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Jonathan Ned Katz: Analyzing Allen Bernstein’s “MILLIONS OF QUEERS (Our Homo America)”

An Original OutHistory Publication

Allen Irvin Bernstein’s 149-page, typed, unpublished manuscript, dated January-June, 1940, resided for decades in the National Library of Medicine, Washington, D.C., unknown, unheralded, an orphan. Perhaps its eccentric title, suggesting an exercise in cranky homophobia, caused researchers to ignore it, sight unseen. So, until Randall Sell came along, no one noted that “MILLIONS OF QUEERS” is an early, unsung defense of homosexuality. It’s also a rich document of homosexual American history. Even more extraordinary, Sell’s clever detective work revealed that its feisty, Jewish author used his own real name on this defense, and lived a complicated, fascinating life.[1]

Allen Bernstein with a friend, writer Alix Kates Shulman, Portland, Maine, July 2001. <br /><br />
<br /><br />
[Photo courtesy of Alix Kates Shulman.]

Allen Bernstein with a friend, the writer Alix Kates Shulman, Portland, Maine, July 2001. (Photo courtesy of Alix Kates Shulman.)

The Genre
Defenses of homosexuality comprise a genre expressing diverse political outlooks, and taking multiple forms, by a variety of creators. Bernstein, for example, translates, quotes and was profoundly influenced by his reading, in the original French, of Andre Gide’s Corydon (1912; augmented edition, 1929), a treatise arguing for the naturalness of homosexuality.[2] Bernstein prominently quotes Kay Boyle’s little-known, boldly-titled but murky poem “A Defense of Homosexuality” (1925).[3] Bernstein cites numbers of historical essays by the English homosexual emancipation pioneer John Addington Symonds (1873 to 1901).[4] Bernstein also cites Diana: A Strange Autobiography (1939), the lesbian memoir published the year before he typed his essay. (On Randall Sell’s initiative, its author “Diana Fredericks” was identified in 2010, by History Detectives, as Frances V. Rummel.)[5]

Bernstein’s “Millions,”as a sociological, anthropological, and historical survey, and personal polemic, anticipates and most resembles a book published eleven years after it: The Homosexual in America, A Subjective Approach (1951), by the married sociologist Edward Sagarin, using the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory. Like Sagarin, Bernstein accepted many of the negative clichés about homosexuals, but argued that they should not be persecuted under the law.

Politics
By calling “MILLIONS” a homosexual defense I don’t mean that it’s a radical gay liberation manifesto of 1969, a liberal gay rights tract of the 1990s, or a 2014 critique of sexual neo-liberalism. Bernstein offers a libertarian argument that homosexuals don’t hurt anyone, should not be criminalized and stigmatized, and should be left alone to work out their difficult, non-conforming lives by themselves. Bernstein argues that the state (lawmakers, police, judges, and jailors), the medical establishment (doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists), the media, parents, and citizens, should stop harassing homosexuals.

Bernstein’s defense will disappoint anyone judging it against today’s dominant defense of homosexuals as “normal” exemplars of “mental health.” He takes seriously many of the damning judgments that cursed homosexuals in the U.S., in 1940. Bernstein’s essay documents an archive of bad feelings, the trauma of persons and a group despised and discounted, that he and other homosexuals suffered and had to transcend to survive

It’s painful now to hear him seriously pondering the notion that homosexuals suffer a “puberty fixation” and stagnate at an immature stage of emotional development (as if there are no immature heterosexual adults).[6] It’s disheartening to hear him suggest that homosexuals must inevitably suffer an isolated, lonely, pitiful old age (as if there are no old, isolated, lonely heterosexuals).[7]

Bernstein’s title stresses numbers -- the existence of “MILLIONS OF QUEERS.” His 1940 estimate of probably 2,600,000 American homosexuals is offered as a reason to understand this reviled, criminalized group.[8] He compares the unjust treatment of homosexuals, “the negro,” “sharecroppers,” and the “unemployed.” Despite Bernstein’s emphasis on numbers of homosexuals and their unjust treatment, it’s telling that he never presents homosexuals as a discriminated against “minority.” That was a new and radical idea when first put forward a decade later, in 1950, by the gay Communist Harry Hay.[9]

A Tough Core
Given Bernstein’s acceptance of his society’s anti-homosexual clichés, it’s in fact remarkable that, in 1940, he pounded out on a typewriter this multi-page manifesto protesting the unjust treatment of America’s homosexuals. His researching and writing “MILLIONS” reveals a tough inner core, a strong, obstinate, ornery, dissenting spirit.  

 Language
“MILLIONS” is rich in content. It sounds like Bernstein’s talking from personal experience when, on the subject of homosexuals’ suicides, he adds: “There was the time a razor blade had to be grabbed from a roommate who suddenly became convinced that full sensual happiness was impossible for him in this world.”[10]

 Throughout “MIILLIONS” Bernstein consistently misspells the plural “homoes” (and once, “heteroes”) suggesting that he didn’t show his essay around much. No friend told him to correct the non-standard usage that makes him sound ignorant or crackpot, undermining his work’s authority.

"Homo" and "Queer"
Reading “MILLIONS” we can learn from Bernstein’s own language and from what he tells us about language. His preference throughout for the vernacular “homo,” and especially his deployment of “queer” makes Bernstein sound right up-to-date in 2014. But he’s not, like queers since 1990, reversing the value judgment “queer is bad” by asserting “queer is good.” In 1940, it seems to me, Bernstein’s preference for the common slang put-downs was his way of neutralizing (not reversing) their sting. His casual adoption of the common, derogatory slang was also his unusual, uppity way of asserting the queer’s numerically common, though decried presence in America.  

"Fairies" and "Dikes"
Bernstein emphatically protests the stereotype of all male homosexuals as effeminate “fairies” and all lesbians as masculine “dikes”: “The fairies and the masculine looking dikes are a lunatic fringe or an important subsection, but only a fringe or subsection. Homo America is as dispersed as an ideal public-opinion poll sampling. . . .” He identifies with the derogatory slang to neuter its poison: “We are the third sex; the urners; the lesbians, dikes, tribades; the inverts, perverts; the pansies, fairies, transvestists; the aunties, wolves, fags; the pederasts; the homosexuals.”[11]      

Explicit Language
Bernstein also defiantly uses sexually explicit language. He rejects, for example, the Latin “fellatio” for the slang “cocksucking.”[12] I interpret this as his in-your-face way of opposing the insistent anti-sex morality that even today makes the slang’s bold evocation of mouth-penis contact unspeakable in “polite society.”

“Man-Loving Men” and “Woman-Loving Women” 
In an early use of a contemporary trope his essay also mobilizes “love” as a positive way of terming and describing “man-loving men” and “woman-loving women” – terms we thought we coined in the early 1970s.[13]

"Gay"
Bernstein complains:

No . . . guide book ever lists the gay places (using “gay” in our specialized sense of “queer.”[14]

His explaining, in 1940, that “gay” is homosexuals’ alternate word for “queer” is early, important, U.S. documentation of that in-group usage. His frequent and casual use of “gay” in this essay suggests that he and others had then made it their own, positive alternative to the negative, medical “homosexual.”   

History
Bernstein asserts in “MILLIONS” the universal, transhistorical existence of homosexuals. Homos have always been here, he claims, and efforts to eradicate them always fail. He presents homosexuals stubborn longevity as a reason to stop treating them as outcasts, thereby worsening their plight.

Bernstein’s “MILLIONS” is, in part, an early attempt to research and analyze the American history of homosexuals, understood as a group that’s stayed essentially the same while society’s responses to it changed over time. Bernstein obtained a B.A. in history at Union College in Schenectady, NY, and he focused on history when getting his M.A. at the University of Chicago. “MILLIONS” prominently reflects his interest and training in history.

Reading Bernstein’s rendering of homosexual American history in “MILLIONS” I was personally and deeply moved to realize that he had found and consulted the same, old, dusty bibliographies and quoted many of the same old documents that I had to rediscover three and four decades later (published in Gay American History [1976] and Gay/Lesbian Almanac [1983]). In 1940, if Bernstein had polished and enlarged his manuscript, and tried to get it published, it’s not clear that any for-profit book publisher would have offered him a contract.

Hetero Marriage?
A major concern of Bernstein’s is the brevity he perceives as characterizing homosexuals’ intimate relationships. Same-sex intimacies last five years at the most, he thinks, though he admits exceptions.[15] “Most” homosexuals, he claims, “are lone wolves; they may live, for a time, in pairs. The separate quickly. Their apings of hetero marriages are dismal caricatures and failures.” In a desolate section on “Old Age; Marriage; Suicide,” Bernstein says: “It seems somehow impossible for queers to grow old together. Their friendship may become deeper, transcending the flesh, but they drift apart.”[16]

Bernstein is fascinated by hetero marriage as a way out of what he perceives as the aging male homosexual’s isolation. Facing old age some homosexuals think about marrying, he says, and some actually “try marriage, normal, heterosexual marriage.” As he ponders the efficacy of a male homosexual’s marrying a woman, Bernstein, in 1940, is clearly previewing the life he would actually adopt when he married six years later. He followed his own advice when he warned male homosexuals to alert potential wives to their potential husband’s homosexual desire: “if you get married you let her know first.”[17] 

Networks
“MILLIONS” is, in part, an early anthropological study by a participant observer of the scene on which he’s reporting.  He generalizes about homosexuals, he tells us, from “observation of a hundred-odd cases over a period of years, from people known casually for two minutes on a park bench or closely for a period of years.”[18]  A network of pseudonymous informants provides him telling quotes about and descriptions of individual lives

“Peter and Mary Smith”
Among the friends he specifically acknowledges in “MILLIONS,” Bernstein lists the pseudonymous “Peter and Mary Smith,” who, he says, “prove hetero marriages can be successful, following years of homo life. Peter, a minister's son, had been in the queer racket for a dozen years at least.” An artist, apparently, Peter had even been “rather notorious, with jealous members of the gang calling attention to his succession of models visiting his studio. . . .” In Peter’s mid-thirties he asked Mary to marry him, and she agreed, fully cognizant of his history. Even when, “a year after their marriage, he’d lost his job and had been picked up by a plain-clothes-man,” Mary “stuck by him, and got small jobs.” Bernstein gives Mary credit for her “spunk” and “constancy” in sticking with her man, and concludes that Peter’s marriage is “the envy of his more cautious pals.”[19]

“Morris Paul”
Bernstein also acknowledges a homosexual friend and informant who he calls “Morris Paul.”[20] Bernstein thanks Paul for “demonstrating that all homoes are not lice and cads, that some can be gentlemen.” Paul, Bernstein reports, hoped to someday get over “the horrible revulsion he felt when girls expected hugs.” Paul even hoped to marry: “Maybe, eventually, he’d prove himself man enough to make some girl happy.” Paul’s queer cousin, Bernstein also tells us, “carefully stuffed newspapers into the kitchen window and door frames before he turned on all the jets in the gas range,” killing himself.  If a future researcher can identify Paul’s birth name it would illuminate another complex, queer life.  

Clues: The Joy Street Gang
Bernstein refers to intriguing bits of gay history that future researchers may be able to corroborate via newspaper reports, police records, archival, and other sources. He seems to be speaking from personal knowledge when he tells us:  

Boston’s fake Bohemia of the latter 1920’s, the Joy Street gang, was definitely queer. . . . There was such a crowd of fellows. They existed. They were.  Some members, still alive and virile, object strenuously to implications that "the Hill [Beacon Hill], 1925-30" is worthy of historical study a decade later. By and large, they never got into print. Now, they are known of chiefly by hearsay and rumor. Already, they have become legendary.[21]

This is most probably a reference to the group around Prescott Townsend, who lived on Joy Street in the late 1920s, and was later active in homophile organizing in Boston.[22]

Columbia Graduate Students
In the summer of 1939, Bernstein tells us:

two Columbia graduate students mutually masturbating in a pay toilet were held guilty of “public indecency”, violating an anti-exhibitionism statute. They could be seen only by a cop deliberately planted in a small windowed closet adjoining. . . .  According to the court, the circumstances were the same as if they had done the same act in Times Square at high noon.[23]

 New York City court records might further illuminate this incident.

Politics, Again
Citing Boston’s Beacon Hill, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Chicago’s Water Tower area, Bernstein thinks that “queerness came to the fore a decade ago,” in the 1930s, in a “sudden efflorescence.” But in 1940, he says, the “excitement has died down.” Bernstein’s “MILLIONS” contains no hint that homosexuals could ever cause a national, even international ruckus. In 1940 Bernstein never imagines that, by joining together on the basis of their common persecution, homosexuals might become a political movement, as they began to organize a decade later, in 1950. So it’s pleasing to know that before Bernstein died in 2008 he participated, starting in the 1980s, in several gay political, service, and social organizations. In light of his dismal, isolated image of gay male elders in 1940, it’s good to know that in his own old age he was busily, actively, and happily engaged in his local community.

In 1940, speaking of the criminalization of homosexual acts and the imprisonment of homosexuals, Bernstein says:

It will probably be continued in most American communities for another century or three; let's be realistic, and stop day-dreaming about repeal of sodomy statutes.[24]

Given his original pessimism, it’s nice to note that Bernstein lived long enough to witness the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, in effect, declaring U.S. sodomy laws unconstitutional.

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Acknowledgments
I am deeply grateful to Randall Sell for bringing this second important, original research discovery to OutHistory.org for publication. Sell earlier discovered and published on OutHistory some of the lost third memoir of the transgender Earl Lind/Ralph Werther/Jennie June.

Sell also initiated the discovery, by the History Detectives TV show, of the birth name, Frances V. Rummell, of the lesbian who published an autobiography in 1939, as Diana Frederics, reported on OutHistory at: http://outhistory.org/oldwiki/Diana_Frederics:_Diana,_A_Strange_Autobiography,_1939.

I am also extremely grateful for Libby Bouvier’s help with research on Prescott Townsend.

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Notes
[1]  See also Randall Sell: Allen Irvin Bernstein: A Biography (1913-2008)

[2]  Scott Fish, “Andre Gide,” GLBTQ.com, at: http://www.glbtq.com/literature/gide_a,3.html>

[3]  The Kay Boyle poem is online at The PIP (Project of Innovative Poetry) Blog, http://pippoetry.blogspot.com/2008/12/kay-boyle-usa-1902-1992-born-in-st.html.

[4]  Bernstein cites John Addington Symonds’ “Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love" in The Key of Blue and Other Essays (1891); A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891); A Problem in Greek Ethics (1873 [1897,1901]); A Study of Walt Whitman (1893).

[5]  Excerpts from Diana Frederics’s Diana, A Strange Autobiography (1939), and the revelation of the author’s birth name are discussed at: http://outhistory.org/oldwiki/Diana_Frederics:_Diana,_A_Strange_Autobiography,_1939

[6]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” pages 6, 105, 109, for example.

[7]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” pages 82-85.

[8]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 144.

[9]   On Harry Hay see:  http://outhistory.org/oldwiki/Harry_Hay:_Founding_the_Mattachine_Society,_1948-1953

[10]   Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 89.

[11]   Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” pages 1, 4.

[12]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 1.

[13]   Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 1.

[14]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 59.

[15]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 76.

[16]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 82.

[17]   Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 135.

[18]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 139. See also page 75.

[19]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” pages iv, 91-92.

[20]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” pages iv, 14, 87, 107, 132. Re “Morris Paul,” an apparently heterosexual writer named Elliot Paul was close to the homosexual Prescott Townsend, and part of his circle of Boston bohemians.

[21]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 51.

[22]   Katz and Sell thank Libby Bouvier of the Boston History Project for detailed information about Townsend. Also see the Wikipedia entry on Townsend at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prescott_Townsend

[23]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 79.

[24]  Bernstein, “MILLIONS,” page 130.

 

COPYRIGHT BY JONATHAN NED KATZ