Upon arriving in the United States for my last visit in 2006, the customs official at Philadelphia, having presumably on his computer screen a list of my history of sexuality publications, enquired as to whether I was married or not. Phew: immediately afterwards he welcomed me profusely back to the USA, but the incident reminded me that I was entering a land that differed from all other Western democracies in not having federal civil rights for "gay" people. In her groundbreaking study, The Straight State, Margot Canaday goes some way to explaining why and how this state of affairs continues.
Canaday claims to be adopting a "social history of the state" approach (p. 5) in her book; that is that the state can be observed in action by "what officials do" (p. 5). In other words Canaday is concerned with bureaucratic agency in the construction of homophobia. Despite her claim that she is interested in "state-building from the bottom up" (p. 5), one cannot help but see the study as one of how a "straight state" constructs systems of social control over changes in sexual identities from the top down. The study, therefore, owes less to Max Weber's concepts of social action and agency than to his identification of the reification of legality as a consequence of bureaucratic regulation, and it will be controversial because, despite her insistence on the role of "bureaucratic agency", a homophobic "straight state" really does lie at the heart of her book and her analysis, risking the charge that gay people themselves did not make the limited freedoms gays have in the USA today, compared to the situation in Europe.
Nevertheless, Canaday's work is original, not in studying an aspect of state power over time, but in examining empirically state regulation of one key area of social life: homosexuality. There is no comparable study. Canaday's contribution ranges widely across key areas of greatest state influence. She adopts an intriguing "layered" (p. 13) approach. Thus she focuses her first and sixth chapters on immigration. Chapters two and five address the military; chapters three and four examine welfare. Taken together we get a comprehensive analysis of the state and its denial of citizenship to gay people in its policies on immigration, the military and welfare. A clear picture of the homophobic "straight" state emerges as homosexuality and citizenship are defined in their mutual relationship to each other by means of policies that "established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behaviour as either outside of or degraded within citizenship." (p.13) [End Page 1237]
In this way, Canaday focuses on areas of state growth as these went hand in hand with surveillance of sexual or gender deviance such as "sexual inversion" to police the new immigrants at the turn of the last century. During World War One, the state notably adopted psychiatric examination of recruits to identify "abnormalities" (p. 14). The Progressive era state is here seen enforcing contemporary medical models, often drawing on the early work of its immigration arm. In time of peace, during the New Deal, state regulation of "runaway boys and men" from work camps became a focus of attention. This is a particularly compelling chapter. In this tradition, after World war Two, the state denial of the GI Bill to those suspected of what by then was termed "homosexuality" is examined. The McCarthy Era saw the military influence Federal policies on homosexuality.
Canaday's final and most stimulating chapter traces the activities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which interacted with the Federal courts as an arm of the state that actively policed and often denied naturalization and immigration to gay people initially through defining gays as psychopathic personalities. This categorisation was abandoned after the Boutiller Case in 1967, which, in turn, contributed to the American Psychiatric Association's declassification of homosexuality as a mental disease in 1973. After that a sort of "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy was adopted until in 1990, gays were...