Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas
In her memoir/anthology Margaret Mead Made Me Gay, Esther Newton tells a joke: "A postmodern anthropologist and his informant [study subject] are talking; finally, the informant says, 'OK, enough about you, now let's talk about me.'" She's trying to make a point about how an anthropologist's choice of subjects can signify the scholar's own personal journey. As a misfit college student in 1961, Newton read Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa; Mead's argument, based on her study of the sexually open Samoans, that gender "norms" were subject to cultural forces proved an epiphany for Newton, who was then struggling to accept her homosexuality. "Mead's work," she writes, "taught me that the smug high school peacocks whose dating/popularity values had rated me so low . . . were not lords of the world but only of one nasty barnyard."
Newton's new book traces her anthropological study of more hospitable barnyards--drag-queen shows, feminist consciousness-raising groups, Fire Island. But the book's real business is memoir, and it delivers--sometimes with clarity and poignancy, sometimes with a self-pitying myopia. The 20 essays, lectures, and scholarly works collected here make for an uneven reading experience.
Newton takes the reader along as she forges a career; she began studying female impersonators in the mid-'60s, when no one else was, resulting in the book Mother Camp (1972). Margaret Mead Made Me Gay contains enough of that work to make a strong case for Newton as a pioneer of queer studies. It also includes the terrific, previously unpublished 1990s essay "Theater: Gay Anti-Church," which freshly explores the cliché of stage-loving gays.
Newton is not necessarily the best judge of her own work, however. She heralds the importance of her study of Cherry Grove, a largely gay-male community on New York's Fire Island that has suffered cultural growing pains as its lesbian minority has become more insistent on inclusion in local customs (i.e., drag shows), but in the excerpts of the work included here the controversies seem like the petty squabbles of a high school prom committee. Newton, a professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, says her focus on gays--and her own open homosexuality--stalled her career, and it undoubtedly did, but too much of Margaret Mead is devoted to her recollections of slights, from childhood onward. And for all her discussion about how she's been oppressed for loving women, she manages not a single paragraph expressing what she loves about them.
Sometimes, though, Newton's compulsion to show us her scars is powerful even as it makes us cringe. One of the book's most entertaining chapters is also the wildest. An excerpt from her and Shirley Walton's 1976 book Womenfriends is composed of angry correspondence between the authors, identified as "Pauline" and "Rebecca," when Rebecca has the unmitigated gall to get pregnant while the two of them are writing a book. The lesbian Pauline unloads on the heterosexual Rebecca for her selfishness ("I didn't give you permission to have a baby while we were working together.") and her traitorous submission to the patriarchy, while Rebecca tells Pauline to get off her back and get a grip. Beyond the overheated, dogma-drenched specifics, this exchange captures something about female friendships that many readers can relate to: the gap in intimacy that opens when one woman opts for motherhood. Perhaps Walton's vigorous confrontation of Newton's blaming and self-pity, which drag down other parts of the memoir, is another reason why this chapter sings. Through too much of her book, Newton seems focused more on banging angrily on locked doors than on building bigger rooms--which is odd, considering that her best work has done exactly that.