Howard, John. Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Men Like That was one of the earliest history books to deal with queer history in the American South. As such, it’s one of the first books I read for my historiography project on, you guessed it, queer history in the American South. A historiography essay summarizes and analyzes the body of historical publication on a given topic, so I’ve got a big stack of books on this, and I can only hope the rest are this interesting! This is a long review, sorry-not-sorry, because I’ve tried to include significant historical information as well as my qualitative judgments of the book itself.
Men Like That focuses on Mississippi, 1945-1985. It occasionally spills over into other southern states, and I feel the title is accurate, but it’s about one southern queer history in particular. It essentially functions as a summary of queer history in that time, because southern/rural queerness had been pretty much ignored in favor of the big, more-easily-studied coastal cities. Further, Howard’s argument is “men like that” in Mississippi didn’t fit into the traditional urban narrative. They didn’t “come out” in the same way, they didn’t generally find liberation by migrating to the cities, and they largely didn’t partake in identity politics at all during this time period. However, that doesn’t mean they were exactly “closeted” or even “oppressed” in the way we might think. They were actually incredibly active, just not in the same way as queer men in the cities. They had their own networks and systems and ways of being, and it’s those activities Howard will describe.
The book is separated into two parts. The first uses oral histories to narrate a loose history, an impression of the time period as a whole for queer men. He frankly discusses the limits of this type of history, the types of narratives received when a historian asks for queer interviewees — you miss out on the huge pool of men who “liked that,” but weren’t “like that.” Still, even though it’s limited, it’s useful. The second part of the book, larger in size, deals with more traditional historical methods. It’s more chronological, and covers such history-ish things as laws, activist organizing, public backlash, the civil rights movement, and fictional representations (not in that order).
I was pleased by Howard’s treatment of race and religion throughout the book. He rightly notes that the book would be devastatingly incomplete without discussing race and the intersection of race with sexuality, and he follows through on discussing that in pretty much every section, although he was limited in some areas by lack of available sources. Fun and significant fact — according to Howard (although not in his words), things were relatively chill for queer men in Mississippi in the 50s, but racism was huge. After the civil rights movement got started there was backlash, and queer folks got caught up in it, in large part because the anti-civil rights people tried to accuse civil rights leaders of crazy pervy stuff in general to discredit them. Also just because the dominant classes were doubling down on their definitions of propriety in general, but ALSO because queers and queer activism were legitimately linked to the Civil Rights Movement proper. The 60s and 70s were the hardest time for queer folks, not the 50s.
Howard isn’t as explicit about his attention to religion, but he does pay attention, and goes into some detail particularly in the “Politics and Belief” chapter. Religion, specifically Christianity, was vitally important to the vast majority of queer men in Mississippi. The state also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the Metropolitan Community Church, a queer-friendly denomination that’s now a worldwide presence.
For my own purposes, the “Representations” chapter was the best. I’m a huge proponent of using fiction and pop culture to illuminate perceptions of the past, that was my undergrad project, so I was all over this part. It includes music, movies, and news, but particularly books, and more particularly gay pulp novels. Even MORE particularly, the gay pulp novels and artwork of Carl Corley. Corley was one of the only gay pulp writers to use his own name, and while the books are racially problematic, they really reflect the moralistic attitudes of the time and the real-life gay culture in Mississippi mid-century. I now have elaborately detailed fantasies of making my thesis project all about Mr. Corley, because the sources are so great and it could be the best exhibit EVER, but it’s a long shot. I’ll keep you posted if this progresses beyond the idea stage.
But enough about me. Men Like That isn’t a perfect book. The main issue is too much editorializing, without clearly linking his interpretation to his evidence. Interpretation, in a historian’s parlance simply meaning “chitchat and conclusions based on evidence,” is the whole point of history writing. I just prefer to have very explicit linkages between the discussion and the evidence being discussed, because it minimizes confusion. However, this is a very common thing in history books, and it didn’t hamper my enjoyment. The work is copiously endnoted, and being a nerd working on a project, I spent a lot of quality time with those endnotes. So, I can confidently say if you want more information about any of his topics, you can easily figure out his sources and continue on your own. Another minor criticism is that he quotes Novid Parsi in glowing terms on several occasions, without mentioning that they were partners at the time. He mentions it in the acknowledgements, but not when actually using Parsi’s work.
Still, it’s a good book and an important one. It’s accessible to amateurs and historians alike, and it performed a crucial service to the profession by focusing on this underanalyzed region and collecting all this information for future use.
I won’t be able to spend as much time going through the rest of my sources for this project — I shouldn’t have spent so much time on this one — but I’ll try to add more reviews if y’all are interested. The final product, edited for the web, will appear here in December or January, and I’ll also post a source list along with it. Happy reading!