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Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference.

By Scott Bravmann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xv plus 174pp. $54.95/hardcover $16.95/paperback).

In Queer Fictions of the Past, Scott Bravmann seeks not to document the history of lesbians and gay men, but to analyze the "multiple, complex, and inconsistent ways that historical arguments motivate gay and lesbian identities, communities, and politics." (p. ix) Building on the insights of lesbian and gay studies, queer theory, and a variety of other "postmodern" approaches to scholarship, he launches a "queer cultural studies of history" in an effort to challenge scholars' beliefs in the objectivity and stability of historical narratives of lesbian and gay experiences, as well as to explore the complicated interplay between such narratives and competing conceptions of the lesbian and gay present. (p.x)

Focusing this queer cultural studies of history on lesbian and gay historical monographs, Bravmann suggests that scholars "begin thinking about 'the making of the modern homosexual' not as a 'fact' but as an argument." (p. 9) By this he means that lesbian and gay historians should be aware that their accounts of the past do not simply describe historical events and processes, but actually contribute to the naturalization and homogenization of the present-day category of "the homosexual" by contrasting it with preceding, differently-constructed conceptions of identity and sexuality. Against this tendency, Bravmann advances two major correctives. First, he argues that historians must pay closer attention to "queer heterosociality," that is to the multiple (racial, gender, class, generational, geographic, etc.) differences among gay and lesbian subjects in both the past and the present. (p. xii) Second, he proposes that traditional historiography be complemented by new writing practices - including theory, autobiography, fiction, and film - which offer more creative tools for "investigat[ing] queer fictions of the past as interventions into the material present." (p. 97)

Bravmann's close readings of lesbian and gay historiography are, for the most part, insightful and productive. He is correct that many recent monographs have been structured around the premise that present-day lesbian and gay identities are both unified and stable, and is right to point out that this premise has resulted in the inadequate examination of the roles which race and gender (a term he uses to refer only to women's social and cultural differentiation from men) have played in the construction of lesbian and gay pasts and presents. Yet one must ask whether Bravmann does not, at times, hold the few published and pioneering monographs of lesbian and gay history to unreasonably high standards, underestimating their authors' extensive research, analysis, and significant challenge to traditional historiography. Even Bravmann's own book cannot completely satisfy his exacting demand that the multiple differences among gay and lesbian subjects be thoroughly investigated. For instance, his study fails to fully explore the ways in which lesbian and gay histories are marked by class differences, as well as by gendered distinctions among lesbians and gay men (along butch/femme or fairy/"normal"-man axes, for example), both of which are rigorously analyzed in several of the monographs he criticizes.

Bravmann is at his best, however, when he steps away from his critique to construct his own inevitably partial, but ultimately compelling, histories of the political uses and revisions of the lesbian and gay past. In a chapter devoted to an analysis of competing accounts of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, he carefully explores how changing racial, gender, and political concerns have structured successive accounts of this event. Because Stonewall has come to represent a pivotal turning point in the lesbian and gay rights movement, Bravmann argues, its history has gradually been rewritten to be more inclusive of racial and gender differences. According to Bravmann, people of color and drag queens were not mentioned in the earliest accounts but, during the 1980s, were "written into accounts of the riots, perhaps rightly recentering them in narratives of an event which they started and sustained." (p. 79) Similarly, lesbians apparently chose not to emphasize their involvement in the Stonewall uprising until 1979, when their gender-driven alliance with the women's rights movement was increasingly augmented by political alliances with gay men. Although these rewritings of the Stonewall narrative have helped bring lesbians and people of color into mainstream gay politics by situating them at its mythically inclusive origin, Bravmann shows how they have also encouraged lesbians and gay men to overlook the racial and gender tensions and prejudices which continue to fragment the gay community. In other words, he demonstrates not only how the past has been rewritten in terms of present-day concerns, but also how these revisions of the past have altered people's perceptions of the present. (In another chapter, Bravmann subjects lesbian and gay narratives of ancient Greek history to this same rigorous analysis.)

As provocative as Bravmann's project of queer cultural studies of history often is, for the most part it is misnamed in its current formulation; for there is little that is particularly "queer" about this book. While queer theorists have attempted to replace the hetero/homosexual axis of lesbian and gay studies with inquiries structured in terms of "the queer" and "the normal," Bravmann's study remains resolutely focused on lesbians and gay men. One might categorize the book's attention to disruptions of normative historiography as queer, as Bravmann does, but such analyses owe more to deconstruction and other postmodernist critiques of unstable, fragmented, and value-laden historical narratives than to queer theory per se. Throughout his study, Bravmann loses sight of the more pertinently queer enterprise of disrupting normative heterosexuality. He complicates the hetero/homosexual axis of his study by examining racial, gender, and political differences among gay and lesbian subjects, but he never successfully reconfigures his inquiry as an investigation of the normal and the queer. A truly queer cultural studies of history would surely focus on the historical narratives of a variety of non-normative sexual subjects - not just lesbians and gay men, but also bisexuals, transsexuals, fetishists, celibates, sadists, prostitutes, and many other so-called "sexual deviants"-and the challenges they pose to narratives of normative heterosexuality.

University of Chicago
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Heap, Chad
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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