"Jews Queers Germans" is arranged like a series of hundreds of short stories one after the other. I found it hard to keep track of all the characters' names, but to be honest, you don't need to know the characters' names in order to understand this novel. The point of the novel is to show you, beyond any point of possible doubt, that there is a period in history from about 1890 to 1945 called "modernism." And, during modernism, beyond any point of possible doubt, many, many men were bisexual and homosexual. Whether bi or gay, they were normal people just like you and me. They were educated and uneducated, athletic and nerdy, rich and poor, powerful and disenfranchised, ethical and unethical, heroic and villainous. And in case you don't believe me, here are hundreds and hundreds of pages of true historical stories to prove it.
It was really important for me to read this book this summer. I've been in the process of realizing that I am bisexual, and I needed some kind of resource to help me understand what I was feeling. Utah has a very strong heterosexual culture due to the influence of the state's predominant religion--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church. Utah also has an unexpectedly strong gay culture because of all the gay Mormons who are struggling to express themselves and fight for their dignity in a political environment that very much resembles a theocracy or a religious ethno-state. When I was a college student at Brigham Young University, you could go to church any Sunday or even go to a religion class on campus during the week and learn the ins and outs of how to have a healthy straight marriage or relationship. You could also go to the university's gay-straight alliance and learn a lot about how to accept your gay identity, how to come out of the closet, and how to find a new sense of deeper meaning and purpose in life as you realize that Utah's dominant religion really does not have a healthy or psychologically-tenable place for you in its plan of salvation. There is a preponderance of gay and straight culture in Utah, and in the world as a whole. What you don't see so much of is the presence of a public bi culture, so that bisexuals can learn about themselves and live with as much confidence and cultural belonging as their straight and gay peers. So, books like "Jews Queers Germans," which devote hundreds of pages to giving the reader models and examples of bisexual thinking, are very important.
A new term that I learned this summer is "biphobia." I was in a relationship, or a very special friendship, whatever you want to call it--Duberman's characters use both words--that struggled and ultimately failed because of a strong degree of internalized biphobia in both of us. I would like to see the world as a place where biphobia is just as unacceptable of a prejudice as anything else is. Hopefully this book review is a start.
I really like what Wikipedia has to say about biphobia, so I'm just going to do down the Wikipedia article on biphobia, paragraph by paragraph, and lay out some important points.
First, the actual definition of biphobia:
"Biphobia is aversion toward bisexuality and toward bisexual people as a social group or as individuals. It can take the form of denial that bisexuality is a genuine sexual orientation, or of negative stereotypes about people who are bisexual (such as the beliefs that they are promiscuous or dishonest). People of any sexual orientation can experience or perpetuate biphobia."
Second, there are multiple kinds of biphobia. Not everyone is biphobic in the same way, just like not everyone is bisexual in the same way. One form of biphobia is called "heterosexist biphobia." This is the view "that heterosexuality is the only true or natural sexual orientation. Thus anything that deviates from that is instead either a psychological pathology or an example of anti-social behavior."
Another form of biphobia is called "binary biphobia." This "stems from binary views of sexuality: that people are assumed monosexual, i.e. exclusively homosexual (gay/lesbian) or heterosexual (straight). Throughout the 1980s, modern research on sexuality was dominated by the idea that heterosexuality and homosexuality were the only legitimate orientations, dismissing bisexuality as 'secondary homosexuality'. In that model, bisexuals are presumed to be either closeted lesbian/gay people wishing to appear heterosexual, or individuals (of 'either' orientation) experimenting with sexuality outside of their 'normal' interest. Maxims such as 'people are either gay, straight, or lying' embody this dichotomous view of sexual orientation."
A third form of biphobia is called "bisexual erasure." This includes the belief that people have to be equally attracted to one gender as much as the other in order to be bisexual. This erases probably 90% of the bisexual population, who actually do prefer men or actually do prefer women. Bisexual erasure also includes the idea that only women can be bisexual, but men cannot be. Bisexual erasure further includes the idea that "that bisexual behavior or identity is merely a social trend – as exemplified by 'bisexual chic' or gender bending – and not an intrinsic personality trait. Same-gender sexual activity is dismissed as merely a substitute for sex with members of the opposite sex, or as a more accessible source of sexual gratification."
In "Jews Queers Germans," men from all walks of European society participate in all kinds of variations of bisexual friendships and relationships imaginable, while their society around them struggles to keep up. Through the voice of the law, the military, the government, the scientific community, the academic community, and the religious community, the protagonists encounter each of the three forms of biphobia that I have described above: (1) heterosexist biphobia, (2) binary biphobia, and (3) bisexual erasure.
The novel doesn't really have a happy ending. Out of the 500 pages, I can't remember any of the friendships or relationships that actually worked out in a long-term way, like a heterosexual marriage--"till death do us part," or, in Mormon culture, "for all time and eternity." Dealing with loss and with separation is a part of human life. We ought not focus on fear of an end, missing all the beauty of the beginning and the middle.
I used to believe in marriage for time and all eternity as the model for what perfect love looks like. I am a bisexual guy, who like many gay guys at BYU, came to realize that this story doesn't quite describe what I believe about the world. Most gay Mormons become secular, atheist, and agnostic, fed up with religion altogether because of the way they've been treated in Mormon culture. I am a religious person by nature, so it was important for me to find a healthy religious community when my Mormonism fell apart. I converted to Judaism this spring, after a year of study with my rabbi, and I've found עם ישראל to be a healthy, nourishing, supportive community in which to live my adult life going forward.
Judaism is a pretty tolerant culture. I guess that explains why "Jews" appears in the title of this book. During the modernist period of history, from 1890 to 1945, some Germans believed that Judaism was promoting a too-tolerant view of love, sexuality, gender, and life in general. Various conservative German thinkers became to use Jews as a scapegoat for what they believed was the financial and moral degeneracy of their society. Judaism has been a part of my life informally since I was about twelve, so at this point, sixteen years later, Judaism means way, way more to me than just a safe place to be bi. But Judaism is a topic for another essay. Right now I'm more interested in talking about bisexuality and biphobia. If you could take one thing away from this book review, I would ask you to please realize that biphobia is a thing and to recognize that biphobia is hurting a lot of people's lives.
"Jews Queers Germans" is a really hard book. It's not for everybody. But if you're interested in learning more about bisexual culture, maybe this is the right book for you.
Oh, and since I always like to include at least one quote from the book, here is my favorite paragraph from the book:
"His friendship with Rathenau having weathered assorted storms, Kessler calls on him at his house in Grunewald. He finds Rathenau sunk in gloom and attributes it in part to the Grunewald home itself, which he's always detested, once describing its décor--with more than a hint at his view of Rathenau's sexual proclivities--as a mix of 'petty sentimentality and stunted eroticism…as if a banker and a masturbating boy thought it up together.'
But as Kessler well understands, Rathenau's depressed isolation is due to much more than the surrounding décor."