Think of gay life in America and big cities spring to mind: New York and San Francisco, teeming with clubs, queer social networks and sexual possibility. Indeed, an archetypal coming-out story traces a movement from isolated rural self to self-discovery in the city, where gay identities - so the story goes - can more easily be established and thrive.
In Men Like That , John Howard aims to debunk the myth that all gay roads lead to the metropolis by writing a history of queer life in the small towns and rural areas of the American South. Focusing on male homosexuality in Mississippi between the end of the second world war and the arrival of Aids in the mid-1980s, Howard's engrossing and well-researched book certainly achieves this aim. In fact, Men Like That goes a long way towards redressing the urban bias in American lesbian and gay-history writing.
Howard demonstrates that even in Mississippi - which is often thought of as one of the most conservative, racist and intolerant American states - gay men found countless ways of satisfying their desires. Back in the 1950s, their activities were often tacitly accepted by the community, as long as they did not interfere with the status quo. There was little need for clubs and bars: small-town life - centred on church, school, workplace and home - provided plenty of sexual opportunity. Some of the men who were interviewed by Howard even used to have sex in the local church, finding shelter under the roof of an institution that strongly condemned their practices.
But the story of gay life in Mississippi is also a story of public persecution and private tragedy, especially since the 1960s, when homosexuality became associated with the African-American civil rights movement and hence perceived as more of a threat.
In the second part of the book, Howard offers some incisive analysis of everyday discrimination, persecution of civil-rights activists and the public response to indecency trials and homophobic murders. His tour de force is the final chapter, "Scandals", in which the gradual downfalls of two politicians in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Republican congressman Jon Hinson and the Democrat Bill Allain, who both slept with black men, are carefully mapped.
Howard's rigorous scholarship, which is based both on oral history and traditional historical documents (all constructively filtered through modern theory), is enhanced by a disarmingly personal touch. Himself a Mississippian, Howard returned to his native state to interview more than 50 "men like that" (who identified as gay) and "men who like that" (who did not identify as gay but had had gay experiences). Many of these conversations are reproduced verbatim, lending an appealing intimacy to the book.
Another strength of Howard's work is his keen sense of the way in which history and human desire are ultimately unknowable. As he puts it: "If today I can scarcely understand my own nebulous, slippery, contradictory impulses, how can I assess the motivations of someone else decades ago?" This emphasis on "informed speculation", as Howard calls it, is however taken a bit too far at times. He uses clusters of rhetorical questions, occasionally shies away from firm conclusions and approaches some issues in an overly politically correct way.
The result can be somewhat hesitant but, more often than not, Howard's tentative and thorough approach yields excellent results. His insights into queerness and the mentality of the American South should be of great interest both to the professional gay historian and the general reader.
Madeleine Minson is tutor in English, University College London.
Men Like That: A Southern Queer History
Author - John Howard
ISBN - 0 226 35471 7
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.50
Pages - 418