80: Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town

In Wide Open Town, Nan Boyd argues that San Francisco’s bar-based queer culture was just as important to the development of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement there as were the city’s more mainstream activist groups.  The book relies primarily on some 40 oral histories with San Francisco bargoers, owners, and LGBT rights activists, as well as tourist guides, periodicals, clippings, photographs, and public records to construct (in often meticulous detail) a narrative of how the development of San Francisco’s gay scene swelled into a fight for civil rights.  Although the writing style is a bit heavy-handed at times, Boyd’s innovative research and methodology create a narrative that is anything but closed or canonical.  Rather, by limiting her scope to San Francisco before 1965 and structuring the book in terms of community formation rather than strict chronology, Boyd is able to open up the development of San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement and analyze (or characterize) it in terms of a variety of local contextual factors.  As she moves through topics as diverse as the gay male community, tourism, and female impersonation; the lesbian community, prostitution, and the female body; policing and the construction of homosexuality as behavior- versus desire-based; homophile activism and class-based differences over separatism and assimilation; and coalition-building, she explores the relationships between economics, use of space, police and media oppression, and the development of a community into a class-for-itself.  The result is a narrative that characterizes San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement as a multi-class, space- and place-dependent grassroots movement.  Boyd’s work thus argues that, for this movement in this place and time, “the politics of everyday life were every bit as important as the politics of organized social movement activism.” (242)

While Wide Open Town’s main argument effectively breaks down any “great man” narratives that might plague this particular social movement, the more fascinating elements of the book (by far) are the methodological tools and sub-arguments it uses to achieve its purpose.  Methodologically, Boyd’s emphasis on space and economics allow for an incredibly thorough analysis of the development of bar-based (grassroots) activism.  Her emphasis on space affects her argument in two ways: first, because she limits her analysis (and her conclusions) to a single city, she is able to include city-specific factors like the Gold Rush, local resistance to anti-prostitution and anti-liquor laws, the presence of the military (and the AFDCB) during WWII, and local politicians and court cases in her analysis.  She can thus investigate relationships between local factors that would be invisible at a national level but that would arguably (and demonstrably) have affected the character of local communities more than national or Federal laws and events might have.  Emphasizing space also allows her to consider particular spaces within the city, especially gay bars and clubs, and to show how the physical construction and concentration of these spaces (and their relationship to non-queer spaces) helped build community.  Her emphasis on economics also has profound effects on her analysis: by constructing bars and prostitution in terms of economics (as well as in spatial and moral terms) she is able to explain queer culture in San Francisco as persecuted socially but necessary economically – and thus, eventually, powerful politically.  The sub-arguments that develop from Boyd’s creative use of these methodological tools are, accordingly, powerful arguments in themselves.  She argues, for instance, that sex and race tourism protected gay spaces and gay economies even as they exploited them; that military targeting of gay bars in the 1950s actually fostered the development of separate gay spaces (and thus gay communities) rather than eliminating them; and that the development of lesbian social and geographic spaces was intimately bound up with prostitution and thus with  the policing of the female body (which explains, at least somewhat, the myth that lesbians do not concentrate geographically.)  Thus, Boyd’s innovative methodology and sub-arguments work to open up the narrative of the movement to a multitude of possible causes and implications.

While Boyd’s extensive research and innovative methodology definitely construct a new narrative of the beginnings of San Francisco’s gay rights movement, the book does face some organizational and methodological challenges.  Although Boyd clearly portrays a grassroots movement that does not rely on top-down activist groups, her writing style often paints a different picture.  She begins each chapter with an oral history that touches on some of the main themes of the chapter – thus indicating that her chapters are, in fact, organized around her data and not around her own theories – but the strong organizational tools and clear statements of thesis and conclusion at times seem to indicate a mistrust of the reader.  I can’t remember the last time that I complained about strong thesis sentences and conclusions, but sometimes Boyd seems to be so focused on driving home her point that the vast primary research on which that point is based takes a back seat to exposition.  Often, I found myself paying more attention to the structure of the book than to its content, which I think does Boyd a great disservice.  In addition, while Boyd’s decision to bound her study geographically and temporally really allows her to hone in on local bars, politicians, drag queens, regulatory bodies and activist groups, in some ways this boundedness does her a disservice as well.   Although she is able to pinpoint local factors affecting a movement, these boundaries keep her from providing much information about the movement in other cities or about its interaction with other civil rights movements.  The lack of this wider context is particularly evident with respect to the homophile movement’s emphasis on representation and assimilation.  I realize that the national stage is not the focus of her book, but stronger emphasis on connections to national movements (or even national media) could help the reader understand both the wider context her subjects would have had access to and the importance of investigating San Francisco’s bar-based culture.  

Despite these issues, Wide Open Town reads as a well-researched, well-thought-out book, and I really enjoyed Boyd’s analysis of a movement I previously knew little about.  And despite its relative disconnect from other social movements, the book does relate to several other works.  In its organization and methodological complexity, it bears a strong resemblance to Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization, which is not surprising as both authors had Mari Jo Buhle as their dissertation advisor.  In its carefully bounded scope and focus on letting the sources develop the narrative – not to mention its emphasis on the grassroots element of a social movement – it aligns closely with works like Clay Carson’s In Struggle.  And in political theory, it likely relates to many works, but the one book it consistently reminds me of is Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox – not because Boyd advocates some abstract utopian political project, but because the tension Boyd sets up and resolves between bar-based and homophile cultures, where the bar-based communities want to be left alone to develop their own communities-in-themselves while the homophile societies speak in the assimilative language of individual civil rights, resonates so clearly with Mouffe’s concept of liberal democracy.  This book is an interesting contribution to the study of social movements, both in its subject matter and in its construction.
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