Race, Sexuality, and the Public Sphere in American History

Jurgen Habermas’ work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeoisie Society suggests that through economic change and material accumulation there developed in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe a “public sphere” which served to “connect the state with the needs of the society” while preventing encroachment by the state into the private sphere. Dominated by middle class merchants and “men of letters”, Habermas’ public sphere created a universally accessible civil society which by definition could not exclude groups, “a public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all.” Yet, by Habermas’ own lights only those with education or property actively entered into it. Certainly, American history features not only the exclusion of various communities, but also sometime wholesale invisibility. One might ask, what role has the public sphere played for Americans? How has the role changed from the nineteenth through the twentieth century and how did it contribute to the rise of identity politics?

Recent historians harnessing Habermas’ frameworks while critiquing his conclusions, examine the role of the public sphere in nineteenth and twentieth century America establishing rights, membership, and ideas of citizenship, thus laying the groundwork for the rise of identity politics. Crucial to contemporary historians' understanding of the public sphere lay in its pluralism. If Habermas articulated a vision of a single public sphere, historians such as Elisha Barkley Brown, Mary Ryan, and David Hurewitz suggest multiple political spheres or as Thomas Holt noted “If institutional and material conditions matter, than we should not speak of the black public sphere but a plurality of public spheres.”

The rise of twentieth century identity politics remains popularly associated with the “rights” movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As people organized themselves into groups according to various factors such as race, gender, and sexuality, interests diverged creating a fragmented political landscape. According to Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, these political developments emerged decades before the Stonewall Riots or Black Power movement. Rather the interaction between three “communities” in the Edendale neighborhood of Los Angeles, artists, communists, and homosexuals created Habermasesque “counterpublics” that reformulated politics such that “all three communities strove to reformulate the relationship between the private self and the polity.” Like Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town, Hurewitz traces fluctuating ideas about male sexuality as gender play gave way to fixed ideas of homosexuality and the “deviance” dominant culture ascribed to it. Unlike Boyd, Hurewitz explores these developments more generally in Los Angeles’ political climate exploring how the idea of the “authentic self” became dominant in political battles of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s resulting in the identity politics so prevalent in the 20th century’s last fifty years. However, the public sphere did not arise and fall within the twentieth century, but rather took form in the 18th and 19th centuries.

While Hurewitz examines 20th century efforts of communities to establish and promote themselves in the public sphere, other authors have examined similar processes in earlier periods. Mary Ryan’s “counternarrative” to Habermas’ exposition illustrates such an argument. Rather than seeing the “cacophonous style of politics” that dominated the mid-nineteenth century as fulfillment of the public sphere’s collapse, Ryan argues it “can be read as an effective means of fulfilling the public promise to openly challenge political domination.” Though vital to the nation’s idea of the public sphere, Ryan’s female reformers and suffragists first had to attain a space within it since “women were patently excluded from the bourgeois public sphere …. [placed in] a separate realm called the private.” Thus, bourgeois America anchored its publicness in a “private and gendered social geography”. Throughout the nineteenth century women did establish a public presence through various reform movements by exploiting dominant ideas about privacy and femininity, such that “women navigated a political history deeply imbricated in the transformation of the public sphere.” For Habermas, the collapse of the private sphere remained problematic, however Ryan sees in it an emancipatory development. The same private sphere in which white women had been confined, became, in great part due to the efforts of countless female reformers, “the fountainhead of public order.” The strength of women’s private virtue established a place in the public sphere. Creating space in this sphere proved the first step in gaining “publicity” or “familiarity” which later could be transformed into formal rights.

Nineteenth century African Americans struggled to gain a similar “familiarity” or as Judith Butler suggests, “intelligibility” within the public sphere. Elsa Barkley Brown confirms the importance of the media and familiarity when she notes attempts by black Richmonders during Reconstruction “to have their own story widely circulated. When local white newspapers refused to publish their account, they had it published in the New York Tribune.” Hoping to create “counterpublics” in response to the dominant white middle class public sphere, blacks harnessed the media and public spaces. Black women of the time appealed in public settings but under a specific set of political and social structures. Brown’s freedwomen and freedmen openly “participated from the gallery, loudly engaging in debates” over state constitutional reforms. Again, Habermas’ analysis of the public sphere failed to account for differentiation between citizenry. Limits placed on blacks, women, and other affected not only their participation in the public sphere but created internal and external political spheres in which roles were defined differently. Freedwomen, though denied formal suffrage, exerted pressure upon freedmen illustrating a collective understanding of the vote.

Many historians trace the burgeoning public face of black women in the late nineteenth century with the political limits placed on their male counterparts. Contrarily, Brown argues that the public spheres black women occupied deserves as much credit for such developments but that as they laid claim to this social/political arena, gender and class dynamics intervened, “The internal political arena, which in the immediate Post Civil War era was grounded in the notion of a collective voice which gave men, women and children a platform and allowed them all participation, came increasingly in the late nineteenth century to be shaped by a narrowing notion of politics and appropriate political behavior.” Mass meetings no longer took place exclusively in churches but had shifted to sites such as literary societies, ward meetings, saloons, labor organizations, and women’s clubs, expressing a black male middle class perspective. The boisterous open forum of the church no longer sufficed. How much of this was due to internal dynamics alone? Did middle class black leaders want to reassert male political dominance or were they attempting adapt to a broader white middle class paradigm that enjoyed significant cultural capital in the public sphere?

For nineteenth century political actors, establishing a public sphere or even a voice represented both opportunity and danger. While formulating a level of “intelligibility” or familiarity served to advance political interests, the representations of a community in the public sphere proved limiting, leading to unexpected consequences. Hannah Rosen’s freedwomen testified before Congress reformulating ideas of citizenship while asserting their worthiness as humans. However, though their Congressional testimony advanced this goal in the public sphere, it simultaneously reified white society’s stereotypes concerning black male masculinity. The fact that these women had been raped and now publicly testified to this fact undermined public perceptions of black men’s ability to protect the “virtue” of African American women. In relation to white society’s projected vision of black male masculinity, Brown’s freedwomen increasingly limited discussions that might inhibit black male manhood for fear that “the discourse on manhood could keep the concern with violence against women in the public discussion while at the same time setting the stage for issues of domestic abuse and other forms of intraracial violence, which could be evidence of the uncivility of black men, to be silenced as politically dangerous.” Sexual violence came to be a women’s issue as black women, in some ways mirroring Mary Ryan’s white counterparts, formed “autonomous women’s associations” that “promulgated class specific ideas of respectability, in part justifying their public role through the need to impart such protective measures to working class women.” Unfortunately, by relegating such violence to the “women’s sphere” issues of “sexual violence” no longer merited the same consideration as community wide issues contributing a silence about such matters while promoting the idea that racial violence towards blacks occurred exclusively against men. Like Brown, Rosen’s work attempts to dispute such discursive historical trends, highlighting the violence endured by black women of the nineteenth century. Ironically, in some ways attempts by Brown and Rosen illustrate the same processes of “worthiness” that political actors needed to illustrate for political and material rights from society, the violence endured by black women constituted their right to inclusion.

Middle class respectability served as a driving force for many nineteenth century communities sense of publicness. Habermas’ vision of a bourgeoisie led “public sphere” proved pervasive even for minority groups and women. Chinese merchants of the nineteenth century formed the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association which “coordinated efforts in 1882 to fight Chinese discrimination.” While establishing a public sphere to counter that by city and state health officials that labeled Chinese communities as “diseased”, perverse, or “deviant”, Chinese merchant associations also leveled the community, relegating working class Chinese and those living outside “respectable domesticities” to a marginal presence. If Brown’s community of freedpersons regulated their own political actions, such as publicly castigating individuals for casting an errant vote against the broader community’s interest, members of San Francisco’s Chinatown exerted similar pressures. When some merchants assented to inoculations which many Chinese viewed as coercive, one “leading merchant” found himself at the mercy of an angry “mob”, finding refuge only in the CCBA. This disconnection between laborers unwilling to undergo inoculation and merchants who saw an economic advantage to such actions illustrates Brown’s ideas concerning the complex interplay of class in “internal political spheres”.

The formations of women’s organizations, benevolent associations like the CCBA and other forms of civic society reveals their importance to nineteenth century social and political worlds. Associations, as William Novak argues, served as a central organizing principle in determining freedoms or liberties for nineteenth century citizens. Localities controlled ideas of citizenship as much if not more than federal authorities. Associations determined the level of freedoms and unfreedoms, individuals and their broader community enjoyed or suffered. Particular organizations carried specific subjectivities leading to a conflation of an organization’s identity with that of the individual member. With that noted, most reform societies featured middle and upper class leadership. The pervasiveness of nineteenth century bourgeoisie ideals clearly emerges among the actors in Brown, Ryan, Novak and Shah’s work.

Associations and their place in the public sphere proved no less important as the nineteenth century melted into the twentieth. Hurewitz’s examples illustrate the power of associations less for rights and citizenship (at least in terms of direct state munificence), than for establishing economic/social/political affiliations while also creating various intimacies and familiarities. Edendale housed the city’s burgeoning artistic, communist, and gay communities, even if in the case of homosexuals they had yet to form a self identified population. The artistic impulse to express the inner self authentically through their art reverberated among the Edendale community and as Hurewitz argues, more broadly. However, it is unclear whether Hurewitz suggests that artistic shifts in America (since European modernists of the same period engaged in a very different project at the time) fueled the movement toward a public “interiority” that contributed to the development of identity politics or that it reflected a wider shift within the national society. For example, Habermas argues that the “shrinking of the private sphere into the inner areas of a conjugal family” served to create the façade of a “perfectly private personal sphere.” Leisure time such as the informal gatherings that American artists in Edendale engaged in became the divining rod for interiority, “Leisure behavior supplies the key to the floodlit privacy of the new sphere, to the externalization of what is declared to be the inner self.” Similar to the salons of the nineteenth century, Edendale’s artists crafted ideas about their own interiority and how to broadcast it to the wider public. However, Habermas viewed the public sphere in more monolithic terms. He failed to consider that the disintegration of the dominant public sphere meant smaller, but no less active public spheres from atomized groups. Therefore, the artist enclave in Edendale may have been reflecting ideas that unfolded within artistic communities nationally, but only in those specific spheres rather than more broadly in society.

Habermas’ ideas concerning the public sphere clearly resonates with Hurewitz. Acknowledging the importance of the publicness while pointing a to a more expansive understanding, Hurewitz notes “The drive toward identity politics lay deeper and wider in the culture … Its roots lay in a broad array of social arenas where fundamental questions about the self and politics were renegotiated in the middle decades.” Within these social arenas various actors and their constituencies mobilized, to “renegotiate” their political positions and identities. Habermas feared that his public sphere had been “transmogrified into a sphere of culture consumption” by the wider media and that “the deprivatized province of interiority was hollowed out by the mass media; a pseudo-public sphere of a no longer literary public … patched together to create a sort of superfamilial zone of familiarity.” However, Habermas ignores the reformations of kinship and associations that also occurred as illustrated through Hurewitz’s three primary examples of artists, communists, and homosexuals. Habermas may be correct in asserting that the collapse of the conjugal family’s ability to influence individuals undermined “patriarchal authority” contributing to a situation in which “family members are now socialized by extrafamilial authorities, by society directly.” Yet, the ascendency of “interiority” into a public sphere meant such inner selves previously the domain of the family could now be between unrelated individuals. Thus, communities such as the communists or homosexuals held a vested interest in increasing their “superfamilial zone of familiarity” to the broader society through use of public spaces and media. Simultaneously, the state attempted to make such groups more familiar but in a negative manner, promoting negative associations for each hoping to reduce their growth and visible presence. The state regulated these public spaces, such as performances of gender play and other public displays that cast negative aspersions on homosexuals.

Returning to Novak, the importance of associations between artists, communists and homosexuals in Edendale helped to spread ideas about sexuality, the internal-self, and public authenticity. The collapse of the private into the public emerged from the cross pollenization between the three distinct groups. If associations did not convey formal political rights as in Novak’s nineteenth century example, they did grant access to ideas and concepts that led to familiarities, intimacies and political mobilization later which in turn contributed to expanded rights later.

Nan Boyd, George Chauncey, and David Johnson’s work clearly serves as the intellectual foundation upon which Hurewitz builds his argument. Yet in terms of Boyd’s work, Wide Open Town differs in many ways from Bohemian Los Angeles. For example, the 1930s emerges as the critical decade in Los Angeles. For Hurewitz, the 1930s brought a convergence of forces that refashioned politics and sexuality simultaneously. Ideas about “faries” and “pansies” changed. If men’s sexuality had seemed unfixed such that prior to the 1930s one could engage in “homosexual acts” while maintaining a more permanent heterosexuality, the 1930s flipped this concept presenting homosexuality as a “fixed” identity, one associated with deviance. Boyd’s Great Depression San Francisco endured similar transformations regarding sexuality, but the town’s political structure remained “as much of a “open town” during the 1930s as it had been under Prohibition” though by 1937, “Police Chief Quinn "declared war" on female impersonators and announced that "lewd entertainers must be stopped!". Los Angeles authorities also viewed “gender play” as threatening even if the wider populace remained still unconvinced, “bar patrons may have celebrated the fairies for their gender play, their homosexual desires, or both, the raids marked a growing state sponsored belief that the “panze joints” represented a serious danger.” The state’s concern did not match that of the general public’s since magazines like Variety exhibited an ambivalence toward gender play praising it on one page while noting raids on various establishments on others.

Here, clearly, Hurewitz begins to point to one of the key elements of his argument, that the developing politics of the “emotional interior” threatened state institutions such that regulation of bodies and concurrently radical political movements (communists) became priorities. Political and civil officials conflated communism with homosexuality and deviance, “their assessment of sexual perversion as dangerous was part of a wider cultural fabric that wove together a series of anxieties about sexuality and Communism and labeled them as interrelated dangers.” The recall of Mayor Shaw in 1937 and 1938 illustrated this development as “it pulled together a cultural framework that ascribed political significance and a sense of identity to sexual activities and desires.” Following the recall, individuals were often jailed or institutionalized according to their radical political beliefs or “deviant homosexuality”.

Communists also illustrate the role of the public sphere and the external “interiority”. Constantly organizing and putting on public political displays often through artistic, if sometimes too pedantic, street performances, Communists openly expressed their interiority which emerged as both political and personal. Their utilization of public space for political action, while harnessing the ideas of artists to present their inner selves, resembled the public actions of Mary Ryan’s nineteenth century female reformers but with a distinctly personal, interiority absent from Ryan’s actors. For Ryan the “private sphere” legitimized women’s activities but did not necessarily create identities. In fact, the identity of nineteenth century women legitimized their place in the public sphere, since they were seen as bringing the role of motherhood to society outside the home. In contrast, Hurewitz’s historical actors presented the “private” as public, there “interiority” did not legitimize their place in the public sphere so much as create a visibility that served to counter dominant associations ascribed to them while providing the organization necessary for political mobilization. In this way the intersection between identity or “interiority” combined with the American tradition of associations to create political movements. Both nineteenth century reformers and Hurewitz’s twentieth century counterparts created “intelligibility” for themselves, but for different ends. Women hoped to gain increased political rights such as suffrage, whereas Hurewitz’s communities attempted to either reshape society (communists), promote the essence of self (artists) or dispute negative associations while earning freedom from state interference (homosexuals) Thus, they perfected the idea of the “personal is political.” If nineteenth century actors such as women and blacks engaged in the public sphere for positive freedoms (right to), it seems their twentieth century counterparts mobilized on some level to protect negative freedoms (freedom from) .

Like Barkely’s freedmen and freedwomen, the internal debate among Communists directed its political action outside of the electoral arena. In this way like Ryan and Brown’s nineteenth century white women and freed persons, Communists refashioned urban spaces for their political spheres. Similarly, Boyd’s work suggests that the gay bars of San Francisco created a public space for homosexuals, this shared public space created a new language and lexicon. However, post-Prohibition, San Francisco enjoyed an even greater influx of individuals who held little in common except “same sex attraction and/or transgressive behavior to bind them together, the queer communities that existed in San Francisco during these years did not form a cohesive whole.” Thus over the course of two decades, bars such as Finochios and the Black Cat “established public culture for homosexuals”. Moreover, again like freedpeople of Reconstruction and the Chinese of late nineteenth century Chinatown, 1960 nightclubs like the Black Cat developed a community policing aspect, “gay patrons carved out a public niche at the Black Cat and protected this space for themselves. Through the manipulation of newcomers to the bar, gay regulars defended their space from being overrun by tourists and outsiders.” Again, as the state recognized a need to police areas previously ascribed to the private sphere, the homosexual community policed its own institutions protecting if from interference rather than attempting to carve out new rights. Protecting its image in the public sphere proved just as important as preventing state interference.

Once again, Hurewitz’s work diverges from Boyd. For Hurewitz, though the “bar scene” deserves credit, many of the members of the Mattachine Society “had moved through the world of bars without feeling that they had joined a community, let alone gained shared identity.” Rather the Mattachine Society, “offered was a different kind of camaraderie: non-sexual “family” camaraderie … this … camaraderie [was] about sexual desires [but] not constituted by those desires … it was how a communal identity – shared self perception was constructed.” Differing formations suggest the pervasive class aspect of the public sphere. Hurewitz’s Mattachine Society appears nearly uniformly middle class and white. Moreover, though the shift in a fixed homosexual identity resulted in greater persecution of gay men by the Los Angeles authorities, it also contributed to the creation of a communal identity even if that identity remained subject to internal debate.

How developing identity communities defined themselves in the public sphere illustrates the complex process of cultural capital. Perhaps one of the key pivots of Hurewitz’s work rests on Mattachine founder Harry Hay’s ability to reformulate how homosexuals identified themselves. Using a relational framework, Hay put forth the idea that homosexuals like race-nation groups such as Mexicans/Mexian-Americans, Japanese/Japanese-Americans, and Blacks/African-Americans were subject to oppression. The dominant public sphere illustrated this oppression daily through the actions of state mechanisms such as the police and through the daily media. As Judith Butler has shown, intelligibility to the larger society remains essential for rights and “liveability”. Thus, the state and media created an intelligibility even if in the negative. It established a visible framework of oppression similar to that of racial minorities and political radicals. This state sanctioned oppression “provided the foundation for political action either by group members themselves or by others on their behalf.” Moreover, Hay arranged his political model according to “analogous oppression and analogous political rights” creating a “central framework for identity driven political action and opened the possibility for groups other than racial groups to lay claim a similar equivalent position.” Hay’s ideas about “equivalent minorities” and “analogous oppressions” established homosexuals as an “oppressed social minority” as deserving of political rights as any racial group. Again, historical context drove this development as Hay witnessed the different experiences that Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Black Americans endured during the racial conflicts of the 1940s. Zoot Suit Riots and Japanese internment and the subsequent reactions of government officials laid the foundation for Hay’s innovation.

Hurewitz’s argument deftly interweaves ideas about associations, relational identity, and Habermasian public spheres. He successfully illustrates how the practices/beliefs of artists and communists contributed to creation of a self identified Los Angeles homosexual community which in turn represented the growth of identity politics. However, though he pays close attention to race, especially its importance in defining gays as an “oppressed social minority”, like Habermas Hurewitz ignores class and racial aspects that must have been present in such a formation. The Mattachine Society appears divorced from this reality in Hurewitz’s interpretation. Certainly, segregation and cultural factors in each “race nation” may have inhibited such interactions, but Hurewitz fails to even engage this discussion. Furthermore, where are the city’s lesbians? Hurewitz suggests that they participate in the Mattachine Society but fails to fully elaborate their position within it.

In ways, Hurewitz’s example illustrates a leveling process that authors such as Nayan Shah in Contagious Divides point out. Shah argues that twentieth century Chinese activists worked through the public sphere to create ideas around Chinese domesticity that, like the nineteenth century poor, suffering, white working class, made them worthy of aid. This required a sustained effort in the public sphere through publicity illustrating Chinese worthiness. Lobbyist groups, Chinese Digest, and associations pressured government to earn federal monies for Chinatown housing. Interestingly, though still sharply middle class, the new dominant Chinese public sphere featured more experienced political actors along with greater occupational diversity ranging from social workers and teachers to physicians and nurses. Conflicts between their aspirations and those held by middle and upper class Chinese merchants emerged in the debate over new Chinatown housing, illustrating Holt’s identification of numerous public spheres in any broad community. Though this “second generation of activists” proved more attuned to the diversity of Chinatown’s population especially in terms of class, the public sphere presence they inhabited excluded those Chinese not fitting into the nuclear family paradigm. Pragmatism drove activists’ decisions to embrace both the diseased past of the area’s nineteenth century representation as a reason for intervention and to accept segregation recognizing they could subsume support from homeowner’s associations who feared Chinese moving into their communities. Thus, Chinese activists boosted their cultural capital through publicity and relations to other associations while ensuring that the housing benefited Chinese Americans.

Similarly, Hay promised members of his society would adopt more traditional public behaviors that did not transgress societal expectations at the time. Such leveling might secure greater political access or capital but also simultaneously leaves certain members of such communities suspect. As Bohemian LA concludes, the Mattachine Society engaged in a leadership struggle that reformulated its political stance, rejecting Hay’s “social minority theory” as its new leaders wanted to incorporate gay society more directly into the mainstream. Moreover, Marilyn Rieger’s remarks symbolize the shift within the Mattachine Society eschewing political pressure and in many ways downplaying the “essence” of homosexuality, “We are first and foremost people … We know we are the same .. no different than anyone else. Our only difference is an unimportant one to the heterosexual society, unless we make it important “ Though many historians of gay culture criticize the post-Hay Mattachine Society, Rieger’s remarks reflect divisions within the community. More than a few members feared that communists had infiltrated its ranks or that it had become too political in its orientation. Once again, Holt’s observation concerning multiple public spheres emerges.

The public sphere emerged as a crucial entrance into American political society from the nineteenth through the twentieth century. Though historical actors of the two periods engaged in different political and social contestations, each utilized the public sphere to expand their participation in American political and social life. The collapse of the private into the public during the early decades of the twentieth century led to a shift in how politics mobilized. Industrialization, urbanization, immigration/migration, technological advance and numerous other factors altered how people saw themselves and their place in society. Accordingly, previously ignored groups agitated by state interference, violence, and discursive negative associations organized under collective identities, leading to the emergence of identity politics of the 1960s ,70s, and 80s. Identity politics remain a viable if declining political force in American politics today. However, the idea of groups organizing around sexuality only became possible once ideas about authenticity were conflated with the public sphere. One’s interior self needed to be clearly articulated publicly, however, that is not to say it was accepted. The public sphere discussion around homosexuality created discriminatory associations. While this hostility no doubt resulted in physical confinement for many gays, it also contributed to the creation of its own public sphere to combat dominant representations. Moreover, this process rested on relational associations that enabled homosexuals and others to engage in a communal identity, even if this identity remained a topic for internal debate. According to Hurewitz this is the key to the success of identity, “the achievement of identity politics has not been the unquestioned securing of full rights for oppressed American minorities. Rather, what identity politics have forged is a political terrain in which the importance of such identities – racial, sexual, and gender – can be the focus of determined political action.”

Ryan Reft

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