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The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

by Margot Canaday
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The Straight State is the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling new evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today.

Canaday looks at three key arenas of government control—immigration, the military, and welfare—and demonstrates how federal enforcement of sexual norms emerged with the rise of the modern bureaucratic state. She begins at the turn of the twentieth century when the state first stumbled upon evidence of sex and gender nonconformity, revealing how homosexuality was policed indirectly through the exclusion of sexually "degenerate" immigrants and other regulatory measures aimed at combating poverty, violence, and vice. Canaday argues that the state's gradual awareness of homosexuality intensified during the later New Deal and through the postwar period as policies were enacted that explicitly used homosexuality to define who could enter the country, serve in the military, and collect state benefits. Midcentury repression was not a sudden response to newly visible gay subcultures, Canaday demonstrates, but the culmination of a much longer and slower process of state-building during which the state came to know and to care about homosexuality across many decades.

Social, political, and legal history at their most compelling, The Straight State explores how regulation transformed the regulated: in drawing boundaries around national citizenship, the state helped to define the very meaning of homosexuality in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691149936
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/25/2011
Series: Politics and Society in Modern America , #64
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 552,556
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Margot Canaday is assistant professor of history at Princeton University.

Read an Excerpt

The Straight State

By Margot Canaday


Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4008-3042-8

Chapter One


"A New Species of Undesirable Immigrant"

Perverse Aliens and the Limits of the Law, 1900-1924

* * *

Immigrant inspector Marcus Braun was dispatched to Europe in 1909 to study the problem of white slavery. While in Berlin, Braun stumbled upon one Willie Winter, a pupen-hungen (male prostitute) who had a long relationship with a Dresden man who was a well-known count and a high-ranking officer in the German army. After enduring a long period of extortion by Winter, the Dresden count offered his former paramour five thousand dollars to emigrate to the United States. But where the count's problem ended, Inspector Braun warned, the Bureau of Immigration's began. There were some thirty thousand men like the count in Berlin, at least four thousand pupen-hungen, and the latter "make it their business to hunt for those unfortunate men who are afflicted with homosexuality and who are known under the Greek name 'Pederast.'" Precisely through such arrangements as those arrived at by the count and Winter, Braun asserted, "we get thousands of them into the United States."

The problem was of even greater magnitude because there were large numbers of "pederasts" not only in Berlin-that city was "honey-combed" with them-but in London, Vienna, and Rome too. There were also many such individuals in the United States, and Braun reported on the existence of "a lively and frequent intercourse between the American and European male prostitutes, as well as among the Pederasts of the two hemispheres." European degeneracy was being exported to the New World as wealthy Europeans like the count of Dresden paid male prostitutes to emigrate, Braun charged, and by transatlantic love affairs as well. American pederasts traveled to Europe, found their "menloves," and "when they leave again they are accompanied by their European 'sweethearts,'" Braun claimed, "to whom they become attached while in Europe." Braun concluded his report by urging that male and female prostitutes as well as "pederasts or sodomites" should be deported from the United States. "If, at the time of their detection," he wrote, "they should be found to have become Citizens of the United States, their Citizenship papers should be declared null and void."

Commissioner-General of the Bureau of Immigration Daniel Keefe read Braun's 1909 report with great alarm, forwarding a copy to his superior, Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor Oscar Straus. "The Inspector appears to have discovered a new species of undesirable immigrant not heretofore met with in the enforcement of the immigration law," the commissioner-general noted in an attached memo, "and for whose exclusion no specific provision seems to have been made." What action Secretary Straus may have taken as a result of what Keefe termed "this new development" is unknown, but the response he jotted on the memo indicates his voyeuristic pleasure in reading the report: "Noted with keen satisfaction," Straus scrawled in large, excited lettering. Shortly after Braun's report, the congressionally appointed Dillingham Commission echoed Braun in alerting the government to the "beginning [of] a traffic in boys and men for immoral purposes."

The Braun report is one of the earliest pieces of evidence to document federal-level concern with homosexuality (Braun used the word interchangeably with pederasty), and it demonstrates that federal monitoring of that "affliction" emerged in tandem with the rise of the bureaucratic state. It is no surprise that the Bureau of Immigration, one of the earliest federal agencies, would be the vanguard for such regulation. The need to guard the threshold of the nation-state prompted the development of an administrative apparatus at the border that subsequently moved to the interior. Screening at the border "was among the very first examples of psychological expertise being deployed by the federal government in an important arena of public policy," the historian Ellen Herman writes, arguing that such screening provided a "prototype" for the military during both world wars. Herman's point applies as well to physical screening at the border. And whether one considers immigration, military, or welfare bureaucracies, the federal institutions that most forcefully defined national citizenship during these years were among the first to "see" perversion as they went about counting, sorting, and classifying their subjects.

Yet this new evidence worked its way into the regulatory machinery only gradually. Federal awareness of sex perversion among immigrants preceded by several decades a reliable legal instrument to exclude or deport "sodomites" or "pederasts." Indeed, not until the early 1950s did immigration law explicitly bar aliens alleged to be homosexual from entering or remaining in the country. Despite this, aliens were occasionally excluded or deported for sexual perversion during the early twentieth century, and it is possible to see in such cases the development of a rudimentary apparatus to detect and manage homosexuality among immigrants. That apparatus did not bar immigrants on the basis of perversion per se, but instead relied on the "likely to become a public charge" clause of the immigration law to exclude or deport aliens suspected of sexual deviance. In these types of cases, immigration officials sometimes bolstered the public charge clause with the provision barring immigrants who had committed "crimes of moral turpitude," or later and much more rarely, the prohibition against "constitutional psychopathic inferiors." But it was the public charge clause that was pervasive in state efforts to exclude or deport aliens for sexual perversion.

The use of the public charge clause against aliens suspected of sexual perversion was significant for several reasons. This clause was the most commonly used exclusionary provision in immigration law overall. So it is notable that the state wielded this charge against aliens it considered perverse, because it confirms that the state had no special legal tool for vetting aliens "afflicted with homosexuality" in the early years of the twentieth century. The government had no such tool in part because the immigration bureaucracy was still at a fledgling stage in its development, but also because homosexuality itself was not yet a meaningful category for the Bureau of Immigration. Marcus Braun's use of the term was rare. Immigration officials generally did not conceive of homosexuality as a discrete identity, but instead lumped together aliens who exhibited gender inversion, had anatomical defects, or engaged in sodomy as degenerates. Degeneracy was a racial and economic construct that explained "the immorality of the poor," and this helped to give the public charge clause some of its power over sexually deviant aliens.

While the public charge clause was effective against some poor aliens, it was an imperfect tool. Despite the way that the clause both reflected and reinforced the tightness of a Progressive-era association between poverty and immorality, immigration officials were also slowly awakening to the fact (as with Braun's count, for example) that sometimes perverts were not poor. Indeed, an alternative etiology of perversion began to circulate during these years that associated perversion with privilege. "Years of luxury and debauchery," reported one medical journal, would lead to gender inversion among the wealthy and eventually to the most "unnatural acts." Such debauchery was believed more prevalent in the aristocratic Old World than in the United States-a connection that probably offered little comfort to immigration inspectors who watched first-class European passengers stream off their boats with minimal inspection. Officials stretched the pliable public charge clause as far as it would go, but in dealing with wealthy immigrants they eventually ran up against the limits of policing perversion by policing poverty.

Rich or poor, however, it should be said that relatively few aliens were so policed. A systematic search of extant records at the National Archives reveals just thirty-one cases in which aliens who were to be excluded or deported for perversion in the first quarter of the twentieth century appealed to the commissioner-general of immigration. Certainly, the actual numbers would be somewhat higher; these cases tell us nothing about aliens who were deported or excluded without appeal, nor about those whose records were simply not preserved. Yet even taking this into consideration, data for sex and gender nonconforming aliens mimic patterns established for European, Latin American, and Canadian aliens more generally, only a small percentage of whom were excluded. These thirty-one cases, though, can be read as qualitative as well as quantitative evidence. The weight of quantitative evidence suggests a state that lacked not only an adequate regulatory apparatus but conceptual mastery over what it desired to regulate. Qualitative evidence nevertheless provides the touch and feel of a state as it went about the process of what political scientists call "bureaucratic learning"-"the historical development of the knowledge base on which ... the public policies of modern governments depend." Small in number, these few cases illuminate (along with congressional and medical texts from this period) a great deal about the development of a federal bureaucracy that was just starting to understand sexual perversion-whether evidenced in sexual acts, gender presentation, or physical anatomy-as inversely related to one's desirability for citizenship.

This was a state that was a long way from being fully mobilized against homosexuality, and yet still beginning to have at least a vague sense of what it was looking for. Its idea was not exactly our idea, but over time, the state's work of discovery and creation would gel into something much more recognizable as homosexuality. It will take six chapters to lay this entire process out. This chapter begins at the amorphous beginning, looking first at the conceptual and legal apparatus that federal officials started with, its workings and its failures on the slow but steadily moving conveyor belt that was American state-building.

Vetting Degenerate Aliens

If Progressive-era immigration officials lacked a specific law barring sexually deviant aliens, there were nonetheless two general provisions in place before the turn of the century that could be deployed in these types of cases. First, one provision of late nineteenth-century immigration law prohibited from entry any alien who had been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude. Later immigration law also provided for the deportation of aliens who had been sentenced for a term of one year or more for a crime of moral turpitude within five years after entry, or who had been sentenced more than once for a crime of moral turpitude at any time after entry. The Bureau of Immigration defined moral turpitude as that "which is so far contrary to the moral law, as interpreted by the general moral sense of the community, that the offender is brought into public disgrace, is no longer generally respected, or is deprived of social recognition by good living persons." While neither the bureau nor Congress enumerated the specific crimes that constituted moral turpitude, the charge was sometimes used against aliens who had committed sodomy.

Then there was also the public charge clause, which mandated the exclusion of aliens who appeared likely to require public support. This provision was initially enacted as part of the Immigration Act of 1882, one of the earliest laws to assert federal control over immigration matters. In 1891, the law was modified to also provide for the deportation of persons who actually became public charges after their arrival. Subsequently, Congress added a financial test-male immigrants were required to possess twenty-five dollars and female immigrants fifteen dollars at the time of entry-and included language that excluded aliens with mental or physical defects that "might affect [the] ability to earn a living."

In contrast to the moral turpitude provision, the public charge clause was a status charge-it required no evidence that a crime had been committed, but only that a person seem to be something (likely to be poor). The low evidentiary burden posed by the public charge clause helps to explain its overall popularity in immigration enforcement, as well as its more particular application in cases involving sexually deviant aliens. Only a tiny fraction of public charge cases dealt with immigrants identified as sexually degenerate, but when these aliens were excluded or deported it was almost always as public charges. During congressional hearings on immigration, for example, officials suggested that the public charge clause be used for "persons displaying marked moral indifference or perverseness." The public charge clause was employed in such cases not only because it was difficult to refute and hence effective, but also because of the way it aligned with the Progressive era's ideological melding of moral deficiency and economic dependency. Immigration officials understood this as a bidirectional relationship: a lack of economic resources indicated susceptibility to perversion; perversion was in turn taken as a sign of likely poverty. As important, the public charge clause also connected early twentieth-century ideas about sexual perversion to the particular way that economic dependency was gendered and racialized during these same years.

Most fundamentally, the clause was a feminized provision that was commonly used against women. Single women were almost by definition public charge aliens. The charge was also regularly used against women in cases involving immorality, such as adultery, fornication, or prostitution. But if dependency was often linked to immorality for female aliens, dependency for women was also a normative condition. Just as self-sufficiency was a "male prerogative," historian Martha Gardner writes, "dependency continued to delineate what was feminine." For married women dependence was not only normal, it was desirable. So whether it was the stigmatized dependency of the prostitute or the more favorably viewed dependency of the housewife, dependency was the expected outcome of women's true nature. Accordingly, while dependency in women (especially single women) might be associated with immorality, female dependency was not exactly perverse.


Excerpted from The Straight State by Margot Canaday Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction 1

PART I: Nascent Policing
"A New Species of Undesirable Immigrant": Perverse Aliens and the Limits of the Law, 1900-1924 19
Chapter 2: MILITARY
"We Are Merely Concerned with the Fact of Sodomy": Managing Sexual Stigma in the World War I-Era
Military, 1917-1933 55
Chapter 3: WELFARE
"Most Fags Are Floaters": The Problem of "Unattached Persons" during the Early New Deal, 1933-1935 91

PART II: Explicit Regulation
Chapter 4: WELFARE
"With the Ugly Word Written across It": Homo-Hetero Binarism, Federal Welfare Policy, and the 1944 GI Bill 137
Chapter 5: MILITARY
"Finding a Home in the Army": Women's Integration, Homosexual Tendencies, and the Cold War Military, 1947-1959 174
"Who Is a Homosexual?": The Consolidation of Sexual Identities in Mid-twentieth-century Immigration Law, 1952-1983 214

Conclusion 255
Index 265

What People are Saying About This


This is a terrific, complex, highly original, revelatory book. Canaday very effectively argues that the powers of the federal state and the definition of 'a homosexual' as a person grew up in dynamic relation to one another in the first half of the twentieth century. Every chapter contains fascinating new material, superbly shaped to advance her narrative. I am sure this will be an influential book.
Nancy F. Cott, author of "Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation"

Joanne Meyerowitz

A groundbreaking study that wholly revises our understanding of sexuality, citizenship, and the state. Canaday asks how and why the emerging federal bureaucracy came to define, regulate, and exclude gay men and lesbians, and her answers take us into the inner workings of the state's policing machinery. This is an important book.
Joanne Meyerowitz, author of "How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States"


In this brilliant retelling of the making of American citizenship, Margot Canaday links changing understandings of national identity to changing understandings of sexuality. Her indefatigable research and wise analysis demonstrate that political judgments about immigration, military service, and welfare have been soaked with judgments about what counts as normal—or 'degenerate'—sex. The history of federal bureaucracy is suddenly a page-turner.
Linda K. Kerber, author of "No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship"

From the Publisher

"This is a terrific, complex, highly original, revelatory book. Canaday very effectively argues that the powers of the federal state and the definition of 'a homosexual' as a person grew up in dynamic relation to one another in the first half of the twentieth century. Every chapter contains fascinating new material, superbly shaped to advance her narrative. I am sure this will be an influential book."—Nancy F. Cott, author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation

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