Posted in gender studies, immigrants, law, marginalization, sexuality

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

Canaday, Margot. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Margot Canaday is a legal and political historian at Princeton University whose teaching interests include gender and women’s history, the history of sexuality, and American political and legal history.  Her first book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, won seven major awards from a diverse group of organizations, including the Organization of American Historians, the American Political Science Association, the Association of American Law Schools and the Lambda Literary Foundation.  The central argument of the book is that “homosexual identity and modern citizenship crystalized…in tandem with the rise of the federal bureaucracy.”[1] Canaday argues that both identities (citizen and homosexual) are not only configured through state bureaucracy, but that both identities have been formed against one another.

Canaday examines three key areas of government control (immigration, the military, and welfare) to demonstrate how federal enforcement of sexual norms developed simultaneously with the rise of American federal bureaucracy.  Two chapters are dedicated to each of these three arenas, providing a comprehensive analysis of the denial of citizenship to gay people through immigration, military, and welfare policies.[2]  These policies “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behaviour as either outside of or degraded within citizenship.”[3]

The Bureau of Immigration, which was established in 1895, was one of the earliest federal agencies concerned with homosexuality, according to Canaday.[4]  Immigration officials “lumped together aliens who exhibited gender inversion, had anatomical defects, or engaged in sodomy as degenerates.  Degeneracy was a racial and economic construct that explained the ‘immorality of the poor.”[5]  This identification was used to deny or deport poor people, single women (no husband or provider), and people of color, who were believed to be “primitive” and therefore “especially inclined toward perversion.”[6]

Canaday researched a wide variety of primary government sources, including court case testimony and official correspondences, immigration records, Veterans Administration records, and Congressional records.  Secondary resources included medical journal articles and books.

The arguments in this book most closely relate to arguments presented in Impossible Subjects.   Ngai shows how immigration laws were used as a tool for exclusion through the development of the new status of “illegal alien” and how these laws produced racialized identities.  Canaday shows how immigration, military, and welfare policies co-produced identities of homosexual and citizen.  But Ngai does not include an analysis of gender in her discussion, whereas gender is central to Canaday’s argument.

[1] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 255.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 20n.3.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 29.

Posted in 19th century America, 20th century America, African Americans, Christianity, class, immigrants, marginalization, material culture, racism, reformers, religion, sexuality, urban studies

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

Heap, Chad C. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Chad Heap, author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, is an Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. His academic work examines the relationship between sexuality and the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Slumming, Heap explores how, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, affluent white Americans ventured into immigrant and mixed-race neighborhoods in order to ogle, lecture, and cavort with their social inferiors. This slumming not only created spaces that enabled middle-class whites to expand their own racial and sexual boundaries, it contributed to the emergence of a new social order where black/white and hetero/homosexual were being clearly defined. The act of slumming helped to reinforce notions of whiteness and social superiority, as did the post war exodus of whites from the inner cities to the suburbs.

Heap researched a wide range of documents, including local government records, sociological studies, novels, newspapers, and trade magazines. However, Heap claims that the most important evidence came from “the field reports of undercover investigators employed by private anti-vice organizations.” Several maps, illustrations, and photographs support the text.

Heap weaves together a variety of experiences into his definition of slumming. While many readers would readily recognize slumming as late-night dancing, drinking, and sexual exploration, Heap also includes missionary and reform activities into the mix. By adding the popular Protestant reform movements into his narrative, he shows how slumming provided middle-class white men and women with a useful way to define their own moral and social superiority. Heap shows how slumming enabled each dominant group to better define themselves: heterosexuals declared themselves against homosexuals, and whites defined themselves against blacks. In addition, even emerging populations, such as immigrant Italians and Jews, were able to use slumming to define themselves as white.

Heap’s argument differs from than Laura Wexler’s Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism; however, both books offer a fresh perspective on how whiteness (and heteronormativity) is constructed and reinforced through images of the “other.” Both books also suggest that images of domesticity play a leading role in normalizing dominant group identity. Wexler’s analysis shows that domesticity was used as a trope in actual photographs to offer evidence of civilizing Black and Indian cultures, and to downplay the violence of imperialist military endeavors. For Heap, images of domesticity can be found in the geographical containment of whites in the suburbs. The inferior other remains in the chaos and poverty of the inner city.