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n the conclusion of Metroimperial Intimacies, Victor Roman Mendoza narrates the remarkable story of Jack Bee Garland. Garland, born Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta, was a female-to-male crossdresser from San Francisco, who became a reporter for the Evening Mail. Jack, “to be vulgarly presentist” (emphasis Mendoza’s), was something of “a gay mixed-race Chicano transman” (page 206)—a seemingly radical figure, especially in the context of queer historiography’s search for pioneers. And yet Bean’s desire for adventure and male companionship landed him a job as a nurse and interpreter for the US imperial army during the Filipino-American War in 1899. That war, as is now increasingly acknowledged, was genocidal, and Bean’s involvement in it complicates archival quests for sexual forebears. Who are Bean’s legatees? Queer activists? Or militarist advocates of American exceptionalism?
Bean’s contradictions, indeed, drive home the need for “tracing histories of sexuality in the United States” “that take into account the messiness of racial formations at the fin de siècle…” (page 3). This messiness was evident in the various ways American colonialism interpreted the sexualities of the insurgent natives they were colonizing. On the one hand, they were “brute male insurrectos,” but, on the other, they were “the passive feminine partner” in the marriage of William McKinley’s “benevolent assimilation” (page 25).
Mendoza’s historiography unfolds the ambiguities of sexuality in the colony. It is a process that requires deftness, and the author uses all the tools at his disposal to find the queer in the colonial: rereading of the archive, parsing insinuation, and, of course, bloc-quoting the psychoanalytic Zizek. By and large, the author is successful.
Mendoza rightly contends that no scholar of American colonialism in the Philippines has studied the colonial “state’s relationship to what we might now call nonnormative sexuality in the archipelago” (page 36). Despite the increasingly systematized policing of same-sex perversion in the American metropole, he shows that “the colonial state’s legal idea of perversity in the Philippines remained similarly to be determined” (page 40). As such, “the colonial state conducted governance of same-sex erotic acts in an impromptu and indirect fashion, making evidence of such management scarce” (page 42). If the state prosecuted acts of sodomy among natives, for instance, it did so through the intentionally vague vagrancy laws retained from the Spaniards. Late into the first decade of the 20th century, however, the U.S. military systemized the prosecution of sodomy within its own ranks, and Mendoza speculates that these increased disciplinary measures were partly influenced by sexual practices of soldiers in the Philippines. The claim is provocative, but requires more evidence from military archives.
Though Mendoza is primarily in dialogue with queer of color literature and critical race studies, a historian of the American Progressive Era will have much to ponder from this book. The increased policing of sexuality and American colonial expansion occurred as notions of national rebirth and moral regeneration took center stage in the US (Lears, 2009). Not only was this a period when Theodore Roosevelt and his rough riders sought the purification of degenerate boys through “strenuous” colonial expansion, it was also the time of the temperance movement, religious revivification, and the reclaiming of “Southern values” via agrarian populism.
Throughout the book, Mendoza highlights an American colonial system in moral and political flux. In one chapter, he shows the fickle manner in which the US military treated the case of Captain Boss Reese, who molested Filipino scouts under his command. While the act of sodomy was objectionable, it appeared insubordination from non-white soldiers was worse. In another chapter, Mendoza shows how newspaper cartoons simultaneously represented Filipinos as threatening black men and effete fairies.
These examples remind us of the central irony of colonialism during the Progressive Era: namely, that the US was imposing civilization on others at a time when its own notion of civilization was confused. Sexuality, of course, is a good example, but this schizophrenia informed almost all aspects of US colonial policy. In politics, reformists like TR waged war against Tammany Hall and other political machines in the metropole, even as they encouraged the emergence of machine politicians in the Philippines (Hutchcroft, 2000). In economics, Northeastern hard money democrats imposed the “civilized” gold standard on Puerto Rico and the Philippines (Rosenberg, 2003: 12-18) even as their party revolted against what William Jennings Bryan famously called the “cross of gold” (Bensel, 2008).
Since much Asian-American and critical ethnic studies now purports to dialogue with American studies, books such as Mendoza’s would stand to benefit from more grounding in American history. It is notable, for instance, that the term “progressive era” does not even appear once in this book. More importantly, since Metroimperial Intimacies is ostensibly about Filipinos and the Philippines, the book would also gain much from further grounding in literature from and about that country. For example, Mendoza’s final substantive chapter on pensionados (talented Filipino scholars sent to the US for study) reveals how these elite sojourners constructed national identity in contradistinction to “barbaric” upland tribes of Igorots and Negritos. Yet Mendoza is unaware of this racism’s intellectual roots in an earlier group of diasporic Filipino intellectuals: the ilustrados in Spain, who were the first to disclaim any affinity with their country’s “primitive” tribes (Aguilar, 2005). The image of pensionados conjured is thus of a minority group within America instead of a cohort of traveling nationalists engaged in a continuing, albeit flawed, project of national canon-formation. Similarly, Mendoza’s analysis of America’s racialized policing of queer practices would have benefited from a comparison with Spanish colonial thinking in the Philippines, which saw sodomy as a Chinese practice (Brewer, 1999: 21).
The stodgy, “empirical” (Mendoza uses the term with scare quotes) historian’s objections aside, Metroimperial Fantasies accomplishes its primary goal of surfacing “insurgent” knowledge that unsettles various forms of exceptionalism, including that of queer triumphalism. I am unsurprised that this insurgency came from Philippine history. For, to engage in innuendo myself, the Philippines has always been the skeleton in America’s exceptionalist closet.