Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Book Review: A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

Published: May 10, 2011
Publisher: Beacon Press
Received: purchased
Read from July 20 to September 5, 2021

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Winner of a 2012 Stonewall Book Award in nonfiction

The first book to cover the entirety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history, from pre-1492 to the present.

In the 1620s, Thomas Morton broke from Plymouth Colony and founded Merrymount, which celebrated same-sex desire, atheism, and interracial marriage. Transgender evangelist Jemima Wilkinson, in the early 1800s, changed her name to “Publick Universal Friend,” refused to use pronouns, fought for gender equality, and led her own congregation in upstate New York. In the mid-nineteenth century, internationally famous Shakespearean actor Charlotte Cushman led an openly lesbian life, including a well-publicized “female marriage.” And in the late 1920s, Augustus Granville Dill was fired by W. E. B. Du Bois from the NAACP’s magazine the Crisis after being arrested for a homosexual encounter. These are just a few moments of queer history that Michael Bronski highlights in this groundbreaking book.

Intellectually dynamic and endlessly provocative, A Queer History of the United States is more than a “who’s who” of queer history: it is a book that radically challenges how we understand American history. Drawing upon primary documents, literature, and cultural histories, noted scholar and activist Michael Bronski charts the breadth of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history, from 1492 to the 1990s, and has written a testament to how the LGBT experience has profoundly shaped our country, culture, and history.

A Queer History of the United States abounds with startling examples of unknown or often ignored aspects of American history—the ineffectiveness of sodomy laws in the colonies, the prevalence of cross-dressing women soldiers in the Civil War, the impact of new technologies on LGBT life in the nineteenth century, and how rock music and popular culture were, in large part, responsible for the devastating backlash against gay rights in the late 1970s. Most striking, Bronski documents how, over centuries, various incarnations of social purity movements have consistently attempted to regulate all sexuality, including fantasies, masturbation, and queer sex. Resisting these efforts, same-sex desire flourished and helped make America what it is today.

At heart, A Queer History of the United States is simply about American history. It is a book that will matter both to LGBT people and heterosexuals. This engrossing and revelatory history will make readers appreciate just how queer America really is.


A Queer History of the United States is an attempt to explore exactly what the title says: the history of queer people in the United States. It's part of a whole series of books that explore often overlooked aspects of American history, but covering all of queer American history in one book is a big mission. The book starts before European colonization and ends with the year 1990. It doesn't cover anything beyond that except very briefly in the epilogue, and some more recent events, such as Obergefell v. Hodges, aren't mentioned at all because they happened after the book was published in 2011.

Considering the length of time this book is meant to cover, it's pretty short. Unfortunately, this means that many aspects of queer history are rushed through instead of being explored deeply. This book feels a lot like a highlight reel. It touches on each subject briefly before quickly moving on to the next.

While I do understand the value in a book that tries to cover the breadth of queer American history, this aspect of the book also seemed to do it a disservice. It wasn't just that what was touched on was only touched on briefly; it was also that there's a lot that didn't get touched on at all.

The term "queer" covers a lot of ground, and though the book uses that term in its title, the various groups that fall under the queer umbrella don't get equal coverage within the book. There are a number of queer identities, from asexual to nonbinary, that I don't believe were even mentioned within the book.

These limitations were also found in the language used in the book. It's difficult to use modern terms to label historical figures who never would have known those terms. Of course the book should acknowledge that and discuss how people identified themselves during a given era, which the book does. My concerns are more about the language used even when talking about more recent events.

The word "homosexual" gets a lot of use in this book. It's funny because this book does discuss how the term was coined to make sexuality sound more "scientific," and it also discusses the implications of that as homosexuality came to be viewed as a clinical mental illness. Of course, the word "homosexual" in and of itself isn't offensive, but it struck me as odd that it seemed to be the book's preferred term despite it sounding outdated today. It's also limiting because the term isn't an umbrella term for the entire queer community, but it kept being used throughout the book as if it was. And when "homosexual" wasn't used, "gay men and women" was often the phrase used instead, which, of course, are also not umbrella terms. In fact, those terms only describes a fraction of the queer community, yet they kept being used as if they were inclusive of everyone the book was talking about.

In the end, a lot of my frustrations with this book lie with what's not in it. Queer history is so often overlooked in American history that having just about anything that discusses any part of it feels like it should be a good thing, but I have a hard time overlooking all the places where A Queer History of the United States falls short. It might work as a starting point, but there's a long way to go beyond it.

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