IV. Straight states

Introduction to "The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America"

For all orderly processes, we must in some way classify man.

—Dr. Dahlgren, surgeon, U.S. Public Health Service, testifying in Rosenberg v. Fleuti

Measured against other Western democracies at the dawn of the twentieth century, the American state—slow to develop, small in size, and limited in capability—stood out as distinctive.1 Fifty years later, a period of expansion had produced a state that was finally European in its heft, but still exceptional in another way: in terms of its homophobia. “There appears to be no other major culture in the world,” Alfred Kinsey wrote in 1953, in which homosexual relationships were “so severely penalized.”2 Not only was the United States “the only major power in the world” that excluded homosexuals from its armed services and government employment, the sociologist Donald Webster Cory wrote a decade later, “but the homosexual is the only individual who is punished in this manner, not only for any activities that may be indulged in, but for harboring the desire to perform such activities.”3 Those suspected of homosexuality were purged from the civil service and military in astounding numbers at midcentury. They were also barred from certain federal benefits, faced increased FBI and Post Office surveillance and explicit immigration and naturalization exclusions, as well as the stain of alleged political subversion.4 It seems a paradox. How did a state that was so late in coming construct such a vast apparatus for policing homosexuality, and why?

Unlike comparable European states, which were well established before sexologists “discovered” the homosexual in the late nineteenth century, the American bureaucracy matured during the same years that scientific and popular awareness of the pervert exploded on the American continent. This study examines three of the “engines” of the twentieth-century state—the Bureau of Immigration, the military, and the federal agencies that administered welfare benefits—to demonstrate how federal interest in homosexuality developed in tandem with the growth of the bureaucratic state. In emphasizing the relationship between state formation and homosexual identity, I not only seek to put the history of sexuality into closer dialogue with political and legal history, but to complicate what has now become a standard interpretation within the field of gay and lesbian history as well. Namely, that extreme state repression of sex and gender nonconformity in the mid-twentieth century was a result of the sudden visibility of gays and lesbians during and after World War II.

That explanation is not exactly wrong, but it is incomplete. World War II was a watershed moment in the state s relationship to homosexuality, yet homosexuality was not a new phenomenon for state officials during and after the Second World War. Rather, federal bureaucrats had been aware of traits and behaviors that were coming to be associated with homosexuality for at least half a century. The regulatory response to this knowledge before the war, however, was fairly anemic. Viewing this period through the McCarthyist lens of what came after, it is hard to understand how federal officials could be both so aware and yet seemingly so indifferent to perversion during these years.

This sluggish federal response loses some of its mystery if we center the processes of twentiethcentury state-building, and the way that states must “puzzle before they power.”5 Federal officials were confronted with evidence of sex and gender nonconformity as they did the things that bureaucrats do—whether keeping undesirables out of the country, peopling an army, or distributing resources among the citizenry. But they initially encountered this evidence without a clear conceptual framework to analyze the problem. Even so, they worried about those whose bodies or behaviors seemed perverse to them. Over time, they worked toward an understanding of what this phenomenon was and why it might be significant, and they made some minimal attempts at regulation. Yet when perversion was policed in this early period, it was often through regulatory devices aimed at broader problems: poverty, disorder, violence, or crime, for example.

As the state expanded, however, it increasingly developed conceptual mastery over what it sought to regulate. This itself was part of the work of state-building, part of a longer process of the state coming to know and care about homosexuality. After the Second World War, an increasingly powerful state wrote this new knowledge into federal policy, helping to produce the category of homosexuality through regulation. From the mid-1940s into the late 1960s, the state crafted tools to overtly target homosexuality. In contrast to the earlier period, policies were enacted that explicitly used homosexuality to define who could enter the country and be naturalized, who could serve in the military, and who could collect state benefits. A homosexualheterosexual binary, in other words, was being inscribed in federal citizenship policy during these years. Indeed, this study’s examination of three of the arenas where the meaning of American citizenship was most sharply articulated over the course of the twentieth century—in immigration, the military, and welfare—reveals the emergence of that binary as one of the organizing categories of federal policy in the postwar United States.

Regulation, of course, changed what was regulated. The state did not, I argue, simply encounter homosexual citizens, fully formed and waiting to be counted, classified, administered, or disciplined. This was not, as political theorist Jacqueline Stevens has written in a slightly different context, simply a matter of “pre-constituted groups” either coming into or being blocked from the public sphere.6 Rather, the state s identification of certain sexual behaviors, gender traits, and emotional ties as grounds for exclusion (from entering the country, serving in the military, or collecting benefits) was a catalyst in the formation of homosexual identity.' The state, in other words, did not merely implicate but also constituted homosexuality in the construction of a stratified citizenry.

Homosexuality is thus a legal category as much as a medical or psychiatric one. This study not only sets the federal regulation of homosexuality in longer historical view, but also offers an account of the bureaucratization of homosexuality—something forged, in short, through legal and administrative processes. To uncover those processes is to challenge the laws own tendency to authorize homosexuality as somehow pregiven or even natural in its constitution. “The power exerted by a legal regime consists less in the force that it can bring to bear against violators of its rules,” writes the legal historian Robert Gordon, “than in its capacity to persuade that the world described in its image and categories is the only attainable world.”8

Before laying out the argument in greater detail, a fuller discussion of three of the main terms that frame this study will be necessary.

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