Online Edition: Winter 1999/2000

A Desired Past by Leila J. Rupp

A Desired Past

A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America

Leila J. Rupp

University of Chicago Press ($22)

by Brad Jacobsen

A storyteller exists inside everyone. Stories are shared on a daily basis without much thought as to the consequences, if any, of sharing these tales. But what if there is fallout from telling a little too much, of speaking the socially unspeakable? What happens when the personal histories of an entire facet of society are not only discounted, but outright ignored and silenced? In the past decade, many books dealing with the undiscovered histories of lesbians and gay men have been published to rectify what some may consider to have been a conspiracy of silence. Leila J. Rupp's A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America is the newest addition to the ever-expanding genre of queer history.

Rupp owes a lot to well-known queer historians such as Chauncey, D. D'Emilio, Duberman, and Faderman and even goes so far as to acknowledge her debt to their previous work. However, in this effort she is not attempting to present a definitive text on the experience of being gay or lesbian in America. What she is hoping to achieve is a book that allows those people who could not speak of their passions in their lifetimes to share them in the present. This may explain why she is keen to point out this will be a "short history," for, as Rupp herself explains, "What is rare is the voice of a person speaking directly about her or his same-sex love, desire, or sexual acts. Such documents for the past require . . . courage to leave a written record of what societies viewed as a crime, sin or illness." Rupp is the conduit for the little stories which, when added together, make a many-hued portrait of same-sex love in America during this nation's lifetime.

The reader of A Desired Past will be treated to a broad history, populated by such citizens as the gender-bending Native American berdache; fairies from the 1920s; 19th-century romantic friends M. Carey Thomas and Mamie Gwinn; Nicholas Sension, the 17th-century Connecticut man who pursued his servant boys; Jeanne Bonnet, the cross-dressing San Francisco gang leader who was murdered in 1876; 1950s butches and femmes; and queer foot soldiers from the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Rupp is not presenting anything that has not been offered before. What differs is the manner in which she offers it. It is refreshing, and even empowering, to read how a great-great uncle once passionately wrote to his close friend, "I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail . . . and whether you have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole," or how a twice-removed great-great aunt once morosely pined, "Oh Mamie, if you only knew how my heart beats when I think of you and it yearns and pants to gaze, if only for one second upon your lovely face." These stories are what make Rupp's work singular. Her book may not be exhaustive, but it represents something far more rare in the genre of history: it is personal.

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Winter 1999 Table of Contents