Monique Talks: About American Civilization and it’s Discontents

Welcome to Monique Talks, the series where I talk about things that I find interesting because maybe you will too. It’s sort of like a TED Talk, except the people who do those are professionals and I’m just a weirdo with a computer and a lot of interests. 

In Civilization and It’s Discontents Freud writes that central conflict in human history is between civilization and the individual. In American History, we study many events through the perspective of these individuals, but I’ve been noticing something peculiar about the individuals we study. They’re all Good Americans. These Good Americans include politicians, military leaders, inventors, and explorers. This approach to teaching is called top-down history, and it focuses on the lives of the Great Men who apparently are the source of every cultural institutional characteristic in the United Stated. In the 1960s and 70s a different approach to teaching history became popular, a bottom-up approach, which added labor leaders, feminists and civil rights activists to our historical canon. The thing is these people are still Good Americans because they share many of the same culture values and assumptions as the Great Men of history.

We’re not going to talk about any of them today.

Today we’re going to go deeper than the bottom to meet the renegades who made history but rarely get their story told. Today we’re going to discover how many of your sexual freedoms won today were won by the Bad Americans. In the eyes of history, these people are defined by their morality. But today let’s try looking at these so called bad citizens in a different way to determine how they shaped the history of our country and won us so many of the freedoms that we today hold dear.

Sex Workers

The historians who created women’s history were adamant about removing all instances of bad behavior amongst women. Writers of the 60s and 70s never wrote on the topics of sex as fun and failed to credit the lower class women for any of the consumer revolution. Sex workers are egregiously absent from history books and beyond their absence is the presence of a moralistic assumption that prostitution is dirty and degrading and that no mentally sane or economically sound woman would ever make that choice.

Prostitutes in the Wild West, conversely, said that they saw no distinction between their work and the work of others, except that theirs was easier. They considered themselves businesswomen. But you could probably go one step further and call these women the origin of women’s liberation.

They were the first women to have access to all of the following freedoms:
– Own property
– Earn high wages
– Have sex outside of marriage
– Perform and/or receive oral sex
– Use birth control
– Consort with males of other races
– Gamble
– Dance, drink, and walk alone in public
– Wear makeup, perfume, and stylish clothing
– Feel no shame about doing any of the above.

My favorite is the last. These women were shameless and unapologetic about who they were. Of course, these women didn’t earn any of these freedoms through legislative means or by being decent women, so you’re not going to see this documented in textbooks.

Move Over, Hester Prynne

Sex workers in the Wild West were enterprising, generally wealthy, older on average, and shameless about sex. So shameless, in fact, that, when a Denver City Council tried to shame all women of ill-repute by requiring them by law to wear a yellow ribbons on their dresses, the next week they came out into dressed head to toe in yellow and held a parade through town to advertise their services. The law was later rescinded.

Some prostitutes got into the business because they were idlers. They saw it as a fantastic alternative to domestic servitude for those too idle to work. Others did it for the money. Prostitutes were by leaps and bounds the richest of all American women in the 1900s, and even the lowest ranking street walker would earn an average of $30-50 a week, next to a mere $20 a week for your average skilled male trade union member. Because of their wealth, these women had the ability to live our their lives as land owners, stock traders, high stakes gamblers, and all around pleasure seekers.

The brothels were a whole different story. Ladies had bespoke wardrobes and glimmering jewels, lived in homes with such extravagances as crystal chandeliers and symphony orchestras that greeted customers when they entered the main parlor. Another grand extravagance that was provided for workers in a brothel was free health care. Brothels were also the most integrated institutions in America at this time.

Prostitutes won all sorts of freedoms for American women. They were able to be nonmonogamous, consort with men of any race, use and provide a market for birth control, promote sex as an act free from marriage and procreation, and be the first women to break free from what early feminist scholars would have called a system of female servitude.

Hookers With Hearts of Gold

These women were quite the philanthropists too. History depicts them as amoral, but they built schools and hospitals, funded irrigation projects, and sheltered the homeless. Are they still Bad Americans?

“Diamond Jessie” Hayman – Provided food and clothing to the thousands left homeless after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake 
Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant – Mother of the civil rights movement in California, filed suit to desegregate San Francisco streetcars
Lou Graham, “Queen of the Lava Beds” – donated enormous sums to establish the Seattle Public School System
Anna Wilson, “Queen of the Omaha Underworld” – Bequeathed her 25 room mansion to be transformed into Omaha’s first emergency hospital and communicable-disease center
Jennie Rogers, “Queen of the Colorado Underworld” – Paid for many shares on a reservoir and irrigation project that provided the water to the city of Denver

Brazen Homosexuals

Gay people were not always renegades, but once we rejected the idea of being Good Americans, we found our freedom at the bottom.

The pursuit of gay civil rights began notably with the homophile movement in the 1950s, which campaigned for “civil rights, full citizenship, and the recognition that we are just like heterosexuals,” according to their manifesto. The movement proved to be largely a failure.

A change began to take place when the queer community started to acknowledge that we developed differently than other cultural groups, and therefore should not pursue assimilation as an outcome. This idea took to the streets June 28, 1969, otherwise known as the night of the first Stonewall Riot. The Stonewall Riots was so remarkable because the queers’ reaction to the police raid was the exact opposite of what the homophile movement had counseled. As one newspaper described it, “Wrists were limp, hair was crimped, and the reactions to applause were classic.” Queens threw shade at officers while lesbians threw bottles and bricks. Patrons turned the entire affair into a ridiculous cat and mouse game supplemented by hilarious chants and even a fully fleged impromptu chorus girl kickline. It was a five night subversive spoof on the machismo of the police officers. And it was just the beginning of a new movement for gay renegades.

Stonewall Windfall

Stonewall took nonmarital, nonprocreative, unconventional, and wholly recreational sex out of the bedroom and into the streets. Within six months, the publications Gay, Gay Power, and Come Out! All launched in New York City and amassed 25,000 readers in a year. Within one year, tens and thousands of men & women came out to Central Park and Griffith Park to hold gigantic coming out parties. Within two years of Stonewall, the American Psychiatric Association invited gay activists to it’s national conference. One year later, the APA agreed to remove homosexuality from Manual of Mental Disorders and implement Bem Sex-Role Inventory, which measures masculinity and femininity as coexistent traits that can exist along a spectrum and acknowledges presence of androgyny. Ten years after Stonewall we has gay liberation organizations, police harassment of gay bars ceased, Gay and Lesbian Studies appeared in colleges, homosexuality became a common theme in Broadway plays and Hollywood films, and 129 gay bathhouses had opened nationwide. Even oral sex went from being a dirty taboo to being the “it” new thing you simply have to try. You’re welcome.

The Stonewall Riots led to a whole new era for gay civil rights and the creation of “gay pride”.

And that’s just it, isn’t it?

The homophile movement is all about gay shame. Renegades support gay pride.

So Where Are We Now?

Today’s marriage equality movement is actually a return to the ideologies of the homophile movement, and will effectively end up restricting the freedoms of both queermos and straights alike. Historian Thaddeus Russell argues that what the marriage equality movement demands is that “in order for gay people to gain acceptance as citizens, it’s constituents must adopt the cultural norms of the American citizen, and that the destiny for all of us who wish to be healthy is living in a nuclear family”.

So, what can you do? Be a renegade! Or don’t! I’m not arguing that Bad Americans should replace Good Americans. I’m just trying to highlight the struggle between the two is what determines the breadth of our personal liberties. The best way for you to fight for the freedoms you enjoy is by actively pursuing them in a safe and consensual way. Just being yourself regardless of what mainstream society thinks of prescribes is a radical act. Seriously. You do you.


Note: My computer ate the final draft of this essay and I had to rewrite it using a video recording as a reference. Thus, for the moment, this piece isn’t properly cited. However, the majority of the historical facts were taken from Thaddeus Russell’s incredible book A Renegade History of the United States. 



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