November 12, 2011
Youth, Puritanism, and Reactionary Politics
I wrote the following for Gay City News: in its issue of Wednesday, November 9, 2011:
If sex, as the playwright and cartoonist Jules Feiffer has observed, is still America’s dirty little secret decades after the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no topic on which a cultural consensus of omerta reigns more stiflingly than that of the sexuality of “children,” as anyone under the age of consent is wrongly labeled. In practice, this has meant that real sex education of America’s school-age youth has been effectively driven from the arena of public policy, to the benefit of the horrendously failed abstinence-only-until-marriage approach that has been federally funded for a quarter of a century.
The consequences of this ostrich-like sexual silence are seen in skyrocketing pregnancies among adolescent girls and in metastasizing HIV-infection rates among the young, which increase by at least 13 percent a year, according to the latest available statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (with many new youth infections remaining undiagnosed).
The idea that children and teens were sexual beings made significant headway in the 1970s, at least among progressives, but since then there has been a tsunami-like backlash against this common-sense concept, led not only by the culture warriors of the American right and the religious fundamentalists, but by the sexual protectionism of a wide swath of feminists. As the fearless sexual journalist Judith Levine has said, “The right won, but the mainstream let it. Comprehensive sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, but starting in the 1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory, until the right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural consensus.”
Levine knew whereof she spoke — witness the violent, censorious reaction to her seminal 2002 book, “Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex.” The hysterical condemnation of this important work, although published by the eminently respectable University of Minnesota Press with an introduction by former US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders (herself purged from government by a spineless Bill Clinton for daring to suggest masturbation as a healthy alternative to HIV-risky behaviors), Levine’s book was targeted by an irrational, Comstockian crusade led by the likes of Joe Scarborough and Fox News for having suggested that “Sex is not ipso facto harmful to minors” and questioning laws on statutory rape and the age of consent.
In fact, as Levine argued, “America’s drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing. Instead, often it is harming them.” The Thunders Mouth Press paperback reprint of Levine’s smart book, still in print, includes a harrowing account by the author of the national firestorm of controversy her book sparked — including its condemnation by the Minnesota State Legislature led by its then-speaker (and later governor), Tim Pawlenty, accompanied by threats to the funding of the state university that published it.
The crushing of the modest advances made by serious sex education four decades ago has been particularly nefarious for queer youth. In its latest annual survey, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that over the previous year, 85 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 20 percent reported physical assaults, and nearly 75 percent heard slurs like “faggot” or “dyke.”
Gutsy gay kids, however, increasingly are asserting their right to a same-sex orientation at ever-younger ages — even in the Bible Belt. As the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune remarked just last month in a sharp-eyed and comprehensive article entitled “Gay People Are Coming Out Younger,” a local lesbian girl interviewed by the newspaper “almost seems like a late bloomer for coming out at 14.”
Eleven states have age of consent laws pegged at 18; another nine at 17; and the remainder at 16. So-called “Romeo and Juliet” laws, in some venues, allow leeway for those slightly over the age of consent having sex with those not yet that old (though sometimes criminal charges are left to prosecutorial discretion), but there are instances of youths only a year or so older than their partner being charged with a sexual offense — and even cases of minors arrested for sex with another minor.
In this context, it’s courageous of Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, to offer up her fascinating and wise new book, “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex,” just published by the University of Chicago Press, a comparative look at attitudes toward adolescent sexuality in the US and the Netherlands. The title comes from the fact that, as Schalet reports, “the vast majority of American parents oppose a [sexual] sleepover for high-school aged teenagers” with their child’s boyfriend or girlfriend, while “most Dutch parents permit it or consider doing so.” Based on a blending of meticulous scholarly research and extensive interviews with both Dutch and American parents and teenagers — mostly tenth-graders — Schalet’s book, although not as deliberately incendiary as Levine’s a decade earlier, nonetheless amounts to a ringing rationale for the sexual autonomy of adolescents.
Nearly five decades of rational and humanist sex education in the Netherlands have produced generations of parents who consider adolescent sexuality as “gewoon,” a unique Dutch word meaning not only “normal” but “acceptable and right.” Schalet writes, “Dutch sex education curricula encourage teenagers to talk in a positive way about sexuality, including such topics as masturbation, homosexuality, and pleasure. These topics are integrated into a broader discussion of the emotional, relational, and larger societal forces that shape experiences of sexuality.”
One Dutch sex-ed textbook explains, “Your own experiences with sex start with yourself… Thus, you can have sex with yourself, but also with others. You make love because you and the other person enjoy it.” Another Dutch textbook addresses same-sex experiences in a chapter entitled, “With whom would you like to wake up?” And a third sex-ed text affirms that “making love takes patience. Your whole body is full of places that want to be caressed, rubbed, licked, and bitten softly.”
Schalet points out, “By allowing sleepovers at home, the Dutch parents provide young people both the opportunity and the incentive to experience sexuality as part of life that can be discussed, rationally planned, and experienced in harmony with, rather than in opposition to, the social fabric of the household.” Where Americans “dramatize” adolescent sexuality in ways such that girls are taught to be “good” (asexual before marriage) and boys are expected to be “bad” (predatory and studly), the Dutch “normalize” adolescent sexuality, which is “viewed as a continuum of feelings and behaviors, which are accepted as part of adolescent development and relationships.”
Because of comprehensive sexual and emotional education, “youth are expected to possess an internal barometer with which they can pace their own sexual progression, within the context of trusting and loving relationships.” While Dutch parents “have the responsibility to educate about contraception, the cultural mandates dictate that, in order to stay connected to their children and their relationships, they are wise to accept that… sexual progression may include intercourse… even if this means that parents must self-regulate their own feelings of resistance.”
There’s a great deal more in “Not Under My Roof” that could make it a richly rewarding guidebook for American parents, whether their kids are gay or not—particularly if read in tandem with Sarah Schulman’s essential 2009 “Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences" (see this writer's review, “It Has To Be Said”).
Unfortunately, Schalet’s book is unlikey to find a wide audience. She too often lapses into stilted “academese” that will be off-putting to the average reader, and she has another annoying tic — frequently using and repeating uniquely Dutch words from the sexual and emotional lexicons that are defined only once, requiring a feat of memory to retain their meanings.
And while it would be nice to think that Schalet’s work signals the beginnings of a shift in national attitudes, that’s also unlikely. Consider the sad fate of “Skins,” the short-lived MTV drama about teenage sexuality, canceled earlier this year after just one season as a consequence of a rabid, right-wing campaign that tried to have the network prosecuted for “child pornography” and accused it of “promoting homosexuality” in its realistic portrayal of same-sex orientation among adolescents. Reactionary culture warriors forced a raft of corporate sponsors to withdraw from it, including Yumi Brands (Taco Bell), Mars, Inc. (Wrigley), General Motors, Doctor’s Associates (Subway), Foot Locker, H and R Block, Schick, L’Oréal, Recket Benckiser (Clearasil), and Kraft. The gutless pseudo-hipsters at MTV even labeled the program “TV-MA” rated, meaning it was unsuitable for viewers under 17. An honest national discussion about our children’s right to their sexuality is just not in the cards any time soon.
NOT UNDER MY ROOF:
PARENTS, TEENS, AND THE CULTURE OF SEX
By Amy Schalet
University of Chicago Press, 312 pp.
Cloth, $85; Paper, $29;
E-Book from $7
October 13, 2011
Michael Bronski's "A Queer History of the United States" -- review
I wrote the following review for Gay City News, New York's largest LGBT newspaper:
If you’re one of those people who think history is dull, boring, and irrelevant to your life today, Michael Bronski’s brilliant new “Queer History of the United States,” just published by Beacon Press, should disabuse you of such blinkered notions.
Bronski (right) has been one of our most articulate and original gay liberationist writers and journalists for decades. His roots are in the feisty, radical Boston collective that produced Fag Rag, one of the seminal liberation publications that flowered in the early ‘70s, and he made his bones as a gay theorist with his important 1984 book “Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility,” and cemented his reputation as a creative thinker with “The Pleasure Principle” (1998), which remains a must-read for every sentient queer.
In addition to a half-dozen other books he’s either written or edited, the prolific Bronski’s cultural and political journalism has adorned not only the gay press but mainstream publications, as well. A longtime columnist for the Boston Phoenix, Bronski now teaches LGBT, gender, and media studies at Dartmouth.
But, thankfully, Bronski doesn’t write like an academic –– his cant-skewering prose is clean, clear, jargon-free, and accessible, as befits his journalistic training. And “A Queer History of the United States” is such a good read it could be called a page-turner, were it not for the fact that practically every page is so rich with provocative and gripping observations, ideas, and analyses that one wants to pause and reflect on them.
“America is queer,” writes Bronski, “and only gets queerer.” This sweeping synthesis of 500 years of American history as seen through a myriad of queer eyes –– building on the last four decades of groundbreaking gay historiography that began recovering our hidden history as a crucial part of the early liberation struggles –– contains many eye-opening anecdotes and portraits that illustrate this ringing assertion.
Bronski shows how same-sex affinities were practiced and, indeed, often honored by Native Americans even before the first European colonists arrived with their censorious and repressive religions.
To cite just two examples, the 1702 “Memoir of Pierre Liette on the Illinois Country” reported that “the sin of sodomy prevails more among [the Miami] than in any other nation, although there are four women to one man.”
And in the “Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expeditions,” written by Nicholas Biddle between 1804 and 1810, the explorers detail how, among the Mamitarees, “if a boy shows any symptoms of effeminacy or girlish inclinations he is put among the girls, dressed in their way, brought up with them, & sometimes married to men.”
Queers were active participants in the Revolutionary War. The cross-dressing Deborah Sampson Garret enrolled as a man in the Continental Army and fought in may battles over three years before her real gender was unmasked after she was wounded. She published a popular memoir of her exploits, and in 1816, “after years of petitioning and with help from Paul Revere, [she] was finally awarded the full pensions she deserved by both the state of Massachusetts and Congress.”
And there was the combative evangelist Jemima Wilkinson, who in 1775 “believed that Christ entered her body and that she was now neither female nor male… She renamed herself ‘Publick Universal Friend,’ refused to use the pronouns ‘she’ or ‘he,’ and dressed in gender-neutral garments that made her sex unreadable.” In the mid-1780s “the popular press and pamphlet culture covered her sermons in detail and placed particular emphasis on her sexually ambiguous persona. She had a huge following that verged on a cult…”
We might today call Wilkinson and Sampson Garret transgender, but Bronski rightly warns us against applying today’s labels and language to gender rebels of centuries past before such terms were coined and acknowledged. (Bronski details how cross-dressing female soldiers were also well known in our Civil War).
Bronski traces the development of a “new American masculinity” in contrast to the overly civilized, effete British model. Indeed, the very first play written and produced in the US, a comedy of manners called “The Contrast, “ pitted a British-identified character, “Mr. Billy Dimple” –– a “flippant, pallid, polite beau who devotes the morning to his toilet… and then minces out” –– against the American Colonel Manly, “who is all that his name implies.” This political, even revolutionary play clearly enlisted what today we would characterize as homophobia to stir up anti-British sentiment.
But in the newly liberated colonies, “passionate same-sex friendships were often public and acknowledged by the culture in which they thrived.” Bronski extensively quotes from the Marquis de Lafayette’s concupiscent letters to George Washington which “can be read as communications from a hurt, angry lover.”
As the new country grew in size, “westward expansion often meant a release from the enforced gender restrictions they faced in the East… Life on the western frontier was frequently sex-segregated, creating homosocial communities and relationships,” which Bronski illustrates through citations from poetry and fiction of the time, as in Western poet Badger Clark’s “The Lost Pardner,” which concludes:
The range is empty and the trails are blind,
And I don’t seem but half myself today.
I want to hear him ridin’ up behind
And feel his knee rub mine the good old way.
The rapid growth of San Francisco in the wake of the 1840s Gold Rush led to a city that in mid-century had only 300 women out of a population of 25,000 –– not surprisingly, “same-sex dancing was perfectly acceptable, as was entertainment featuring cross-dressing.” Already in 1855, British adventurer Franky Marryat, in his memoir “Mountains and Molehills, or Recollections of a Burnt Journal,” labeled San Francisco “Sodom by the Sea.”
Bronski underscores the importance of New England’s transcendentalist movement in refining same-sex affinities. “A wealth of homoerotic sentiments are present in the poems and journals of Henry David Thoreau… which by the 1840s became increasingly erotic,” while Ralph Waldo Emerson’s infatuation with a young student, Martin Gay, is explored. And “the homoerotic content in Emily Dickinson’s poetry is notable for its time,” as are the writings of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne –– including “Melville’s articulation of erotic attraction for Hawthorne.”
Julia Ward Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” also wrote a play, “The Hermaphrodite,” which is “a manifestation of a culture in which gender role limitations and nontraditional sexual relationships were actively, albeit in a coded way, discussed as political issues.”
But in the second half of the 19th century, it was the American anarchists whose “writings about homosexuality are a radical break from most thinking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: they argue that sexuality is natural and positive, that sex can be solely about pleasure and, if consensual, should not be the subject of any laws.”
At the same time, “the scientific discovery of ‘homosexuality’ [the term was first used in the US in 1878] generated language that promoted more open discussion about the subject —ironically, it immediately led to a clear articulation of negative stereotypes about homosexuals. For the first time in US history, same-sex desiring people could now feel diseased.”
Bronski traces the crucial role the theatrical stage played as a transmission belt for discussions of a wider spectrum of sexualities. He’s unearthed examples that –– even though I consider myself fairly well versed in homo history –– were new to me. For example, “the opening scene of Mae West’s 1927 play ‘The Drag’ –– featuring homosexual characters and a drag ball –– has two characters discussing the ideas of Karl Ulrichs,” the 19th century German agitator for homosexual liberation who is considered the pioneer of the LGBT movements for sexual liberation. The play was closed down by authorities, as was the iconic Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch’s classic 1907 drama “The God of Vengeance” for its lesbian content.
Such widespread stage portrayals contributed to the Republican-controlled New York State Legislature’s vote to ban any theatrical performances “depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degenerates or sex perversion.”
As automobiles became cheaper and available to the masses, Bronski notes, they became “the site of sexual freedom,” a “new innovation in romantic and sexual privacy [that] was also a boon to same-sex relationships.”
The sexual revolution for queers sparked by World War II received the ultimate and peculiarly American tribute when it found expression in advertising –– as exemplified in a campaign for Cannon Towels that ran in magazines like Life and Better Homes and Gardens, each installment based on servicemen’s tales. “True Towel Tales: No. 6” showed “a group of presumably naked soldiers in a grounded canoe; the central figure is standing, covered with a palm frond, in a bathing-beauty pose. The advertisement clearly displays the men as sexual objects and highlights their vulnerability, in sharp juxtaposition to the realities of war.”
Similarly, an ad for Pullman railroad sleeping cars showed two soldiers taking off their shoes and socks to enter an Egyptian mosque with the sexually suggestive caption, “I never did this in daylight before!”
These are just a few of the many revelatory historical nuggets in “A Queer History of the United States.” Bronski has an extraordinary command of the material and also does a masterful job of synthesizing the work of fine gay historians, including Martin Duberman, John D’Emilio, Lillian Faderman, Terence Kissack, and dozens of other too numerous to mention.
The war on same-sex imagery and writing currently waged by today’s “family values” crowd has, as Bronski demonstrates, its precursors in the social purity movements, sometimes led by progressives, that began in the 19th century and continue today to threaten the larger cultural space that courageous same-sexers have won for themselves. This book is also a catalogue of our enemies down through the years.
Bronski’s radical liberationist politics are evident on every page and will no doubt irritate the oh-so-homogenized assimilationists whose rhetoric dominates today’s official gay discourse. He writes, “While we are all Americans –– and heterosexuals may be a lot queerer than they think –– being ‘just like you’ is not what all Americans want. Historically, ‘just like you’ is the great American lie. The overwhelming, even giddy diversity of America precludes such simple analogies. ‘Just like’ is often a false argument. In the past decade, the argument that same-sex marriage is ‘just like’ inter-racial marriage has led to far more misunderstanding and anger than agreement and clarity…”
Bronski’s examination of five centuries ends in 1990, but his impeccable scholarship and pungent, often witty narrative is as relevant as today’s headlines. One has to know where one’s been to be able to chart a meaningful course to where one would like to be. From literature to fashion to relationships with other social movements, the queer story as told by Bronski will open your eyes.
The great historian Arnold Toynbee once observed, “‘History’ is a Greek word which means, literally, just ‘investigation.’” Bronski is a superb investigator, intellectually rigorous, whose work has always challenged conventional wisdoms with subtle nuance. That’s why “A Queer History of the United States” can be profitably read both by novices on the subject and by those with a serious background in gay historiography.
Even if you disagree with Bronski’s interpretations, they will make you think. This is an important book, one that should have pride of place on every queer bookshelf. Make sure it’s on yours.