John D'Emilio - Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University

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More influential than intellectually honest

Dec 27, 2007 (Updated Dec 28, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:the autobiographical

Cons:the Stalinism

The Bottom Line: Read with an ample supply of salt at hand.


Despite (or because of?) its leftist biases, John D'Emilio's Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities is the standard history of the American homophile movement of the 1950s and 60s. I'm sure that the title had "sexual" rather than "gay and lesbian" to look more respectable, whether on his c.v. or the publisher's catalogs. I've never understood why the second half of the title was there, since there is practically nothing about the culture or social organization of any community in it (in contrast to the recently deceased Alan Bérubé's book Coming Out Under Fire , which is about the immediately preceding era).

There is a bit more -- especially the essays on the AIDS memorial quilt and on Women Against Pornography, and the autobiographical introduction -- in Making Trouble. Politics in the limited Leninist sense of organizing cadres remains D'Emilio's major interest, however. He is one of the professors trying to keep Marxism alive in the Ivory Towers after it has been rejected by the workers of the world.

Were he interested in what is supposed to be a union of theory and practice, D'Emilio might address how well Cuba has realized his dreams of gay freedom. Those, like Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls0, who have lived in Marxist utopias like Cuba find it impossible to share D'Emilio's enthusiasms!

It might seem unfair to fault D'Emilio for ignoring Cuba in particular, since he comes close to ignoring the whole world beyond the United States, and also the ethnic diversity within it. However, if you want to begin a book by discussing capitalism and gay identity, most people would discuss differing systems known to exist or to have existed in the world. Especially someone who keeps saying (homo-)sexuality is socially constructed should be interested in how different societies construct it (them). Why not contrast different types of society and show how sexuality is constructed differently when the means of production are collectively-owned rather than privately-owned? Even Marx considered more than one type. (I count four: feudalism, Oriental despotism, capitalism, and communism.) "Capitalism and gay identity" is the most widely-cited of D'Emilio's articles (chapters here) and among his most tendentious specifically about the first word in its title.

D'Emilio appears to lack the courage of his conviction as as a Marxist, and as that academic breed of crypto-Marxist, the social constructionist. He does continue their notoriously Stalinist/Maoist treatment of opponents, denying that there could be any dissent from the vanguard party. Stalinists specialize in denying opposition. (When they have more power, they eliminate their enemies. Academics like D'Emilio and Nancy Sheper-Hughes don't have that kind of power.) Never question the party line -- or you may lose your privileges as part of the party elite! You might stop being invited to the platforms from which the speeches collected in Making Trouble derive, for instance.

D'Emilio provides a summary of work on "gay history," which leave out what has (/had) been published (in English) about the histories of homosexuality in Japan, China, Korea, Hawaii -- and even the research on Mediterranean societies and their New World continuations. Apparently, the social constructionist faith can only be maintained by refusing to look at any records of categories before the medical invention of "the homosexual" in late-19th-century North America and North Europe. Someone with an Italian name might at least be expected to look at the records of persecution of those labeled "sodomites" in Rennaisance Italy! What D'Emilio provides is less the "rigorous historical analysis" George Chauncey advertises in his cover blurb than the ethnocentric refusal to take other cultures seriously that is so typical of monolingual American ostriches. Except in the sense of constrained by unqeustioned doctrine, there is nothing rigorous in what little research is included in this book.

Those who are not troubled by quaint academic Marxist theory or Stalinist academic politics or by xenophobia -- or by the considerable repetitions in the collected speeches and articles of a (then-) relatively young academic/activist -- may find the book or some of the essays in it engaging. D'Emilio writes well -- better than he thinks, in my view. What he thinks is by no means always wrong, despite the warped premises and revolutionary fantasies. Keep a large supply of salt within reach when reading this book though!

(Since this book's publication, D'Emilio has published a biography of Bayard Rustin that is also tendentious (the same biases slanting his history of the Mattachine Society), and another collection of essays, The World Turned which has an even higher ratio of horatory to researched. "Rewriting history," the title given to the first section of Making Trouble is more apt -- and more revealing -- than D'Emilio appears to know, since his excavations are very selective and keep those with political views that differ from his buried and eclipse what he does not like in historical figures such as Bayard Rustin.)

© 1993, 2007, Luis Paloma and Stephen O. Murray
This is a revision/expansion of a review that originally appeared in the Society of Lesbian an Gay Anthropologists' Newsletter when I was its editor.



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