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A Gross Unfairness: The Workings of the Straight State | The Nation

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A Gross Unfairness: The Workings of the Straight State

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ELISE AMENDOLA/AP IMAGESProtesters demonstrating against the Defense of Marriage act in Boston in June

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Steven Epstein
Steven Epstein is the John C. Shaffer Professor in the Humanities and a sociology professor at Northwestern University...

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A report issued in 2006 by two nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality, describes the written response made in 1975 by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to an American citizen's petition to sponsor a foreign same-sex partner for legal residency in the United States. The INS denied the petition for the following reason: "You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots." Except perhaps in the explicitness of language, federal policy toward same-sex binational couples has changed little since then. On June 3 of this year, Congress held its first-ever hearing on the plight of such couples and brought attention to the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), sponsored in the Senate by Patrick Leahy and in the House by Jerrold Nadler (and subsequently folded into a larger immigration reform bill). Introduced repeatedly in various forms since 2000, the legislation would add the United States to the ranks of sixteen other countries--including Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Israel and South Africa--that draw no distinction between gay and straight binational couples for immigration purposes. In the words of a supportive Washington Post editorial, passage of UAFA would "right a gross unfairness."

The restriction on the immigration rights of same-sex noncitizen partners is relatively obscure, but the harm done to those it affects is no less than that caused by the widely debated federal laws and policies that render gay people second-class citizens, like the Defense of Marriage Act and the military's disastrous "don't ask, don't tell" policy. And the scope of the injury is not small. According to the report by Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality, census data suggest that more than 35,000 binational same-sex couples live in the United States. No one knows how many others live separated by national borders or have emigrated elsewhere in order to remain together. The existence of such an immigration policy, and the uphill battle to eliminate it, demonstrate just how solidly a formal preference for heterosexuality is built into the legal architecture of the state.

It is not really news that inhabitants of the United States are governed by what historian Margot Canaday calls, in the title of her excellent book, a "straight state." For some time now, scholars of sexuality (following in the footsteps of those who have studied and challenged the race and gender hierarchies embedded in state policies and actions) have professed the analytical goal of what historian Lisa Duggan, writing in 1994, called "queering the state." These scholars have argued that the supposed naturalness of the heterosexual couple, and the unnaturalness of alternatives, is presumed and reinforced in the ordinary workings of government. Canaday's substantial contribution is to trace, in gripping and at times horrifying detail, exactly how the United States came to operate in this fashion over the course of much of the twentieth century. The Straight State provides a compelling history of the designation of "the homosexual as the anticitizen."

Through a sustained focus on three specific and consequential areas of bureaucratic rule--immigration, the military and welfare, each the topic of two chapters in the book--Canaday demonstrates how anticitizenship has been established and enforced as government officials, courts and politicians have struggled to make sense of sexual nonconformity. Although her scholarship emphasizes the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, it could not be more timely in its lessons. Only by accurately mapping the sedimentation of exclusion in policies and decrees laid down by bureaucrats over time, Canaday insists, can we continue, step by necessary step, to dismantle the formal barriers to full citizenship--a process that, she notes, really began succeeding only in 1990 with the lifting of a uniform federal ban on homosexual immigrants to the United States.

The Straight State is a captivating, engagingly written work of social, political, legal and sexual history, and the fruit of an extraordinary attention to archival documents. As a sociologist, I confess with only slight embarrassment that I have on more than a few occasions skimmed over the minutiae of historians' accounts in order to get more quickly to the big-picture analysis and bottom-line conclusions. I felt no such impatience here, in part because the fine points of the story are endlessly fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking, and in part because Canaday is so skillful (despite this being her first book) at illuminating the big picture with every close-up. The trail cut by The Straight State traverses a swath of eras and institutions. One story Canaday tells about the Depression concerns the Federal Transient Program, whose administrators sought to house the men displaced by economic misfortune in encampments but ran up against the widespread perception that such camps were breeding grounds for "unnatural" sex. (An article in this magazine in 1934 commented on the perceived gap between the workings of the camps and the dictates of good citizenship: "It is hard to see how it is possible to prepare people for normal living by adjusting them to the abnormal...life in a congregate camp.") Another story revolves around the GI Bill of 1944, an enormous welfare program that, by 1948, represented 15 percent of the federal budget, with veterans making up half the student body at colleges and universities. Canaday explains that this was "the first federal policy to directly exclude persons identified as homosexual from the benefits of the welfare state."

For Canaday, "the state" is no abstraction. Taking a fine-grained approach, she insists that the state is "what officials do," whether it's worrying about what transient men get up to when the lights go out or deciding which men and women who served in World War II should be issued the "blue discharges" that made them ineligible for benefits. (There were about 9,000 cases of the latter.) In particular, it seems, what officials did was develop elaborate screening mechanisms to police the boundaries of belonging. Early twentieth-century immigration inspectors were warned to watch for what were described as "striking particularities in dress, talkativeness, witticism, facetiousness...flightiness...unnatural actions, mannerisms, and other eccentricities" that might serve as the telltale signs of sexual perversion to be excluded at the port of entry. (The all-too-common "hidden sexual complexes among Hebrews" merited special vigilance, according to the Marine Hospital Service doctors who lent their expert gaze to the task; they also pointed to the "beardless face [and] the high pitched feminine voice" that were so often found among Italian men.) Around the same time, examiners of military recruits were instructed to screen out those males who "present the general body conformation of the opposite sex, with sloping narrow shoulders, broad hips, excessive pectoral and pubic adipose deposits, with lack of masculine [hair] and muscular markings." Especially in these early years of state attention, the array of suspect perversions was diverse and diffuse, but the markers of excludability were written on the skin for the trained observer to detect at a glance. As the bureaucracy grew and officials adopted more varied and sophisticated tools for what anthropologist James Scott has called "seeing like a state," officials strove to recognize forms of abnormality unbecoming to citizens that only gradually came into focus as what are now taken to be gay and lesbian practices and identities.

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