THERE EXIST already a number of historical studies of homosexuality, including very copious ones by Vern Bullough and Arno Karlen, but Gay American History represents a breakthrough of considerable importance. It is not merely a remarkable effort in documenting a history as yet barely written, but it is alos an original contribution to the ways in which we conceptuzlize sexuality.

From the outset Katz emphasizes that "all homosexuality is situational, influenced and given meaning and character by its location in time and social space." In other words, those crude lists of famous homosexuals, running from Sappho to J.M. Keynes, are no more than idle curiosities. Homosexuality can only be understood within the overall framework of sexual regulation in a given society.

For most of its history America has been marked by an extreme puritanism towards sexuality. (How far this has changed in the past decade is a question that Katz wisely avoids, there is a surfeit of literature on the "swinging '70s." Not suprisingly this was often epxressed in a phobia possibly only matched in some contemporary Latin American dictatorships and Nazi Germany.

It is not very surprising to read that in 1646 a sodomite was sentenced to be choked to death and then burnt to ashes. (It is less surprising when we learn that the sodomite was black.) It will be more suprising for most Americans to read of the extent to which the psychiatric profession has tortured gay men and women in the name of "cure," or of the way in which homosexuals were purged in the '50s with a zeal equal to that applied against communists.

For in terms of historical study the homosexual is the real invisible wo/man. Not only is historical research into sexuality discouraged - and Katz is rightly scathing about academic lack of interest in the field - but research into the area is particularly difficult and problematic.

Gay American History , despite its 700 pages and superb footnoting, is thus only a beginning. Through quite remarkable persistence Katz has uncovered an enormous wealth of scattered material which begins to describe the tribulations - and, at times, the joys - of those Americans who have been attracted to members of their own sex. The book draws on an enormous range of scholarly, popular and private writing, ranging from Herman Melville and Willa Cather to unknown poets of the Wild West and forgotten lettes and memoirs.

Of course documents do not by themselves make a history, but the work of Katz should provide stepping stones for years to come. The book is organized into six sections, entitled "Trouble", "Treatment", "Passing Women", "Native Americans/Gay Americans", "Resistance" and "Love," which between them touch on most aspects of the homosexual experience in American for four centuries. (The earliest document is a short extract from the report of a Spanish explorer in the early 16th century.)

There are of course large numbers of gaps, where the material was presumably not to be found. I could find, for example, no mention at all of homosexuality among slaves, though one assumes it existed. But the material which Katz has found, and which he has carefully balanced so as to treat equally the experience of both men and women, throws considerable illumination on the particular barriers with which Americans have sought to restrict human sexuality. The engineering student in Denver who shot himself sometime before World War I because of his arrest for homosexuality is only one of a long list of unheraided martyrs.

Yet is is imporant not to regard Gay American History as only relevant to homosexuals. Katz is surely right when he states: "The term homosexual, with its emphasis on same-sex genital contact directed toward orgasm, is particularly inadequate as a means of encompassing and understanding the historical variety of same-sex relations. Categorizing human relations should be replaced by research aimed at revealing the multiple aspects of the particular relations under study."

The greatest failure of the contemporary gay movement has been its inability to show those who regard themselves as totally heterosexual that they too are affected by its claims. As homosexuality becomes increasingly tolerated, if not for the most part accepted, this takes the form of defining homosexuals as a new minority group who, too, deserve civil rights. Thus there were Gay Americans for Carter and - as a walk through Georgetown will reveal - gay ghettoes in most large American cities.

But homosexuality is not the same as ethnicity, for the lines of division are far less clear cut. Rather it is a particular form of sexual expression that is manifested to a greater or lesser extent in all of us. The most virulent anti-homosexuals are often those striving most urgently to repress their homosexual feelings. Thus Katz is right when he points out that many of the strong emotional ties between members of the same sex which he documents are not necessarily homosexual in the genital sense, and there might be arguments about some of the pieces he has chosen to include. Alexander Hamilton could write letters to John Laurens declaring his love for him, letters that if written today would be doubt brand him as a security risk, but this does not necessarily mean they slept together.

Whether such love is consummated or not will often depend on the social setting. The passionate but nongenital friendships between 19th century women would certainly be more likely to end up in bed in today's climate. What is important is to recognize how far fear of homosexuality inhibits friendship as well as set. "Anti-homosexual bigotry" says Katz "may ironically takes its toll on heterosexuals and homosexuals alike."

To recognize that homosexuality is part of everyone's psychological potential while acted out by only a minority, only some of whom come to perceive themselves as homosexual, is a conceptual problem that dogs virtually all writing on the subject. Katz's book does not sufficiently clarify this distinction, which is crucial when one comes to discuss the emergence of a gay world and gay resistance.

As far as the latter is concerned what is most striking is the relative weakness of any homosexual resistance to social stigma until very recently, particularly if one compares early 20th-century America with Germany. Why this is so Katz does not discuss, yet it is surely a crucial problem in writing gay American history.

Future historians of sexuality in America will have to come to terms with these and other questions. In so doing they will undoubtedly draw heavily on the work already undertaken by Katz.