- Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century
It takes chutzpah, veteran lecturing, and a sophisticated appreciation of the expanding field of the history of sexuality to tackle writing a queer US history survey textbook. Vicki Eaklor’s Queer America distinguishes itself in three main ways from those that have come before: it showcases topical debates throughout, tells a story interwoven into broader American history, and devotes substantial space to the recent past. In 2011 Queer America came out in an inexpensive paperback version from the New Press, ensuring it will deservedly make its way into US and GLBT history surveys and introductory queer or sexuality studies courses.
One of the book’s most teachable features is its highlighting of debates in each chapter on everything from queer historiography to outing and the [End Page 165] “gay gene.” In the introduction, for example, Eaklor sketches the basic parameters of GLBT historiography, framed around the recent dustup regarding Abraham Lincoln’s supposed gayness. She describes the stakes in using various terms transhistorically, challenges of homophobia in the profession and the past, the merits and perils of “spot the queer” as historical method, and the essentialist/constructionist throwdown. Each of these sections could generate discussion in general US history, queer studies, or gender studies courses.
In the trim thirty-odd pages she allots to each chapter, Eaklor situates GLBT history in contexts familiar to US surveys. The chapter “Queers in Cold War America,” for example, places her narrative within postwar historiography on the aggressive enforcement of a liberal consensus against anything marked as deviant or subversive. She also highlights queer resistance through this lens, underscoring how the queerness of the Beats and lesbian pulp fiction might be juxtaposed with mainstream media representations of sexuality, gender, domesticity, and nationalism. In this chapter and the one titled “The Sixties,” she discusses how social movements and regional contexts informed developing public and private queer cultures and how the policing of queer spaces provoked early GLBT political and legal victories about free association and expression. Helping to usher in the homophile movement were civil rights movements, the middle-class ethos of individualism and privacy, and the enduring Lavender Scare that both accompanied and surpassed the Red Scare. She highlights tensions between assimilation and liberation familiar to anyone studying midcentury social movements. Through making links to political, economic, social, and cultural history, Queer America could serve instructors seeking to teach a GLBT history–centered course as a general education US survey. It is also ideal for those looking to punch up queer inclusion in US history courses beyond the tokenism of the Stonewall Riots or the AIDS epidemic.
Queer America’s substantial coverage of recent history stands out from either John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman’s Intimate Matters or Leila Rupp’s A Desired Past.1 Eaklor’s last four (of nine) chapters are devoted to this recent period, broken down generally by decade. Chapter 6 testifies to the growth in GLBT subcultures, institutions, organizations, and electoral politics in the 1970s. In one of the strongest chapters, Eaklor conveys the powerful fusion of lifestyle with liberation many GLBT people experienced. She underscores, too, how organizing by nonwhite, bisexual, and transgender queer peoples happened in part because of the failings of white- and middle-class-dominated gay and lesbian liberation movements to envision more expansive and complex possibilities for belonging. Her [End Page 166] coverage of lesbian feminism unpacks this tension. Chapter 7 characterizes a community reeling from loss in the late 1970s only to be hit by the AIDS crisis just as the New Right began its ascendancy. Eaklor organizes the GLBT fight against these challenges into four categories. The first describes the national marches and stepped-up federal lobbying. The second explores how confronting AIDS required addressing interlocking issues in ways that productively strained narrow minoritarian and assimilationist models. The third outlines the efforts toward accurate and affirming visibility in mainstream and independent media. And the fourth shows how lesbian and gay studies grew substantially, linking academics with...