John Howard’s Men Like That “argues that notions and experiences of male-male desire are in perpetual dialectical relationship with the spaces in which they occur, mutually shaping one another. This book examines sexual and gender nonconformity, specifically male homosexualities and male-to-female transgender sexualities in Mississippit from 1945 to 1985—from the end of World War II to the dawn of the age of AIDS” (xiv). Howard’s work is different from much of gay and lesbian history, which is often “urban-centered and identity-focused” (xiv); instead, Howard’s work emphasizes “desire as an organizing category” (xviii). Relying heavily on first person accounts, oral histories, and news stories—as well as his own memories growing up in Mississippi—Howard illuminates a Mississippi where many homosexual desires were able to be exist and be acted on in the context of a “tradition of quiet accommodation” (184).
Unlike many coming out narratives, which follow a trajectory of movement from the rural to the urban, Howard examines what took place within the rural setting. He shows that much homosexual desire and activity took place despite of or because of this rural context; further, not only were there gay people who stayed in Mississippi and acted on their desires, but there were also people who, while originally followed the rural to urban trajectory, returned home (for myriad reasons, from families who needed them to their own desire to live in Mississippi). Howard examines the role of the “closet” in these paradigms, noting that within the confines of the closet, much desire can be acted on. Important to my own work, he makes the claim that “the South—rural space generally—functions as a gay America’s closet” (63). We see this in the paradigmatic coming out narrative, then, the move from South to North—rural to urban.
An important point that Howard makes is how the “tradition of quiet accommodation” was interrupted primarily by the rise of the Civil Rights movement. Over time, queer desire and civil rights agitation became conflated, as the “dirty beatnik” stereotype included suspect sexuality: “over the course of ten years, a vibrant, ever more successful civil rights movement would become connected in the minds of many Mississippians to queer sex, among other practices and ideologies. Consequently, police and judicial responses to queer Mississippians would prove increasingly hostile and punitive” (129).
Further, Howard shows how queer desire, acts, and identity were all very different elements which were not necessarily conflated. While public officials earlier in the period were often quietly accommodated when their own queer sexual practices were discovered, more publicized sex scandals which arose later in the period nicely illustrated how desires, acts, and identities were understood as separate. In his discussion of Mississippi Congressperson Jon Hinson, who was discovered on several occasions engaged in homosex, Howard points out that it is only when Hinson is discovered in an unacceptable sexual role—penetrated by a black man—that his public rebelled. Using the Protestant rhetoric of sin and forgiveness, however, allowed Hinson to continue to “def[y] queer identity by speaking—and repenting—only of queer deeds” (270). Howard’s analysis of this rhetoric in light of Judith Butler’s theory of queer performance is intriguing: “Hinson, in producing and performing a spiritual inside, ensured that he wouldn’t be relegated to a stigmatized cultural outside” (272). By claiming (and I would say performing) an internal spiritual terrain, Hinson was able to mitigate the significance of the actions of this physical, external body.
I’m glad that Howard ended his analysis with the mid-eighties, as AIDS truly did change everything, including understandings of identity. As I just read Henry Abelove’s Deep Gossip, I’m really intrigued by how the two texts interact. Simply taking Abelove’s idea of the “queer commuter”—a term which he uses to describe a group of American poets from the first half of the twentieth century, whose travel away from and back to America (prompted by an America hostile to gay identity) informed their work—I’d like to apply that to the idea of the South, as I would maintain that no one can ever fully leave the South. I appreciate Howard’s focus on an often-ignored identity.