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Susan Burgess' LGBT Inclusion in American Life: Pop Culture, Political Imagination, and Civil Rights (NYU Press)

Well into the 1990s, Susan Burgess recalls in LGBT Inclusion in American Life: Pop Culture, Political Imagination, and Civil Rights (NYU Press), “the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association regularly rejected manuscripts submitted on LGBT politics without even bothering to send them out for review, a practice known as a ‘desk rejection.’” (Burgess is a distinguished professor emerita of political science at Ohio University and a senior professional lecturer at DePaul University.)

As we approach the 20th anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas —the Supreme Court decision ruling that consensual same-sex intimacy between adults is protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment—it’s bizarre to think that the political salience of LGBTQ+ issues was ever in doubt. But just a few years ago, Inside Higher Ed reported on efforts to open up the American Political Science Review (the flagship journal in question) to scholars “whose work focuses on areas often dismissed as ‘not of general interest’—race, gender and LGBTQ politics, for example.”

Clearly the “general interest” of political scientists is one thing and the general public’s interest quite another. Let’s look at the numbers:

“Between 1986 and 2021,” writes Burgess, “public support for consenting adult sex between gays and lesbians grew from 32 to 79 percent. Public support for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the military grew from 51 to 83 percent between 1977 and 2019, and 71 percent of the public supported the inclusion of transgender people in the armed forces. Between 1996 and 2021, support for same-sex marriage grew from 27 to 71 percent.”

A minority of citizens remains unbudgeably opposed to these changes, of course; the fate of Roe v. Wade should disabuse everyone of the notion that Lawrence v. Texas is irreversible. The culture war and political conflict are sometimes very different things—but not in this case, at this time.

How did public attitudes and government policies regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people move so sharply towards inclusiveness over a few decades? (“LGBT” is now frequently appended with “QIA+,” but the particular concerns of questioning, intersex and asexual people have not found much political expression, as yet.) Burgess looks at the matter from within the political science subfield known as American political development (APD), which grapples with the way political institutions change over time while also remaining, on the whole, fairly stable in structure and influence. How do political institutions “constrain, constitute, or limit the behavior of actors and the range of alternatives they confront”—as one overview of APD explains—while also opening up, sometimes, to groups or forces previously excluded?

The prevalent thumbnail historical narrative established in recent years begins with the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969 and culminates in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision from 2015 guaranteeing the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry. A parallel with the civil rights movement is typically implied: another stretch of the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice.

Such narratives leave out a great deal, of course, but the missing historical details are not Burgess’s primary interest. She is concerned instead with the deep change of norms and attitudes that political institutions undergo on the way towards LGBTQ+ inclusion. For people anathematized as criminal, pathological or damaged in one period to transform into what she calls “rights-bearing citizens who can heroically defend the state and its institutions” (including military service and parenthood) involves reimagining both those institutions and the people in question. Public opinion polls or legislative vote tallies track the process crudely at best, and with some delay.

Building on other American political development work, Burgess recasts the Stonewall/Selma paradigm (if I may put it that way) in the context of Cold War–era American political culture. Both the nation and the nuclear family remained stable and secure insofar as various deviants (political or sexual: commie or queer) could be excluded, their influence contained when not destroyed. The familiar understanding of McCarthyism as a “red scare” has to be supplemented by recognition of the “lavender scare” directed to purging homosexuals as security risks. And when not rendered entirely invisible, LGBTQ+ people in the public sphere (including fictional characters in film and television) were almost always depicted in a sinister or demeaning manner.

So the pioneering LGBTQ+ organizations and their various successors were challenging not just entrenched prejudices but a whole political and cultural operating system. Sometimes there was an explicit recognition of this, as with an early gay liberation slogan that Burgess cites: “Smash the church! Smash the state!” By that metric, the movement cannot be described as successful. But from an APD-informed perspective, LGBTQ+ inclusion has been part of the reconfiguring of norms and practices regarding sex, gender, privacy and the family, across any number of institutions. It has also generated new lines of political force: LGBTQ+ lobbies and fundraising organizations, for example, but also groups for which smashing the church and the state remain a priority. Inclusion means political agency, but also dissensus over what that agency requires.

Now, these are the broad strokes of an argument largely implicit in LGBT Inclusion in American Life, which is best understood as venturing a methodological challenge within APD-style work. Burgess takes a cultural turn. She maintains that change in political institutions cannot be understood strictly by reference to political ideas, rules or policies. The LGBTQ+-excluding framework established in the 1940s and ’50s was intertwined with the era’s expectations about home life, consumption, proper behavior, etc. Arguably, mass media and popular culture have been as powerful as other institutions in transmitting prevailing norms, and sometimes in bringing them into question.

The implications go beyond the conventional wisdom that sympathetic gay sitcom characters transformed the cultural baseline. Burgess examines a number of movies (e.g., Casablanca, the James Bond series) and television programs (Leave It to Beaver, The Americans) to track changes in how masculinity, femininity, honor and the family have been understood over the decades. Synopsizing her analysis would require considerably more recapitulation of plots than a short, nonspecialist review can accommodate. Suffice to say that the exchange of influence between pop culture and American politics flows in both directions, and sometimes becomes knotted in complex ways. My sense is that the book is a kind of gauntlet thrown down before the author’s colleagues, challenging them to think outside the ballot box.

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