Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present
by Neil Miller
Vintage Books $16,660 pp.
Neil Miller will read in the Adams House Upper Common on April 19 at 8 p.m.
From John Boswell's National Book Award-winning Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, to Randy Shilt's best-selling And the Band Played On, to George Chauncey's highly acclaimed Gay New York, the past fifteen years haVE seen a transformation of gay and lesbian history into one of the trendiest fields in publishing and academia.
However, in this increasingly crowded bandwagon of scholarship, no one book has captured all of modern gay and lesbian history. There has been no good reference for the curious, no inclusive suvey, no accessible high school textbook about gay history. Neil Miller's new Out History from 1869 to the Present is such a work.
Miller takes as his central assumption that the defining of the "homosexual" in the late 19th century effectively began the concept of a gay and lesbian culture and shared history. After people began to identify themselves by sexual orientation, gay identity and community developed through a mixture of political and social forces such as psychoanalytic theory, the growth of capitalism, the rise of secularism, the World Wars, the sexual revolution and the power of the left.
Miller traces the development of the modern gay and lesbian community from Walt Whitman's poetry through the Bohemias of the 1920s to the Homophile movement of the 1950s and the age of AIDS, concluding with the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency. Flipping through the book, you might see the section on the bizarre "Fruit Machine," a device used to detect homosexuality in Canadian civil servants during the 1950s by measuring the how wide a man's pupils dilated when he was shown a picture of a naked man. Such seemingly archaic trivia is engrossing, but most of the text focuses on major gay historical events such as the Oscar Wilde trial or the formation of ACT-UP.
Though Miller's book is rare in its equal balance of gay and lesbian history, its geographical slant strongly favors Western cultures. Miller persuasively argues that the trends that led to the formation of a gay identity and community in the West did not appear in other areas until the past decade. Where such trends have developed, such as in Japan or Cuba, he covers them insightfully.
While Out of the Past is a rather comprehensive history, Miller makes no pretense of being an historian. He's a journalist who covered American gay and lesbian politics in the 70s and 80s and wrote the travel narratives In Search of Gay America and Out in the World, neither of which seeks the historical reach of his new book. In Out of the Past, Miller consolidates the work of other historians, journalists, sociologists and anthropologists who have been seminal to the burgeoning field of gay studies. There is very little original research, and that is fine--Miller is not trying to be Barbara Tuchman or John Boswell.
Out of the Past is formatted like a high school history book. The majority of the text is historical narrative, while smaller sections profile major players in gay and lesbian history like Marguerite Yourcenar and Michel Foucault or present excerpts from important and representative texts about the gay experience of the period. The first time Miller mentions an important figure, his or her name is highlighted with bold type. This familiar form makes the book incredibly accessible and straight-forward.
By highlighting people literally and within his text, Miller emphasizes the actions of individuals over events or trends in gay and lesbian history. Miller's stress on the person serves several purposes. First and most sublime, this tactic is reader friendly. We love to read personal narratives.
There's something thrillingly voyeuristic about discovering that a well-known Tammany Hall politician was actually a woman who fooled her cronies and two wives, or finding out what T.E. Laurence was really doing in the Arabian desert.
Second, it is a great way to measure the historical gay and lesbian population. This technique brings to light important figures in history, but is somewhat problematic. Though some of the figures he mentions have not been proven to be gay or lesbian, Miller claims them anyway. He knows that he will get flack for his discussions onfEleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes, so he props up his rhetoric. The fact that their sexuality (and that of others') is ambigous or incomplete, he says, "elucidate[s] the lack of sexual clarity of the times in which they lived." Still, there is no reason to claim as gay or lesbian people whose sexualities were just amiguous.
Third, reading these biographies shows the suffering and pain this population has endured to reach its contemporary status. To Miller's credit, the profiles are not always congratulatory, and fairly portray both the negative and the positive episodes in gay and lesbian history
In almost every chapter, an excerpt from a famous or important primary source is quoted. Sections of Havelock Ellis'Sexual Inversion, for example, explain the methods of the famed "sexologist." The unsettling passage from E.M. Forster's Maurice in which a troubled young man confesses his homosexuality to a dismissive, unsympathtic doctor sticks in the mind of the reader. While the use of primary sources in historical works is certainly not an original method, reading what intellectuals had to say about the gay experience of their era is invaluable to the reader's understanding.
Though much of the recent work in gay studies has been remarkably political in its use of scholarship and sources, Out of the Past avoids this bent. While Boswell undermined the Christian condemnation of homosexuality and Shilts exposed government inaction and corruption, Miller is just providing a resource. Some might say that just claiming the existence of a gay and lesbian history is a political statement, but Miller's book proves that this is an invalid point. Out of the Past is an accessible, entertaining and thorough reference to a subject whose scope we are just now discovering.