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Jonathan Ned Katz Murdered Me: History and Suicide

gah-e1454518926497Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of U.S. History at San Francisco State University. He is the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia (University of Chicago Press, 2000), Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), and Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (Routledge, 2012).

On May 5–6, 2016, a conference honoring the 40th anniversary of the publication of Jonathan Ned Katz’s book Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. will be held in New York City. The sponsors include the Digital Humanities Initiative at the New School for Public Engagement, the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and The following essay is a revised version of a paper originally presented at the 2008 OAH Annual Meeting in New York City.

In 1982, after my first year of college, I was murdered. The weapon was seven inches long and two inches thick. It was mostly beige, but also featured the reddish color of blood. It may look old today, but when I first encountered its massive volume, it was in perfect condition. It was almost too large, long, and powerful to handle, but eventually I absorbed all of it. And then, after an unexpected twist, it was among the weapons that killed me. Or perhaps I should say it killed a certain version of me, a version that could not quite figure out how to be happy, how to be gay, or how to live in this world.

The weapon that helped kill me was Jonathan Ned Katz’s groundbreaking 1976 book Gay American History. I do not offer here a comprehensive review, a critical analysis, or a celebratory account. Instead I provide a set of personal reflections on what this book meant to me when I encountered it more than thirty years ago, when I was eighteen years old. I first read Gay American History during my first year in college, 1981–82. This was the year I attempted suicide, or, as I sometimes prefer to say, the year I committed suicide. When I was younger I used to talk with friends and acquaintances more regularly about what happened to me during the summer of 1982, when I was living at home with my family in the New York suburbs after an emotionally devastating year. Over time, the stories multiplied. In one, I committed suicide because of homophobic self-hatred. In another, the causes were antigay prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. There were stories of family violence turned inward, a traumatic breakup with a girlfriend, unrequited feelings for a male friend, and chemical imbalances. There was even a story of corporate workplace alienation, which focused on the soul-destroying effects of working for my father’s company that summer. On my suicide’s tenth anniversary, which occurred just after I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive examinations, I rented a cabin in Maine, where I invited my closest friends to join me as I marked a decade of life that I almost did not have.

Since that time I have been less inclined to share the stories of my suicide and in the last decade or two I have been repeatedly surprised to realize that some of my closest friends do not know that I almost did not live to my nineteenth birthday. Certainly most of my professional friends and colleagues have not heard these stories. So why did I offer to speak about this episode on a 2008 conference panel celebrating Jonathan Ned Katz and why am I now sharing this revised version more widely? One reason is captured in my title: this book helped kill my suicidal self. The historian in me is impressed by any work of scholarship that can have such a powerful effect on a reader. But I also want to honor this remarkable book by echoing, in a small and personal way, the courage that it must have taken for Katz to produce this extraordinary work. This is difficult for me to do, but I am inspired to speak about the unspoken by Katz’s book.

My copy of Gay American History is now so old and tattered that each time I turn one of its 1063 pages I find myself holding a page no longer attached to the rest. It is one of just a few of my books that are now held together with a rubber band. I no longer recall the circumstances that led me to buy Gay American History during my first year of college. I think it’s the first gay-themed book I ever owned. If I had to guess I would say that I purchased it at Atticus Books in Middletown, Connecticut, but it might have been at a feminist bookstore in Hartford or New Haven; or one of the bookstores that I used to frequent in Harvard Square; or Glad Day Books in Boston. Either way, I am sure that when I took the book off the shelf, carried it to the checkout line, interacted with the sales clerk, and paid the bill, my heart was racing and I was overwhelmed by a combination of terror and excitement. I know this because the same thing happened to me for years whenever I purchased a gay or lesbian book. Sometimes it still does.

In the early 1980s, when I purchased Gay American History, Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president, I became eligible to vote, and I was legally required to register for the military draft. I was straight and had a girlfriend, though that year I also fell for a fellow male student, who also happened to be named Jonathan. I may have bought the book because I was working on a paper on “the origins of homosexuality” for an introductory psychology class. I remember that paper well because at the last minute, when I realized that someone would actually be reading what I had written (and that other students might see the title page), I changed the title to “the origins of heterosexuality” without changing the paper’s contents. Who knows what the teaching assistant thought as he or she read a paper with a mismatched title, though I sometimes joke that years before Katz helped establish another field of historical inquiry with the publication of his 1995 book The Invention of Heterosexuality, I precociously gestured in the same direction. Today it does not surprise me that I wrote my first gay studies paper in a psychology course; in the early 1980s psychology was still the dominant discipline in studies of homosexuality. John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983), which also changed my life, was not yet published. Gay American History was unique.

That year, as I descended into the depths of a depression that culminated in my suicide, Katz’s book became my lifeline. Each night, as I lay in bed in my dormitory room, I would read one of the hundreds of primary documents collected in Gay American History and my head, heart, and body would respond to the results of Jonathan’s archival research and introductory commentary. I have a vague memory of deciding to ignore Katz’s thematic organization and instead read the documents in chronological order, which may be why even today I remember not only the first document, which tells the story of the murder of a sixteenth-century French interpreter, but also the first item in the book’s Native American section, a sixteenth-century account of “devilish” practices in Florida. In the last few years, as I have returned to Gay American History, I have tried to recall, without success, how I reacted when I first read several items that later were critical to my work on Philadelphia gay and lesbian history. In the end, I do not think it was any particular document that affected me; it was more the combined and cumulative effects of the whole, which helped bring me back to life after I died.

What is it that so moved and inspired me when I first read Gay American History? One answer is that Katz’s book helped me move beyond the psychological frameworks that were the primary means available for interpreting my desires. As the book’s introduction explained, “The prevailing notion of homosexuality as a purely psychological phenomenon has limited discussion, focusing research almost exclusively on… the causation, character, and treatment of homosexuality as a psychosexual orientation disturbance.” (11) I took no history classes during my first year of college. For a long time my major was psychology, and by the time I reached my fourth undergraduate year, I was one course shy of finishing that major. But something happened along the way, and instead of taking that final psychology class, I selected six history courses and completed a history degree. To fulfill my new major’s requirements, I embarked on a research project on the history of psychological perspectives on homosexuality. As Gay American History taught me before Michel Foucault did, “The dominance of the psychological model has meant that this model itself was not seen as a historical invention. A temporal perspective emphasizes that homosexuality was once thought of by theologians as essentially a moral issue, a sin; by legislators as a legal problem, a crime; only later, by a rising class of medical entrepreneurs, as a psychological phenomenon, a psychic disturbance. If the traditional psychological model is to be transcended, homosexuality must be reconceived as a historical, social, political, and economic phenomenon, as well as a psychological one.” (11–12)

What is it that history offered to me that psychology did not? Among the things I found in Gay American History were stories that encouraged me to imagine possible ways of living a gay life, stories of passion and power, love and lust, camaraderie and companionship. They also offered visions of social change and political transformation. Even the stories that did not turn out so well, and there were many, helped me understand that there were others with desires like mine, that we were not diseased and pathological, that it was possible to live lives beyond the ones determined by the expectations of hostile and hateful others. As Katz wrote in his introduction, “Knowledge of Gay history… extends the range of human possibilities, suggests new ways of living, new ways of loving.” (14) For me, document after document in Gay American History opened up worlds of possibilities about how to live and love.

There were also the lives and loves I imagined for the storyteller, his comrades, and his audience. Katz wrote in the first pages of Gay American History, “Those of us affected by [the gay and lesbian] movement have experienced a basic change in our sense of self. As we acted upon our society we acted upon ourselves…. From a sense of our homosexuality as a personal and devastating fate, a private, secret shame, we moved with often dizzying speed to the consciousness of ourselves as members of an oppressed social group…. We moved… from a sense that there was something deeply wrong with us to the realization that there was something radically wrong with… society…. Starting with a sense of ourselves as… the passive victims of a family tragedy, we experienced ourselves as… assertive actors in a movement for social change.” (1–2)

As I read these words today, I think about what it must have meant to my suicidal self, who felt so isolated and alone even when surrounded by friends, to come across these collective pronouns, which placed the individual within larger narratives of history and politics. Critics may object to the ways that Katz presumed to speak for an entire generation of gay men and lesbians, but what a difference it made to readers like me to imagine the possibility of joining the worlds of the author and his audience!

Was Gay American History essentialist in the ways it imagined homosexuality in the past? Sure, though today that has to be among the most trite and boring things one could say about this book. Any serious consideration of this issue would have to acknowledge Katz’s emphasis on “the existence of many Gay voices, many Gay lives, many homosexualities” (9–10), his assertion that “there is no such thing as homosexuality in general, only particular historical forms of homosexuality” (11), and his efforts to include documents about women and Native Americans. No doubt Katz would use different language today.

Just as significant, I think, are the ways that Gay American History imagined homosexuality in the future. The great secret of historical scholarship, of course, is that historians do not write (only) about the past; we write about the future. As Katz asserted in his introduction, “The study of homosexual history suggests a new basis for a radical critique of American society.” (14) The introduction concluded by linking gay historical scholarship to “a much larger struggle by Gay people and others for power and control over those social institutions which most affect our lives,” for “radical social change,” and for “democracy.” (14–15) Katz also had a more specific vision for the future, one in which “a team of Lesbian and Gay male researchers” would “work cooperatively to actually discover and disseminate our forgotten history.” “Perhaps,” Katz wrote with modesty and humility, “this book will contribute to the realization of that dream.” (14)

In the year I first read Gay American History, my own personal dream was fulfilled several weeks after I committed suicide, when I first had sex with a man.

Katz’s dream has yet to be fully realized, but no book has done more to create a future for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer history.