Friday, May 14, 2010

Living in the Catacombs: John Howard's Men Like That, part one

(Yeah yeah yeah, I know I know: Dogpatch was in Kentucky, not Mississippi. So sue me.)

I've had this long piece sitting around for some years now; I figure it might as well go here.

John Howard. Men like that: a Southern queer history. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1999.

Depending on whom you believe, either an Evil Essentialist Empire has seized hegemonic power over American queerdom, and is poised to extend its nefarious rule over the entire world; or Satanic Social Constructionists, having gained a stranglehold on public discussion with secret subliminal backwards messages, are sapping the precious bodily fluids of decent Homo-Americans.

Essentialists get more corporate media access, since those media tend to favor and promote biological determinism; but in order to denounce social constructionism, they must mention it now and then, so word gets out, and some of the impressionable young will be tempted by this unnatural sin. Social constructionists are well-represented and influential in academia and in the publications of university presses, but are lucky to get a soundbyte in edgewise now and then outside the classroom. These opposing viewpoints make for gripping Family entertainment (tune in next week to see Andrew Sullivan and Michael Warner bludgeon each other on Celebrity Death Match), but they are really just more-or-less amusing caricatures.

Social construction is counter-intuitive, so it's not surprising that even its proponents often have trouble understanding it, let alone applying it consistently. Some confuse it with cultural determinism, the belief that human beings are blank slates written on by Society. When gay neuroscientist Simon LeVay was promoting his hypothalamus theory of the cause of homosexuality, he told an interviewer that friends had told him there was no need to look for a biological cause, since 'we know it's socially constructed.' I’ve always wondered whether it was LeVay who misunderstood the meaning of 'socially constructed,' or his friends, or both.

There's no question that skin color and such traits have biological roots, for example, but "race" and its meanings are socially constructed around these physical features. It's often been pointed out that few people identify themselves as essentialists -- at least, people in the formal study of sexuality. But even those lay writers like Andrew Sullivan who denounce social constructionism most fiercely, seldom seem to refer to themselves as essentialists. (Is essentialism genetic, or is it a lifestyle choice?)

Essentialism correspondingly is often equated with biological determinism, though there's not a necessary connection: social constructs are built from material, biological traits like physical sex or skin color. Essentializing is social construction in action: when a person who writes is called a writer, when a person who lies is called a liar, when a person who commits sodomy is called a sodomite and thereby essentialized, social construction is taking place. The belief that a thief, or a writer, or a Sodomite, is "born that way" will then be rationalized with whatever naive theory is available: it's in the blood, the genes, the soul, one's nature, etc.

Some use social construction, as some essentialists use essentialism, as a weapon to settle political or personal scores. Every few pages they haul out a catchphrase like a burlesque clown's bladder and give their opponents a good basting for comic relief. Or they use it as a sort of good luck charm, which they touch periodically to reassure themselves that they are on the right side, whether or not it relates to their subject. It might be more accurate (or at least clearer) to refer to many self-identified social constructionists as "anti-essentialists", since they are sure that essentialism is of Satan but aren't sure what social construction means. Something like this seems to be going on in John Howard's much-praised book Men Like That: a Southern Queer History.

I picked up Men Like That because I liked Howard's stated aim: to explore queer life in postwar America outside of the large cities that have drawn most scholarly attention so far. (Though not all of it by any means. Howard himself edited a collection of writings (1997) about glb southern life, which ranged outside the major urban centers; it included a version of Martin Duberman's "Writhing Bedfellows" (1981), including the text of erotic letters by one antebellum Southern male to another. James T. Sears has published at least four books (1991, 1997, 2001, 2009) on glb life in the South. Buring (1997) covers Memphis, Tennessee. Kennedy and Davis's groundbreaking 1995 study of lesbian life in Buffalo, New York ranged beyond Metropolis. Fellows (1996) collects oral histories of gay men who grew up on farms in the Midwest. Appearing at about the same time as Men Like That, Rupp (1999) includes not only the usual suspects in a "short history of same-sex love in America." Bailey (1999) includes information about gay life in Nebraska since WWII. And now there's Wilson 2000.

Of course there's also a growing body of non-scholarly writing, including fiction, on the topic. Neil Miller (1989), like Edmund White (1980) before him and Darrell Yates Rist (1992) after, traveled between the coasts, even to small towns; Pratt (1995) writes as a white southern lesbian. Preston (1995) writes of relocating to Portland, Maine after living for years in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other large cities; Riordon (1996) interviewed gay men and lesbians in rural and smalltown Canada. Osborne and Spurlin (1996) collect writings by lesbian and gay midwesterners. And so on; this list doesn't pretend to any completeness, it's just a reminder that Howard isn't blazing totally new trails.

Howard draws on his predecessors, and adds some new information as well, from interviews, newspaper archives, and popular culture. But he isn't as different, or as consistent in his approach, as he wants to believe. If his focus is supposed to be on rural life, then he spends rather too much time serving up dish on scandals in Jackson and other Mississippi cities, even if they are smaller than New York. If I take his subtitle -- a Southern queer history -- at face value, then perhaps Howard should have spent less time than he does devaluing the work of scholars who have focused on urban areas elsewhere in the US. The reason for their focus on cities is the same as Howard's: the light, so to speak, is better there. Sexual nonconformists are concentrated more visibly, in greater numbers if not necessarily larger proportions than in the countryside, and there's, duh, more accessible documentation. Even in elite universities, scholarship on sexual nonconformity can still pose risks to a scholar's career; so it's hardly surprising that we don't have enough full studies of postwar queer life in mid-sized cities, done by historians at regional campuses or community colleges. It's still worthwhile to move beyond the coastal and metropolitan provincialism that has largely neglected the American heartland, and Howard doesn't need to defend it by dismissing those who have worked elsewhere.

I appreciate Howard's labors, but there are many problems, some serious, with Men Like That. Some arise from dubious interpretation of his data; others involve misuse of his social-constructionist theoretical frame, and to those I will return.

2. "I guess people felt like they had to be pretty careful."

Howard paints an attractive bucolic picture of queer life in Mississippi after the Second World War: farm boys and ministers' sons peaceably fucking and sucking in haylofts and choir lofts (52f) and in the woods surrounding highway rest stops, participating with their straight families and neighbors in womanless mock weddings and beauty pageants for church fundraisers, "well enmeshed" (xi) in their society -- until "unkempt", "brusque and shrill" (239) activists imported "identity politics" from outside, shattering the harmony and contentment Mississippi queers had enjoyed until then. The similarity to Jim Crow apologetics (whites and Their Colored lived in segregated harmony until dirty beatniks and other outside agitators from Jew York came down and stirred things up) is not coincidental, though it seems to be unconscious.

It would be pleasant if this portrait of queer life in Mississippi were accurate, but it isn't. Howard has to qualify his own generalizations rather seriously, until nothing remains but a warm Southern smile, floating disconcertingly in the air. Though at one point he denies that Mississippi police harassed queers before the Sixties (in order to argue that such harassment was a reaction to the Civil Rights movement), he refers to busts at highway rest stops and tearooms and bars during the Forties and Fifties. Maybe these weren't anti-queer campaigns with full media coverage, where politicians, including police chiefs, made political hay from their protection of decent people from the homosexual menace; but such anti-vice campaigns leave a convenient paper trail in the press and courts for the intrepid queer historian to follow; clearing out a highway rest stop now and then doesn't.

More important, while many people did manage to have reasonably fulfilling queer lives in the pre-Stonewall dispensation, even outside large cities, it is also true that such people lived in danger most of the time. As Howard acknowledges, "If forced to the surface, however, if held up to the light, transgressions were indeed punished" (171). "Police ... seemed a threat only when bars became 'too notorious,' as Chuck Plant put it" (94). "The wide-open [?] attitudes of World War II persisted in Jackson, and white gay bars operated downtown into the 1950s. ... sufficiently perceptible to attract men like that, sufficiently ambiguous to allay police officers who patrolled the area. ..." (95). It was, of course, up to straights to decide when a meeting place had become "sufficiently perceptible" or "too notorious." This was the era of the open secret, where 'everyone knew' but pretended they didn't, and toleration was conditional on keeping quiet and acknowledging queer inferiority. Howard says nothing to refute this; he merely denies it, like a Jim Crow politician assuring outsiders that southern whites loved their nigras, I mean Negroes.

The work of gay and lesbian historians since Stonewall should forestall any assumption that pre-Stonewall gay life was unrelieved persecution and misery, or that no gay people in those days (or outside that dispensation now) felt good about themselves. But it also does not justify Howard's opening claim that Mississippi society and its institutions were "Never inherently hostile to homosexual activity" (xi), which he typically contradicts a few sentences later by admitting "complications": "In Protestant evangelical Mississippi, most everyone took for granted that it was sinful, and it was legally proscribed by the 1839 sodomy statute" and again a few pages later: "Though sometimes subject to intimidation and violence ... queer Mississippians proved adept at maneuvering through hostile terrain" (xiv). Chuck Plant, one of Howard's informants, sheds light on maneuvering through the Fifties: "But you needed to be careful. You could meet behind closed doors with the drapes drawn with your friends, but you didn't want it known" (82). I suppose the key word in Howard's earlier sentence is "inherently," whatever it's supposed to mean. Was Jim Crow society "inherently" hostile to people of African descent -- or did it only become hostile when Colored got too big?

Howard declares at the outset, "The extent to which queer genders and sexualities in Mississippi appear akin to those in other places is a question I leave to future writers of larger syntheses and surveys. ... I argue primarily for a specific queer Mississippi, which is not to say a wholly unique queer Mississippi" (xix). As we'll see, this is a slight exaggeration. Howard is quite sure that the good folks of Mississippi are different from the degenerate heathen in other regions, and he rarely misses an opportunity to say so.

Bailey, Beth L., 1999. Sex in the heartland. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Buring, Daneel, 1997. Lesbian and gay Memphis: building communities behind the Magnolia Curtain. (Garland Studies in American Popular History and Culture) New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
Duberman, Martin Bauml, 1981. "'Writhing Bedfellows' in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence." Journal of Homosexuality (Fall/Winter 1980/1981).
Fellows, Will, 1996. Farm boys: lives of gay men from the rural Midwest. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Paperback reprint with new afterword, 1998.
Howard, John, 1997 (editor) Carryin' on in the gay and lesbian south. New York: New York University Press.
Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky; Davis, Madeline D., 1993. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge.
Miller, Neil I., 1989. In search of gay America: women and men in a time of change. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Osborne, Karen Lee; Spurlin, William J. (editors), 1996. Reclaiming the heartland: lesbian and gay voices from the Midwest. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pratt, Minnie Bruce., 1995. S/HE. Ithaca NY: Firebrand Books.
Preston, John, 1995. Winter's light: reflections of a Yankee queer. Hanover: University Press of New England.
Riordon, Michael, 1996. Out our way: gay and lesbian life in the country. Toronto: Between the Lines.
Rist, Darrell Yates, 1992. Heartlands: a gay man's odyssey across America. New York: Dutton.
Rupp, Leila J., 1999. A desired past: a short history of same-sex love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sears, James T., 1991. Growing up gay in the South: race, gender, and journeys of the spirit. New York: Haworth Press.
--- , 1997. Lonely hunters: an oral history of lesbian and gay southern life 1948-1968. Boulder: Westview Press.
--- , 2001. Rebels, Rubyfruit, and rhinestones: queering space in the Stonewall South. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers UP.
---, 2009. Edwin and John: a personal history of the American South. London: Routledge.
White, Edmund, 1980. States of desire: travels in gay America. New York: Dutton.
Wilson, Angelia R., 2000. Below the belt: sexuality, religion and the American South. London and New York: Cassell.

(part two to follow soon)