Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present

By Blackmore, David | Transformations, September 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present


Blackmore, David, Transformations


Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present.

In the introduction to his new survey of recent lesbian and gay history in the Western world, Nell Miller early on acknowledges his indebtedness to leading scholars in gay and lesbian studies:

[Out of the Past] makes no pretense to original research: It is the work of a journalist who covered many of the gay and lesbian political events of the 1970s and `80s in the United States, but who is not a professional historian. It depends almost entirely on the work of scholars who, in the past fifteen years, have opened up a field that, as once was the case with other minorities and women, was neglected, or "hidden from history"....

Citing such leading researchers as Jonathan Ned Katz, Lillian Faderman, George Chauncey, Randy Shilts, Blanche Wiesen Cook and Walter Williams, Miller notes that he has attempted "to bring together the research of many of these investigators in a lively and accessible narrative that [he hopes] will create a coherent picture of the momentous developments of the past 125 years." It is not surprising, then, that this narrative's greatest strengths -- and its most severe limitations -- reflect the strengths and limitations of the scholarship on which it is based.

After the brief, but extremely important, introduction, in which Miller situates the recent Western history of homosexuality in relation to earlier Western and non-Western histories of same-sex desire, the book is broken down chronologically into seven major sections. Section 1, entitled "The `Invention' of Homosexuality," examines the ways in which late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century scientific discourses transformed dominant notions about sexuality and helped solidify a specifically homosexual identity for the first time in history. In addition to chapters on the European sexologists, romantic friendships between women, and the early gay liberation movement in Germany, other chapters look at historical figures such as Walt Whitman, the Native American "berdache" We'wha, and Oscar Wilde. As is the case throughout the book, each chapter is supplemented by a brief profile of a celebrity now presumed to have been gay or lesbian, an excerpt from various types of texts by gay or lesbian authors, and/or an official report on a gay or lesbian issue by a contemporary scholar or journalist. For example, the chapter on romantic friendships offers profiles of Willa Cather and Eleanor Roosevelt, the chapter on "England During the Great War" excerpts a passage from E.M. Forster's Maurice, and the chapter on sexologists concludes with two case studies from Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion. Section II, "Four Bohemias," makes historical pitstops at four sites of vibrant queer activity in the early 1900s: Greenwich Village, Harlem, Paris and Bloomsbury. Next, "The Triumph of Ideology" documents the persecution of homosexuals in Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany, and the World War II-era United States military. Section IV, "Before Stonewall," contrasts the anti-gay rhetoric of Joseph McCarthy and 1950s mental health professionals with such varied forms of queer resistance as the butch-femme culture of working-class lesbian bars and the early homophile movement. Section V tracks the "Gay Liberation Decades," from Stonewall through the 1970s of Harvey Milk and Anita Bryant to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Section VI, "The International Scene," marks the book's only significant incursion into non-Western territory; a brief chapter on contemporary Japan is supplemented by a chapter on "Communism and Fascism" which looks at China, Cuba, and Argentina as well as Russia and East Germany. Finally, Section VII lauds the Clinton years as "The Gay Moment," leading to an Epilogue in which Miller locates homosexuality at "the center of American political and cultural life."

Reading Out of the Past is in many ways like browsing through some of the most important texts which have appeared during the recent explosion of lesbian and gay historical scholarship.

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