“All history really up to now has been written by straight historians”

Some history not written by straight historians
Some history not written by straight historians

Earlier this week, the Arts Beat blog at the New York Times published excerpts of Patrick Healy’s interview with Larry Kramer about Kramer’s 4,000-page The American People project—“envisioned as a national history of homosexuality” and now, apparently, forthcoming in 2012 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in what the publisher terms a two-volume “work of fiction.”

Kramer’s a complex and important figure. (The essays in the collection We Must Love One Another or Die make that clear, as does this fascinating 2009 New York magazine profile.) A single blog post does not provide nearly enough space to grapple with him satisfactorily. But the Times interview does prompt me to comment briefly on the American People project and the reception it’s already receiving.

Kramer has elaborated elsewhere on some of the project’s conclusions. One seems to be that just about any famous white male historical personage you can think of (George Washington, Meriwether Lewis, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce) was “gay”; another, that queer theory and gender studies are essentially useless.

I and many others think these conclusions are, respectively, dramatically oversimplified and simply incorrect.

Kramer, of course, has every right to articulate whatever version of gay history he’d like, and his long and important history as an activist, author, and polemicist inevitably gives him a huge megaphone. But the media, and the gay blogosphere too, have a corresponding responsibility to be judicious in reporting Kramer’s assertions. Indeed, he pretty much invites push-back when he says things like, the book “makes a lot of claims, and some of them are substantiated more than others, and I don’t want to be forced to have to defend everything.”

Even despite the skeptical tone of Healy’s interview, Kramer still makes claims—primarily, “All history really up to now has been written by straight historians, and they just haven’t got a clue”—that are wildly exaggerated.

I get that purposeful wild exaggeration is sort of Kramer’s thing. But in this case, it serves less to illuminate an uncomfortable truth and more as a cover for Kramer’s disagreement with how most gay, lesbian, and queer historians of the last few decades do gay, lesbian, and queer history. So it shouldn’t pass without challenge.

I get, too, that one can’t expect every journalist and blogger to be well-versed in the latest historiographical trends. But—despite gay, lesbian, and queer history’s continuing struggles to win attention and respect inside and outside the academy—it’s not a big secret that there are other historians out there doing this work. Historians’ role in the Prop 8 trial and verdict earlier this year was national news; so was Justice Kennedy’s reliance on a brief by historians of sexuality in his opinion in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. Within the last year, in the Arts section of the Times alone, the documentary Stonewall Uprising, based on David Carter’s book Stonewall, was a critics’ pick, and Justin Spring’s new book on Samuel Steward was featured, reviewed, and promoted in a multimedia presentation.

In other words, it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, take having a subscription to GLQ or the Journal of the History of Sexuality to know that about these historians and the work they do. When Kramer’s book is published, keeping these alternative voices in the public conversation will be important.

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