The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America


The Straight State is the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling new evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today.

Canaday looks at three key arenas of government control--immigration, the military, and welfare--and demonstrates how federal enforcement of sexual norms emerged with the rise of the modern bureaucratic state. She begins at the turn of the twentieth century when the state first stumbled upon evidence of sex and gender nonconformity, revealing how homosexuality was policed indirectly through the exclusion of sexually "degenerate" immigrants and other regulatory measures aimed at combating poverty, violence, and vice. Canaday argues that the state's gradual awareness of homosexuality intensified during the later New Deal and through the postwar period as policies were enacted that explicitly used homosexuality to define who could enter the country, serve in the military, and collect state benefits. Midcentury repression was not a sudden response to newly visible gay subcultures, Canaday demonstrates, but the culmination of a much longer and slower process of state-building during which the state came to know and to care about homosexuality across many decades.

Social, political, and legal history at their most compelling, The Straight State explores how regulation transformed the regulated: in drawing boundaries around national citizenship, the state helped to define the very meaning of homosexuality in America.


For all orderly processes, we must in some way
classify man.
—Dr. Dahlgren, surgeon, U.S. Public Health Service,
testifying in Rosenberg v. Fleuti

Measured against other Western democracies at the dawn of the twentieth century, the American state—slow to develop, small in size, and limited in capability—stood out as distinctive. Fifty years later, a period of expansion had produced a state that was finally European in its heft, but still exceptional in another way: in terms of its homophobia. “There appears to be no other major culture in the world,” Alfred Kinsey wrote in 1953, in which homosexual relationships were “so severely penalized.” Not only was the United States “the only major power in

See, for example, many of the essays in, and especially the introduction to, Margaret
Weir, Ann Shola Orloff, and Theda Skocpol, eds., The Politics of Social Policy in the United
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988); Brian Balogh, “The State of the
State among Historians,” Social Science History 27 (Fall 2003): 456; Meg Jacobs and Julian
E. Zelizer, “The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History,”
in The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History, ed. Meg Jacobs,
William J. Novak, and Julian E. Zelizer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003),
2. My representation of the early twentieth-century state as a fledgling bureaucracy refers
to the federal state. William Novak has argued convincingly that state and local govern
ments were quite vigorous in nineteenth-century America. See William J. Novak, The
People's Welfare: Law and Regulation in 19th Century America
(Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1996). I do not find Novak's more recent article applying this no
tion of a vigorous state more broadly (across all levels of government) as persua
sive. William J. Novak, “The Myth of the 'Weak' American State,” American Historical Re
113 (June 2008): 752–72. Several scholars (Richard John, Jerry Mashaw, and Richard
White, among others) have identified pockets of federal authority throughout American
history. Yet relative to what existed in Europe at that moment, as well as to what came
later, the tools and resources available to the federal state in 1900 were limited.

Alfred C. Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1953),
483. Kinsey's observation was not unique: “In contrast to England and the United States,
the majority of European states do not proscribe homosexual acts between consenting
adults. Austria, Germany, and Norway are the only European countries that do so, but in . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.