Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reviewed: Canaday, The Straight State

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday is reviewed by Steven Epstein, Northwestern University, in The Nation. Epstein writes:
It is not really news that inhabitants of the United States are governed by what historian Margot Canaday calls, in the title of her excellent book, a "straight state." For some time now, scholars of sexuality (following in the footsteps of those who have studied and challenged the race and gender hierarchies embedded in state policies and actions) have professed the analytical goal of what historian Lisa Duggan, writing in 1994, called "queering
the state." These scholars have argued that the supposed naturalness of the heterosexual couple, and the unnaturalness of alternatives, is presumed and reinforced in the ordinary workings of government. Canaday's substantial contribution is to trace, in gripping and at times horrifying detail, exactly how the United States came to operate in this fashion over the course of much of the twentieth century. The Straight State provides a compelling history of the designation of "the homosexual as the anticitizen."

Through a sustained focus on three specific and consequential areas of bureaucratic rule--immigration, the military and welfare, each the topic of two chapters in the book--Canaday demonstrates how anticitizenship has been established and enforced as government officials, courts and politicians have struggled to make sense of sexual nonconformity. Although her scholarship emphasizes the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, it could not be more timely in its lessons. Only by accurately mapping the sedimentation of exclusion in policies and decrees laid down by bureaucrats over time, Canaday insists, can we continue, step by necessary step, to dismantle the formal barriers to full citizenship--a process that, she notes, really began succeeding only in 1990 with the lifting of a uniform federal ban on homosexual immigrants to the United States.

The Straight State is a captivating, engagingly written work of social, political, legal and sexual history, and the fruit of an extraordinary attention to archival documents....The trail cut by The Straight State traverses a swath of eras and institutions....For Canaday, "the state" is no abstraction. Taking a fine-grained approach, she insists that the state is "what officials do," whether it's worrying about what transient men get up to when the lights go out or deciding which men and women who served in World War II should be issued the "blue discharges" that made them ineligible for benefits. (There were about 9,000 cases of the latter.) In particular, it seems, what officials did was develop elaborate screening mechanisms to police the boundaries of belonging....

Canaday's argument is that in the United States, the processes of state-building, the exclusion of sexual minorities from the ranks of citizenship and the definition of a modern concept of homosexuality were mutually reinforcing.
Continue reading here.