Historian Martin Duberman Puts Us to Task with ‘Has the Gay Movement Failed?’

Has the "gay movement" failed? Not yet, suggests this historian's survey. But it urgently needs to reinvent itself.

Has the Gay Movement Failed?
Martin Duberman
University of California Press
Jun 2018

When elder activists look back on how their movements have changed over the years, it often produces one of two reactions. There is sometimes a desperate effort to justify the losses of a movement’s early dynamism, which pitches the loss of idealism as the maturing of wisdom; that frames the loss of radical energy as a shift toward strategy; that tries to plaster over mainstreaming as simply the convergence and levelling out of ideals.

And then there is the other response: a disgruntled calling to task of those who co-opted and sold out; a devil-may-care calling out of those who have assumed positions of privilege on the backs of the oppressed; and a demand for both realistic assessments of the state of a movement and a return to its radical roots.

Martin Duberman, the prolific historian and activist who lived through most of the times and was involved with some of the groups he discusses in his book Has the Gay Movement Failed?, falls firmly into the latter category.

His argument is not so much that the movement has failed, as that it needs to re-focus and set its sights on a more radical agenda, particularly one that attends to the needs of poor and marginalized queer folk, which is to say the majority. Insofar as the most visible national LGBTQ organizations have pursued an almost desperately centrist agenda (even to the point of backing Republican candidates in recent elections), some might consider this a call to return to the movement’s roots, but Duberman is quite sober in his analysis of the ways that societal attitudes have changed since the ’60s, and that a re-radicalization of the movement cannot simply aim to replicate the activism of those decades.

Duberman’s book opens with a compelling, fast-paced and sometimes firsthand account of the growth of the Gay Liberation Front in the ’70s, its achievements, personalities, and internal conflicts. The picture which emerges is that of a vibrant and diverse movement, which certainly had its share of racist and misogynistic moments (he describes some of these) but overall reflected a tremendous degree of solidarity among widely disparate participants and deeply idealistic, creative goal-setting and activism.

Duberman seeks to correct some emerging myths, for instance noting that the fight against racism and colonialism was always deeply embedded in the LGBTQ movement; he outlines some of the early links between gay activists and the Black Panthers, as well as Latino activists. He also charts the complex relationships between gay men and lesbians in the movement, along with the early prominence and subsequent exclusion of trans activists like Sylvia Rivera. While the narrative is fast-paced and sprinkled with fascinating detail, it’s not meant to be an exhaustive scholarly study but rather a broad sketch outlining how the movement went from a broad-based radical and idealistic movement to one narrowly focused on marriage and certain civil rights. As he observes, fighting for marriage rights would have been bewildering to many activists of the era who were excitedly inventing new forms of family and partnerships; and fighting for the right for gays to serve in the military would have been appalling to early LGBTQ movements, which were built in solidarity with the struggle against American militarism and imperialism both at home and abroad.

Importantly, Duberman argues that the shift on the part of large national LGBTQ organizations to an agenda narrowly focused on marriage and some civil rights was not a nefarious or even intentional plot. It was facilitated both by the complex ebb and flow of the earlier movement (and its shifting relationship with its social movement contemporaries such as the civil rights movement) but especially by AIDS, which devastated the activist base and also shattered much of the movement’s creativity and radicalism around sexuality and romantic/family partnerships.

Class Matters

Duberman offers a searing critique on the lack of class consciousness in today’s mainstream LGBTQ movements. The exclusive focus on civil rights suggests an implicit acceptance of “the hoary adage that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Civil rights protections are important for LGBTQ persons, yes, insofar as they may reduce violence and overt forms of discrimination, but they will not improve the disproportionately high rates of poverty experienced by queer individuals.

The marriage campaign is misguided, Duberman argues, on two levels. First, because insofar as it seeks to extend marriage’s economic benefits to gay couples, it ignores the argument that those economic benefits ought to be extended to all Americans as rights of citizenship, not as rights conferred on a couple as a reward for getting married. And second, because “it has contributed to the gay movement’s failure to understand that most gay Americans are working-class — and that’s true whether class is defined by income, job status, or educational level. The chief issue for working-class gay people these days relate not to whether they’re deemed “eligible” for state-sanctioned wedding bells, but rather to matters concerning health care, homelessness, deportation, lack of full-time employment, low pay, and violence in the workplace.”

What will improve things? Solidarity — acknowledging that the LGBTQ movement ought to work together with other communities and movements to tackle rising inequality and also other forms of oppression like the racism experienced by black Americans in almost every aspect of their lives.

Early radical LGBTQ organizing had that broader, intersectional agenda, he suggests. The Gay Liberation Front, “for all its shortcomings, had never confused winning legislative and legal battles with the ultimate goals of the movement. GLF wanted more than incorporation into the status quo — more for the country as a whole, not just for gay people. It hoped to raise consciousness nationwide about ingrained American racism and imperialism, and it challenged as well a national mindset that equated heterosexuality with normalcy, the nuclear family with optimal human happiness, and dichotomous gender roles with divine intention.”

Duberman’s analysis is ruthless but forward-looking and one senses the exasperation he feels at the sorry state of both the “gay left” and the “straight left”. The “gay left” — the dynamic and energetic queer activists fighting to protect poor and homeless trans youth — are viscerally aware of the devastation that economic inequality is wreaking on LGBTQ communities, and are working hard to build communities of solidarity against those hardships, but they have no systematic strategy in mind for overcoming America’s growing inequality. Only a broad-based national movement to overcome inequality and the neoliberal capitalist myth of the ‘American dream’ can succeed in lifting all boats, so to speak — poor queers as well as Black Americans, Latin immigrants, the broken white middle and working classes, and all the rest.

This is where the ‘straight left’ ought to come in (Duberman is particularly impressed by the left thinkers and activists associated with Jacobin magazine), since they’re the ones working hard to develop a coherent broad-based strategy to challenge capitalism, build a socialist movement, and resist the elitist oligarchy into which the US is descending, yet their problem is they seem oblivious to the presence of the LGBTQ community, particularly as a potential movement ally. The large national LGBTQ organizations, for their part, contribute to this divisive gap in their own unintentional way, pooling massive sums of money and resources yet failing to develop any truly stirring vision for what to do with it. Instead, many of them exist in their own bizarre bubble, using their funds not to support poor and homeless queer youth but to endorse the election campaigns of mainstream Democrat and even Republican legislators, with dubious outcomes.

These movements need urgently to come together, Duberman argues, and shares some broad thoughts on what the challenges and bases of solidarity could be. Mainstream national LGBTQ organizations need to broaden their vision and agendas to include anti-racism and anti-colonialism, poverty and inequality, and trans rights. The ‘straight left’ needs to reach out to the ‘gay left’ and include it in whatever blueprint for a new society it is building. And the ‘gay left’ needs to recognize the need for a broad-based, systematic strategy for challenging inequality in America and transforming the class structure.

Born That Way?

Duberman delivers a wide-ranging critique; one that is almost too wide at times. He’s at his strongest when contrasting current movement organizing with that of the ’60s and ’70s, when discussing the lack of contemporary activism around poverty, classism, and racism in the LGBTQ community and the contrast between substantive critiques of marriage and the family in previous decades and today’s embrace of the heteronormative institution of marriage.

More ambiguous are the portions of the book caught up with discussing the thorny question of nature versus nurture. He reviews extensively the scientific and psychological literature on what leads one to become gay — genetics? Brain structure? Societal upbringing? Conscious choice and desire? At times it’s not clear what the point of this discussion is, since the only conclusion to draw is that there is no conclusion. As he notes, “this is perilous terrain, the battleground of warring camps of armed ideologues.” For every study suggesting people are ‘born that way’ there’s a raft of equally strong arguments refuting it. Arguing a genetic origin for homosexuality has been seized on by many as a powerful justification for equality, but it’s a double-edged sword. Suggesting that people have no conscious choice in their sexual identity takes the agency away from the individual, and opens the door to allowing homosexuality to be defined by scientists, not the people living their experience first-hand. This can (and has) led to right-wing scientists arguing homosexuality is accompanied by other genetic traits such as mental illness, and offers new ammunition for those who believe homosexuality should be exclusively a discussion about science, not about identity or rights.

Already conservative politicians are turning the scientific argument against trans youth, deploying scientific studies to undermine the long-standing use of hormone blockers and other treatments. Regardless of what the scientific evidence says, the fact is trans youth overwhelmingly say hormones and hormone blockers help, and the question becomes once again one of whom we should listen to: scientific ‘evidence’ or first-hand experience? The point of this is that science can (and has been) easily harnessed in the service of politics, and is a shaky basis on which to build a human rights agenda.

Moreover, the very inconclusiveness of the nature versus nurture debate underscores Duberman’s larger point, that the ‘gay movement’ ought to be a movement about rights, identity, and consciously reshaping societal norms. To seek refuge in the conventionally-sanctioned expertise and authority of science is to abdicate our obligation to take responsibility for the decisions we make both as individuals and as a society, and for the rights and choices we seek to establish or protect.

One of the aspects of early LGBTQ activism, which is often awkwardly ignored by proponents of gay marriage, is its focus on up-ending society’s sexual norms. This aspect of the movement is often swept under the carpet by today’s ‘professional’ activists; treated as either the immaturity of youthful radicalism, or at worst a dangerous form of deviance. Duberman bravely points out it is neither. Exclusion from the heteronormative institution of marriage freed early LGBTQ activists to critique its many shortcomings, from its roots in patriarchy and misogyny to its implication in capitalism and the class war. Moreover, it enabled those activists to experiment with a variety of other forms of family and partnership structures. This creativity, he argues, is important and good for society, especially a forward-thinking society that wishes to consciously improve itself, rather than reify age-old institutions which may have already exceeded their best-by date (if they ever had one). By embracing gay marriage, activists wind up co-opted into preserving societal norms that their predecessors interrogated for good reason.

This is also the case with sexual norms. Duberman points out, for instance, that responding to sexual abuse by strengthening laws against sex with minors has had the perverse effect of criminalizing many youth for consensual relationships. It’s part and parcel of the LGBTQ movement’s co-optation into reifying the sexual norms of mainstream, heteronormative, patriarchal society: instead of treating sex as something that people of all ages should feel free to talk about freely and openly, and instead of encouraging sexual expression, society continues to treat sex as a taboo subject which must be strictly regulated by legislation. This returns to his broader point: LGBTQ organizing against heteronormative norms of sexuality in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t (or wasn’t just) about gaining acceptance within those normative structures, but about transforming and improving them for everyone.

Timely Warnings

Historian Robert Beachy, in his fascinating 2015 history Gay Berlin, tells us that in ’20s and ’30s Germany, internal polling within the Human Rights League — a German gay rights group founded in 1924 on the principle of bringing bourgeois, middle-class respectability to the gay rights movement of that period — suggested a third of its members were voting for right-wing parties like the Nazis, despite the party’s known aversion to homosexuality. “[T]he many homosexual men who embraced the Nazi cause misapprehended the centrality of Nazi racialist doctrine and how homosexuality appeared to threaten it,” he explains.

In 2016, the American LGBTQ lobby group Human Rights Campaign — the name an eerie parallel to its German precursor — endorsed a (subsequently successful) Republican candidate for Senate over a Democratic candidate who scored higher on their own report card, because “sympathetic Republicans should be rewarded when sticking their necks out.”

“History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their recent work How Democracies Die. It’s a timely warning.

Duberman’s book is an urgent and much-needed clarion call for the ‘gay movement’ to reinvent itself for the 21st century. He covers enormous ground for a relatively short and broadly accessible book. Most urgent, perhaps, is his warning of what might happen if the ‘gay movement’ fails to revitalize itself, and instead allows the elitist complacency of its national organizations to hold sway. The worst forms of institutionalized homophobia in North America and parts of Europe may have abated — and he gives credit to the mainstream national organizations for the work they have contributed toward this end — but it would be fatal to think this is necessarily a permanent trend. In much of the world, violent and state-sanctioned homophobia remains the norm. Even in America, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes remain common, bullying in schools is still rampant, and right-wing legislators persist in trying to undo the gains of the past several years. Most troubling, he discusses the impact that child socialization has on the formation of attitudes toward others. All it really takes is a generation raised on bigotry to undo the progress of the past couple of centuries.

The stakes are high, not just for the gay movement but for all of American society. “The amount of suffering in this country, when compared to its resources, is iniquitous,” writes Duberman in a rousing conclusion. “If we are ever to reduce it, we must combine with allies who we don’t love but who share with us a common enemy — the country’s oligarchic structure, its patriarchal authority, and its primitively fundamentalist moral values… we must engage with our own dread and trepidation of the “other,” and join forces for the common good. Will a sufficient number of outsiders prove gallant enough to run the gauntlet, to stay steadfastly in place when the dragon spits the full force of its fire in our direction?”