Catalysts for Change
In his 2013 book, The End of the Homosexual?, the gay theorist Dennis Altman looks back at the 40 years that had passed since the publication of his landmark work Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation to ask, what has changed? What has remained the same?
In his earlier book he foretold the coming of “polymorphous perversity”, a time when people would no longer place labels on their sexuality. In The Homosexualization of America (1982), he saw homosexual and heterosexual experience converging, as straight and gay lives came increasingly to resemble each other in liberal capitalist societies, and particularly the United States. The patterns of heterosexual life became more flexible and unpredictable, less bound by convention and religious-based notions about sex and family. But gay and lesbian lives changed, too, especially in the three decades since the publication of The Homosexualization of America.
The changes that the gay and lesbian movement has wrought in American society, and in gay politics, culture and community are the focus of historian Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, a massive tome that begins with the unmitigated oppression of the early 20th century and concludes with the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling in favor of marriage equality. Her chronological account covers key battles and their leading combatants, the setbacks and victories, as well as the maturing and, some would say, mainstreaming of an oppositional movement.
Other books have covered the same ground. But Faderman, a respected scholar whose works include Surpassing the Love of Men (1981) and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (1991), gives the story an epic sweep, a wide-screen view of events occurring over the span of more than a half-century that dramatically changed the status of a despised and victimized social minority.
A word about terminology. Anticipating criticism that her book’s title might be considered limited, even exclusionary, Faderman sensibly notes that “gay is still most widely understood as an umbrella term for a diverse community.” “However, in aiming for historical precision, I’ve tried to use the terms that were most current in each era I depict: whether homosexual, homophile, gay, lesbian, lesbian feminist, gay-and-lesbian, LGBT, and so on.”
Faderman weaves her narrative in large part from the words of eyewitnesses to history and those who made it. She conducted 150 interviews for the book, with political figures (obvious names like Barney Frank and Senator Tammy Baldwin, but also Franks’ transgender legislative advisor Diego Sanchez, and Roberta Achtenberg, the first openly gay presidential cabinet member); military officers (Brigadier General Tammy Smith and Grethe Cammermeyer, a lieutenant colonel discharged because of her lesbianism); those who fought critical legal battles, as attorneys (Mary Bonauto, who led the successful efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts) and as plaintiffs (Edie Windsor, the octogenarian whose Supreme Court case led to the partial overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act).
Faderman also profiles prominent activists, including pioneers like Franklin Kameny, one of the federal government employees caught up in the ’50s witch-hunts. (Though generally regarded as a conservative figure, Kameny actually was more complicated; for one thing, he was an early male advocate of a co-gender movement.)
The Gay Revolution poses some key questions: how does the amazing evolution in the image and status of gays and lesbians, as well as bisexual and transgender people, affect all Americans? And what remains to be done before sexual and gender minorities truly are first-class American citizens? As that second query makes evident, Faderman’s is a liberal, not a radical approach; she’s concerned with how gays and lesbians achieved legal rights and increasing integration into American society and full participation in its institutions.
The book’s narrative begins in the terrible old days, when gay men and lesbians literally were criminals. Not only were there no legal protections from discrimination; because “perverts” endangered society, it was deemed not only right but necessary to punish and exclude them. Faderman recounts the post-World War II witch hunts in government agencies and the military that resulted in mass purges and ruined lives. The criminalization of an entire class of people who were likened to political subversives was not to be questioned: “It was as deadly to be soft on homosexuals as it was to be soft on Communists,” Faderman notes.
But oppression generated resistance. In 1950, Harry Hay, a member of the Communist Party, along with other West Coast gay men including fashion designer Rudy Gernreich (the inventor of the topless bathing suit), founded the Mattachine Society. (Faderman reminds us, however, that before Mattachine, there had been the Society for Human Rights, a Chicago group founded in 1924 that was “shut down by the police only weeks into its existence”.) Hay adapted the Marxist distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself for the new “homophile” organization: homosexuals needed to recognize that they constituted an oppressed, culturally distinct minority and generate a difference-based political strategy and movement.
Others, however, resisted Hay’s radicalism. Arguing that gays differed from straights only in their sex lives, they wanted to fit into society and to be left alone by the State. The tension between radical and moderate tendencies would persist for decades after Mattachine’s founding, and still does.
Another conflict involved gender. Although there were women members of Mattachine, men and their concerns dominated the group, which led to the formation of the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis. Faderman, not surprisingly, is good on gender issues, whether chronicling the founding of Bilitis, the splits between gay men and lesbians in the post-Stonewall movement, the rise of radical lesbian feminism and the major role lesbians played in the AIDS activist movement. She does less well with race: nearly everyone she has interviewed for The Gay Revolution is white.
Given that race has been a critical issue within LGBT communities and the movement, this is a shocking omission. The one page (barely) that she devotes to black lesbian feminism centers mainly on Chirlane McCray who, while a speechwriter for New York City Mayor David Dinkins, fell in love with a man, married him and had two children with him. (The former radical lesbian now is New York’s First Lady, the spouse of Mayor Bill de Blasio.)
Faderman allocates more space to the Black Panthers, whose connection to the emerging gay movement was tangential and short-lived, than to Audre Lorde, an influential black lesbian poet and activist. Lorde was at the center of a battle to have a gay or lesbian speaker at the 20th anniversary celebration of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. She got to speak only after gays and lesbians (and some straight allies) raised hell over their exclusion by the event’s organizers, some of whom, like veteran civil rights leader Walter Fauntroy, unabashedly mocked gay people. Faderman overlooks this important episode, and in fact, refers to Lorde only once, when discussing the Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian feminist group.
Faderman acknowledges (briefly) openly gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, a top aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mel Boozer, an activist in a Washington, DC group and in the Democratic Party. Elsewhere, she mentions an African American gay man who, early in the AIDS epidemic, “would teach the gay community the tricks of civil disobedience.” Faderman never tells us the name of this significant figure in gay and AIDS activism.
At other times, her rather conventional, Democratic Party liberalism limits her analysis. Her chapter on what has come to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion capably and colorfully recounts what happened that night in June 1969 when cops raided the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn. But she underplays its significance – the reason Stonewall is considered the watershed event in gay history. There had been previous revolts against police repression, but Stonewall was unique because it catalyzed grassroots, militant political organizing, movement and institution building.
In recounting conflicts between movement radicals and moderates, Faderman mainly sides with the latter. Her discussion of the contentious issue of military service includes one dissenting voice, New York left-wing activist Bill Dobbs, who serves as stand-in for all those who questioned the priority given the issue. Faderman accurately characterizes Dobbs’ position only to dismiss it, saying his “radical rhetoric” was “gibberish” to all those gay men and lesbians who wanted to serve in the military. Certainly if armed forces have to exist, no one should arbitrarily be denied the right to enlist. But Faderman too readily dismisses Dobbs’ stance, one which not a few activists share. At a Stonewall commemoration event held in New York this year, Martha Shelley, who in 1969 co-founded the leftist Gay Liberation Front, acknowledged the movement’s accomplishments, while also challenging its narrow, single-issue focus:
Now we can volunteer to have our openly gay asses blown up in the Middle East. America may be on the road to ending the drug war. But – every day we read about the cops murdering another unarmed black or Hispanic person and getting away with it. Our jails and prisons have become a vast gulag for poor minorities. Abortion rights are being slashed and women are still treated like baby-making machines. Economic inequality is astronomically worse: ordinary workers have lost their jobs, their homes, and their pensions, while CEO pay is somewhere between 700 percent and 1000 percent greater today than it was in 1969. And the filthy rich – I do mean filthy – want to keep us burning fossil fuels, so they can pile up more money while the whole planet goes down. Let’s pause for a moment today, because we need to celebrate our victories. But only for a moment.
Those victories, as The Gay Revolution reminds us, were hard-fought and quite recent. Some have proved fragile, even reversible. In November, Houston voters overturned that city’s anti-discrimination law by a two-to-one margin. Little progress has been made on federal civil rights legislation. (Marriage equality exists, at least theoretically, in all 50 states, but 31 states still lack non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.) Faderman’s upbeat, sometimes triumphalist tone notwithstanding, this revolution is far from completed.