Mary, please shut up!

he-manLarry Kramer is on the warpath–this time against queer theory and gender studies.  (Yeah, they’re not your friends at all, Larry, whereas history departments everywere are falling all over themselves to hire queer historians.  Not!)  Give me a break:

“[T]he plague of AIDS was allowed to happen because much of the world hates us and most of the world knows nothing about us. … I needed no queer theories, no gender studies, to figure all this out,” Kramer said. “Why can’t we accept that homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history, whether it was called homosexuality, sodomy, buggery, hushmarkedry, or hundreds of other things, or had no name at all? What we do now they pretty much did then. Period. Men have always had cocks and men have pretty much always known what to do with them. It is just stupidity and elite presumption of the highest and most preposterous order to theorize, in these regards, that then was different from now.”

It’s all so simple!  Why haven’t we seen this before?  Gay history is just about men who knew what to do with their penises, and our task as historians is just to find out the who, what, where, and when (presumably, the “why” is self-evident in LarryLand), and write it all down in  The Big Book of Transhistorical GaynessWhat’s with the Archie Bunker act?  To Scott Jaschik’s credit, the article at Inside Higher Ed was for the most part a spirited rebuttal by scholars in queer studies and gender studies, who noted that no serious historians are looking for Transhistorical Gayness, and who also wanted to check Kramer’s “breathtakingly male centered” vision of gay history.  (If you want the more inteleckshul version of this critique, head on over to Tenured Radical.)

His recent outburst at Yale sheds light on a rather nasty and uninformed review he left on the Amazon page for Clare Lyons’s Sex Among the Rabble:  An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, 1730-1830 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina, 2006).  I thought it was downright ungentlemanly, especially considering that the book in question was a university press book by a first-time author:

Books like this drive me nuts. how can a “scholar” who studied at yale etc write such a dumb, ignoble, and indeed discriminatory book? Lyons is writing about sex in the period 1730-1830, centering on philadelphia, then our largest city. america’s population was around one million people. there is not one homosexual in this book. there is not one lesbian in this book. there is no discussion of same-sex sex. . . Lyons’ people are all and only involved in opposite-sex folderol.she is drunk on public records for her sources, always the best way to eliminate homsexuality from history all together. we are not in public records if you dont know how to look for us. . . .she is another product of wretched gender studies and theory which excludes facts in favor of make-believe. history departments everywhere have much to answer for in denying the history of gay people our rightful place in the history of this country.

I’m going to break it off here to give you a minute to catch your breath–Kramer apparently doesn’t believe in paragraph breaks or capital letters any more than he believes in “opposite-sex folderol.”  To return to the rant: 

enough is enough. i happen to have done my own research about this same era, in preparing my own book, the american people. philadelphia was swarming, overrun with men having sex with other men, name them what you will. there were massive amounts of syphilis, overwhelming amounts. there were male brothels. there were communities of men living with each other. there were women living with other men and excluding men altogether. where in the world has lyons researched? if i, a non-scholar, can locate all this stuff, it can’t be that hard to locate. why are gay people continually eliminated from every history written? we have been here since day one just like everyone else. it just breaks my heart, to be treated day after day as a non-person, with no history in this country which is mine as much as this author’s. history departments must cease denying us. and publishers should cease publishing books as useless and one-sided as this one. larry kramer

I’ll give the guy credit–he signed his name, which is more than most “peer reviewers” do!  In any case, what Kramer obviously missed was that Lyons’ book is an important work in early American women’s history.  I understand that he was disappointed that Lyons didn’t write about homosexuality, but guess what?  She’s an early American women’s historian who uses the history of heterosexuality to make some fresh and interesting arguments about free women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  (And it’s not like her field is exactly overrun with tremendous redundancies of scholarship.  It’s a tiny field, and her book is an important and rich contribution to it.)  Lyons’ book is exhaustively researched and ambitiously argued–really a remarkable achievement for a first-time author–but because Kramer doesn’t care about women’s history or the history of heterosexuality, that makes Lyons “another product of wretched gender studies and theory which excludes facts in favor of make-believe,” and her work “dumb, ignoble, and indeed discriminatory.”

Quite frankly, as an early American women’s historian myself, it chaps my a$$ to see someone imply that women’s history is somehow redundant or reactionary.  (Does he go on line to review every book of American presidential history, diplomatic history, and military history to complain that they too have overlooked gay men’s history and that their books are “dumb, ignoble, and indeed discriminatory?”  I didn’t think so.)  Kramer’s criticism of gender and queer studies today seems to boil down to that of churlish four year-old boys everywhere:  “girls are icky” and “my experience is the only one I want to see reflected in history.”  That’s a grand way to pay back all of those important women’s studies scholars who were among the first queer studies and gay history pioneers.  Classy, Larry–super classy.

0 thoughts on “Mary, please shut up!

  1. I think Larry was driven somewhat mad by his experieinces in the early days of the AIDs epidemic. He was a voice in the wilderness — ignored, scorned, vilified, dismissed. There were so many deaths and no one in power wanted a damn thing to do with the “queer disease.” He gave his entire life to the struggle.

    I truly think the balance of his mind is sadly and permanently disturbed as a result. He no longer can discriminate between real enemies and potential allies. It’s tragic, really. He was once very intelligent and talented.


  2. You know, Larry Kramer could teach our undergraduate students a thing or two about logical argument and elegant terms of expression. I mean, imagine if our students were sophisticated enough to use tropes in their papers like, “The American Heritage Dictionary defines X as…” or “Since the beginning of human history…”



  3. Oh dear. He does get quite excitable, doesn’t he. In his partial defense, however, the title of Clare Lyons’s book would seem to suggest a broader scope than just women’s history: “*Sex* Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of *Gender* and *Power* in the Age of Revolution, 1730-1830.” There’s nothing wrong with Women’s Studies as long as it doesn’t presume to exhaust the issue of gender. But this is a quibble.


  4. There’s nothing wrong with Women’s Studies as long as it doesn’t presume to exhaust the issue of gender.

    I’m glad we have your conditional forebearance.


  5. Sorry. Poor choice of wording. I was trying to put myself in Kramer’s shoes and suggest that his objection might not be o womens’ studies as such, but to the (perceived) reduction of gender history to female heterosexuality.


  6. tophat–I actually think your criticism is valid. Her title signals that it might include more than just discussions of female heterosexuality, but it doesn’t. It would have been fine for Kramer to criticize her for not taking a more expansive view of sexuality, but his comments are so over-the-top and dismissive of what the book accomplishes, and that’s what I think makes them out of bounds. (Personally, I found her exclusion of homosex strange, since she wrote an article on the subject for the William and Mary Quarterly in 2003. But the book is already 400+ pages, so she may have been told by her publisher that something had to go.)

    Lyons’ title is more ambiguous, but her intro makes it clear that she’s approaching her topic from a background and training in women’s history. (This is hardly unusual for historians of sexuality, by the way!) Although I will say that subtitles that include the phrase “gender and power” are usually women’s histories. That’s been a fashionable code for talking about heterosexuality and the role it plays in creating and maintaining social hierarchies.


  7. Historiann-Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think we can all agree that Kramer, like any other critic, should have judged the book in terms of its own scope and goals, not in terms of his own. And you are right that “gender and power” is often fashionable code of women’s history/studies. But no code (as we all know) is entirely innocent: women’s studies scholars who write about “gender” without considering homosexuality are vulnerable to the same kinds of critiques as traditional historians who write about political history without considering the role of women. Based on what you say about the intro, however, I would agree that the problem lies mainly in the title.


  8. Thanks for that.

    I was trying to put myself in Kramer’s shoes and suggest that his objection might not be to womens’ studies as such, but to the (perceived) reduction of gender history to female heterosexuality.

    I think that’s a generous reading of Larry Kramer — which is unfortunate for Mr. Kramer.

    I’d like to believe that interpretation, as I do have a lot of respect for the work he did on AIDS and the palpable sense of urgency and emergency he gave to the gay rights movement. But I can’t accept that interpretation: where is Mr. Kramer’s acknowledgement of lesbians? Boston marriages? Spinsters and their housemates? Virginia Woolf? Gertrude Stein? Radclyffe Hall and the Well of Loneliness?

    Well, granted all that’s a bit after the fact of Lyons’s book but this proves my point quite well, I think:

    there were male brothels. there were communities of men living with each other. there were women living with other men and excluding men altogether.

    Men were in communitities and “living with each other”. Women were either living with men or “excluding men altogether”. Lesbianism is reduced to the absence of men and never recognized as the presence of women.

    Although perhaps he meant to say “women living with other women, but the point of “excluding men” still stands.


  9. But I can’t accept that interpretation: where is Mr. Kramer’s acknowledgement of lesbians?

    Quoted from Historiann’s original post, 2nd excerpt:

    “there is not one homosexual in this book. there is not one lesbian in this book. there is no discussion of same-sex sex…”


  10. factcheck–Kramer does mention that there are no lesbians in Lyons’ book, but his comments about gay history suggest that his vision of gay history is pretty much gay men’s history. I think that’s pretty clear–he seems to think all girls are icky, not just the straight ones!


  11. he seems to think all girls are icky

    Historiann-I’m not sure it’s clear at all. Clearly Kramer is primarily interested in male homosexuality, much as Lyons (as you point out) is primarily interested in female experiences within a heterosexual content. But that doesn’t make him a misogynist any more than Kramer’s omissions make her a homophobe, does it? Perhaps I am missing something.


  12. Mamie, I would agree that his performance qualifies him as a royal jerk. A misogynist, I’m not so sure. (The two categories overlap but are not co-extensive.) What he says about women (in these excerpts, at least) doesn’t seem to warrant the “girls are icky” claim. I think that CanadaGoose may be closer to the truth: this is someone who was profoundly shaped-and scarred-by the battles of the 80’s, and whose perspective has been distorted as a result.


  13. Not to belabor this, but I think it is worth returning to Kramer’s initial rant. The evidence he offers for the existence of a transhistorical gay identity is “Men have always had c0cks and men have pretty much always known what to do with them.” That *does* seem to exclude women, IMO. While I would not necessarily go as far as to say that this embodies a “girls are icky” perspective, it does, to me, suggest that he sees homosexuality as a male-only category that is in some sense based on the exclusion of women.

    It is also worth considering the fact that his review of Lyons accuses her of bad faith. He is not merely saying that she has neglected to mention some important material related to her study. He’s saying she’s “drunk” on her sources and excluding facts in the service of make-believe theory. That’s a significant step. (Also: I remember reading this review on Amazon in amazement at how worked up its author was. I had no idea that the “larry kramer” who wrote it was *the* Larry Kramer.)


  14. I’m in agreement with Historiann and other commentators here that Kramer’s version of homosexuality pretty much means male homosexuals as well as the fact that he was pretty harsh with Lyons, though I do think that her title leaves her open to criticisms of omission.

    Two different things — in particular — fascinate me about his Yale rant, however. The first is his notion of transhistorical gayness (male or female) and his continued reliance upon George Chauncey as the standard bearer of academic historians who support him in this notion that we all know a homosexual when we see one. One of the signal contributions of Chauncey’s *Gay New York* is to call that very notion into question. Of the trade (masculine men who had sex with fairies [effeminate men]) in turn-of-the-century New York, Chauncey is very careful to point out that to call these men “homosexual” or “heterosexual” or even “bisexual” would be inaccurate because these were actually men who had sex with both men and women so long as they were the penetrative partners and the people they penetrated were feminine. Their rules were simply different than ours. He — quite responsibly — won’t claim them for the club and yet Kramer seems to think that Chauncey is on his side!

    The second is this notion, which strikes me as profoundly sad, that one can only assert some claim for civil rights or indeed some sense of pride if one’s “people” have an identifiable history in the nation/world. Not only has this strategy not been all that successful in assertions of, I don’t know, freedpeople’s rights post-Civil War or women’s rights to vote in, say, the mid-nineteenth century, but it also ignores the more obvious point that a homosexual should not have to identify past homosexuals in order to assert the right not to be discriminated against today.

    What’s most glaring about Kramer’s rant is his inability to understand what historians take as our stock in trade: the past was *different*, and that is, at least in part, what makes it interesting.


  15. Good points, John S. and Homostorian Americanist. For the record, when I use the expression “girls are icky,” I don’t necessarily think that sentiment implies misogyny. What I meant to invoke is (some) men’s tendency to completely ignore or overlook women. For some this is a sin of omission, for others a sin of comission (because they fear that associating with women or caring about “women’s issues” will mean they lose status, etc.)

    Misogyny may be there too, but that’s not what I meant. In Kramer’s case, I just think that he is so focused on himself that he can’t appreciate or learn from other perspectives that might enrich his own. (Go see Tenured Radical on this point–she says it better than I.) I think he should be very interested in Lyons’ point that there was a sexual revolution that accompanied the American Revolution–but if a book is not specifically about people he identifies as gay men, he doesn’t think he has anything to learn from it.


  16. I hate that I have to begin by acknowledging the obvious: Lyon’s work is wonderfully well researched, makes bold and compelling arguments, and fills a much needed gap in the historiography. Kramer is off the mark and beyond the scope of appropriate exchange. In Lyon’s defense she has a wonderful article about same sex sexuality in the WMQ.

    Yet her exclusion of the full scope of female sex and sexuality is still troubling. I take the point it is not her topic–she was discussing heternorms and power to understand key transformations in her period and how they impacted women’s lives. Yet I suspect one of those key transformations is the discipline of same sex sexuality. If she is going to argue that after the 1790s those at the margins faced increasing regulation as a new normative system emerged, there is one obvious group that needs attention amid the African-American and working class women she studies. This is only more troubling because the images she reproduces show evidence of same sex sexuality–many of the images are suggestive of it (see p. 111 and 139), but the most obvious one is the two women kissing on the margins of the Hogarth on p. 128. What happened to those women? And why does Lyons continue to leave them on the margins when her own evidence clearly invites study?


  17. Minorities and oppressed groups want to be part of the grand historical narrative in an attempt to legitimate and valorize their existence. When I was little,my mother delighted in telling me about people who she said were Jewish although they did not self-identify. Her favorite person for this game was Paul Newman.
    I haven’t read Lyon’s book but I understand Kramer’s general point. If you are going to write a book that excludes certain historical actors who are present on the landscape, you need to be upfront and explain why. You also have to recognize that the usefulness and general applicability of you findings and analysis may be limited and possible skewed.
    If you don’t want that result you have to try and include all the groups – connect the dots. Many American social historians will write about whites and simply state that to have included African Americans would have been too difficult and changed the study. I reject that approach.
    As for the rest of Kramer’s points, his view of history is ahistorical and he does seem to regard homosexuality as primarily a male endeavor.


  18. Good points, Bibliophile and Amy. I would just say that although I agree with you that Lyons could have been more explicit about the boundaries of her study, I have not seen any pre-1800 evidence of lesbian behavior in the colonial Americas. I’m not familiar with Philadelphia’s evidence post-1750, so there may be stuff there she could have written about, but I have come across only one bit of evidence (from early Connecticut) that documents women talking and joking in a bawdy fashion about sexuality amongst themselves. Even this is not evidence of homosexuality, but rather evidence of joking about heterosexuality in a homosocial context. The bias of the records reveal the bias of most early Anglo-Americans, which was that unless there was a penis involved, sex and sexuality couldn’t/didn’t happen.

    Quite frankly, I think that looking in the colonial Anglo-American colonies (which were officially and overwhelmingly protestant and therefore compulsorily heterosexual) may be more futile than looking at nuns in Catholic New France and Mexico. Asuncion Lavrin has written about nuns and sexuality in Mexican convents.

    But, to Amy’s point about “excluding” historical actors: I found it quite unfortunate that Lyons was Kramer’s target, rather than the vast majority of the American historical profession which ignores entirely questions of gender and sexuality. This is why we need more studies like Lyons’: so that her book doesn’t have to bear the full weight of people’s curiosity about heterosexuality and homosexuality in the late colonial and early national period. It is quite frankly impossible for every social historian to write about everyone’s experience in a given time and context–that’s not an expectation we have of intellectual, political, or military historians–so why do we hold social and cultural historians to a different (and quite unrealistic) standard? To expect one book to serve everyone and please everyone is totally unfair, and anyone who knows or cares about women’s history could see very clearly the context of her research and arguments.


  19. “. . . write it all down in The Big Book of Transhistorical Gayness.”

    Love it! I’m going to refer to said book in reference to certain well-intentioned but undertheorized and unscholarly Kramers of my own acquaintance. . .


  20. Pingback: Gore Vidal: 75% cynical visionary + 25% conspiracy nut =100% entertaining! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  21. Canadian Goose wrote:

    “I think Larry was driven somewhat mad by his experiences in the early days of the AIDs epidemic.”

    I truly think the balance of his mind is sadly and permanently disturbed as a result. He no longer can discriminate between real enemies and potential allies. It’s tragic, really. He was once very intelligent and talented.”

    The following interpretation of Larry’s behavior might shed some light and diminish some heat:

    As a gay identified elder in his community Larry realizes that he doesn’t have much time left in this life.

    He’s chosen to leave a historical legacy that deconstructs the “queer” theorists who divided and weakened gay men’s community at a time of crisis.

    Queer theorists like the lesbians who adopted a “queer” identity and celebrated their contempt for gay men by writing about their lack of sympathy for “PDM’s”, Poor Dying Men.

    Presently “queer studies” provides cover for those in gay and lesbian communities who cheered when AIDS came along, although they have been largely shamed into silence.

    So personally, as a fellow gay identified elder who survived the whole AIDS mess I find the steam that comes out of Larry’s ears quite refreshing.


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