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A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America

A Desired Past is an accessible synthesis of the history of same-sex sexuality in the United States, from the beginnings of interactions among Native Americans, European colonists, and enslaved Africans to the present.  As the title suggestions, it both adds desire to the story of U.S. history and provides the kind of history so many of us have desired.  It begins with the story of Aunt Leila, who lived in a couple relationship with another woman but never, as far as her namesake knows, identified as a lesbian.  Rupp thinks about Aunt Leila to raise questions about what we can and cannot know about history, about categories and identities, and about historical interpretation.  Each chapter begins with a personal story that connects to some aspect of the history of the period covered.

In the beginning, meaning when European explorers and settlers arrived from across the Atlantic, peoples with different sexual systems came into contact with each other.  Europeans expressed shock at the sexual openness and acceptance of gender crossing that they found among some Native American peoples, despite the history of elite male sexual privilege to penetrate social inferiors, secret gender crossing, and emerging urban worlds where same-sex sexual cultures flourished in Europe.  Africans, too, brought complex ideas about sexuality to the New World, and in the contact among these different cultures, a new sexual system came into being where colonial laws singled out male same-sex acts for punishment yet ordinary people did not always harshly judge those accused of engaging in acts defined as sodomy. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, commercial and industrial growth in the North, political upheaval and the end of slavery in the South, and the movement of different groups of the population into new territories had a profound impact on sexuality.  Romantic friendships—passionate, intense, loving, physically affectionate relationships—developed between same-sex friends in the homosocial worlds of the middle and upper classes.  On the Western frontier, cowboys and miners in all-male worlds and prostitutes in brothels sometimes engaged in same-sex sexual behavior.  The frontier also provided an opportunity for gender crossing.  Back East, cities began to provide the numbers, mobility, and anonymity that made same-sex sexual subcultures viable.  With the emergence of an urban working class came the formation of a culture in which sexuality was more public and, for women, less confined to marriage.  Until late in the century this working-class subculture was overwhelmingly heterosexual for women, but men began earlier to make contact with other men for both intra- and interclass sexual encounters.

In the late nineteenth century, “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” first came into being as categories into which people might be placed and might place themselves.  Earlier, expressing desire for a person of the same sex, or engaging in a same-sex sexual act, or falling in love with someone of the same sex did not mean that one merited designation as a special kind of person.  With the rise of a consumer society came increased emphasis on sexual expressiveness and public discussion of sexuality.  Subcultures of those with same-sex desires began to coalesce.  Doctors known as “sexologists”—dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of human sexuality and treating sexual dysfunction—began to articulate the problem of what they called “homosexuality” and sex “inversion.”  But they did not make up these concepts out of thin air.  The expanding subcultures provided the inspiration for the doctors’ ideas, suggesting that the experts’ definitions and the identities of men and women engaged in same-sex sexual activities interacted in a complex fashion. 

In the first half of the twentieth century, what we can begin to call lesbian and gay communities developed in big cities across the nation.  Men and women with same-sex desires knew where to gather, used certain terms to identify themselves, and developed codes of dress and behavior that marked them as particular kinds of people.  But it was not just in the notorious locations such as Greenwich Village, Harlem, and San Francisco that women and men were able to meet others with similar sexual desires.  Communities sprang up in the most unlikely places.  What is perhaps most remarkable is the variety of competing conceptions of who was “queer,” to say nothing of the toleration of same-sex sexuality in certain social contexts.  The formation of different kinds of identities and the building of diverse communities was new, yet the salience of gender differences for the expression of same-sex sexuality, found in “fairies” who took women’s names, queer men camping it up in their private lives, and working-class women in men’s clothes, remained.  In the building of what came to be named “lesbian” and “gay” communities we can see the origins of the modern world in which we live. 

By the mid-twentieth century, the Second World War and the “lavender scare” of the postwar years had major consequences for those with same-sex desires.  Mobilization for war brought about increased geographic mobility, and the sex-segregated nature of both the military and war industry heightened the chance that individuals with unexpressed or unacknowledged same-sex desires would make contact with others who shared those feelings.  After the war, anti-homosexual policies spread from the military to the civilian sector of government, leading to witch-hunts that made life dangerous at the same time that sources of information on homosexuality multiplied and enclaves of acceptance persisted or opened up in a variety of places.  The 1950s saw the firing of government employees and raids on gay bars alongside the emergence of a lesbian bar culture and the growth of the homophile movement dedicated to winning equality and acceptance for gay men and lesbians.

All that came before paved the way for Stonewall, the iconic resistance to a routine bar raid in 1969 that has come to mark the beginning of gay liberation.  The final chapter of A Desired Past brings the story up to the present, emphasizing both the phenomenal progress in organizing, community building, and consciousness raising and also vigorous and often successful efforts to resist the changes favored by the gay and lesbian movement.  Lesbian feminists, masculine gay men in the “clone culture” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, gay and lesbian couples with children who see themselves as just like their straight neighbors, women in romantic friendships, Two-Spirit Native Americans, butches and fems, transmen and transwomen, secret gender crosssers, and Latinas and Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans with their own ways of naming and conceptualizing same-sex relationships—all these diverse people are part of our contemporary world of same-sex communities.  The multiple and changing meanings of sexual desire and behavior that we see in the past still exist in the present.