on lgbt history

Mini nonfiction reviews of three books detailing LGBT history: Kenji Yoshino’s Covering, Robert Fieseler’s Tinderbox, and C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides.

In addition to reading Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution, a comprehensive look at the rise of the gay rights movement in postwar America, this week I also had the chance to check out a few other books on (American) LGBT history.

I finished Kenji Yoshino’s Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Robert Fieseler’s Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, and C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity.

Although I can only recommend Covering without reservation, I enjoyed reading all three books and learned a lot from each. I’m always looking to learn more about history, so if anyone has any suggestions for further reading, I’d love to discuss them in the comments. Mini reviews of the three books I read are included below!

fullsizeoutput_2c95In his moving blend of memoir and political theory, Covering, Kenji Yoshino alternates between recounting his own experiences as a gay Japanese-American man and elaborating upon his thesis that American life today is shaped by the demand to “cover,” or downplay, stigmatized identities. In the book’s first half the author convincingly demonstrates that, since the end of WWII, gays and lesbians have in turn faced the demands to convert, pass, and, finally, cover. He then pivots to considering how “covering” and “reverse-covering” also describe the legal situation that people of color and women face in America, and he concludes that new kinds of far-reaching social movements are needed to end the demand to cover. Yoshino’s argument at times can come across as oversimplified and short on tangible solutions, but his prose is beautiful and he succinctly describes the trajectory of gay and lesbian postwar history.

fullsizeoutput_2c7fWritten in the wake of the Pulse shooting, Tinderbox recounts the untold story of the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, a senseless act of arson in 1973 that killed dozens of gay men in New Orleans. The book is divided into three parts, with the first focusing on the events leading up to the fire as well as the fire itself, the second on the tragedy’s immediate aftermath, the third on community leaders’ attempt to memorialize the long-forgotten disaster decades after it happened. Across all three sections author Robert Fieseler sketches moving portraits of the fire’s victims, and he precisely charts the state of gay life in New Orleans during the seventies. Fieseler unfortunately is far less successful in connecting the fire to the rise of gay liberation, which comes across as alien to the deeply closeted city, and the book’s thesis isn’t entirely clear. Tinderbox has many compelling scenes, but the author seems uncertain about the significance of the fire.

fullsizeoutput_2c96Meticulously researched and daring in ambition, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity fails to deliver on its promises but nevertheless offers an interesting set of cultural readings. The title misleadingly frames this book as a history of Black trans identity, but the author quickly admits in his introduction that he won’t actually be offering history, neither about the emergence of trans as an identity nor about the changing social life of Black trans people in America. Instead C. Riley Snorton examines a series of disparate case studies that illustrate the ways in which transness has been constructed as inextricable from Blackness since its earliest appearances in public discourse, from fugitive slave narratives to Hollywood films. His points are interesting, especially those he raises in the book’s second half, but his language is needlessly opaque. It often obscures his arguments, shrouding them in ambiguity and equivocation.

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9 thoughts on “on lgbt history

  1. As a queer person I don’t read much LGBTQ literature of any sort, especially history (but that’s my issue) however I did think of a book I really enjoyed that I’m pretty sure you can get on kindle. It’s called LOST AND FOUND IN JOHANNESBURG by Mark Gevisser and I read it before visiting South Africa. Gevisser is a journalist and historian, but this book is a combination of a memoir of growing gay up in Johannesburg during Apartheid, a history of the gay community in the city (and of transgressive sexuality in general which under Apartheid was any sexual activity, even in marriage, between white and non-white people) and a very frightening look at present day violence in that city. It’s an excellent book and I do think you would find it very interesting.

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    1. That does sound very interesting. I’ve been wanting to learn more about South Africa’s history since having finished Trevor Noah’s memoir, which deals with his coming of age there as the son of a black mother and white father. I also love memoirs that incorporate history in general, so I’ll be sure to check it out next year. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  2. The Snorton book sounds highly misleading. Even the cover throws me off a bit. Is that James Baldwin on the left? It looks like him. In the end, I’m uncomfortable with books that posit theories and don’t have clear evidence. I’m a big fan of that end note page myself!

    For a moment, I asked myself why I never consider what the thesis of a book is, and then I realized that my nonfiction is almost always memoir or autobiography. Essays and biographies are more likely to have a thesis. Maybe I need to expand my reading.

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    1. The cover art is taken from a “French transvestite postcard,” circa 1900. I felt like the author had a set of compelling claims about the construction of race and gender in America. But the book was plagued by problems typical to (male) academic writing: convoluted language, the over citation of others’ work, ahistorical thinking, the lack of an actual argument.

      Maybe! I’d never really given it much thought either until I participated in Nonfiction November last month. I noticed that most authors tend to sketch their book’s argument in the introduction or first chapter. Life writing is more open ended, which I find stimulating in a different kind of way.

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  3. You read so widely, I’m always impressed! Covering sounds fascinating and Timderbox sounds like it could have been promising, a shame that the author couldn’t come to a well-formed conclusion about what it all means.

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    1. Thanks, your blog has really helped inspire me to widen my nonfiction tastes recently! I felt like the author of Tinderbox tried to include all the research he did, rather than selectively use parts of it, which wound up making the book feel cluttered with random details.

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    1. Tinderbox was interesting! Some of the fire passages were graphic and hard to read, but the author did a good job of giving a sense of what gay life was like in New Orleans during the seventies.

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