Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review: "Growing Up Before Stonewall"

Growing Up Before Stonewall: Life Stories of Some Gay Men by Peter M. Nardi, David Sanders, and Judd Marmor (Routledge, 177 pages).

The authors of Growing Up Before Stonewall acknowledge in the introduction that the 11 pseudonymous white men interviewed in the book's second half "do not represent the much wider diversity of lives that exist among lesbian and gay people." This lack of multiculturalism, however, did not lessen my fascination with the details of these men's pre-Stonewall lives precisely because their comments provided "a view of the social history and the psychology of homosexual men of that period."

Growing Up Before Stonewall also delves into the prejudicial attitudes of most of the psychiatric community at that time toward homosexuality. Those sentiments are reflected in the book's cover photo of a 1950s middle-class family of four's preparation for a picnic outing: that homosexuality is "incompatible with the perceived typical normal, healthy, happy heterosexual life."

The interviews, which take up most of the book, were conducted by co-author David Sanders in 1979 in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and San Francisco with men who ranged in age from 33 to 70 as part of "a psychological study of vocationally successful men, focusing on the factors that led to success and difficulties they faced." Presented as monologues, each interviewee's comments are grouped around four categories: "Family Memories," "Early Social Experiences," "Early Sexual Memories," and "Current Situation and Experiences."

Except for the interview with activist Morris Kight and the one with psychiatrist (and co-author) Judd Marmor, the rest of Part I, which is an overview of pre-Stonewall gay life and the psychiatric community's handling of gay men, is very bland.

Unfortunately, Growing Up Before Stonewall does not include a postscript on the whereabouts of these men. For instance, I would like to know what happened to Ed, the Norwegian-born math teacher, who stated that "If I got a deadly disease or my life turned disastrous, certainly I would entertain it [suicide]." If he is still around, how has the AIDS epidemic changed his life?

The book is not without its moments of humor. Louis, a college professor with two male lovers, admitted to finding "some women extremely attractive" and to having sex once a year with a woman "whether I need it or not, just to keep my hand in, but not to reassure myself of my masculinity."

The men in Growing Up Before Stonewall have stories that, for the most part, are engrossing and edifying. These stories will become an important addition to the growing body of literature that explains how and why gay life has evolved.

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