Out of the Past

Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present

By Neil Miller

Review by Cathleen Myers

Neil Miller’s recently released Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present chronicles the modern gay rights movements from the Post-Civil War age of Walt Whitman to the Clinton administration. The book is both a fascinating narrative and a very useful summary of the legal reforms achieved by the movement over the past 127 years. Miller is clearly more at home in the 20th century than in the19th and has a much stronger background in American history than in British or French social history. His account of the rise and fall of Oscar Wilde, for instance, contains some glaring errors as does his summary of the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s ground-breaking 1928 Lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. The author herself was not on trial; under British law it was the publisher who was held responsible in such cases. As with many American historians, the British social class system also bewilders him (Hall’s lover was never "Lady Una;" she was Una, Lady Troubridge - the title deriving solely from her estranged husband’s knighthood - a title which she was, in fact, criticized for using). Miller is also rather unfair to Lord Alfred Douglas who, even after embracing Roman Catholicism and heterosexuality, continued to support decriminalization of homosexuality (Lord Alfred staunchly maintained that attempts to legislate morality were contrary to the spirit of the New Testament).

What is especially valuable about Miller’s book is its use of primary source material. Miller introduces each "era" of the Movement’s history and then includes detailed excerpts from period sources, allowing the various gay and lesbian authors, researchers and activists to speak for themselves. Indeed the identity of some of these advocates may surprise some readers! Miller clearly believes the past has a very important message for us and that complacency is a dangerous thing. His sobering chapter on the tolerant Weimar Republic of the 1920’s (when Berlin was almost as liberal as San Francisco is today) and the horrifying conservative backlash that followed it reminds us that such things could happen again.

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