Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Margot Canaday's "The Straight State"

Margot Canaday is assistant professor of history at Princeton University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, and reported the following:
I fail the Page 99 Test! Not the auspicious beginning I’d dreamt of for my first book, which is a history of the federal regulation of homosexuality from the early to late twentieth century. Contrary to what you may suspect, the process of homosexuality becoming an important issue for state regulation was a long and drawn-out one that occurred over many decades. The state’s response was sluggish in part because the bureaucracy was relatively small and lacked the capacity to police homosexuality aggressively during the early part of the century, but also because officials were themselves murky about the category of homosexuality. They had to “puzzle” before they could “power,” to borrow the political scientist Hugh Heclo’s great formulation. So the book moves through several arenas (immigration, welfare, and military bureaucracies) where federal officials “discovered” homosexuality, came to believe it warranted state intervention, and finally created policies to deal with this “problem.” There were, of course, many surprises along the way. Homosexuality mattered in distinct arenas of the state in different ways; and across the century officials were not only repressive but sometimes tolerant.

None of that will you get from page 99.

What page 99 does have going for it is that it is from my favorite chapter of the book. It focuses on one of the early arenas where federal officials were “schooled in perversion.” More specifically, this chapter examines federal camps set up by the New Dealers for single transient men who had become “unattached” from home and family due to the Depression and were out on the road “bumming.” Such wandering men caused federal officials great anxiety because of general fears about social instability, but also because of a long-standing association between hoboes and bums and “sex perversion.” That association is what this page is about. “Most fags are floaters and move from town to town,” one expert said in 1937. “In the womanless state of transiency,” said another, “the perverted sex instinct and lack of ambition were one.” This notion led critics to charge that the federal transient camps created “state sponsored havens for sex perverts,” and the camp program was eventually abandoned. As I argue later in the chapter, this was a foreclosure in the landscape of federal social provision. Not only would the federal government surrender its responsibility to care for the most destitute, but less and less assistance would be delivered outside of the family economy. (The single and the childless were out; breadwinners and caregivers were in.) Indeed, the idea that social provision should be used to encourage men to settle down with wife and family very much shaped the welfare state created after the demise of these transient camps (which is, as it happens, more or less our welfare state).

For a page that better “reveals the quality of the whole,” try 53!
Read an excerpt from The Straight State, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue