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People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Terence Kissack:
Review of  Blasius and Phelan, eds. We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook

Terence Kissack, City University of New York

Review of  Blasius, Mark and Phelan, Shane, eds. We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics New York: Routledge, 1997. P. 844.


The history of the politics of homosexuality remains to be written. While excellent studies exist, particularly of the post-World War II era, the complexity of past and present gay and lesbian politics escapes us. Proof of this is can be found in We Are Everywhere, Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan’s edited anthology which documents some of "the ways in which people whose primary sexual attraction is to others of the same sex have understood their social and political position." (1) The collection begins with the treatises of Enlightenment philosophers and ends with the tracts of groups such as Wages Due Lesbians and Queer Nation. Also included are government reports, journalistic pieces, scientific works, literary efforts, and theoretical works by academics and activists. The bulk of the writings come from North Atlantic cultures and a little less than two-thirds of the documents date from the post World-War II era. Though Blasius and Phelan provide the majority of the editorial introductions there are contributions from James Steakley and Laura Engelstein, treating Germany and Russia respectively.

While We Are Everywhere will no doubt find wide use in class rooms, the instructor should be prepared to supplement and in some cases contest some of the editorial notes and interpretation. For example, the documents dealing with the French Revolution are said to "mark the first time lesbians and gay men organized as such to address a national government." (35) The anonymous texts which have titles like "The Children of Sodom Before the National Assembly," were written on behalf of, among others Bishops, Chatelaines, and the members of an "illustrious Order [whose standing] is on par with those of Malta and the Holy Spirit." (41) The editors contend that these texts were submitted to the National Assembly in order to liberalize laws regulating homosexuality, holding open the possibility that they succeeded in doing so. This credulous reading of these documents flies in the face of a large and convincing body of work. As Lynn Hunt, Robert Darnton, and Jeffrey Merrick have argued, the pornographic texts of the eighteenth century, while certainly meant as political propaganda, were largely attacks on the supposedly decadent nobility and clergy. The pamphlets quoted here seem to me to be of this type though my favorite, "The Little Bugger-Go-Round," may have been intended as a gentle jab at the Revolution and its partisans. One can imagine a republican legislator laughing over the claim made by the "Little Bugger," that "after I’ve fucked someone in the ass, my judgement is as excellent, my mind is as enlightened, as that of any deputy to the National Assembly." (37) That some readers may have found inspiration, political or otherwise, in such writing is certainly possible, but that they were intended as documents arguing for the amelioration of the legal and cultural status of homosexuality is unlikely.

The political Big Tent that the anthology constructs contains wildly divergent characters and traditions and more than once the fabric of the tent rends. The editors acknowledge that sexual identity is a historical category, changing over time and place, but their choice of title, We are Everywhere, subverts this position. The collection’s metanarrative recounts a collective process of "enlightenment" and increasing political action and group identity formation culminating in the replication of American models of gay and lesbian politics and community across the globe; "From Chicago to Sri Lanka" in the words of the editors. (1) Ultimately, the editors imply, "we" will take our rightful place within a tolerant global polity just as ethnic groups have carved out a place within the American social and political landscape.

The multiplicity of voices collected by Phelan and Blasius throws into question any simplistic reading of who "we" are and where "we" are going. Are, for example, Walt Whitman and Julia Penelope speaking for and about the same people? Whitman’s sexuality, though clearly homoerotic, was quite purposively antiminoritarian. He hoped that the "love of comrades" would bind together and heal the post Civil-War United States; supplementing and transforming the ties of citizenship. Julia Penelope, on the other hand, writes from within an imagined Lesbian Nation, one that she sees as under assault by outsiders. "Unless we find a way to maintain male-free spaces," she writes, "the intrusions typical of the 1970s and 1980s will persist through yet another decade." (781) Penelope and Whitman are separated not only be time and cultural milieu but by radically different notions of how best "we" can arrive at their respective utopias and what that utopia will look like once "we" get there.

When one places the different texts in We Are Everywhere within their respective political contexts, striking contrasts are produced. Both Natalie Barney’s "Predestined for Free Choice" and Robert Duncan’s "The Homosexual in America" are included as examples of gay and lesbian political thought. While the editors indicate that Duncan’s work appeared in 1944 in Politics, they do not identify the journal as Dwight Macdonald’s fiercely antifacsist, proto-new left journal. Barney, as noted by the editors, found a refuge in Mussolini’s corporate state. Does the fact that both Duncan and Barney speak to "people whose primary sexual attraction is to others of the same sex" have any relevance in light of their profound political differences? In 1944 what "we" did Barney and Duncan belong to? Today what possible political and social connections would the ideological heirs of Barney and Duncan share?

I do not intend to provide definitive answers to my queries--a short list which hardly exhausts the questions one feels prompted to ask. I’m not sure that these conundrums are easily surmountable. Surely one of the laudable outcomes of an anthology is the questions it prompts its readers to ask. Perhaps by careful study of We Are Everywhere someone may yet arrive at a theoretical and historical synthesis which can encompass the varied and sometimes contradictory positions and assumptions contained within it. More likely this anthology will spark further research which will sharpen our appreciation of the specificity of the politics of homosexuality in the past and present.


Source.

© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].


This text is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu