Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

American Homo: Community and Perversity

Jeffrey Escoffier
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA
0520206339 (pb); 0520206320 (hb)
US$17.95 (pb); US$45.00 (hb)
xii + 280 pp.

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Jeffrey Escoffier has been enthusiastically involved in American lesbian and gay politics and scholarship since the 1970s, and this collection of essays (written since 1985) reflects a broad range of issues that concern both activists and academics. The book has three main themes: the growth of lesbian and gay identities and communities in America since the twentieth century's 'sexual revolution'; the role of academic and community intellectuals in producing knowledge that supports and legitimates the lesbian and gay movement; and the contemporary political situation that faces lesbians, gay men and other sexual dissidents in the USA, particularly the rise of right-wing fundamentalism and the possibilities and pitfalls of queer activism.

In a context-setting first chapter, Escoffier sketches the recent historical emergence of lesbians and gay men as a social group in the United States, highlighting the changes in the sex/gender system that followed WWII. In particular, Escoffier proposes that the publication of Kinsey's ground- breaking reports on human sexuality, the advent of Keynesian economic policies, and the creation of a gay liberation movement, were crucial in generating awareness of same-sex desire and creating conditions in which people could meet and articulate lesbian and gay identities. The importance of economic factors in the emergence of the lesbian and gay communities is a theme that is further developed in the second chapter. This awareness of material constraints and the intimate linking of lesbian and gay culture with changes in capitalist organisation is reminiscent of writers such as John D'Emilio (1983).

However, a more dominant theme of 'American Homo' is Escoffier's concern with the role of lesbian and gay intellectuals. Escoffier believes that lesbian and gay intellectuals are vital to the creation and maintenance of shared knowledge, ethical norms and the sense of identity that bonds the diverse lesbian and gay communities, as well as opening up public debate on sexuality and criticising oppressive and normalising regimes. Escoffier traces the rise of lesbian and gay studies within the American university system, and highlights the tension that has arisen between the professional and vernacular knowledges of academic and community intellectuals as lesbian and gay scholars become established within the institutional context of the university. Early work in lesbian and gay studies (from the 1970s) was concerned with the authenticity of lesbian and gay identities, and the consolidation of the identity politics approach, often carried out by lesbian and gay intellectuals who were based in the community and had to fight for academic recognition. More recently, a new generation of lesbian and gay scholars (often located in elite academic institutions) have embraced sophisticated cultural critique and textual analysis as ways to challenge 'heteronormativity', under the moniker of 'queer theory'. The danger here, as Escoffier sees it, is that the highly technical style of much queer theory restricts its access to a rarefied audience, and highlights the increasing separation between professional academics and lay people.

In the closing chapters, Escoffier comments on the rise of 'queer' as a political stance and the parallel development of queer theorising. While recognising the potential of a queer cultural politics, Escoffier is concerned that neither queer nor the more traditional identity politics approaches are sufficient to overcome the challenges posed by America's 'Moral Majority'. Instead, Escoffier argues for a 'radical democratic' approach that would unite the disparate strands of Left-aligned movements and attack the Right's hegemonic project. This of course is a monumental task, but Escoffier sees a combined strategy (following Gramsci) of community building, direct action and political alliance as the only way that the lesbian and gay communities will continue to survive and grow.

The essays in 'American Homo' reflect Escoffier's personal involvement in lesbian and gay activism and scholarship for over 20 years, and manage to maintain a sophisticated balance between personal reflection and cultural and political commentary. Escoffier's prose is accessible, and his arguments are convincing and well-researched. My only reservation with 'American Homo' is its relevance outside the United States; Escoffier's arguments about lesbian and gay intellectuals are interesting but probably not directly applicable in other countries with less well established lesbian and gay studies programmes or with different political contexts. For instance, in Britain 'lesbian and gay studies' is not really a coherent discipline and tends to exist within other areas such as women's or cultural studies. However, that aside, those interested in a passionate and considered appraisal of the recent history of American lesbian and gay activism and scholarship will find Escoffier's book rewarding.

Martin Holt
University of Birmingham


D'EMILIO, J. (1983) 'Capitalism and gay identity' in A. Snitow, C. Stansell, and S. Thompson (Editors) Powers of desire: the politics of sexuality. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999