LGBT Studies: A review of Four Current Titles


The Lambda Literary Foundation recently announced their 25th Annual Lambda Awards (the Lammys) finalists for books written in 2012.

Lambda Literary describes LGBT Studies as scholarly work oriented toward academia, libraries, cultural professionals, and the more academic reader. I would argue that one doesn’t have to be a geek to read and appreciate these books. On the contrary, books on LGBT studies provide history and context on queer movements worldwide, movements from which we can draw inspiration and energy to drive our own continued struggle for equality. These books are also some of the most successful in articulating a vision of hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

My review below includes three nominated books: Acts of Gaiety by Sara Warner, The Invention of Heterosexual Culture by Louis-Georges Tin, and South Africa and the Dream of Love to Come by Brenna Munro. I have also included J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism, which was submitted for Lammy consideration but did not make the final list.

The Lammys will be announced at a ceremony on June 3 in New York.

Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure, by Sara Warner, explores the mirthful modes of political performance by LGBT artists, activists, and collectives that have inspired and sustained deadly serious struggles for revolutionary change. This book explores antics such as camp, kitsch, drag, guerrilla theater, zap actions, rallies, manifestos, pageants, and parades alongside more familiar forms of “legitimate theater”.

‘Acts of Gaiety’ begins with a stunning articulation of homoliberalism as the rise of a conservative movement within the LGBT community, one that is more interested in assimilation rather than freedom and the right to be whoever you want to be. It charts the history of the formation of lesbian and gay groups like The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis as groups that promoted assimilation into, rather than rebellion from, the dominant culture, and how, because of this, Stonewall is seen as the birth of the gay rights movement even though these groups predated Stonewall. The author then makes the argument that Stonewall was not only the birth of the gay rights movement but also the birth of gaiety.

Warner then goes on to describe numerous acts of gaiety that were the cornerstone of the equal rights movement. There is a thrilling chapter on Valerie Solanas, the queer rebel popular in the 1960s for authoring the outrageous play Up Your Ass and infiltrating Andy Warhol’s inner circle. Other groups and guerilla acts that came and went were the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), the “Yippie” movement, and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) who insisted that people are sexually fluid and saw gay as not an identity but as sexually frolic-some, a non-conformative challenge to the sexual morals of American culture. (Although she doesn’t go into the impact that bisexual activist and longtime chairperson Brenda Howard had on theses groups.) A lovingly nostalgic chapter is devoted to Hothead Paisan, Diane DiMassa’s underground comic zine, as an example of “raw, renegade, hilarious, and poignant production” that had its epochal moment in the late 1990s and then self-imploded under DiMassa’s shifting ideas on queer activism.

A well researched, page-turner of a book, ‘Acts of Gaiety’ is simultaneously a history lesson, a brilliant critique of today’s gay rights movement, and a reminder that perhaps it is not too late to mine our collective creativity to challenge rather than to reinforce normative notions of sexuality.

Sara Warner is a Faculty Fellow at Harvard University and Associate Professor of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University.

The Invention of Heterosexual Culture, by Louis-Georges Tin, is a meticulously researched and thoroughly engrossing book that shows how heterosexuality was perceived as an alternative culture in early 12th century Europe. Tin maps the emergence of heterosexual culture in Western Europe and the significant resistance to it from feudal lords, church fathers, and the medical profession.

Tin writes beautifully about the conflict between the emerging heterosexual culture and homosocial tradition whose influence endured for several centuries to come. Drawing from vast reserves of literature, poetry, and plays of that era, ‘The Invention of Heterosexual Culture’ may be a resolute insight into homosociality, the cult of male friendship and love and the cultural importance it was given, but it also exposes how women were perceived at the time. Tin writes, “Women were held to be of little account and, accordingly, relegated to a peripheral role, not least since they were not considered capable of arousing or experiencing deep-seated emotions.” He argues that it wasn’t until the 17th century, and the prominence of Christianity, that heterosexual culture took over by condemning and stigmatizing the practice of sodomy and falsely projecting advancement of women

Tin admits to being more interested in identifying approaches to the rise of heterosexual culture rather than articulate conclusions. Still, ‘The Invention of Heterosexual Culture’ is a fascinating read, especially for lovers of medieval history and queer studies.

Louis-Georges Tin, born in Martinique and now living in Paris, lectures in the arts faculty at the University of Orléans. He is the author of The Dictionary of Homophobia, the founder of the Paris-based IDAHO Committee, which coordinates International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, and cofounder and spokesman for the Representative Council of Black Associations.

South Africa and the Dream of Love to Come: Queer Sexuality and the Struggle for Freedom, by Brenna M. Munro, is a book of staggering scope and impact. Even though South Africa’s constitution, drafted in 1996, was the first in the world to include LGBT people as full citizens, the discourse on – and the road to attaining – gay rights in South Africa is fraught with politics of injustice and, often, imprisonment and torture of gay and allied activists. In a post-apartheid South Africa, many LGBT people still feel they do not have a sense of basic respect, safety, and belonging.

Munro takes on the daunting task of mapping this journey that begins with how “South Africans managed to forge a gay-friendly, radically plural democracy” and ends with the euphoria of the mid-1990s replaced by varying modes of disillusionment and disappointment. She seems to have left no stone unturned in finding journal entries and poems written by activists imprisoned during high apartheid, gut-wrenching memoirs that clue us in to the convergence of gay rights discourse with the international anti-apartheid movement. In the book’s final section, Munro zeroes in on the novels of J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, two of South Africa’s most celebrated writers, to explore whether sexuality can be the grounds for reinventing race and nation without an attention to systemic economic injustice.

A painstakingly researched book written with enormous respect and admiration for its sources of inspiration, ‘South Africa and the Dream of Love to Come’ educates and moves the reader to reflect on freedom, the price of freedom, and the unexpected and disappointing consequences of freedom. This is the first book by Munro and a remarkable achievement, one that is sure to be required reading for gender and sexuality studies.

Brenna M. Munro is Associate Professor of gender and sexuality studies, postcolonial theory, and queer postcolonial writing and cinema at the University of Miami.

‘Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal’, by J. Jack Halberstam, proposes a 21st century form of feminism inspired by Lady Gaga, not so much her music but Lady Gaga as living performance art. The author makes keen observations of, and interpretations on, sexuality in films, particularly the dominance of heterosexuality as an ideal, representation of women as dependent on male adulation and approval, and prescribed roles and characteristics for the man and the woman. ‘Gaga Feminism’ is particularly convincing as a sharp critique of the inability of media to grasp any concept of gender non-conformity and their insistence on presenting complex sexualities in a simplistic, newsworthy form palatable to middle America.

Halberstam asserts that “Gaga feminism will locate Lady Gaga as merely the most recent marker of the withering away of old social models of desire, gender, and sexuality, and as a channel for potent new forms of relation, intimacy, technology, and embodiment.” The book, however, fails to research the possibility that Lady Gaga might simply be

  1. a shrewd performance artist trying to create a new brand that appeals to the biggest consumers – young adults – in a post-capitalist world;
  2. a woman challenging the tiresome monotony of the music industry’s latest products, a challenge that perhaps ought to be less noteworthy compared to the cage-rattling feminism of performers like Nicki Minaj;
  3. a woman intent on manipulating a naïve media – and, indeed, her adoring fans – who are blindly willing to credit Lady Gaga as new and imaginative when she is nothing of the sort.

For example, the meat dressthat Lady Gaga wore to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards is a copy of awe-inspiring paintings done in the late 1990s by American artist Mark Ryden.

‘Gaga Feminism’ is an interesting book written in an informal style and filled with humorous anecdotes. However, its wide-eyed admiration of the persona, rather than the person that is Lady Gaga, makes its case for this new brand of feminism fall on its own head.

J. Jack Halberstam is Professor of English and Director of The Center for Feminist Research at University of Southern California. Known to most as Judith but lately using the name Jack more frequently, Halberstam earned his BA with a major in English, at the University of California at Berkeley in 1985. He received his MA from the University of Minnesota in 1989, and his PhD from the same school in 1991. As a gender and queer theorist and author – and nominated three times for Lambda Literary Awards – Halberstam is best known for his influential books Female Masculinity, The Queer Art of Failure, and In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.


About Author

Anil Vora

Anil Vora is based in Seattle, Washington and is a regular contributor to Bi Magazine. As a result of his series of articles about bisexuality in India, written exclusively for Bi Magazine, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs included bisexual content in their development of a global charter on LGBT rights. He has been a queer activist for more than three decades starting with HIV prevention, treatment, and advocacy issues and is now focusing on the health and wellness of LGBTQ elders.

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