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!
In 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.
Written 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.
Meticulously 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.