“The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives & Gay Identities– A Twentieth-Century History” by John Loughery— Looking at Gay Identity

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Loughery, John. “The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives & Gay Identities – A Twentieth-Century History”, Holt, 1999.

Looking at Gay Identity

Amos Lassen

Both classic ad new texts, hundreds of interviews, archival sources come together with the help of John Loughery to give us a narrative history that looks at the many different meanings of gay identity in this country. The concept of writing gay history is new beginning really in about 1976 when Jonathan Ned Katz published “Gay American History” and this was followed by works by Arthur Evans and Lillian Faderman. There were the foundations and the works that followed looked at politics and culture separately. The truth is that these two are interrelated in a complicated way that times can be contradictory.

John Loughery, using the works of historians such as Alan Berube, John D’Emilio and George Chauncey as well as Katz, looks at eighty years of gay history and life that bring culture and politics together and reaches important conclusions as to how certain issues were handled in the past. Here is a survey of eighty years of gay history that unites the political and the cultural. Loughery, therefore, is able to explain how the openly gay career of Tennessee Williams existed during the homophobia of the 1950s, or how the Supreme Court’s 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision (maintaining that same-sex couples do not have a right to engage in consensual sex in private) could be made at a time when gay arts and culture were flourishing in America. The author is much aware of the passage of anti-gay laws as of the plots of gay novels and developments in gay theater with allow him to give us a social history of gay America. He begins with the scandal that rocked Newport, Rhode Island in 1919 (you don’t know what that was? Here is a reason to read this book) and he ends it with a look at the 1990s. While the book mainly focuses on gay white urban men, it still is a good deal more analytical and inclusive than other histories of the same period.

The title of the book comes from the name of a 1970s theater company and in itself tells us that the theme is the story of the silence that learns how to be heard when gay men begin to speak about their lives. The author uses many men’s voices some of which we may not be so familiar with such as Alain Locke who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, Harry Stack Sullivan, a gay psychiatrist, John Boswell, a historian and then others that are better done such as Harvey Milk and Mart Crowley. He looks at the military and WWII, gay bars and baths, literature, Freudianism, the gay press and bookstores, transvestism, homophile (later gay liberation) societies, Stonewall, and gay rights bills. He is not always successful in bringing together all of the material but he does give us a new look at our history (which unfortunately is a bit dated now considering that the book came out in 1999 and so much has been discovered since then. We do, nevertheless, see how communities of gay men have changed over time as have gay identities and we do have a shared past.

The section on gay rights activists is fascinating as is the way the terror of McCarthyism is presented. History is given to us as it should be—with a sense of emotion and humor and through a compelling narrative that makes us all the richer. Voice is given to those who have had none for a very long time and we most definitely see here that the issues of the gay community will never disappear. Let us hope that the silence written about here will forever stay on the other side.

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