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Men like that: A Southern Queer history. (Reviews).

Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. By John Howard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 395pp. $18.00/paper $27.50/cloth).

In Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, John Howard goes well beyond providing a fascinating case study of Mississippi gay life from 1945 to 1985. In addition to documenting the presence of male same-sex sexualities in places where many readers may least expect to find them, Howard makes major contributions to the history of sexuality, southern history, urban and rural history, civil rights history, and post-WWII history.

In an introduction that challenges the urban, progressive, and identity-based narratives that have dominated the writing of gay history, Howard traces the contours of alternative frameworks that can more fully deal with the queer worlds of rural and small town Mississippians. These are the worlds of both "men like that" and "men (who) like that" (xix). Based on extensive documentary and oral history sources, the book then proceeds in two parts. Part One provides a detailed panorama of queer male life. In the first chapter, readers learn about everyday experiences and memories of queer desires and acts. A second chapter, which explores home, church, school, college, and work, introduces queer locations in the geography of the state. After this, in a third chapter focussed on cities, towns, bars, cars, roads, roadsides, migrations, and mobilizations, readers see social actors moving within and between queer sites, "circulating" in addition to "congregating" (78).

As Howard rightly states, "part 1 is perhaps best viewed as a set of contexts out of which develop, in part 2, a series of changes" (xxi). Chapter Four, "Norms and Laws," uses four episodes--a 1955 murder of an interior decorator, a 1962 arrest of an African American civil rights activist, a 1963 arrest of a Euro-American civil rights activist, and a 1965 arrest of a local symphony conductor--to trace shifts in sexual and gender norms and crackdowns on queers in the midst of the civil rights movement. Chapter Five, "Representations," explores a rich range of queer novels, physique art, newspaper articles, music, and films, including the popular suicide narrative "Ode to Billy Joe." Here Howard traces multiple discourses of same-sex sexualities; multiple racial, class, and regional relationships; and multiple authors and audiences. Chapter Six, "Politics and Beliefs," focuses on gay identity politics, examining the Mississippi Gay Alliance of the 1970s and the Metropolitan Community Church of the 1980s. Chapte r Seven, "Scandals," provides revealing accounts of the political careers of U.S. Representative Jon Hinson and Mississippi Governor Bill Allain, both of whom faced public accusations concerning same-sex sexualities in the 1980s. An epilogue introduces one final figure, an African American man whose complicated oral history narrative is filled with ambiguous references to the sexes of his sexual partners and who thus reintroduces several of the central themes of Men Like That.

Howard's first major accomplishment is that he documents the distinctive presence of queer life in the South. As he states in the introduction, "male-male desire in Mississippi was well enmeshed in the patterns of everyday life" and "men interested in intimate and sexual relations with other men found numerous opportunities to act on their desires, and did so within the primary institutions of the local community--home, church, school, and workplace" (xi). Instead of describing an environment of brutal anti-queer hostility, Howard writes that "homosexuality and gender insubordination were acknowledged and accommodated with a pervasive, deflective pretense of ignorance" (xi). "Around deviant sexuality," he concludes, "a quiet accommodation was the norm" (142). Working to avoid presenting the south as exotic, backwards, or premodern, Howard explores the unique character of southern queer life.

Men Like That also succeeds in challenging the notion that queer life was necessarily urban. It does so by emphasizing that many gay Mississippians chose to remain in or return to this predominantly rural and small-town state, and by treating those who did with a minimum of pathos or nostalgia. In addition to examining rural worlds on their own terms, Howard persuasively argues for "an understanding of urban centers not only as centripetal, but also as centrifugal-- locations from which emanate any number of forays and journeys, many of which are short term, leading to a variety of opportunities for encounters, meetings, and rendezvous" (14).

While pushing the parameters of gay history beyond urban communities, Howard also transgresses the boundaries of self-conscious gay identities. As he explains, while many of his oral history narrators were gay-identified, "many men with whom they had contact--men who experienced or acted on male-male desire, men who liked that--didn't identify as gay" (5). Rather than seeing the latter as closeted or premodern, Howard regards them as queer, with their own distinctive sensibilities. And so his book is filled with stories of adolescents, bachelors, and married men, many of whom saw themselves as "straight," some of whom were murderously anrigay, but all of whom participated in worlds of queer desires and acts. Working to move gay history out of a gay ghetto, Howard concludes that "gay communities existed alongside and within broader queer networks; self-identified gay men shared spaces with presumably large numbers of non-gay-identified queers" (78).

Yet another accomplishment of Men Like That is that the book challenges the notion that queer life necessarily improved over the course of this period. Mote specifically, Howard argues that "it was in fact not the 'conformist fifties' but rather the 'free love sixties' that marked the most strident, organized resistance to queer sexuality in Mississippi" (xv). To the extent that the civil rights movement, in reality and perception, was linked to queer sexualities, massive resistance to the former was accompanied by massive repression of the latter. Moreover, beginning in the 1970s, "late-twentieth-century queer empowerment foreclosed the quiet accommodation of difference characteristic of the 1940s and 1950s" (xvii).

Howard also breaks new ground in exploring intersections between the history of sexuality and the history of race. He does this in his discussions of the civil rights movement, but also in his explorations of the racial dynamics of pulp fiction and physique photography. Particularly interesting discussions of race emerge in Howard's accounts of two white politicians: Rep. Hinson, who was able to avoid an end to his political career when he was accused of penetrative oral sex with a white man but not when he was accused of giving oral stimulation to a black man, and Gov. Allain, whose campaign for election was nearly destroyed when the public heard reports that he had had sex with several black drag queens.

In the end, after reading this groundbreaking study, I am left with several questions about how the narrative of U.S. history now looks different. Certainly U.S. gay urban, northern, and western historians would be well-advised to qualify the conclusions they draw from studies that ignore the rural and southern. U.S. southern historians would be well-advised to qualify the conclusions they draw from studies that ignore the queer. In addition, historians who focus on the history of gay-identified individuals, communities, and movements should consider the broader world of same-sex sexual desires and behaviors, while historians of straight-identified individuals, communities, and movements should consider the "queer" and the "queers" in their midst. Finally, all historians of sexuality are encouraged to avoid simplistic narratives of progress.

That said, I wonder how far Howard would extend the reach of his arguments. It seems to me that in 20th century U.S. history gay-identified individuals, communities, and movements in urban worlds, along with their lesbian counterparts, continue to merit significant and substantial attention. Howard's book itself focuses a great deal of attention on the city of Jackson. And while queering gay history by concentrating on same-sex acts and behaviors is one way to move gay history out of a ghetto, it's not the only way. Howard is too good a historian to ever explicitly suggest otherwise, but some readers might take this as an implication of his work. Also, would Howard literally argue that life for gays and queers became worse over the course of his period, or is he instead offering a corrective to those who see only progress?

Howard's admirable insistence on historical particularism and multicultural inclusion raises another set of questions. To what extent should the "southern" and the "rural" be conflated in 20th century U.S. history? As a historian who has contemplated working on a project on the queer rural history of northern New England, I recognize as familiar some but not all of what Howard has to say about the South. At the very least, queer life in the far north has probably been more indoors than it has been in the deep south. I also wonder about Howard's claim that "queer Christians" were alienated by the identity politics favored by the Mississippi Gay Alliance but were attracted to the "more expansive definition of gayness" articulated by Christian gay churches (231). These definitions may have been more expansive in some respects, but certainly not to non-Christians. Finally, I'm intrigued by Howard's claims that "sex play across the color line was rare" (43) and that "desegregation enabled more--if seldom more egal itarian--interactions across the racial divide" (xvi), but I wonder if there's enough evidence assembled here to make these claims. In fact, I finished this book impressed by Howard's sophisticated interpretations of several widely-publicized cross-racial sexual encounters, but missing a larger social sense of how cross-racial sexualities changed over time.

All of that said, a book that generates these types of complicated questions is doing important work. Historians have John Howard to thank for an outstanding study that is a model of courage and achievement.
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Author:Stein, Marc
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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