A Gross Unfairness: The Workings of the Straight State

A Gross Unfairness: The Workings of the Straight State

A Gross Unfairness: The Workings of the Straight State

Scrutinizing the machinery of the “straight state.”


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

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.

Canaday’s argument is that in the United States, the processes of state-building, the exclusion of sexual minorities from the ranks of citizenship and the definition of a modern concept of homosexuality were mutually reinforcing. In the early years of the twentieth century, the federal state was still quite weak and limited, either by today’s standards or by comparison with European nations of the time. As the state grew in size and reach and began to oversee the life of the society more fully, it also gained the capacity to police the boundaries of citizenship more systematically. And as the rewards conferred by citizenship became more ample, the presumed necessity for such policing also increased. At the same time, homosexuality was not just any old instance of otherness that state officials felt obliged to penalize. Canaday makes a good case that the encounter with, and management of, homosexuality was surprisingly central to the broader project of state-building and the definition of citizenship throughout this period. By World War II, for example, the purging of lesbians from the military required “a huge expansion of the state’s investigatory power,” as authorities generated thick files tracing “an expansive web of friends and acquaintances that sometimes extended far beyond a single base or unit.”

Modern notions of homosexuality and the modern US bureaucratic state grew up together, Canaday argues. And this coincidence of timing, she suggests intriguingly, may even help explain why the state became, and remains, more officially homophobic than many of its counterparts in Europe, where the bureaucracy was already consolidated before homosexuality emerged as a concern to be reckoned with. “Homophobia” is the term Canaday uses throughout, though its roots in psychology make it less than ideal to describe what officials might do regardless of their personal sentiments or unconscious fears. Queer theorists speak instead of “heteronormativity”; but this term is not quite right either, or at least it would be insufficient for Canaday’s purposes, because an emphasis on cultural norms and regulatory ideals fails to capture the grounding of antigay sentiments in the concrete and mundane practices of governance. The sociologist Steven Seidman recently wrote of a midcentury “state-driven nationwide politic aggressively enforcing institutionalized normative heterosexuality”–which is more to the point but a bit of a mouthful.

The larger argument, however, is that a history of the modern American state is simultaneously a genealogy of what we now take to be homosexuality. In the early period covered by the book, immigration and military personnel spoke not about homosexuals but about perverts, mannish women, men who displayed (in a curious turn of phrase) “feminism,” “wolves” who preyed on younger men and the “lambs” who were their prey. This mix of bureaucratic, medical and colloquial lingo described a hodgepodge of varieties of gender inversion and nonnormative sexual practices. Over time, though, homosexuality took shape in its modern guise, defined less exclusively by gender roles and more by what psychoanalysts called “sexual-object choice”: the sex of the desired partner. At the same time, “the homosexual” stabilized as a type of person defined by a knowable preference or orientation that was manifested in its “tendencies” even when behavior was absent. The story of this shift has been told before, but Canaday’s innovation is to emphasize the role of the state, and not just medical and psychiatric experts, in these redefinitions. As she nicely puts it, “There was at first neither chicken nor egg. (As in: What came first? Homosexuality, or its regulation?) State-building itself was instrumental in helping to produce the category that an expanding state would then see as its function to police.”

Importantly, though, Canaday does not imagine that the state was in a position simply to etch its categories and meanings onto individuals, as if the latter were blank slates. Instead, she describes a complex process of mutual reinforcement and resistance, similar to what the philosopher of science Ian Hacking calls “looping effects,” whereby powerful institutions categorize what they see people doing and present those understandings to the categorized, who may then internalize them, change them or reject them in ways that influence categorization down the line. Canaday describes how many of those caught in the spotlight of state scrutiny ended up reconceiving who they considered themselves to be. This was true of women in the military who had never given much thought to the deeper meanings of the affinities they felt with other women but who, in the wake of hostile interrogations and career-destroying witch hunts, put a name to those inchoate sensibilities. “Knowing about [homosexuality] now,” one female victim of the midcentury military purge commented, “I look back into my childhood and feel that I have been gay all my life.” But it was also true of the men who, over time, became obliged to accept a new understanding of homosexuality that broke with the earlier model of gender inversion, which reserved stigma only for the passive, “feminized” sexual partner. Back in 1917, a certain Private O’Dell, when caught in the act of sex with another man, could protest in honest confusion: “I am doing nothing wrong…. Johnson is my punk.” But as the military increasingly sought to weed out all those with homosexual tendencies, regardless of their roles during sex, it enforced and helped to spread the object-choice model of sexuality, which has become central to the definition of mainstream gay identity and community.

It’s worth underscoring the novelty of Canaday’s approach. Much recent LGBT history, following in the footsteps of historian George Chauncey’s pioneering book Gay New York, has been resolutely local. This work has impressively chronicled the texture of gay life in places like Philadelphia, Fire Island, San Francisco and Buffalo, but by and large it has ignored the federal government. Yet as Canaday reminds us, citizenship is first and foremost a national status, and activities at the federal level are consequential for how these lines of inclusion and exclusion are drawn. To the extent that histories of gay life have focused on the state, they have tended to examine one administrative realm alone, such as immigration policy or the military, rather than juxtapose several of them, as Canaday does here. Scholars have been drawn particularly to the military’s policing of sexuality in World War II (a story told well by Allan Bérubé in Coming Out Under Fire) and to the antigay hysteria of the McCarthy era afterward. But Canaday makes an excellent case for starting the story much earlier, showing how the midcentury preoccupation with homosexuality presupposed “an expanding state’s steady accretion of tools, knowledge, and experience” that dated all the way back to the early years of the century. Finally, a focus on the state also allows Canaday to go further in linking the politics of sexuality to those of gender and race. On the one hand, she suggests how state administration of sexuality both resembled and differed from its management of gender and racial categories. On the other hand, she is attentive to the intersections, analyzing, for example, how the treatment of queer immigrants by federal authorities varied according to the immigrants’ race or national origin, and considering how the attempts to drum lesbians out of the military accelerated precisely as women began making stronger claims for inclusion in the institution.

Who gets extended the entire complement of citizenship rights? The question is an important and vexing one. The saga of George Fleuti, a Swiss immigrant who successfully sued to prevent his deportation for “moral turpitude” in the early 1960s, is instructive. In a case that rose all the way to the Supreme Court, the Board of Immigration Appeals eventually conceded that Fleuti could stay in the United States because it had not been proven that he was a homosexual at the time of his entry into the country. Fleuti, in fact, had been convicted subsequently–once for being “a lewd and dissolute person” and another time for an act of oral copulation–which more typically would have sufficed to ensure deportation. Yet as Canaday observes and as Fleuti’s lawyers also maintained, Fleuti “exhibited many of the traits of a good citizen–he was productively employed, a responsible family member…well thought of by his associates, and not least, both northern European and male.” What is noteworthy is that these mitigating factors did not thereby establish Fleuti’s credentials as a “good homosexual,” worthy of US residency. Instead, in a policy environment in which “the homosexual” and “the citizen” were antithetical, the state drew the logical conclusion that Fleuti “was not a homosexual at all.”

Fleuti’s “victory” was anomalous, and it stands out among Canaday’s many stories of lives torn apart by a state insistent on defining citizenship in ways that made queer people into an other. A crucial question to ask, however, is, What impact did all of this policing have on those who were not caught directly in its web? After all, most gay people (or people who engaged in homosexual behaviors) never brushed against it, and many of those who could have been trapped were never even spotted by military, immigration or welfare authorities. As historian Eithne Luibhéid has described, some even figured out how to beat the state at its own game, like the lesbians who learned to “straighten up” when confronting immigration officials by growing out their hair and nails, putting on makeup and accessorizing.

What were the ripple effects of state action? Canaday argues, plausibly enough, that what is “individually devastating” can also be “broadly powerful”–that policies about immigration, military service and welfare eligibility sent clear messages that permeated the whole society. Yet she misses opportunities to prove the point or analyze this saturation in any detail. She notes, for example, that one of the pivotal, later court battles over gay immigrants–the Boutilier v. Immigration and Naturalization Service case of the late 1960s–“was widely reported in the mainstream and homophile press.” But she doesn’t tell us what reporters had to say about the case (which affirmed the INS’s ability to declare homosexuals to be psychopaths by definition), still less what sense ordinary gay or lesbian readers of those articles made of them. Canaday keeps her attention trained on the paper trail left by courts, legislators and bureaucrats, rarely venturing too far into the broader world whose contours, she claims, were being reshaped by the state. The result is that the last chapter before the conclusion, on immigration battles from 1952 to 1983, reads more like a recap of a string of court cases than a history of a society that was brimming with changes on many fronts–political, cultural and religious, among others–in ways that surely mattered for how gay people imagined whether, where and how they belonged in society.

A certain narrowing of focus is essential for a tight argument, but conclusions should then be moderated correspondingly. Near the end of the book, Canaday instead goes out on a limb. She claims, “It is precisely because citizenship is a national category that the federal government (rather than states or localities) has played the predominant role in defining homosexual personhood” (my emphasis). Of course, she has no way of proving that this is true. Indeed, the earlier wave of histories that tell the stories of gay life in individual cities suggest that “homosexual personhood” has often been defined locally to a significant degree. Does it not change one’s sense of oneself and of one’s possibilities to live in a city that has a nondiscrimination ordinance or that has more than one gay bar? Canaday argues quite rightly that “states and localities can certainly make life better for LGBT people, but they cannot bestow equal citizenship upon them. Only the national government can do that.” Yes, and that is why, for example, the federal Defense of Marriage Act weighs heavily on the proponents of marriage equality, no matter how many states legalize same-sex marriage. But establishing the centrality of the federal government to definitions of citizenship is different from proving that federal practices overwhelmingly shape everyday meanings of gayness.

And what about other actors? Perhaps the state appears to have such unobstructed power to define meanings and identities in Canaday’s account in part because she consistently juxtaposes this mighty machine with the fortunes of isolated individuals. Her reliance on court cases reinforces this perception: the world narrows to uneven duels like United States v. Roberto Flores-Rodriguez and Boutilier v. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Yet the individuals involved in these cases were not always left to fend for themselves. Canaday notes in passing that in 1967 something called the Homosexual Law Reform Society of America filed an amicus brief in Boutilier; subsequently she mentions that the Mattachine Society, an important early gay-rights group that was active throughout the 1950s and ’60s, was also involved in the Boutilier case. It seems that by the later moments of Canaday’s historical account, a social movement has emerged–mysteriously, as if out of some crevice that the scorching brightness of the federal searchlight somehow failed to penetrate. And while it’s certainly outside the scope of Canaday’s analysis to trace the emergence or track the trajectory of this movement, I wish she had paused briefly to reflect on its implications for the question of how identities come into being. Canaday cites the sociologists Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper on the power of states to define identities. But while Brubaker and Cooper importantly observe that states possess “the material and symbolic resources to impose the categories, classificatory schemes, and modes of social counting and accounting with which bureaucrats, judges, teachers, and doctors must work and to which non-state actors must refer,” they are more attentive to context than Canaday. “The state is not the only ‘identifier’ that matters,” they write. For example, “the literature on social movements…is rich in evidence on how movement leaders challenge official identifications and propose alternative ones.”

Of course, gay movements were simply absent from much of the era that Canaday surveys, certainly for the first half of the twentieth century. But for the more recent period, the state’s definition of the homosexual as the anticitizen should be studied alongside the organized opponents of such injustice and not just in terms of its victims. Among other things, doing so would sharpen our understanding of all the present-day struggles for sexual citizenship in which LGBT and queer movements are central players, as well as the right-wing countermovements that have arisen to derail them. Although Canaday misses some aspects of this larger story, a great virtue of her thoughtful, accomplished and beautifully written book is that it lays the necessary foundation for just such an understanding.

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