Gerry B's Book Reviews

Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. by Johathan Katz

October is GLBT History Month, and in commemoration of this occasion I offer what I consider to be the quintessential history of Gays and Lesbians in North America.

This book should be the Bible of not only the past, but also the present and the future—as in “we’ve prevailed in spite of all.”

Publisher’s blurb: Unique among books about Gay people, this pioneer work brings together for the first time a large group of historical chronicles of American Lesbian and Gay life, coupled with the heterosexual attitudes of the era. Intended for an audience of all sexual persuasions, these selections reflect a new, historical view of this once-silent invisible minority and a dramatic reappraisal of American life, from Alexander Hamilton’s love letters to John Laurens, to the forgotten autobiography and insane asylum records of a feminist transvestite of the 19th century, to lesbianism in the life of blues great Bessie Smith, and to the present in a 1976 report of the Gay liberation organization of American Indians.

About the author: Katz taught as an adjunct at Yale University, Eugene Lang College, and New York University, and was the convener of a faculty seminar at Princeton University. He is a founding member of the Gay Academic Union in 1973 and the National Writers Union in 1980. He was the initiator and is the director of OutHistory.org, a site devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, (LGBTQ) and heterosexual history, that went online in September 2008, and is produced by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, an institute at the City University of New York Graduate Center, under a grant from the Arcus Foundation.

Katz received the Magnus Hirschfeld Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Sex Research from the German Society for Social-Scientific Sexuality Research in 1997. In 2003, he was given Yale University’s Brudner Prize, an annual honor recognizing scholarly contributions in the field of lesbian and gay studies. His papers are collected by the manuscript division of The Research Libraries of The New York Public Library.

Review by Gerry Burnie

We have been the silent minority, the silenced minority—invisible women, invisible men. Early on, the alleged enormity of our “sin” justified the denial of our existence, even our physical destruction” p1. So begins noted sexual historian, Professor Johnathan Katz, in his seminal “collection of turbulent chronicles,” Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. [Plume; Rev Sub edition (April 1, 1992)].

He then goes on to add to this lamentable observation:

During the four hundred years documented here, American homosexuals were condemned to death by chocking, burning, drowning; they were executed, jailed, pilloried, fined, court-martialed, prostituted, fired, framed, blackmailed, disinherited, declared insane, driven to insanity, to suicide, murder, and self-hate, witch-hunted, entrapped, stereotyped, mocked, insulted, isolated, pities, castigated and despised.(They were also castrated, lobotomized, shock-treated, and psychoanalyzed…) Homosexuals and their behavior were characterized by the terms “abomination,” “crime against nature,” “sin,” “monsters,” “fairies,” “bull dykes,” and “perverts.”p17.

Professor Katz then goes on to document every word of these in a 720-page, annotated thesis, which—quite astoundingly for such a scholarly work—remains immensely readable.

For example, there is the chronicle of the earliest known case of a homosexual being put to death in America, that of Frenchman Gonzalo Solís de Merás, murdered in St. Augustine, Florida [my winter home], in 1566.  Also, The execution of Richard Cornish for sodomy in Colonial America, 1624; and of William Plaine in 1646. There is also a record a Black man, Jan Ceoli, living on Manhattan Island, who was condemned to be “choked to death, and then burned to ashes.” In the same Dutch New Netherland Colony, Jan Quisthout Van Der Linde was sentenced to be “tied in a sack and cast into the river” for a homosexual rape.

An early report, 1824-26, identifies homosexuality in American prisons, and concerns “prostitution” of “juvenile delinquents” with older male prisoners.  Male prostitution is also prominently mentioned in a report, dating 1892, documenting the homosexual underworld in American cities. These reports also include descriptions of Black male homosexual transvestites, homosexual activity at steam baths, newspaper solicitations, and street life.

There are also early reports of a civil servant being discharged: a New York policeman, for making improper advances on other males while on duty (1846), and of a minister separated from the church for homosexual activity (1866). The clergyman was Horatio Alger.

In 1896, the family of a wealthy businessman, Henry Palmer, petitioned the court to have Palmer declared mentally incompetent on account of his homosexuality, and although a prominent doctor testified to his “absolute certainty of Palmer’s sanity,” the court found him “insane,” anyway.

Lesbians didn’t seem to fare any better, for in 1636 John Cotton made a proposal to the Massachusetts Bay Colony that homosexual relations between women be placed on par with male homosexuality as a capital offence. In 1656 the New Haven Colony passed a law prescribing the death penalty for lesbianism, as well as male homosexuality.

Professor Katz has also dedicated a significant portion of his scholarly work to Native Americans. One of the earliest reports, dated 1528-36, states:

During the time that I was thus among these people I saw a devilish thing, and it is that I saw one man married to another, and these are impotent, effeminate men [amarionados]and they go about dressed as women, and do women’s tasks, and shoot with a bow, and carry great burdens,…and they are huskier than the other men, and taller…”p430

Another report, dated 1673-77, reads:

I know not through what superstition some Illinois, as well as Nadouessi, while still young, assume the garb of women, and retain it throughout their lives. There is some mystery in this, for they never marry and glory in demeaning themselves to do everything that the women do. They go to war, however, but can use only clubs, and not bows and arrows, which are the weapons proper to men. They are present at all the juggleries, and at the solemn dances in honor of the Calumet; at these they sing, but not dance. They are summoned to their Councils and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally, through their profession of leading an extraordinary life, they pass as Manitous,–That is to say, for Spirits,–or persons of consequence.p.433

Moreover, an 1889 report by Dr. A.B. Holder, describes “A Peculiar Sexual Perversion,” i.e.:

The word bō-teˊ I have chosen as being most familiar to me and not likely to convey a wrong impression, since I shall be the first, perhaps, to translate into English and define it. It is the word use by the Absaroke Indians of Montana, and literally mans “not man, no woman.”…

“The practice of the bote among civilized races is not unknown to specialists, but no name is suited to ears of polite, even though professional, has been given it. The practice is to produce the sexual orgasm by taking the male organ of the active party in the lips of the bote, the bote probably experiencing the orgasm at the same time. Of the latter supposition I have been able to satisfy, but I can in no other way account for the infatuation of the act.”

My comments

Among the monumental, literary works of history, Jonathon Katz can rightfully take his place. Or, as another reviewer has already put it, “Jonathan Katz would be sainted if he never wrote another word or produced another bit of research.”[1]

This documentary history is utterly astonishing for the amount of research it implies, the documented stories it tells, the humanity it describes, and for the easy-to-read journalism in which it is presented. Among the GLBT communities, this book should be the Bible of not only the past, but also the present and the future—as in “we’ve prevailed in spite of all.” Five Stars—plus.


[1] B. J. Wilson, Amazon.com.

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Rewrites to Coming of Age on the Trail 129/177 pages.

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To order any of my books, click on the individual covers below. Nor All Thy Tears and Two Irish Lads are now available in Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price $4.95 (tax and exchange not included), but prices may vary from retailer to retailer.

     

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October 2, 2011 - Posted by | Gay documentary, Gay non-fiction, Non-fiction, Two spirits

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