14 January 2011

Book Review: Men Like That

John Howard is a professor in American Studies at King's College, University of London and now its chair. This book, published ten years ago, is an oral history based story of the history of queer life in twentieth century Mississippi.

I've read so many histories of gay life in the U.S. that they sort of get repetitive -- although most recent, I really enjoyed The Gay Metropolis. It may because that was the last substantive 'gay history' book that I read, that I found Men Like That to be so fascinating. It is polemically opposed to the New York/San Francisco centric tellings of gay history. However, like Take the Stranger by the Hand, American gay history is very complex.

I have to admit that I don't know much about Mississippi and so there were periods in the book where I felt dragged out or was reading variations of One Teenager in Ten or Two Teenagers in Twenty. However, there were a number of things that I found interesting -- which I can assume from the way the history was told were not focal points.

First, the crisis in sexuality in the South only appeared as a consequence of how Mississippians reacted to the national civil rights movement that swept the South in the 1960s. While Mississippi remained deeply committed to apartheid and a segregated society, both local and national shifts from race baiting turned to sexuality in the form of gay baiting. It was a very slow process in Mississippi that allowed Howard to really pull apart the various strands: racism, anti-communism, xenophobia, religiosity, sexism, classism. One of the most significant national counter-movements in the 1970s to the sense of destabilization of social norms in 1960s in the US was the strengthening of evangelical Christianity. In Mississippi, like many rural areas, the church was already a central form of social organizing. The big difference, is that, when evangelical Christianity aimed at gays, the good folks of Mississippi moved toward that fundamentally reshaping sexuality and gender in Mississippi.

Second, which really could be its own book with additional research, was the story of John Murrett, his murder by two Air National Guard cadets, and how the Mississippi police forcefully sought and received a life time conviction. That's right. A gay guy is murdered and the police use all of their efforts to get the evidence and arrest of two military cadets that leads the first to a life time without parole conviction and the other to a settlement plea of 20 years. The defense used the "he came onto me" defense, which failed, and the judge limited the defense from using the victim's "debauchery" in cross examining prosecution witnesses. The victim was not a Southern and not from Mississippi. And, this all occurred in the mid-1950s! Before gays became a major target of evangelical Christianity.

In any event, more of these locally oriented, local histories of gay life are interesting and worth pursuing. However, the danger is that it can be too local and then it ends up being just a series of inuman session talk-stories which provide little interest to anyone if they are narrowly told for/to gays. Howard avoids this problem well -- although at times, there are sections which totally veers from the gay history -- but in the end are necessary, to avoid losing the readers in homo-parochialism. And the chapter on Mississippi scandals really nicely wove all of the pieces together.

The version I read was a 418 page paperback published by the University of Chicago Press (November 1999), ISBN-13: 978-0226354712. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was at amazon.com.

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