The History of Sexuality has a Jewish Problem
The Difference Religion Makes to United States History
Recently I had the pleasure of being a respondent at a conference in honor of Heather White and Anthony Petro’s respective path breaking publications Reforming Sodom and After the Wrath of God. Both books make crucial interventions in the history of sexuality and LGBTQ history, two fields that are only beginning to seriously consider how different religious traditions have shaped the twentieth-century United States. White and Petro are at the forefront of an emergent conversation between historians of religion and historians of sexuality—many of whom attended the conference—that is moving the history of sexuality beyond a pervasive and simplistic framework that stereotypes religion as an unchanging, residual, and conservative monolith that is opposed to LGBTQ politics, secular modernity, and sexual liberalism.
As I thought about the many contributions both White and Petro make to the history of sexuality, I was left with a lingering question: Why are critical analyses of Judaism absent, not only in their respective histories, but in the history of sexuality in the United States more broadly?
Consider the striking absence of Jewish subjects from canonical and synthetic works in the field. John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman mention Judaism approximately six times in Intimate Matters; Jonathan Ned Katz’s Invention of Heterosexuality mentions Jews about five times; Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers references Jewry around two times; and Robert Self’s All in the Family references Jews in passing about ten times. By contrast, D’Emilio, Freedman, and Self give Christianity (especially its conservative manifestations) extensive treatment, whereas Faderman discusses new age spiritual practices. When Judaism is invoked in these works, it appears as a descriptor without detail. Similarly, Marc Stein, in the magnificent City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves, systematically describes how his informants grew up in a “Jewish family” or have a “Jewish background.” Yet readers are left to speculate what exactly this Judaism signifies. Does it mean ethnicity? Ancestry? Religious identification? Upbringing? Participation in some aspect of Jewish communal life? In short, what sort of work does the unelaborated adjective “Jewish” do for authors and readers alike in histories of American sexuality?
The elision of Judaism from so much of our scholarship on the history of sexuality is symptomatic of a broader trend in modern American history that elides religion more generally and Jewish people, ideas, and influences in particular. Historian Jon Butler describes this as “jack-in-the-box faith” where religion “pops up colorfully on occasion” but “as with a child’s jack-in-the-box, the surprise offered by the color or peculiarity of the figure is seldom followed by an extended performance, much less substance.” Judaism, when invoked in the history of sexuality, however, seldom has color, substance, or an extended performance. It operates flatly and blandly as a descriptor without context.
This oversight would be unremarkable in a field otherwise indifferent to religion, except that many of the authors who neglect to “explore the contours and significance of Jewishness” themselves come from Jewish backgrounds. We can apply Hasia Diner’s remarks about this phenomenon in the field of American history to historians of sexuality in particular.
A striking number of these historians are themselves Jewish … Is this a point worth pondering? Does our writing about the American Jewish past somehow put them in an uncomfortable position and potentially tarnish their universalistic credentials? Do our books with the word “Jewish” in the titles, or our courses similarly labeled, ask them to join a discussion that they would rather avoid? Do they feel that acknowledging Jews as actors in American history would mark them as chauvinistic, particularistic, or narrow?
To these questions we might also add: Why are so many Jewish historians comfortable producing and teaching histories that complement their sexual but not their religious identities? Why have so many queer Jewish historians avoided putting their subjects’ Judaism in conversation with their subjects’ queerness? And why is a field, which is increasingly interested in looking at intersections between sexuality, race, and class, so silent when it comes to identifying Jews?
Take eminent lesbian historian Lillian Faderman, whose memoir Naked in the Promised Land and her biography of her mother, My Mother’s Wars, deals richly with her family’s Jewish identity, with Jewish life, and with Jewish communal institutions. This same richness is strikingly absent in Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers and Surpassing the Love of Men. Faderman is not averse to analyzing religion; in Odd Girls she explores Lesbian Feminist spirituality. Offering a comparable analysis to the concentration of Jewish women in the lesbian feminist movement would not simply offer another angle of vision. It would shed light on a powerful cultural undercurrent. It is more than fair and vitally important to ask how Lesbian Feminism is a Jewish story.
This phenomenon of ignoring Judaism is not simply confined to Jewish historians. It is pervasive in the field of the history of sexuality and modern American history more broadly. But indifference only partially explains the lack of attention to the crucial presence of Jews in the history of sexuality. Judaism’s tripartite signification as religion, race, and ethnicity makes it a confounding category that elides easy incorporation into the project of sexuality studies in the United States. So too do narratives that far too eagerly envelop American Judaism into categories of secularism or whiteness. Let me therefore offer an immodest provocation: Judaism is a difference that makes a difference in the history of sexuality in the United States.
Heather White’s masterful book Reforming Sodom illustrates this point. Her book focuses on American Mainline Protestants—“religious liberals, urbane modernizers of the twentieth century”—and how they “formed and then reformed religious teachings about homosexuality.” Reforming Sodom discusses how pastoral counseling embedded psychology into ministry. White also analyzes gay Protestant responses to this pastoral care. Notably absent from the discussion is the fact that Protestant pastoral counselors were appropriating the writing of European Jewish sexologists and psychologists such as Magnus Hirschfeld, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, and Sandor Rado. As historians such as Sander Gilman have chronicled, these Jewish authors—and their intellectual output—were indelibly shaped by their Jewish upbringing or their religious persecution in rabidly anti-Semitic contexts. Jewish intellectuals, in other words, played an outsized role in shaping Protestants’ pastoral engagement with homosexuality. And, they are at the heart of the historiography about the medicalization of sexuality.
Likewise, Jewish activists are the hidden figures of After the Wrath of God, Anthony Petro’s important study of AIDS, sexuality and American Christianity. Petro examines the “range of American Christians who shaped public discussions of AIDS, sexuality, and public health.” In his study of the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Petro underscores that these AIDS activists “encountered religion in a number of ways, particularly through the background and practices of its members.” Yet, Petro overlooks the Judaism of Larry Kramer and he does not analyze the the significance of the large numbers of Jews who made up ACT UP’s membership and leadership, a phenomenon that Sarah Schulman has carefully documented in her ACT UP Oral History Project. In a story about AIDS and American religion that is sensitive to various Christian traditions, no meaning is made by Petro of the profound influence of Jewish history, from the use of the pink triangle that emblazoned Silence = Death posters, to the sustained and pervasive comparisons of AIDS to the Holocaust. Asking how Jewish thought, art, terminology, and activism inspired ACT UP in particular and the cultural interpretations of AIDS more generally, enriches our understanding of the relationship between AIDS, sexuality and a plurality of American religions.
Attending to the Jewish backgrounds of our historical subjects also shifts how we understand their lives and activism. For example, spotlighting the Jewishness of Edward Sagarin and Frank Kameny, two important homophile era activists, modifies how we narrate the story of the homophile movement. The writings of both men suggest that Sagarin and Kameny drew from lived experiences as a Jewish religious-racial minority to understand themselves as a sexual minority and to argue for their right to exist as such. In Sagarin’s The Homosexual in America, published in 1951 under the pen name Donald Webster Cory, he presents discrimination in the following way: “There are only majority problems. There is no Negro problem except that created by whites; no Jewish problem except that created by gentiles … and no homosexual problem except that created by the heterosexual society.”
This formulation—what Jewish queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls “minoritizing arguments”—are also present in homophile leader Franklin Kameny’s advocacy for gay rights. Can we simply glance over the presence of Judaism in Kameny’s forceful arguments against conversion therapy in his letter to famed advice columnist Ann Landers? “Suggesting the cure for their unhappiness, fright and loneliness might be change to heterosexuality,” Kameny wrote in 1966, “is like suggesting the cure for the misfortunes that beset the Negro and the Jew, as a result of segregation, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism would best be cured by bleaching the Negro and converting the Jew to Christianity.” Such comparisons, made by Jewish gay men in the early 1950s and 1960s, would quickly become paradigmatic in the gay rights movement.
We might productively ask how Jewish debates at midcentury over religious conversion and assimilation undergirded these two Jewish men’s formulations of sexual identities and minorities. And we might note how analogies to racial and religious minorities are strikingly absent from contemporary texts like Reverend Robert Wood’s Christ and the Homosexual (1960), a homophile book written by and for white Protestants. While the historiography pits Sagarin and Kameny as being on opposite sides of the homophile debate about whether “gay is good,” important through-lines can be drawn out by attending to the presence of Jewish culture and politics. We could find added layers of meaning in Kameny’s conversation about conversion and homosexuality with Landers (the pseudonym used by Esther Lederer) who was herself Jewish and who also rejected conversion. “I always recommend therapy,” Landers wrote in 1966, “because while it might not produce a cure, it does help the homosexual to accept himself.”
In this vein, historians of sexuality can learn a great deal from historians of Jewry such as Hasia Diner, David Hollinger, Paula Hyman, Tony Michels and Deborah Dash Moore who have developed a rich array of critical tools to think about Jewish subjects in multiple contexts. These historians of American Jewry model how to place their historical subjects’ Judaism—however defined—into conversation with different facets of their lives. And they offer models to trace what Diner calls the movements of individuals “in and out of the Jewish sphere, and to ask about the implications of these physical and cultural journeys.” They invite us to think critically about Jewishness, not as some unchanging essence, but as a dynamic force that shaped American modernity. Historian Rebecca Davis’ More Perfect Unions exemplifies these best practices by carefully tracing the role of multiple religious traditions and institutions in the history of marriage counseling. Josh Lambert’s work on obscenity, Jews and American culture, Rachel Kranson’s forthcoming work on Conservative Jewish women and abortion rights activism, and Paul Spickard’s scholarship on the politics of interfaith marriage likewise showcase how to do the history of religions and sexualities together.
Historians of sexuality, with their training in attending to the intersectional complexities of identity and community formation, are already poised to address—in non-essentialist ways—moments where Jewish presence manifests. Borrowing from historian David Hollinger’s method, one starting point might be to attend to “the places in which Jews showed up in disproportionate numbers and the phenomena in which they played a critical role.” Noting these moments might transform ostensibly secular stories into ecumenical or religious histories of sexuality.
One can imagine a number of possible questions to address this presence. Drawing from important research on Jews and American liberalism by historians Marc Dollinger, Michael Staub and Stuart Svonkin, how might we rethink what D’Emilio and Freedman call “sexual liberalism”? How might attending to the red diaper baby phenomenon allow us to understand both the lavender and the red in historian Emily Hobson’s new book as deeply connected to the history of American Jewry? Or to use activist Allen Young’s unbeatable title, how might attending to Jewishness take us, “From a Jewish Chicken Farm in the Catskills, to the Cane Fields of Cuba, to the First Gay Protests in New York City”? Drawing from historian Daniel Boyarin’s work on Jewish masculinity and heterosexuality, how might we complicate Robert Self’s paradigmatic formulation of “Breadwinner Liberalism” and “Breadwinner conservatism” in his sweeping history, All in the Family? How did the history of Jewish neighborhoods reshape urban politics and augment the development of what historian Timothy Stewart-Winter calls Queer Clout? Endless questions arise and are limited only by how we draw the boundaries of Jewishness and how these religious boundaries have been historically drawn.
Until now, most historians interested in twentieth-century American sexuality have marginalized Jewish presence rather than trying to figure out what this presence means. There are multiple sites in the history of sexuality where analyzing Judaism will yield productive insights and transform existent stories: the history of pornography and anti-pornography feminism, lesbian-feminism, AIDS activism, abortion and contraceptive rights activism, gay liberation, and the homophile movement. The list is expansive. Asking what difference Judaism makes may offer surprising answers or confirm stories we already know. At the very least, such an analysis will enrich how we talk about sexual politics, communities and identities.
Gillian Frank is a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion, co-host of the podcast Sexing History. This essay originally appeared at NOTCHES on April 6, 2017, and is reprinted by permission.