You know me—I’m always fascinated by queer history. Hence today’s featured titles from my ever-terrifying reading list—an ethnography of a queer community and the surprisingly short history of the constructed straight identity.
Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold by Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis
Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold traces the evolution of the lesbian community in Buffalo, New York from the mid-1930s up to the early 1960s. Drawing upon the oral histories of 45 women, it is the first comprehensive history of a working-class lesbian community. These poignant and complex stories show how black and white working-class lesbians, although living under oppressive circumstances, nevertheless became powerful agents of historical change.
Based on 13 years of research, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold ranges over such topics as sex, relationships, coming out, butch-fem roles, motherhood, aging, racism, work, oppression and pride. Kennedy and Davis provide a unique insider’s perspective on butch-fem culture and argue that the roots of gay and lesbian liberation are found specifically in the determined resistance of working-class lesbians.
There’s a part in Fun Home where Alison Bechdel wonders if she could have cut it as an out lesbian in the 1950s, or if she would have turned tail (as she suspects her father did) and hidden. This is an ethnography of that world. I’m always fascinated by female-dominated spaces, and what could be more female-focused than a lesbian community? Sounds wonderful.
Reviews are hard to find, but it seems generally acknowledged to be an important text in queer history.
Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold was released on January 1, 1994.
Straight by Hanne Blank
Like the typewriter and the light bulb, the heterosexual was invented in the 1860s and swiftly and permanently transformed Western culture. The idea of “the heterosexual” was unprecedented. After all, men and women had been having sex, marrying, building families, and sometimes even falling in love for millennia without having any special name for their emotions or acts. Yet, within half a century, “heterosexual” had become a byword for “normal,” enshrined in law, medicine, psychiatry, and the media as a new gold standard for human experience.
In this surprising chronicle, historian Hanne Blank digs deep into the past of sexual orientation, while simultaneously exploring its contemporary psyche. Illuminating the hidden patterns in centuries of events and trends, Blank shows how culture creates and manipulates the ways we think about and experience desire, love, and relationships between men and women. Ranging from Henry VIII to testicle transplants, from Disneyland to sodomy laws, and from Moby Dick to artificial insemination, the history of heterosexuality turns out to be anything but straight or narrow.
With an eclectic scope and fascinating detail, Straight tells the eye-opening story of a complex and often contradictory man-made creation that is all too often assumed to be an irreducible fact of biology.
I stumbled across an interview with Blank on Salon.com (having found my way there, naturally, via Laura Miller) a few weeks ago, and was absolutely blown away by one factoid she presented. While some scientists are looking for a “gay” gene, there’s no confirmed “straight” gene to compare it against! I want a whole book of stuff like that to blow my mind and destabilize the heteronormative worldview.
Straight was released on January 31.