Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: Sex Variant Woman- The Life of Jeanette Howard Foster

Before advocating for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons was possible, LGBT people had to first become visible. Although sexual variance has existed throughout history, LGBT people have had varying degrees of visibility. Only relatively recently in our nation's history have "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual," and "transgender" become visible and recognized identities.

In her 2008 biography Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster, Joanne Passet gives us a rich account of lesbian history as she documents the life of the courageous woman who, in 1956, first published a "bible" of instances of "sex variant" lesbian love in literature. In doing so, Passet reminds us that the LGBT community not only has a pre-Stonewall history, but also that Jeanette Howard Foster played a valuable role in increasing the visibility of lesbians. (All quotes are from Sex Variant Woman, unless otherwise noted).

1. Early Life

During her childhood, in the early 1900s, Foster displayed "tomboyish tendencies" and a "penchant for developing crushes on other girls" (17). These tendencies worried her mother as people were starting to become aware of "sexual inversion" thanks, in part, to the case studies of psychologist Havelock Ellis. Even though it wasn't until the 1920s that, due to Freudian influences, same-sex love was "portrayed as illness," Foster's mother nevertheless expressed concern about her daughter's gender non-conformity (19). As an aside, the photos of young Jeanette, and her sexual "variance," during this time are quite funny. One of them is of the young girl, after having been forced to wear a dress, sitting next to her family and "scowling" while assuming an "unladylike pose" (18). Another photo shows young Jeanette who is dreamily staring at another girl while the other girl is looking at the camera.

As Jeanette grew older, Passet documents various crushes that Jeanette developed on her female teachers and classmates. Generally, Jeanette seemed not to distress too much about her sexual "variance." She developed a sense that it was something that she should hide from those who disapproved, but her sexual orientation was something that she seemed to see as a natural part of herself. In fact, she wrote many poems and stories that painted same-sex love in a positive light, something that was ahead of its time as most portrayals of same-sex love were negative (these stories, however, remained unpublished until the 1960s) (126).

What seemed to trouble Foster most of all was that her love often went unrequited, usually because the objects of her affection were too fearful about or troubled by their own sexual "variance" to reciprocate. During after Foster's college years, these women had good reason to be fearful. The 1917-1921 Red Scare was an early era of homosexual panic in which sexual "variants" were often fired from their jobs, accused of subversion, and otherwise painted in a negative light. In 1919, for instance, after Jeanette graduated from college, the president of her college went through a bout of "anticommunist and homosexual panic" in which he accused faculty of an "outbreak of bolshevism" and fired much of the faculty for "homosexual tendencies" (58). Yet, throughout this era of stigmatization and repression, Jeanette's "freethinking outlook and indomitable spirit kept her from internalizing negative messages about her sexuality" (59).

Over the years and in spite of extreme societal condemnation of homosexuality, as Passet documents in detail, Foster "obsessively search for printed examples of gays and lesbians everywhere she went" (142). She eventually received a doctoral degree in library science and, as a consequence, had access to collections and sources that would contribute to her opus. In the 1940s, Jeanette became the librarian at Alfred Kinsey's Institute for Research in Sex, and gained access "to one of the finest collections of material in the nation related to sexuality" (149). (In addition, as Passet recounts, even though documentaries often present Kinsey as having worked with a mostly male team, Jeanette was one of many crucial women who made substantial contributions to Kinsey's work). A voracious lifelong reader, she combed through texts (in multiple languages) with the ultimate goal to author a "comprehensive bibliography" on instances of sexual variance among women in literature over a span of 2600 years (148, 194).

2. Identity, Visibility, and Advocacy

Sometimes, I think that those opposed to LGBT rights are very uninformed as to why the LGBT community relies on "identity politics" to advocate for equal rights. Because they lack historical insight, the fundamental anti-gay arguments against "identity politics" assumes that LGBT people banded together in some sort of vacuum in order to try to impose some new world order on everyone else. In the reality-based world, the context of LGBT advocacy is very different. As Passet reminds us, in the 1950s "homosexuals were routinely institutionalized, fired from their jobs, and imprisoned, simply for being gay" (xxiv). The legal system criminalized gay sex and "homosexuality" was branded by the medical and psychiatric professions as "pathological" (175). Gay bars were routinely raided with patrons being beaten and/or arrested. "McCarthy and his minions branded homosexuals a national danger" (Ibid.). Even though though LGBT people are still branded by some as "sick" and "dangerous," circumstances were very different back then for gay people than they are now.

Yet, in light of the cries of some that LGBT people are playing unfair "identity politics" by advocating for our rights, we have to remember that it was the dominant class, heterosexuals, that defined deviance and imposed penalties upon it. LGBT folks joined together and became politically active on the basis of the shared trait of "sexual deviance" as a reaction to the incredible oppression that they shared. For instance, with the birth of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in 1955, lesbians were beginning to offer a "counternarrative to the religious leaders, medical authorities, and political figures who condemned homosexuality and persecuted gay men and women. Like [DOB] founding members Del Martin and Pyllis Lyon, Jeanette recognized how important it was for isolated lesbians and gay men to find validation of their lives in print" (198-199).

Passet recounts how Jeanette's book "had a significant impact on others," particularly the women who came of age during the more radical 1960s. Her work, including her short stories and poems, "experienced a renaissance, in large part due to the emergence of feminist and lesbian presses" (252). And, while she lived to see the relevance of her work, she also (correctly) predicted a backlash to LGBT rights saying "The 'GOOD' are sure to become conscious of trends, and get on their snow-white steeds for a 'decency' campaign pretty soon- damn their pious hides!" (Ibid.). Unfortunately, while living in an Arkansas nursing home, she also lived to see the recriminalization of sex between two consenting people of the same sex in 1977 (256). This unfortunate law was passed during Anita Bryant's obsessed anti-gay crusades.

In sum, Sex Variant Woman was one of the best books I read all year. Passet thoroughly chronicles the life of a remarkable, brilliant, courageous woman who lived through several eras of repression and expression. It reminds me that justice often comes in ebbs and flows and that even though strong forces are oppose us, we have been here before and have faced much greater odds. Passet's biography, I believe, is one of the most important books for those of us looking for images of ourselves in history.

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