By Leslie and Jodie
In The Straight State, Princeton University legal and political historian, Margot Canaday, examines the federal bureaucratic process in which U.S. citizens were labeled “others” and excluded from the rights of citizenry. Canaday examines three branches of the government, which construct American citizenry, including immigration, the military, and social/welfare programs. The growth in the permanent military and welfare state, with vastly expanded bureaucratic capabilities and controls, parallels America’s interest in homosexuality and its policing and proscription. Through an initially slow progress beginning in the Progressive era and WWI, federal agencies grew significantly with the New Deal before reaching a regulatory apex in the post-WWII years, when homosexuals were fully formulated as same-sex desiring and/or gender nonconforming threats to status quo heteronormativity and were targeted for exclusion from state benefits and full citizenship.
Canady’s analysis thus traces the political and legal history that helped crystalize the concept of “homosexuality” as both a legal status and identity. She explores the use of official coded language, as homosexuals were targeted for exclusion within American society, and that language was soon applied to policies that would impact immigration, military/civil service, and social service benefits. Drawing upon copious archived federal records, she crafts her six chapters—divided equally into two parts—starting with immigration, moving to the military, and then centering two chapters about state benefits at the heart of the study, straddling parts one and two. The break in the book’s two sections reflects pre- and post-WWII eras, the former tracing a more vague and hedging reaction to queer Americans (and would-be Americans) while the latter era exhibited a more dramatic escalation in the federal policing of homosexuality. Her narrative thus follows an effective and interesting thematic pattern: immigration-military-state benefits-state benefits-military-immigration.
Early in the twentieth century the Bureau of Immigration linked the opportunity for citizenship to morality. Though not well defined, aliens who were considered morally inept were subject to denial of citizenship and deportation (24). While homosexuals were not targeted according to law and regulation (and codified language), specifically, nonetheless ostensibly queer individuals could be spotted by telltale physical attributes and would face deportation for being at risk of becoming a charge of the state—a sufficiently capacious allegation that could embrace almost anyone infirm or somehow undesirable and also lacking sufficient wealth and connections to get them off the hook.
Imperfections in the body combined with inquiries into the intimate details of an immigrant’s life provided an easy avenue of condemnation. Of particular concern were signs of effeminacy in males, anything suggesting queer or less than physically sound in a masculine sense.
Over the span of time Canady notes that although legislation related to and used to identify homosexuals and other queer social rejects shifted from perceived physical characteristics to the realm of mental disorders, the process for excluding homosexuals still required that psychiatrists were an integral part of the process. It would take another twenty years to eliminate the role of psychiatrists in deciding homosexual identity. Although, immigration officials are not allowed to questions aliens sexual preferences, aliens were still questioned indirectly regarding their sexual practices. If discrepancies were detected the immigration status of an alien could be affected.
Chapter 2 Canady analyzes the military industrial complex and discusses tactics utilized by the government to exclude citizens from military service. Similar to policies adapted by the Bureau of Immigration, the military deployed language that othered the citizenry out of service. Canady points out that the military made the jump to link homosexuality to psychopathic behavior whereas immigration linked the new-fangled sexual identity to degenerate behavior (57).
Due to vice activity near bases, the military launched campaigns aimed at keeping soldiers physically healthy and morally upright. The military employed similar requirements as immigration when inducing aliens for military service. Recruits were subjected examination which targeted perceived imperfections of the body (62). For example, men who were labeled as having effeminate characteristics were excluded from service. Some recruits were subjected to multiple examinations.
The military began to gradually shift its focus from physical characteristics to psychological ones. Based on psychological profiles, which were originally intended to place recruits in a job field, tests were developed to determine which recruits were eligible for service. The theory was that degenerate behavior was not necessarily linked to low intelligence. The military began to devise tests that relied on abnormalities in personalities as tool to exclude the citizenry from service.
Moving into the latter twentieth century, the military adopted similar language and exclusionary policies as other governmental agencies. That is, once homosexuality was no longer considered a mental disorder, the military no longer used psychological tests as a means to exclude homosexuals from service. With the passing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, gays were allowed to serve in the uniformed service so long as they kept their sexual preference hidden.
Lastly Canady delves into the federal world of social services. During the Depression the government established New Deal programs to address growing social welfare concerns. One of the programs was aimed primary at men who traveled hobo-style in search of employment, the much suspected and maligned Federal Transient Program. Another program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), was aimed at male youths and intended to prevent them from migrating to other areas of the country and potentially falling prey a queer lifestyle. The FTP was quickly disbanded by the Second New Deal, believed to be a hotbed for perversity among the unattached “bums” in gendered camps, but the latter lasted much longer. The CCC might still exist were conservatives in the 1940s not so determined to dismantle the New Deal social welfare state, to be replaced with the 1944 GI Bill. While some politicians at the time would have been happy to simply dismantle the welfare state and forgo the GI Bill, the abandonment of sixteen million returning veterans to an uncertain, potentially wanadering and unattached (read queer) life was essentially unthinkable. The GI Bill, however, selectively rewarded veterans and heteronormativity and did so at the expense of women, non-whites, and, most especially, homosexuals who did not completely closet their lifestyle. Homosexual was now a distinct legal and proscribed species, thanks to the expansion of a bureaucratic state that chose to legitimize and wield the term “homosexual” to create a brand of second-class citizenship.
1) Canaday sets out to “complicate what has now become a standard interpretation within the field of gay and lesbian history…that extreme state repression of sex and gender nonconformity in the mid-twentieth century was the result of the sudden visibility of gays and lesbians during and after World War II” (2). She posits instead that the constitution and persecution/prosecution of homosexuality only came about after a considerable period of time when the state had time to “puzzle before they power” (3). Do you agree? To what degree is her argument valid?
2) The author argues that “the state crafted citizenship policies that crystallized homosexual identity” (10), which is certainly true, but do you think she ever overstates her case? Is she downplaying the role of sexology, psychology, and religion?
3) The scope of the book stretches from the Progressive era of “muscular Christianity” and vaunting of all that is masculine to the post-WWII extreme of heteronormativity. Considering the fact that a considerable degree of same-sex sexuality and queerness was officially intentionally overlooked, excused, or even condoned, is Canaday overstating the binariness, as it were, of heteronormativity? In other words, is there more that is “queer” going on here, and thus her abstractions rob her subjects of agency?
4) It seems that LGBTs/homosexuals, however defined/labeled over time, have been USED to “other” and promote one or another political agenda. Deployments of “homosexual” or other such language and concepts are useful when the government desires to limit state benefits (FTP) and promote New Deal programs (CCC) or otherwise maintain and vaunt conservative ideals and anti-socialist, anti-communist agendas in the post-war era of the permanent military-industrial complex. Is her analysis of the evolution of the bureaucratizing of “homosexuality” overly boxy, like her sources, not faithfully considering political motivation and ORIGINS of homophobic sentiment, say, in psychology and religion?
5) Considering her sources and organization, did she give women short shrift? Were there really no records documenting, say, the Lumber Jills? Are the federal records so very silent on the topic of women and homosexuality pre-WWII?
6) On page 168 Canaday asks: “Did the specter of perverse sexuality cast a shadow on the idea of universal social provision?” And in a footnote she continues. “This is, of course, a highly speculative point, but one that I intend to suggest future avenues for research….Is there a relationship between the universal social citizenship provided by the Beveridge plan in Britain and the government’s 1957 Wolfenden Report, recommending the decriminalization of homosexual offenses (…enacted in 1967…) What should historians make of the fact that the most socially democratic welfare states (in Scandinavia) have generally been the most progressive in providing rights for sexual minorities? Closer to home, is it only a coincidence that the first state to enact same-sex marriage (Massachusetts) followed that legislation with a pathbreaking plan to provide to its citizens universal health care in the nation?”