearly four decades after the Revolution, the new, clearly heterosexual American man was an imperative.   In contrast to Irving, also in 1820, nineteen-year-old Harvard student Ralph Waldo Emerson was writing entries in his journal about Martin Gay, a fellow student three years younger to whom he was attracted. Two years earlier, when he had first seen Gay, Emerson wrote:   I begin to believe in the Indian doctrine of eye-fascination. The cold blue eye of [Emerson deleted the name here] has so intimately connected him to my thoughts & visions that a dozen times a day & as often . . . by night I have found myself wholly wrapped up in conjectures of his character and inclinations. . . . We have had already two or three profound stares at one another. Be it wise or weak or superstitious I must know him.   Crain notes that Emerson's attraction to Gay was a form of the nineteenth-century ideal of "sympathy." In this context, sympathy-- a form of empathy that, as Crain writes, "allows us to feel emotions that are not ours"--is an expansive form of romantic friendship. The deeply felt connective emotion of sympathy allows one to not only value a friend for his or her emotional sincerity, but to take imaginative leaps toward understanding and sharing the emotions of another. This new understanding of the possibilities of shared emotion was likely inflected by the new America of wide-open western spaces, natural landscape, and the outlaw.   In 1837 Emerson published "Nature," an essay fundamental in defining transcendentalism: the distinctly American philosophy promoting individual spiritual transcendence through experiencing the material world, especially nature, rather than through organized religion. The next year, in his "American Scholar" speech, he urged his audience to rethink the idea of the American man (by which he meant humans) and to create an independent, original, and free national literature. Animated by the ideal of an expansive sympathy influenced by the "naturalness" of America, Emerson argued for an egalitarian society that values all of its members' individual contributions to a whole: the doctrine "that there is One Man,--present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier."   Emerson's vision of American equality, the basis for his strong antislavery and pro--women's suffrage beliefs, has roots in the Enlightenment and in his radical, nature-based vision of Christianity. But it is especially rooted in his ability to admit and emotionally explore his attraction to--his sympathy with--other men. Samesex affection was integral to understanding the mutually beneficent dynamics of the individual in society. This egalitarian same-sex affection placed the rugged individualism of the Revolutionary man into a new context, not of conquering an American landscape but of emerging from it and being at one with it. This was the cornerstone of a new way of understanding gender, desire, and personal and social liberty.   The feelings Emerson had for Martin Gay (his journals indicate "sympathy" for other young men as well) did not stop him from marrying twice and fathering four children. Emerson did not easily embrace all aspects of this sympathy. In 1824 he wrote in his journal, "He that loosely forgets himself here & lets his friend be privy to his words & acts which base desires extort from him has forfeited like a fool the love he prized." This is an example of an internal tension that reflected a larger tension between sympathy and overt sexuality: that is, moving from a private emotion to publicly expressing that emotion.   Emerson was not the only person dealing with this conflation of desires, emotions, and political ideas. A wealth of homoerotic sentiments are present in the poems and journals of Henry David Thoreau. Meditations on friendship run throughout his journal, and by the 1840s they became increasingly erotic: "Feb. 18 [1840]. All romance is grounded on friendship. What is this rural, this pastoral, this poetical life but its invention? Does not the moon shine for Endymion? Smooth pastures and mild airs are for some Corydon and Phyllis. Paradise belongs to Adam and Eve. Plato's republic is governed by Platonic love."   Thoreau's invoking of Endymion, Corydon, and Plato strongly suggests a homosexual subtext; the two mythological figures were iconic representations for same-sex male desire in Renaissance art, and the Republic was, in part, an analysis of male friendship and love. Thoreau is using friendship as a metaphor here. However, his attraction to the eroticized male body appears throughout his journals without mythological trappings, but rather with a decidedly transcendentalist bent:   [June 12, 1852.] Boys are bathing in Hubbard's Bend, playing with a boat (I at the willows). The color of their bodies in the sun at a distance is pleasing, the not often seen flesh-color. I hear the sound of their sport borne over the water. As yet we have not man in nature. What a singular fact for an angel visitant to this earth to carry back in his note-book, that men were forbidden to expose their bodies under the severest penalties! A pale pink, which the sun would soon tan. White men! There are no white men to contrast with the red and the black; they are of such colors as the weaver gives them. I wonder that the dog knows his master where he goes in to bathe and does not stay by his clothes.   Thoreau's message is that civilization, with its "severest penalties," is most unnatural. He is arguing that nature not only allows for "exposure" but is a space for racial equality, one wherein even the idea of "whiteness" is exposed as a lie. Alluding to classical literature and the European culture it inspired was a common method for nineteenth-century American intellectuals to discuss sexuality and sexual behaviors. Used consciously to reinforce ideas about American citizenship and democratic structures, the older culture safely places the sexuality at a distance.   Margaret Fuller, a leading figure in the transcendentalist movement and author of Women of the Nineteenth Century, the first major feminist publication in the United States, was also connecting to same-sex erotic intimacy and a new American ideal. In 1843, several years after viewing Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen's Ganymede at a Boston exhibition, Fuller wrote "Ganymede to His Eagle," a poem about the beautiful boy abducted by Zeus, in the form of an eagle, to be his lover and cupbearer. Here the cupbearer speaks to the eagle:   Before I saw thee, I was like the May, Longing for summer that must mar its bloom, Or like the morning star that calls the day, Whose glories to its promise are the tomb; And as the eager fountain rises higher To throw itself more strongly back to earth, Still, as more sweet and full rose my desire, More fondly it reverted to its birth, For, what the rosebud seeks tells not the rose, The meaning foretold by the boy the man cannot disclose.   Caleb Crain notes that Fuller is referring not only to the implicit homoeroticism of the original myth but, more important, to the eagle as "the emblem of sovereignty of the United States." Thus she consciously conflates mythological same-sex desire with the democratic progress of the nation. Fuller is indicating that the longing for freedom implicit in same-sex desire and sympathy cannot be fully expressed--the rosebud cannot tell the rose what it feels--because its power, at root political, emanates from being unspoken. In much of this literature is an underlying assumption that unspoken feelings are stronger than articulated ones. In 1839, at the age of twentynine, Fuller wrote to a woman friend of long standing:   With regard to yourself, I was to you all that I wished to be. I knew that I reigned in your thoughts in my own way. And I also lived with you more truly and freely than with any other person. We were truly friends, but it was not friends as men are friends to one another, or as brother and sister. There was, also, that pleasure, which may, perhaps, be termed conjugal, of finding oneself in an alien nature. Is there any tinge of love in this? Possibly! Excerpted from A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. ix
Introductionp. xi
1 The Persecuting Societyp. 1
2 Sexually Ambiguous Revolutionsp. 19
3 Imagining a Queer Americap. 40
4 A Democracy of Death and Artp. 63
5 A Dangerous Purityp. 83
6 Life on the Stage/Life in the Cityp. 104
7 Production and Marketing of Genderp. 129
8 Sex in the Trenchesp. 152
9 Visible Communities/Invisible Livesp. 176
10 Revolt/Backlash/Resistancep. 205
Acknowledgmentsp. 243