- Queer Passions, Queer Citizenship: Some Novels about the State of the American Nation 1946–1954.
A queer national imaginary, continually destabilized by its opponents, comes and goes in America. A few years ago Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman documented the emergence of Queer Nation activism and its hopeful revision of nationalist ideology. Where is Queer Nation now? It has abandoned itself, but if it hadn’t done so on its own, others would have done so for it. Every time American homosexuality claims a victory for its public presence, for its will to be newly enfranchised, the claim is repulsed. Is the moment in which I write a time of victory for queer nationhood? Ten years after Georgia v. Hardwick’s attack on the civil rights of homosexuals, the Supreme Court halts the Colorado citizens who want to deprive gays and lesbians of Constitutional protection and of access to the political process. But celebration of this “victory” for the gay national presence is already countered by a wave of legislation foredooming legal marriage for gay men and women. In the light of the hullabaloo about gay marriage, in America a wedding is suddenly everyone’s national event, a nationalist coming-out. To marry, we are reminded, is not a private decision or action; no [End Page 170] wonder that when a national and a non-national wed citizenship is bestowed on the alien. It would seem, now, that the queer aliens want to secure through marriage each other’s American nationality and each other’s citizenship. Why might this be desired by those who are citizens already by birth—if not by sexual orientation? Because nationality must have citizenship norms to accompany it. And the queer nation, wherever it has gone to for the moment, wants citizenship. In general, however, in the United States it is as if the boundaries of participation in legal citizenship, which accompanies nationality, must be redrawn at every point where homosexuals seek recognition in the public space of appearance. When the President who promised a public space of gay appearance in the military—in the military which is invested, as we shall see, with American citizenship norms—announces his support of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the space of national appearance disappears once more.
Must we who are called homosexual have this public space? Why seek to be nationals? Perhaps there is a postnational state of appearance, with new citizenship norms (perhaps they would include a new non-closeted space of disappearance) which might be satisfying and valuable? These questions take on interest, I think, when we realize that they have been propounded before, with homosexuality as their inspiration, at the end of World War II. In a constellation of novels I am to examine, two of them utterly and undeservedly forgotten, written between 1946 and 1954, and focused on gays and the American military, a surprising upsurge of these questions is to be found. The surprise has two sources. In light of the American victory over fascism, popularly understood as a global triumph for the norms of American citizenship and nationality, these novels express disenchantment and disgust with the victor. As we shall see, for example, in John Horne Burns’s The Gallery (1947), in spite of America’s victory over fascisms abroad, America is the de facto fascist that goes undefeated; the same vision is shared by Isabel Bolton’s The Christmas Tree (1949), whose heroine, a proud mother still when her gay son murders an Air Force homophobe, appeals to a pre-World War I New York ethos to condemn what American nationhood and citizenship have become after the Second World War. In the face of national success, even though the success is against Hitler and his kind, the novelists’ severity of judgment is implacable. In the name of homosexuality, they match the victory [End Page 171] of American nationhood with the suggestion that it might well go. In homosexuality’s name, these novels envision a post-American or postnational condition.
The novels consequently take up the burden of imaging or at least adumbrating a paradox: citizenship norms for a condition that is not national, that...