People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Review of Blasius and Phelan, eds. We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook
Terence Kissack, City University of New York
Review of Blasius, Mark and Phelan, Shane, eds. We Are Everywhere: A
Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics New York: Routledge, 1997. P. 844.
The history of the politics of homosexuality remains to be written. While excellent
studies exist, particularly of the post-World War II era, the complexity of past and
present gay and lesbian politics escapes us. Proof of this is can be found in We Are
Everywhere, Mark Blasius and Shane Phelans edited anthology which documents some
of "the ways in which people whose primary sexual attraction is to others of the same
sex have understood their social and political position." (1) The collection begins
with the treatises of Enlightenment philosophers and ends with the tracts of groups such
as Wages Due Lesbians and Queer Nation. Also included are government reports, journalistic
pieces, scientific works, literary efforts, and theoretical works by academics and
activists. The bulk of the writings come from North Atlantic cultures and a little less
than two-thirds of the documents date from the post World-War II era. Though Blasius and
Phelan provide the majority of the editorial introductions there are contributions from
James Steakley and Laura Engelstein, treating Germany and Russia respectively.
While We Are Everywhere will no doubt find wide use in class rooms, the
instructor should be prepared to supplement and in some cases contest some of the
editorial notes and interpretation. For example, the documents dealing with the French
Revolution are said to "mark the first time lesbians and gay men organized as such to
address a national government." (35) The anonymous texts which have titles like
"The Children of Sodom Before the National Assembly," were written on behalf of,
among others Bishops, Chatelaines, and the members of an "illustrious Order [whose
standing] is on par with those of Malta and the Holy Spirit." (41) The editors
contend that these texts were submitted to the National Assembly in order to liberalize
laws regulating homosexuality, holding open the possibility that they succeeded in doing
so. This credulous reading of these documents flies in the face of a large and convincing
body of work. As Lynn Hunt, Robert Darnton, and Jeffrey Merrick have argued, the
pornographic texts of the eighteenth century, while certainly meant as political
propaganda, were largely attacks on the supposedly decadent nobility and clergy. The
pamphlets quoted here seem to me to be of this type though my favorite, "The Little
Bugger-Go-Round," may have been intended as a gentle jab at the Revolution and its
partisans. One can imagine a republican legislator laughing over the claim made by the
"Little Bugger," that "after Ive fucked someone in the ass, my
judgement is as excellent, my mind is as enlightened, as that of any deputy to the
National Assembly." (37) That some readers may have found inspiration, political or
otherwise, in such writing is certainly possible, but that they were intended as documents
arguing for the amelioration of the legal and cultural status of homosexuality is
The political Big Tent that the anthology constructs contains wildly divergent
characters and traditions and more than once the fabric of the tent rends. The editors
acknowledge that sexual identity is a historical category, changing over time and place,
but their choice of title, We are Everywhere, subverts this position. The
collections metanarrative recounts a collective process of "enlightenment"
and increasing political action and group identity formation culminating in the
replication of American models of gay and lesbian politics and community across the globe;
"From Chicago to Sri Lanka" in the words of the editors. (1) Ultimately, the
editors imply, "we" will take our rightful place within a tolerant global polity
just as ethnic groups have carved out a place within the American social and political
The multiplicity of voices collected by Phelan and Blasius throws into question any
simplistic reading of who "we" are and where "we" are going. Are, for
example, Walt Whitman and Julia Penelope speaking for and about the same people?
Whitmans sexuality, though clearly homoerotic, was quite purposively
antiminoritarian. He hoped that the "love of comrades" would bind together and
heal the post Civil-War United States; supplementing and transforming the ties of
citizenship. Julia Penelope, on the other hand, writes from within an imagined Lesbian
Nation, one that she sees as under assault by outsiders. "Unless we find a way to
maintain male-free spaces," she writes, "the intrusions typical of the 1970s and
1980s will persist through yet another decade." (781) Penelope and Whitman are
separated not only be time and cultural milieu but by radically different notions of how
best "we" can arrive at their respective utopias and what that utopia will look
like once "we" get there.
When one places the different texts in We Are Everywhere within their respective
political contexts, striking contrasts are produced. Both Natalie Barneys
"Predestined for Free Choice" and Robert Duncans "The Homosexual in
America" are included as examples of gay and lesbian political thought. While the
editors indicate that Duncans work appeared in 1944 in Politics, they do not
identify the journal as Dwight Macdonalds fiercely antifacsist, proto-new left
journal. Barney, as noted by the editors, found a refuge in Mussolinis corporate
state. Does the fact that both Duncan and Barney speak to "people whose primary
sexual attraction is to others of the same sex" have any relevance in light of their
profound political differences? In 1944 what "we" did Barney and Duncan belong
to? Today what possible political and social connections would the ideological heirs of
Barney and Duncan share?
I do not intend to provide definitive answers to my queries--a short list which hardly
exhausts the questions one feels prompted to ask. Im not sure that these conundrums
are easily surmountable. Surely one of the laudable outcomes of an anthology is the
questions it prompts its readers to ask. Perhaps by careful study of We Are Everywhere someone may yet arrive at a theoretical and historical synthesis which can encompass the
varied and sometimes contradictory positions and assumptions contained within it. More
likely this anthology will spark further research which will sharpen our appreciation of
the specificity of the politics of homosexuality in the past and present.
© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to
promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of
scholars working in the field.
Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a
review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to
the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].
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with a History. People with a History is a www site
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998