Men Like That: A Southern Queer History
Reviewed by Martin Wilson, Fri., Oct. 22, 1999
Men Like That: A Southern Queer Historyby John Howard
University of Chicago Press, $27.50 hard
In the opening chapter of John Howard's fascinating Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, he writes that the people "whose stories get told and how they get told are a function of power." A pointed comment, given that for many years the histories of homosexuals remained -- forgive me -- in the closet.
Luckily, things have changed: The role of homosexuals in American culture and history has been dancing out of book pages like a sweat-soaked go-go boy. In the gay Nineties in particular, valuable books have appeared to fill the queer studies void, one of the best being George Chauncey's Gay New York, which documents the rise of the gay male world in Manhattan from 1890 to 1940. But most of these books, including Chauncey's, have focused on urban gay life, so much so that if you didn't have common sense, you'd think no gay people had ever lived outside the confines of New York or San Francisco. It is this "exclusion of rural people" -- specifically Southern gay men -- from queer history that Howard attempts to redress in Men Like That.
Howard's publisher says that his is the "first book-length history of the queer South," and to some extent this is true. Still, claiming that this book is a history of all Southern gays is a tad misleading, because Men Like That deals almost exclusively with the lives of homosexuals living in Mississippi. Although the experiences of gay men in Mississippi are no doubt similar to those of men all over the South, an all-inclusive queer southern history remains to be written. That said, Howard's book is a superb piece of scholarship, a book so full of energy that you plum forget it's supposed to be "academic." Thankfully, Howard avoids the academic-speak and dullness that stunts so many scholarly tomes.
What imparts such vibrancy to the book is Howard's ability to mix historical documentation with personal oral history to create both an official and intimate portrait of how the law, politics, the civil rights movement, popular culture, religion, geography, and scandal coalesced in gay life in Mississippi from 1945 to 1985. In opposition to Edmund White's assessment of American homosexuality as "oppressed" in the Fifties and "liberated" in the Sixties, Howard demonstrates that gay men in Mississippi enjoyed a low-key but relative freedom in the Fifties, and increased oppression and crackdowns in the Sixties due to queer involvement in the civil rights movement.
What further sets Howard's book apart from other gay histories is his refusal to skip over "the erotic interactions of queer historical subjects" and thus shed some light on "the arguably defining feature of the enterprise, homosex." Thus, what went on between Billy Bob and Jethro under the sheets (and in the car, and at the rest stop on I-20, and even in Mama's guest bedroom) finally finds its way to print.
Men Like That is a shining and important addition to the canon of gay history. Here's hoping that John Howard and other writers concerned with the gay American experience keep writing books like that.