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

November 05, 2009 // 2:00pm4:00pm

Margot Canaday, Assistant Professor of History, Princeton University, author; Siobhan Somerville, Associate Professor of of English, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; Thomas Sugrue, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania

Americans are currently engaged in a major struggle over the civil rights of gay men and lesbians. Last month, President Obama signed into law a bill that makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, but the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act barring marriage between same-sex couples remains the law of the land. The federal government has not always targeted homosexual identity explicitly, historian Margot Canaday argues in her new book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Up until mid-century, various federal agencies used "proxy" criteria to target persons believed to be homosexual and exclude them from the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But from the 1950s on, definitions of homosexuality began to crystallize, and regulation tightened.

In a discussion of the book sponsored by the United States Studies Program on November 5, Canaday described how she came to write The Straight State, the obstacles she faced, and what she hopes it will achieve. Throughout the twentieth century, the author explained, the government used its laws and regulations to identify and extend control over gay men and lesbians in three policy domains: immigration, the military, and welfare. She broke down the process into two periods, breaking in mid-century.

Between 1900 and 1950, she described civil servants "stumbling upon" sexual nonconformity. Regulation began in 1909 with an immigration official's "discovery" of "a new species of undesirable": the "moral degenerate." This term initiated a learning phase in which federal bureaucrats decided that homosexuality was a problem and developed the rhetoric, tools, and experience to control it. For the most part the government implemented its policies indirectly, using vague distinctions such as that between "migratory" and "settled" Americans, and operating through existing programs such as those designed to alleviate poverty or screen military conscripts or potential immigrants

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the policing of homosexuality became more explicit. Vague distinctions hardened into a clear line between straights and homosexuals. Here Canaday challenged previous scholarship by claiming that this shift "was not like a switch, suddenly thrown," but rather the culmination of decades in which government officials developed a conception of what they chose to regulate. The divergence from previous practice lay in the amount of resources the federal government made available for the purpose. The process showed how states "puzzle before they power," by which Canaday meant that exercises of government power required prior experience and judgments about what it is trying to regulate.

Overall, Canaday said, her findings illustrated the definitional capacity of the state, its power to create categories through decisions that set the terms of citizenship. Furthermore, the evidence indicated that the government was regulating status, not conduct. In other words, bureaucrats were not punishing aspiring immigrants, active-duty soldiers, or prospective welfare beneficiaries for any acts they committed, but were denying them the benefits of citizenship simply for being (as they supposed) homosexuals.

In her comments, Siobhan Somerville highlighted two of the book's major contributions. First, she said, Canaday provided a detailed account of state-building "from the bottom up" and showed in detail how the regulation of homosexuality coincided with the rise of federal government power. Especially impressive in these respects was her mastery of a wide range of sources, in which issues of homosexuality did not announce themselves, but lay cloaked in indirect language. Second, The Straight State enabled its readers to imagine alternatives to the present federal system, which usually distributes the benefits of citizenship along lines of marital status and family relations. She pointed specifically toward the Federal Transient Program, a New Deal initiative that supported migrant workers. By addressing the problems of single, unattached people, the program created a material basis for personal autonomy outside of the family.

According to Somerville, Canaday's book also raised questions about the relationship between government policies on sexuality and race. She recalled that the decentralization of the Veterans' Affairs bureaucracy that denied GI Bill benefits to homosexual soldiers came about because of a compromise in Washington that allowed Southern states to make their own decisions about eligibility. Furthermore, the book opened the issue of the differences that might develop between attempts to reform local, state, and federal laws governing sexuality. To date most progress has been made in the states and cities, she said, but more recently hate-crimes legislation has passed the U.S. Congress, while Maine voters have rejected same-sex marriage in a referendum.

Thomas Sugrue praised Canaday for her "synthetic imagination." Her book, he said, made it impossible to think of sexuality and the state separately. It showed the crucial role of the state in constructing homosexual identity and "the closet," and the feedback effects between federal categories and policies. The Straight State also answered a question that had previously baffled him: Why were single men "the biggest losers" in the expansion of federal government power during the New Deal? The answer was that they transgressed a heteronormative bias in government policy, one that consigned unattached males to "an androgynous space, lacking pity."

The book also marked a giant leap in the literature on the welfare state, which to date has mostly progressed in small steps. Sugrue was particularly taken by the disorderliness of the development of government policy. The Straight State was a bracing corrective to deterministic accounts of the growth of federal government, in which the creation of bureaucracies leads to entrenchment and eventually crisis. Instead, Canaday portrayed a process in which the bureaucratic confusion creates jerry-built structures and allowed for many off-roads.

Sugrue was more skeptical, however, of Canaday's strict separation of federal and local jurisdictions. Laws promulgated by Washington, he said, were often vague, so they left considerable discretion to local officials, whether they be federally appointed bureaucrats deciding who was eligible for the GI Bill or municipal administrators interpreting federal guidelines to implement New Deal programs. In such instances, the effective difference between state and local officials was small. There were many parallels between "the white state" and "the straight state" in this respect, for in both cases the process of change occurred at both local and federal levels.

By: Michael Easterly
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies

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