Sunday, June 24, 2012

Let the Sunshine In

Just when I start to think that I may after all be a bitter, carping, negative old queen who doesn't like anything (yeah, like that's a bad thing!), something comes along to restore my faith in humanity.  This weekend it's My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History (North Carolina, 2011), by the late Allan Bérubé.  He's best known for Coming Out Under Fire, a history of gay men and lesbians who served in the US military during World War II, his first and (until now) only book.  (It was later made into a documentary that won numerous awards.)  Bérubé's friends and colleagues John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman contributed a biographical essay as introduction, which also sketches the history of GLBT American history.  The essays they chose include Bérubé's early work on passing women, preliminary reports on the research that became Coming Out Under Fire, and his accounts of the history of gay men's bathhouses, and conclude with selections with the project he was working on when he died (of complications from stomach ulcers), on the gay-friendly, antiracist Marine Cooks and Stewards Union.

So, why does this book make me feel good, despite its often downbeat content?  One factor is Bérubé's constant focus on resistance, ordinary people's dogged insistence on living their lives and seeking happiness even under persecution -- even fighting back, as he shows many times.  I still must remind myself sometimes that life before Stonewall wasn't always the depressing twilight world between the sexes of smoky, crummy bars, guilt, and shame that straight society wanted us to believe it was, and some gay people choose to believe.  (This notion survives as the plaintive cry, "Why would someone choose a 'lifestyle' that causes them to be hated and persecuted?" used by many of us and our allies in defensive mode.)  A lot of our forefathers and foremothers apparently lived reasonably happy and fulfilled lives -- at least as fulfilled as many heterosexuals do.

Another factor is his emphasis on class, and particularly on what it means to be a working-class intellectual.  Many people, whether middle-class or working-class, take for granted that if you are interested in books and ideas, you must be interested in upwards mobility, in leaving the trailer park for Manhattan or at least the Ivory Tower.  Bérubé himself was working-class, the first in his family to go to college, though he didn't finish his degree.  (We have a number of other traits in common, from Catholic families to having been conscientious objectors during the Vietnam era.  This makes the differences between us very instructive to me.)  In his historical work he paid most attention to people who weren't rich, famous, or white.  This was more radical when he started his historical work than it is now, but even now his manner, the way he treats his subjects, feels unusual to me.  I haven't yet read the essays in My Desire for History where he deals directly with class, but it's everywhere in his work.

I also appreciate his approach to spirituality, notably in "AIDS and the Meaning of Natural Disasters," a 1988 essay that deserves more attention.  It emerged from his own struggle to come to terms with the death of his partner Brian Keith, and addresses some trends in gay spirituality that have bothered me too.
There are two different ways to respond to the "why" questions we ask about AIDS.  Their differences are not between religious and secular, the political right and left, antigay and gay, but in the ways each assigns meaning to misfortune.  One response offers questions: the other accepts uncertainties and dwells between the questions and the answers.  When people respond with answers, they are likely to explain why AIDS at particular times to particular people and what AIDS teaches us.  They can cause harm when their definitive answers keep people from finding their own meanings, blame people for their illness, or fill the silences in which people can face their fears and grieve.  When people respond to the tragedy of AIDS without answers, they are likely to challenge moral explanations and open up the possibility of wondering, listening, and being silent together. But without answers, people can feel isolated, helpless, and without direction.

Each of these kinds of responses has ethical implications.  The stories we tell  each other about why particular people do or do not get AIDS have tremendous power.  They touch real lives with real consequences and have the potential for framing some of the most profound experiences in a person's life.  Even our most casual comments or reassurances -- "You should have loved yourself better" or "There must be a reason why your son is suffering" -- can be fragments of a moral framework which, if we could see it whole, we might not condone.  It is important for us, as individuals and as communities, to examine our assumptions and begin openly discussing with each other the ethics of how we ask and answer questions that assign meaning to other people's misfortunes  [151-2].
If I had seen this essay while Bérubé was still alive, I'd have sent him a copy of my more polemical review of gay New Age spirituality, which also criticized the destructive certainty of many spiritual teachers.

As I read the biographical introduction, I began wondering if I should have moved to a city like San Francisco or New York, as Bérubé did.  But I realized quickly that the difference was that he worked much harder than I ever have at building his own community of like-minded thinkers and scholars.  I've had some such community here in Bloomington, but not to the same extent: not because it couldn't have been available here, but because you have to make it yourself.  It's not something that already exists anywhere.  And I'm not saying this to complain, only as another example of the kind of things I'm learning from this book.

Another theme is one I want to tie to other things I've written, namely my criticism of post-colonial and other scholars who see the American construction of gay community as whimsically hostile to family.  Bérubé showed that urban lesbian and gay communities grew after World War II because of veterans who'd been expelled from the military for homosexuality.  They couldn't go back to their smaller communities and families because of the stigma -- jobs were hard enough to find in the postwar readjustment even for the honorably-discharged -- and often enough their families rejected them too.  So they stayed in the cities where they'd first found community, and often their first chance to explore life outside of the limits of heterosexuality.  Some of them were involved in the first gay-rights organizations (with staying power, anyway), which emerged in those cities.

My Desire for History is a good introduction to GLBT American history; it would work well as a basic text in a class on the subject.  But it's also a fascinating read for anyone with any interest in knowing where gay community in America came from.