Ashley Barnes-Gilbert, review of Margot Canaday’s “Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America”

Margot Canaday. Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2023. 312 PP. Paper $39.95. ISBN: 9780691205953.

For those of us who study the history of sexuality, Margot Canaday’s work is inspiring, essential, and transformative. Thus, it is not surprising that we waited for her newest tome, Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America, with bated breath. It does not disappoint. Canaday transcends topical and disciplinary boundaries to explore how LGBTQ+ Americans experienced work in the mid to late 20th century,[1] affirming that work, as one scholar that Canaday cites approvingly puts it, is “the experience through which we construct coherent life stories” (27). The result is a richly researched book that corrects the longstanding double exclusion of labor from LGBTQ+ history and LGBTQ+ people from labor history.

Canaday’s book is divided into three parts. They correspond with what she argues were three distinct periods in the evolution of LGBTQ+ persons in the American workplace: the 1950s and ‘60s, a moment characterized by a “bargain” between “discretion and obliviousness” (27); an era of legal reform during the 1970s; and a new positionality for LGBTQ+ workers concomitant with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s and ‘90s. Her argument is that “homosexuality” was “leveraged by employers” throughout all three of these periods to exploit, deprive, and limit LGBTQ+ persons’ role in workplaces, demonstrating how queer social positioning allowed for exploitability “on the job” (267). She also shows how this exploitability was “licensed” by the U.S. state, both in its direct targeting of gay and lesbian workers in the 1950s and 1960s and its refusal to afford LGBTQ+ workers legal protections in later years (279).

The early chapters of the book begin by complicating the monolithic assumptions associated with the Lavender Scare. Chapter 1 details career life for gay persons in the 1950s and the 1960s, dividing their labor choices into “straight world work” and “queer world work.” Relying mainly on oral histories, Canaday shows that, when performing “straight world” labor, many gay and lesbian persons were intentionally hired by non-government employers because of their exploitability and precariousness. In Chapter 2, she goes on to discuss those gay and lesbian workers who instead chose careers that could “affirm rather than negate gay identity” (70). These jobs were typically low wage and unstable, either in the service sector, factories, or bars. In the process, Canaday adds to existing literature on the connection between queer working lives and leisure pursuits.[2] Her unique contribution, however, is to use “queer world work” as a mirror to reflect on “straight world work,” indicating the differences between them and the unique vulnerabilities of both.

Chapters 3 and 4 go on to explore the long legal battle for gay and lesbian civil rights legislation, and the negative consequences these battles often had for gay and lesbian workers while they performed “straight world work.” Canaday starts by detailing the legal fight against security clearances that wreaked havoc on gay and lesbians during the Cold War, a fight led by Frank Kameny, a prominent gay rights activist at the time. She positions Kameny as a lone dissenter who fought back without a corresponding social movement, noting that the gay and lesbian liberation movement did not occur in tandem with civil rights and women’s rights, even though the latter efforts “gradually began to change [LGBTQ+ persons’] sense of what they were entitled to, of what they could expect” (142). In Chapter 4, she broadens her scope to look at LGBTQ+ experiences within other marginalized communities, arguing that “a cultural revolution had happened without an accompanying legal revolution” made “work…increasingly uncertain…for many gay, lesbian, and trans people for whom liberation actually meant unwanted exposure and risk” (183). Throughout these chapters, Canaday emphasizes that liberation movements had unintended consequences for gay and lesbian workers in “straight world work.” Importantly, she also recovers a much-needed history of lesbian feminism in the workplace, particularly through her narration of the creation of lesbian feminist businesses, such as Olivia records.

Finally, in the book’s closing chapters, Canaday reports how the political, legal, and social project of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the United States halted abruptly in 1981 with the first reports of the HIV/AIDs virus, resulting in new liabilities for gay and lesbian workers. She shows how the devastation the virus wrought transformed the LGBTQ+ community and led to novel advocacy efforts, community-based support networks, and even new forms of legal education to challenge discrimination. She also uses this transformative and painful moment to historicize the neoliberal turn toward what some have called “rainbow capitalism” by the 1990s, which saw activists looking beyond the state to promote inclusion, and especially to corporations, as they confronted the twin threat of a major health crisis and state abandonment (and even active rejection) of LGBTQ+ people (228). Chapter 6 in particular looks at how the corporate sector greatly outpaced both the state and the non-profit sector in advancing LGBTQ+ inclusion at the time, often through “internal policies against discrimination (261). Canaday notes that such policies tended to narrowly benefit middle- and upper-class, white, cisgender, and urban gay and lesbian workers, though she remains mostly silent on the consequences of this neoliberal turn for the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community.

There is much to commend in Canaday’s book. It makes important contributions to existing historiographies within the fields of both LGBTQ+ history and labor history. It is also an admirable example of a feminist approach to knowledge production. Indeed, LGBTQ+ history has often focused on the male perspective, leaving many scholars to ask the question: where are the lesbians?[3] In her introduction, Canaday notes that she explicitly sought to avoid that slip in her new book—something she has succeeded in doing. It is refreshing to see a scholar so transparently recognize the omission of women from gay history while actively working recover those stories. Finally, it should be said that Canaday admirably (and vulnerably) situates herself in her new book, exploring her own experiences with paid labor and her personal journey as a queer person inside the academy. For any young scholar seeking reassurance, Canaday’s gesture in this direction is most welcome and reminds us that, like many of us juggling similar oppressions, her journey was anything but straight.

Nevertheless, Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America is not without its limitations, though they often point towards new questions and themes that others scholars might productively explore. One is Canaday’s definition of work. Like most labor historians, she defines work as paid labor contributing to the gross national product. As a result, she does not explore the phenomena of unpaid labor, particularly for her female-identified research subjects, nor does she explore illegal work, such as sex work. Perhaps it is too much to ask that Canaday include these other types of labor in her analysis, but extending her feminist research methods to alternative types of “work” at the margins could radically transform existing histories of unpaid and illegal labor.

Another limitation is Canaday’s avoidance of a more intersectional approach to her questions and topic. Though she is careful to note that many of her chosen subjects lived at the intersections of homophobia, sexism, and racism, on the whole she consistently frames the LGBTQ+ experience as distinct. Indeed, a central theme of her book and its argument is that the LGBTQ+ community experienced significant oppression in the workplace because of their queerness and that LGBTQ+ persons were, and are, distinct from women and persons of color because gays and lesbians experienced a cultural revolution before civil rights reform rather than in tandem with legal belonging.[4] By adopting this frame, Canaday foregoes an opportunity to provide more nuanced analysis of intersectional social and institutional oppression. It also tends to foreground the perspectives of more privileged LGBTQ+ Americans, rather than those surviving at the intersections of oppression. This, too, would be a fascinating area for another scholar to explore by centering the perspectives of the most marginalized within a similar LGBTQ+ labor history.[5]

That said, Canaday’s book is still a triumph. Like her first book, The Straight State, it admirably deploys nuanced research methods, including sociological research, oral histories, and archival research, to explore one vital aspect of the LGBTQ+ past: the world of work.

[1] For clarity, I alternate between the acronym LGBTQ+ and gay and lesbian to denote the communities Canaday explores. As Canaday notes, she only uses “LGBT” in the “very late twentieth century” discussions “when that acronym came into general usage.” I applaud her historical accuracy but use “LGBTQ+ history and community” in this review to indicate the current field of study. I do, however, find it important to note—as Canaday recognizes—that trans* work experiences are only “lightly treated in this book.”

[2] Key texts include but are not limited to:  Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A history of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).; Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1994).; George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1994).; Peter Boag, Same Sex-Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[3] Linda Garber, “Where in the World are the Lesbians, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 14, No. ½, Special Issue: Studying the History of Sexuality: Theories, Methods, Praxis (Jan.-April, 2005), pp. 28-50.

[4] Canaday is explicitly challenging a myth of LGBTQ affluence. See Canaday, Queer Career, 265-266.

[5] A plethora of sources could be cited to discuss intersectionality and the law. But I will include two foundational texts: Pauli Murray and Mary Eastwood, “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex and Discrimination and Title Vii,” George Washington Law Review 34, no. 2 (December 1965): 232-55.; Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Policies,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, no. 1 (1989) 139.167.

Ashley Barnes-Gilbert (She/Her/Hers) is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is a queer historian and theorist. She received her PhD from the program in Gender and Women’s History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the George L. Mosse Scholar of LGBTQ+ History. Her historical research explores the queer worlds of historic brothels and the historical memory of sex work. Dr. Barnes-Gilbert also explores LGBTQ+ belonging on college campuses, writing on various topics from inclusive pedagogy to student advocacy. In 2021, Dr. Barnes-Gilbert was named the recipient of the Dr. P.B. Poorman Award for Outstanding Achievement on Behalf of LGBTQ+ People by the University of Wisconsin System. In addition, UW-Whitewater undergraduates recognized Dr. Barnes-Gilbert’s work with the “Best Diversity Initiative by a Professor” and named her the “Best Professor in the College of Letters and Sciences” in 2023.

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