‘The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America’ by Margot Canaday

Lambda Award Winner

For the vast majority of Americans, citizenship is something ultimately taken for granted, an inevitable “gimme” that—along with death, taxes, and complaining about the government—clearly defines what and who constitutes “real Americans.” However, this supposedly clear definition of citizenship is sketched along strictly delimited lines of “us versus them” (with “us” defined as white, middle-to-upper-class, heterosexuals; while “them” incorporates everyone else). Historian Margot Canaday argues in her award-winning book The Straight State that in the early to mid part of the 20th century, the U.S. government seized on this dialectical divide as a means of overtly upholding heterosexuality as a central component of American citizenship. This elevation, naturally, required governmental formulation and implementation of policies that eventually led to the creation of what Canaday dubs the eponymous American “straight state.”

Within this straight state, homosexuals were, not surprisingly, viewed and treated as suspect anti-citizens whose very presence threatened the “normal” status quo. Ironically, however, this threat was counterbalanced by an inconvenient truth that the straight state’s very existence depended on homosexuals. In other words, the straight state depended on homosexuals to (at least tacitly) define who deserved full access to the rights and benefits of American citizenship and who did not. These rights and benefits, according to Canaday, included serving in the military, entering and retaining residence in-country, or receiving welfare benefits and subsidies.

Canaday draws much of her material from archival government documents to trace how the federal government dramatically expanded its bureaucratic reach in response to the rising visibility of “sexually deviant degenerates.” As Canaday observes, these “deviants” were usually seen as lower class, amoral individuals who actively resisted settling down, getting married, buying a home, and producing offspring. In the early-to-mid-century time period covered by The Straight State, this resistance was widely viewed as antithetical, and even dangerous, to what the government was increasingly promoting as a unified, consensus American identity.

Canaday’s attempt to fashion a linear historical narrative out of these federal documents is admirable, although her teasing out these documents makes for often laborious reading (this is particularly true in the book’s “Welfare” chapters). Yet when Canaday allows the documents’ “case studies” to—in a manner of speaking—tell their own stories, The Straight State becomes a truly interesting and compelling read.

Take for example the 1958 case of George Fleuti, a Swiss alien living and working in the United States since 1952, who was arrested for engaging in homosexual behavior. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) threatened to deport Fleuti because his homosexuality, according to prevailing criminal codes, was considered to be psychopathic. According to Fleuti’s psychiatrist, however, he (Fleuti) couldn’t be considered psychopathic simply because, in spite of his homosexual history, Fleuti continued to display “traits of a better than average citizen, in the sense of hard work, general morality, and honesty.”

At first glance this observation seems fairly innocuous, but what makes it so interesting is that, if in fact these “traits” were held up as the gold standard for proper American citizenship, hardly anyone (regardless of whether they were “real” or “deviant” citizens) could realistically claim that they were in full compliance. And although Fleuti ultimately lost his case on appeal (due in large part to intractable INS insistence on the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law), judicial actions resulting from subsequent homosexual deportation matters were far more sympathetic to the vagaries associated with “general morality.”

Readers will no doubt quickly recognize this type of governmental hand-wringing over employment, honesty, and morality playing out in current arguments and court challenges over same-sex marriage and DOMA, as well as immigration reform. Indeed, the renewed debate over these issues make The Straight State an impressive historical resource not only to see how far American citizens of all races, genders, and sexual orientations have come, but also to show how far we still have to go.

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
By Margot Canaday
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 9781400830428
Hardcover, $29.95; 296 pp.