This site is the most comprehensive on the web devoted to trans history and biography. Well over 1200 persons worthy of note, both famous and obscure, are discussed in detail, and many more are mentioned in passing - especially in the year-end summaries (see links in right sidebar.)

There is a detailed Index arranged by vocation, doctor, activist group etc.

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04 May 2012

Michael Bronski's A Queer History of the United States - a review

From our perspective we can divide gay and lesbian histories into three kinds:
  1. those that attempt to eliminate all trans presence, and to minimize if it cannot be eliminated.  A few drag queens may pop up for Stonewall, but then politely disappear again.  Charles Kaiser's  The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996, 1997, is such.
  2. those that feature trans anecdotes, often anecdotes nowhere else available.  George Chauncey's Gay New York, 1994, and Matt Cook (ed). A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages, 2007, are good examples.  Those who pay attention to my source notes know that I have found many stories in such books.
  3. those that follow in the shadow of Jonathan Katz' Gay American History, 1976.  That is: trans men are regarded as feisty lesbians crossdressing for work or for travel, and 'berdaches' (they tend to still use that word) are regarded as a type of gay men.  Katz has apologized for the attitude in his early books, and the reprints on have appropriate corrections.

Which brings us to:

  • Michael Bronski. A Queer History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011. 
The title says 'queer' not 'gay and lesbian'.  In addition the cover photographs include a trans man, Calamity Jane, and a Boston march poster with the word 'transgender'.  The purchaser of the book is therefore entitled to expect B and T and other as well as G and L.   However she will be disappointed in such an expectation.  Bisexuality gets a glancing mention on page 218, and that is it.

There is much value in Bronski's book if you want a history of the gay and lesbian  experience in the US, and the book spends much time on the changing social construction of heterosexuality, masculinity and femininity.  He does not say this himself, but he in effect queers heterosexuality by showing that it is constructed, that is, not unchanging and natural as some of its champions insist.

In terms of gay content, I was surprised that there is nothing on Friedrich von Steuben, one of George Washington's most important generals.  Also, it is a common opinion that male homosexual couples have changed over the last two or three generations from an older male with a younger of lower status to a couple of similar age and status.  Bronski says nothing about this, pro or con.  Nor does he discuss that pedophilia was once an accepted part of gay, but now is not, while trans was out for a long time and is now in.  Likewise the shift from the definitions of homosexuality as behaviour 60 years ago to definitions as identity now.

Like Susan Stryker's Trangender History, Bronski mentions the androgynous aspects of the hippie/freak culture of the late sixties, but says nothing of queer punk or queer Goth. 

However this is a review from a trans perspective.  Bronski is obviously most comfortable with female transvestites.  The only trans person who gets a two-page discussion is the 19th-century actress Charlotte Cushman.  There are also entries on the religious androgyne Jemima Wilkinson and rebel soldier Deborah Sampson.  There are two pages on the Civil War cross-dressers, and Bronski comes to the usual conclusion that Albert Cashier is the one who stands out as transgender.

There is no entry in the index for drag performers, but there are brief mentions of Julian Eltinge, Gladys Bentley and 'Gloria Swanson' (although the latter two are not in the index).  Earl Lind/Jennie June, who is claimed as both gay and trans, is mentioned.  Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson are in as being excluded from GAA and founding transgender activism.

So 99% of US trans history is missing.  None of the trans historians, Stryker, Meyerowitz, Zagria, get a single mention.  Nor does Christine Jorgensen.

In the section that tells of the Matachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, it would have been appropriate to include FPE/Tri-Ess as its values were similar.   One, Inc is mentioned a few times, but what is not mentioned is its financing by Reed Erickson, nor his other work with EEF.   One, Inc and Alan Ginsburg's problems with mail censorship are mentioned but not Virginia Prince's trial.

The evolution of glamour drag within 19th-century black-face minstrelsy - a particularly US cultural effect - is not mentioned.

There is nothing on Phil Black, the New York Balls and the evolution of the Paris is Burning scene.

The problems of lesbian feminism vs straight feminism are discussed, but the only mention of trans feminism mentioned is the attack by Janice Raymond (also not in index).  The pivotal incidents with Beth Elliott and Sandy Stone are omitted.  Nor is it admitted how many gay men endorsed Raymond.

The removal of homosexuality from the DSM is recounted but there is no mention that trans conditions were promptly put into the DSM as replacements.

There is nothing at all on medical support for and control of trans persons such as Belt, Benjamin, Stoller, Green etc.

In summary, Bronski does not seem to be interested in the trans part of the queer spectrum.

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