Bookish nerds seeking smart summer reading, look no further: A trio of fantastic new titles shines a spotlight on queer history few have ever glimpsed.
Start your reading list with Bad Gays: A Homosexual History by Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey. Continue with The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison by Hugh Ryan. And don’t miss How You Get Famous: Ten Years of Drag Madness in Brooklyn by Nicole Pasulka. Each book offers a map to trails blazed by previous generations for better—and sometimes much worse.
Bad Gays leans academic, making the case that we ought to pay attention to history’s more dreadful queer figures: We tend to venerate Oscar Wilde, but let’s not dismiss the legacies of Emperor Hadrian, Frederick the Great, J. Edgar Hoover, and so on.
The term “bad gays” is, of course, a bit reductive—what does “bad” mean, and how have ideas of “badness” and “goodness” shifted over the centuries? These are questions I imagine only Santa Claus can answer, but Bad Gays provides intriguing insight into the cultural contexts that shaped responses to same-sex relationships and adventuresome gender presentation. If you’re looking for some companion-reading, consider picking up Michael Bronski’s excellent A Queer History of the United States.
Bronski’s work also pairs well with Hugh Ryan’s The Women’s House of Detention, a can’t-put-down exploration of a link between prison abolition and queer liberation. It’s the real-life story of a women’s prison, a place within brick-throwing distance of The Stonewall Inn that inadvertently helped lay the groundwork for the development of Greenwich Village as a gayborhood.
Keeping with New York as a theme, readers can dip their toes into more recent history with How You Get Famous, an exploration of Brooklyn’s drag scene that developed in the last decade and continues to evolve.
“I moved to Brooklyn in 2002 and drag was not a thing,” says author Nicole Pasulka. “There was a lot of queer art, queer performance art, but it was pretty emphatically not drag.” Then, after a hiatus from the city, she returned in the 2010s to find that “drag was everywhere. This whole scene had sprung up.”
Pasulka’s book recounts how a queer subculture flourished thanks in part to performers who rose to fame on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But crediting one TV show misses the point, Pasulka says. “Drag Race gave people an appetite and a literacy for drag,” she says. But it’s local performers who did the legwork, including those like Lady Bunny who established New York as a destination for cutting-edge drag in decades past.
To compile all this history, Pasulka spent years conducting interviews, attending shows, and combing through archives, which allowed her to reconstruct queer-culture trends over time. “I found clips from Vogue, The Washington Post, New York Times,” she said. “Drag was a big fucking deal in the ’90s, and we kind of know that because Paris is Burning has had this legacy … but I don’t think I realized the extent to which it had a media moment.”
With conservatives now painting a target on drag performers, it’s instructive to look back and see how queer culture has endured through challenges of various types—and the strength unequivocal demonstrations of queer presence have lent the community in times of need. Or as Pasulka puts it: “All the good that I think happens when people say ‘fuck it’ to the norms and decide to be their biggest baddest most flamboyant self.”