Thomas C. Mackey
Thomas C. Mackey
Citation: Thomas C. Mackey . "Review of John Gerassi, The Boys of Boise: Furor, Vice, and Folly in an American City," H-Urban, H-Net Reviews, May, 2002.
Furor, Vice, and Folly in an American City.
by Peter Boag. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2001.
xxxii + 328 pp. Appendixes, notes, new foreword, preface index. $19.95
(paper), ISBN 0-295-98167-9.
When this volume
first appeared in 1966, it fit the liberal times. Its sneering tone at
mainstream United States culture reflected the East coast author's
superior attitude of knowing what was best for the population of
far-away Boise, Idaho. His goal was to inflict heterosexual guilt on the
locality, to impugn the character and motivations of the local elites
and the established Idaho social order, and to force social change onto
a "backward" area of the country. As such, The Boys
of Boise is a cultural relic of the social liberalism of the
But why reprint this occasionally silly volume? This volume tells the story of a mid-1950s anti-vice campaign aimed at prosecuting "deviants" and homosexuals in Boise, Idaho. This rather routine anti-vice sweep generated a little national attention when it was reported in Time magazine that a "homosexual underworld" existed. Fear grew that a real deviant "network" existed in Boise that threatened young boys and men, threatened the foundation of society, the family, and threatened Boise's reputation as a "clean" city.
For some time after the first arrests in 1955, "Boysy" struggled with the prosecution and trial of a handful of homosexuals who resided in Boise. These individuals cruised the streets picking up young boys and men, met in restrooms in public parks and in the restrooms of the bus stations, and were allegedly overseen by a "Queen" of a well-connected family in the city.
Arrests of such
persons led to more confessions and accusations of other men in the
community; those accusations, in turn, led to more arrests and even the
arrest of a Boise banker. Most trials were routine and were
"new" and "news" because the local paper, egged on
by the city council, became invested in the prosecution and punishment
of these homosexuals. Men accused of "crimes against nature"
found themselves convicted of the acts, occasionally on the testimony of
"stool pigeons," and sentenced to everything from time served
up to ten years. As quickly as this anti-vice campaign started, it ended
dropping off the local and national radar screen in large part because
of the unseemly character of the charges and the desire of the community
not to acknowledge and glorify such deviant behavior.
Scholars of United
States urban anti-vice movements and actions will find nothing new or
surprising with this thumbnail description of the events in Boise in the
1950s. Anti-vice campaigns of one kind or another occasionally swept
through small and medium size towns and even large cities regularly in
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such sweeps still occur but are
usually aimed recently at "johns," men who patronize both
female and male prostitutes, and of course anti-illegal drug raids.
While earlier purity campaigns targeted female prostitutes, it was not
unheard of for anti-vice sweeps to target opium users or homosexual
locations such as bus and railroad restrooms and the restrooms in public
parks. On its face, nothing new or "funny" occurred in Boise.
What was new was John Gerassi's argument in this book that such anti-vice raids reflected a misuse of public power against a defenseless minority, his journalist's hubris that he knew better what the local population needed and wanted in their locality, and his condemnation of the enforcement of standards of behavior by law in a locality.
When published in 1966, this book sought to demystify the homosexual underworld, deny that it harmed anyone (in spite of the documents Gerassi quotes in the book that demonstrated that older homosexual males consciously sought out young men for sexual favors and abuse), and to castigate Boise -- and by implication all localities -- for using the criminal law to protect its children and families from such behaviors.
breathless journalistic outrage, this work reads as a catchall of
homosexual sociology, popular psychology, oral history, and moral
certainty on behalf of the author. Further, the text is frustrating
because Gerassi quotes documents from city council minutes, to newspaper
articles, to court transcripts at too great a length. Instead of
producing a clear narrative voice, Gerassi's text is broken up into
reprinted primary sources, which are, in turn, reprinted in this work.
For example, pages 192 to 280 are simply the verbatim trial transcripts
of one of the trials of the accused homosexuals. These long, unnecessary
documents suggest that the book was rushed to press (typical of
Historians may mine this book from its primary sources but will find little else useful. A new foreword has been added to this volume by Peter G. Boag, Professor of History at Idaho State University. He described this work as a "classic study [that] depicts both middle America's traditional response to homosexuality as well as an era in the country's history before the modern gay rights movement really got underway" (p. vii). Boag then stated that the work reflects how poorly understood homosexuality was in the 1950s and even in today's anything-goes social world. Further, he alleges that the book "has withstood the test of time" (p. xi).
Unfortunately, this work has clearly not stood the test of time. Stilted, arrogant, self-assured in tone and approach, and critical of the mores of the locality, Gerassi's work reflects the reforming impulses of the 1960s without adequately analyzing or accounting for the anti-vice campaign in Boise in the 1950s. As a journalist, Gerassi sought to evoke moral outrage among his readers, not historical appreciation or understanding.
Boag sought to
remedy this deficiency in Gerassi's work by claiming that Boise's
mid-1950s anti-vice campaign was a reflection of the tensions of the
Cold War era with ripple effects into concerns about the social order
within the United States. While a more promising line of historical
argument, it is more alleged than proven in Boag's short foreword and
not supported in Gerassi's work.
makes clear that he has a personal interest in the topic and in the
field. In the late 1990s, he developed and submitted a grant proposal to
the Idaho Board of Education to write a history of homosexuals in the
Northwest. After much controversy, the Board turned down his request and
even ended the grant program rather than use taxpayer monies to support
such research. "Enlightened individuals" (p. xv) supported his
case for the grant so only the unenlightened could possibly oppose his
grant. As a result of this professional failure, Boag envisions a direct
link between the anti-vice events of the 1950s, the moral outrage of the
1960s, and the failure of the local school board to fund his research in
the 1990s; plus a change. As a result, Boag convinced the University of
Washington Press to print this volume in their "Columbia Northwest
Classics" series to prove that the backward social nature of the
region still exists.
Boag's ax to grind
can be understood and dismissed. And in Gerassi's defense, he admits in
a new preface to the book that his 1966 tone in the book "was a bit
too superior" (p. xix). Yet Gerassi, who was a journalist in the
1960s but is now Professor of Political Science at Queens College and
the Graduate Center of the City College of New York, remains convinced
that the anti-vice campaign was really aimed "at the more
progressive politicians who wanted to modernize the city" (p. xix).
His heroes, all Democrats, and his enemies, all Republicans, remain the
same. He continues to view the events of Boise as a simplistic story of
"victims and villains."
But perhaps this
incident presents a different story; a story about the use of the
criminal law to enforce social and sexual conformity in a community.
Ironically, since neither Gerassi nor Boag see it, The Boys of
Boise, is an interesting case study in United States legal
history. It tells the story of how powerful local social groups (such as
a businessman's club) and local institutions (such as the local
newspaper and courts) employed the police and the law in an effort to
shore up and confine the unseemly (many then and now say disgusting)
behaviors of homosexuals. How the use of the law and public power can
alter or defend the felt needs of a locality, and then the ripple
effects of those efforts make the reprinting of this work justifiable.
If only Gerassi or Boag had told that story instead of trying to tell
the homosexual study, this book and its reprint would receive a wider
reading and be more important.
This book will
interest those scholars of United States urban policy, social reform,
homosexual and sexuality studies, and United States legal historians. It
is an interesting story of the rights and wrongs of reprinting a volume
on not so gay times.