OKLAHOMO: Lessons in Unqueering America. By Carol Mason. 2015.
Sally Kern is a six-term member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and she does not like homosexuals. In fact, in 2008, Kern stated publicly that she considers homosexuality to be “the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam.” According to the Sooner lawmaker this is because “studies show that no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted more than, you know, a few decades. So it’s the death knell of this country” (3).
Clearly, Sally Kern does not know much about history, American or otherwise. Given her stance on evolution (she is against it), Kern doesn’t appear to know very much about biology either. That doesn’t mean her undoubtedly very sincerely held beliefs should be entirely ignored or dismissed by serious scholars, however. In fact, as Carol Mason demonstrates in her incisive new book, Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America, Kern’s particular brand of paranoid apocalypticism actually constitutes an extraordinarily generative place to begin thinking seriously about how American society came to be where it currently is with regard to gender and sexual difference, which is to say pretty lost in the thicket and scared straight as a result.
As Mason shows, virulent homophobia of the variety Sally Kern continues to espouse is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, even on the windswept prairies of the Great Plains. Rather, it is a form of moral panic that had to be slowly and intentionally ginned up over time in order to help mask the increasingly anti-democratic leanings of the United States’ white, neoconservative, nominally Christian elite. Mason is the first to admit that notable Oklahomans like Kern, Anita Bryant, and the Reverend Billy James Hargis did more than their fair share to help foment this panic; in fact, she dedicates entire chapters of her book to the task of chronicling the scandal-ridden careers of these three firebrands. But Mason is also careful to remind readers that right-wing cranks rarely act alone, and they never act in a social, political, or economic vacuum.
Indeed, one of Mason’s primary goals in Oklahomo is to make plain just how much of the virulently homophobic sentiment that currently seems to emanate from places like the Oklahoma state house is actually the product of broader, arguably more insidious historical forces. These forces include McCarthy era anti-communism, Christian fundamentalism, and corporate multinationalism, all of which have contributed, Mason argues, to the rise to what she helpfully refers to as “moral entrepreneurialism” on the far right. If this was the only claim Mason advanced in her well-conceived study, it would still be a very interesting book. What makes Oklahomo a genuinely important book, however, is the accounting it offers of the significant losses we have arguably all incurred as a result of right-wing conservatives’ relentless crusade to “unqueer” a nation that used to find ways to accommodate many different kinds of outliers, not just reactionary ones like Sally Kern. For Sooners, these losses surely include the memory of much beloved University of Oklahoma professor Bruce Goff, a gay man whose legacy as one of the United States’ most innovative modernist architects was essentially erased after he was entrapped by police in Norman in 1955 and then charged with corrupting local youth. But the cynical self-aggrandizement of right-wing extremists has produced other casualties as well, especially in Oklahoma, and Mason mourns each and every one.
At turns uncommonly witty and uncommonly wise, Oklahomo is a phenomenal book. A scathing critique of reactionary right-wing doublespeak, it is also a shrewd indictment of those on the left who casually dismiss the Sally Kerns of the world, or too easily explain them away in terms of where they are from.
Colin R. Johnson (Indiana University Bloomington)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 55.1 (2016) and is available online via Project Muse.