- Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895–1917
The word “anarchism” prompts thoughts of the Haymarket Riot or the assassination of William McKinley, not anarchists’ intellectual contributions to gay and lesbian liberation. Terence Kissack’s richly textured and thoroughly researched Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895–1917 successfully links the two movements and complicates our understanding of sex radical anarchism in the turn-of-the-century United States. Growing out of a dissertation written under the direction of Martin Duberman, Free Comrades represents an invaluable addition to the historiography of radicalism and homosexuality and [End Page 175] belongs in the library of anyone who collects works of GLBTQ history, the history of radicalism, and American intellectual history.
Kissack, who previously served as executive director of San Francisco’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, explores in six chapters the ideas and writings of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European and American sex radical anarchists. After an introduction that establishes the historical context in which sex radical anarchists lived and wrote, he examines their responses to the arrest and trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, the treatment of same-sex desire in Alexander Berkman’s prison memoirs, Emma Goldman’s lectures on homosexuality, and the fate of anarchist discourse on homosexuality in the post–World War I era. As the conclusion affirms, a significant shift has occurred since the early twentieth century, when “anarchist politics of homosexuality grew out of a rejection of marriage” (186). The book’s illustrations, which include a few portraits plus scanned pages from sex radical and anarchist texts, offer modern-day readers a glimpse of the anarchist print culture in which this discourse flourished.
Kissack convincingly argues that historians of radicalism all too frequently have overlooked or marginalized the sex radical anarchist rhetoric related to homosexuality and that historians of homosexuality have not fully appreciated how turn-of-the-century anarchists informed twentieth-century discourse on sexuality. Anarchists, unfortunately, are not known for preserving rich collections of personal papers, but their words live on in the wide array of periodicals, printed speeches, and pamphlets they used to proselytize and to form a community linked by print. As the author’s careful analysis of these documents confirms, sex radical anarchists discussed homosexuality at a time when most other Americans shunned the topic. Indeed, he argues, “[no] other Americans—outside the medical, legal, and religious professions—devoted so much time and effort to exploring the social, moral, and ethical place of same-sex love” (39). Rather than idealizing the anarchists, though, he uncovers tensions between some anarchists’ homophobia and their desire to create a world in which sexual or other behaviors were no longer regulated by church or state authority.
Several carefully crafted chapters explore the evolution of anarchist thought into a politics of homosexuality that stressed an individual’s right to personal freedom. In addition to reviewing anarchist perceptions of Oscar Wilde’s “persecution” for committing “acts of gross indecency with men” (43), Kissack documents shifting perceptions of Walt Whitman’s public persona from people’s poet to homosexual author. His analysis of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist offers a carefully nuanced portrait of Berkman’s sexuality, documenting his disgust with older prisoners who sexually exploited younger prisoners while at the same time exploring Berkman’s evolving understanding of same-sex love that developed from his own feelings for another prisoner.
The focus for much of this book is on same-sex desire between men, but the chapter on Emma Goldman confirms that anarchists in the early [End Page 176] twentieth century also recognized the oppression of lesbians. Steeped in the literature of European sexologists, Goldman incorporated their ideas about homosexuality into her lectures that promoted tolerance for sexual diversity. Speaking to as many as seventy-five thousand people annually, she contributed substantially to homosexual visibility, especially during the 1910s. Through these lectures she met a number of sex variant women who sought public affirmation, if not acceptance, of their...