- A Moderately Gay History
This book is novel and bold. It is also tediously overly detailed. Some of the detail should surely have been consigned to articles in specialist journals and left there. Despite the dense underbrush of particulars and instances, though, the overall argument stands out clearly and deserves close attention.
In very summary form, the argument is this: During the era stretching from early in the twentieth century to the cold war, the American state grew in power and reach. During these same years, the newly discovered notion of homosexuality, developed by sexologists, “exploded on the American continent.” These two developments, operating “in tandem” (2) led federal bureaucrats to endeavor to regulate and police homosexuality. At first their regulatory and policing work was “anemic.” They still lacked a clear analytical basis for dealing with what they saw as “the problem” of homosexuality, and they tried to get at it, without targeting it specifically, through broad rulings on matters such as “poverty, disorder, violence, or crime.” Gradually, however, as the federal bureaucrats became more numerous and influential, they also acquired a kind of “conceptual mastery” over the homosexuality they wanted to regulate and police. Starting in the mid-1940s, they did target it specifically and “overtly” (3). This targeting helped to create [End Page 339]the homosexual “identity” (4) in the contemporary sense and also deprived those identified as homosexual of full entitlement to American citizenship. When American homosexual persons—whose identity was created, as Canaday maintains, in some considerable measure by the American state—came to organize and agitate in their own interests, their goal, never wholly abandoned, has been, and still is, the achievement of citizenship rights in full.
In representing the American state, Margot Canaday concentrates particularly on the armed services, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Veterans Administration (VA), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Her treatment of the armed services owes much to previous work by Allan Berube and Leisa Meyer; on the INS, to previous work by Marc Stein and Shannon Minter; and on New Deal and post–World War II welfare policy, to work by a host of feminist historians, perhaps especially Lizabeth Cohen. But Canaday’s findings are nevertheless saliently new in several ways. First, she directs attention away from the 1940s and 1950s, long a focus of study on the American state assault on homosexuality, to the early years of the twentieth century. It was then, she says, that U.S. federal bureaucrats commenced their efforts to regulate homosexuality, sometimes inclining to tolerance, sometimes to severity. And she insists that only by comprehending what the bureaucrats did then, in those years of diffuse regulation, can we hope to understand adequately the far more targeted regulation and policing of the later period. Second, Canaday significantly revises the major conclusions of feminist historiography on New Deal and post–World War II welfare policy. This historiography demonstrated that welfare policy advantaged men while it disadvantaged women, that it was in effect sexist. Canaday demonstrates that it was heterosexist, as well. Third and perhaps most important, Canaday brings to her inquiry a firm grasp of the ideas of modern political science concerning state bureaucracy—how it operates, how it acquires and copes with new knowledge in the course of daily work. In deploying these ideas to explain what she sees as the paced conceptual development of the American state regulation of homosexuality, she does something entirely fresh.
All these novelties are fascinating. Yet some irksome questions remain. Why should we simply accept that the federal bureaucrats developed, in considerable measure created, the homosexual “identity” through their daily experience of the work of regulation? Why couldn’t their shifting conception of homosexuality have derived rather, or primarily, from [End Page 340]their experience of the shifting representations of it in the culture all around them—from fiction, poetry, film, journalism, advertisement? Canaday gives hardly any attention to shifts in cultural representations...