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American History is Queer History: An Interview with Michael Bronski

Beacon Press is proud to announce that A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski is this year's Lambda Literary Award winner for LGBT Nonfiction. The news came at last night's Lammy Awards, as we were preparing to post the first in an eight-part series of interviews with Michael Bronski about the book. The interviews were conducted by Richard Voos. Listen or read below to find out why American History is Queer History.  

Listen to A Queer History of the United States, Episode One


What's the difference between a "Queer History" and a "regular" history?

 As I was writing the book and as the book was being edited, we decided that actually that was a little bit too literal, and that what we wanted to do was a Queer History, which would be rather a history of a sensibility rather than a history of what certain people did or didn't do. I think that a Queer sensibility would be a sensibility that would be from the outside. So whereas LGBT people may have lived to a large degree on the outside--although not always since many of these people were in fact not openly gay at the time--what the book does is that it looks at American History from the point of view of an outsider. So in this sense, it's not that different than, say, a black sensibility or a Latino sensibility. 

One of the things that always comes up is the terminology, and you discuss this in the Introduction and the first chapter. The language used even in the last one hundred and twenty years--gay, homosexual, invert, Sapphist--none of that existed of course when the Mayflower landed or in the first hundred or two hundred years of US History. So, how do you write a "Queer" history of the United States given that the terms and the identity and the social meanings have changed really radically over five hundred years?

I think one of the reasons we were attracted to the word "Queer" is its non-specificity. So, by "Queer," it's being used generally, meaning a point of view an outsider or a "deviant"-- non-normative experience. But you are completely right. Certainly words such as "gay" and "lesbian," "homosexual" were not used two hundred years ago in many cases. I think that none of these words were used for the first four hundred years of American history--my book begins in 1492. It is a tricky feat to actually use contemporary words to describe the activities, the emotions, the feelings, the sensibilities of people who lived five hundred years ago, or three hundred years ago. I tried for the most part not to use those words, and simply to let the people speak in their own words, and to evaluate what they were saying and what they were doing without putting our modern sensibilities onto them. 

The core argument in your book is that American History is Queer History. Lay out the argument for us if you would.

Since the 1960s, there have been movements to include those people who have been "left out" of American history. So we see Women's History, African-American history, Latino history, Native American history. And certainly when we think about Gay and Lesbian or GLBT history, that's the same impulse--to bring Gay and Lesbian people back into American history. When I began writing the book, it struck me that the more research I did, that while this project was well-intentioned, it was rather unnecessary. That in fact gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people, African-American people, Latino people, women have always been in American history. So the very process of separating people out in order to put them back in seemed to me to be shortsighted. So the purpose of the book as I began writing it became clearer and clearer--it was simply to identify and find the LGBT people that are in American history already. The more I did this, what I discovered was that there were so many people, so many events, people's lives, people's personalities were so intertwined with what we think of as American history that there was no separation at all. 

Can you give us one or two examples that would connect what we all learned in elementary and high school about American History to the idea that the queers were here all along?


There are a multitude of examples. Two that come to mind immediately are, in the 19th Century, the 1850s, we have an intense relationship between Charles Sumner, a senator from Massachusetts who was one of the leading abolitionists, who had an intimate, passionate relationship with Samuel Gridley Howe, one of the major reformers of American culture back then. This is the man who started Perkins School for the Blind and completely reformed our notion of dealing with different physical disabilities. The letters between the two men are quite striking, and even though both of them were married--Samuel Howe actually was married to Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic--their relationship was sustaining to both of them. When Howe was on his honeymoon with Julia Ward Howe, he received word that Charles Sumner was very upset and wrote him a passionate note saying that he wished that he was there with them. Interestingly, Sumner himself married later. They have complicated relationships. Julia Ward Howe, although this was only discovered about ten years ago, wrote a novel about a hermaphrodite--a man/woman who loves both men and women--that most critics now think was her own meditation on her husband's bisexuality.

I recall hearing about Charles Sumner in high school. There was a famous fistfight in the Senate that he was involved in. Obviously, we all know the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And your purpose is to connect their queer lives into American History in a way that has not been done before. 

Right. And I think there are two ways of looking at it. One way of looking at it is to say, "This is sort of interesting. This is some extra stuff we didn't know before." And we can actually prove it. We have letters, we have diaries, we have unpublished novels. But I think that's a simplistic way of looking at it. I think a more complicated way is to ask, "What did this have to do with their relationships? What did Sumner's queerness have to do with his abolition stand? What did Howe's queerness have to do with his drivenness to reform society? What did Julia Ward Howe's realtionship to her husband have to do with her impulses to the early suffrage movement and for liberation of women?" So, I think that when we look at the larger picture, the queerness, the sexuality, the really complicated sexual relationships, are integral to these people's desire to change the world and make it better. 

And you said you have an example from the twentieth century as well.

Eleanor_Roosevelt_in_New_York_City_-_NARA_-_195376I think we see a very similar situation, and similar also in the sense that these are people involved in a heterosexual marriage, when we look at the career and life of Eleanor Roosevelt. We know now, thanks to historian Blanche Weisen Cook, that Eleanor had a very complicated, intimate, most-probably sexual relationship with Lorena Hickok, who was a journalist. At one point, Eleanor moved her into the White House with her. And that Hickok's reporting upon Eleanor Roosevelt was integral to Eleanor Roosevelt's promotion of herself as a social reformer. Along with this, we do know that Eleanor Roosevelt had a wide, wide circle of female friends, many of whom were lesbians, many of whom were involved with social work. These women as an aggregate were called "Roosevelt's Brain Trust." And, in fact, Eleanor brought them to Washington and they were instrumental in forming the New Deal. Francis Perkins, one of Eleanor's intimate friends, was the first woman to head the Labor Department. So I think when we're looking at Eleanor Roosevelt's life, it's not just interesting that she had this affair with a woman-- she also apparently had an affair with her chauffer, named Earl Miller, as well, so Eleanor's life was complicated-- but what is really amazing that there is this circle of friends--which, again, Blanche Weisen Cook calls "female support networks"--that literally changed our very notions of how social work functions in American society and how reform functions. All again based upon lesbian--or women being intimate with women--relationships.