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

Cut Hand, by Mark Wildyr

Altogether, this is quintessential historical fiction encompassing a fascinating topic and period in history.

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Book blurb: Homosexuals have been with us forever; queers, pansies, and fags are inventions of European civilizations. But, many New World native cultures view “Two-Spirit” people through more respectful eyes. Cut Hand by Mark Wildyr is a romantic action epic set in the early 1800s about an unorthodox love between a white youth on the American frontier, escaping his Tory family’s past, and a young Indian warrior destined for the leadership of his tribe.

Billy Strobaw’s world turns on its axis at his surprising and unexpected physical reaction to a young Indian he and two traveling companions take captive. The handsome warrior, Cut Hand, not only earns his freedom, but also steals Billy’s heart and prevails upon the American to come live among his people.

Plunged into a strange culture where his lust for another man is not regarded as disgraceful, Billy agrees to become Cut’s winkte wife, an act that brings problems, but not from the direction he anticipated. As the two men work to overcome differences in their cultural backgrounds, Billy comes to understand these Native Americans have as much to offer him as he has to share with them.

The sexuality of the protagonists becomes merely a personal footnote in the struggle of the Plains tribes to preserve a way of life that has served them well for generations. Told partially in Colonial and early American English, the novel follows the lives of these two lovers from 1832 to 186l, thirty tumultuous years on young America’s frontier.

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

 Mark Wildyr’s cross-culture novel “Cut Hand” [StarBooks Press, 2010] was a delightful find for me. To explain, I usually shy away from “Wild West” stories because they tend to be little more than loosely strung together sexual romps, to which the plot only serves to move the characters from one tryst to another. On the contrary “Cut Hand,” while sexy, is a plot-driven, insightful look at “Two Spirit” customs within North American Native cultures. Moreover, since it places a white boy in the role of the wink-te (pronounced “wan-te” in this story),  it is unique approach to it.

Billy Strobaw is the product of Tory parents (called “Loyalists” in Canada) who are unsettled as a result of the American War of Independence. He and his family therefore become outcasts in their own land, and after their untimely deaths young Billy decides to seek his fortune in the Far West. Enroute, his party saves a handsome young Indian named Cut Hand from certain death by a rival band. Thereafter Billy is surprised by his unexpected physical reaction to the Indian brave. Surprisingly Cut Hand returns his attention to not only steal Billy’s heart but also convinces him to live among his people.

Thrust without preparation into a strange culture Billy agrees to become Cut Hand’s winkte wife; an act that brings problems but not from the direction he expected. As the two men work to overcome the differences in their cultural backgrounds, Billy comes to appreciate the Native Americans for their oneness with the land and their staunch loyalty to one another.

To simply say that this story is “plot-driven” does not do it the justice it deserves. This a superbly researched glimpse of “a time never again to be seen on the Great Plains,” and done with such credibility that it is a veritable history lesson in itself. Also woven into this is a sometimes poignant story of love between men: manly men; husbands and wink-te wives; warriors; and yet so human that anyone could identify with them.

While commenting on the superlatives inherent in this work, one shouldn’t overlook the cast of true-to-life characters. Wildyr has given each of these a distinctive character, and then goes on to develop and expand it as the story progresses. Moreover, he has resisted the pitfalls of stereotyping the Natives, especially, and has not attempted to ‘sanitize’ them, either.

Altogether, this is quintessential historical fiction encompassing a fascinating topic and period in history. Five stars.

 

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October 1, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, Gay fiction, Gay historical fiction, Gay romance, Historical Fiction, Two spirits | , | Leave a comment

   

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