How the Gay-Rights Movement Won

Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution—How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone  By Linda Hirshman, Harper Collins, 464 pages, $27.99

Fifty years ago, being gay put you beyond the social pale. You could be savagely beaten, kicked out of public spaces and private clubs, arrested, fired, expelled from your family, and scorned as a pariah. Today, lesbians and gay men are all but equal, with full marriage rights in view—supported by President Barack Obama in action and words. How did we win so much so fast?

It’s a natural question after any major social change, especially for those hoping to apply the lessons elsewhere. How did smoking go from ubiquitous to despised? Why did feminism and black civil rights get so far, while unions gasped? Which made the difference: the low-lying social movement or the high-altitude legal and legislative efforts, the messy masses or the charismatic leaders? Historians can spend decades combing through public and private records before settling on their answers.

It takes chutzpah to try to sum up and define the LGBT movement while it’s still living, breathing, and feisty. Linda Hirshman, feminist cultural critic, philosophy professor, and former trial lawyer, has plenty of chutzpah. When last she splashed into the public discussion pool with her 2006 book, Get to Work, based on a provocative article in these pages, she was ordering young women to train for high-paying careers and refuse to “opt out” to raise children, lest they condemn themselves to irrelevance, risk poverty when their husbands leave, and hurt feminism overall. In Victory, Hirshman ambitiously aims to trace the LGBT movement’s history—focusing most often on the “g” for gay male—and to identify the factors that led us, as she puts it, to “change America for everyone.”

My sense is that Hirshman intends to write for a non-gay audience that knows little about our subcultures’ past, though she’s aware that LGBT folks will be reading over her shoulder. So in contrast to some of her previous writing, Victory’s tone is thoughtful and modest, exploring large themes through individuals’ stories. Adding interviews with surviving early leaders to her synthesis of the existing scholarship, she is especially good at sketching the backstory of the movement leading up to the 1960s, explaining the enormous challenges the pioneers faced. Disgust at same-sex intimacies embedded in Christian belief had been imported into American criminal law and the emerging “science” of psychiatry. Migrations caused by two world wars began to free more lesbians and gay men to live as they pleased, but Cold War paranoia devastated gay lives, purging not just suspected communists but also “sexual perverts” from schools, government jobs, and the military.

A few dared to stand up to this appalling machinery, at a time when doing so was heroic. In 1950, former communist and organizer Harry Hay founded the Los Angeles–based Mattachine Society, which began protesting the police use of entrapment for gay male solicitation. In 1955, San Francisco couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian “homophile” organization (after 55 years together, Del and Phyllis were, wonderfully enough, the first couple to marry during the six months when that was legal in California). Frank Kameny, an astrophysicist fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 for homosexuality, spent the rest of his life challenging the gay exclusion from federal employment, a career capped when, before he died last year, he attended President Obama’s signing of the repeal of the military policy “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Then on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Greenwich Village Stonewall Inn, ushering men who were illegally wearing women’s clothes into the paddy wagon. This time, instead of meekly cooperating, the queens and street kids revolted. After that, the once-radical “homophile” groups looked tame and outdated. Hirshman captures this shift brilliantly, arguing that no social movement wins full acceptance in the liberal state’s social contract until its members are willing to put their bodies, their physical lives, on the line, daring the state either to kill them or treat them fairly. From that point, the movement began to topple what she calls “the four horsemen” of anti-gay oppression: official designations as crazy, sinful, criminal, and subversive. While some activists joined the political machinery, others launched a gay-friendly religious denomination, tackled the psychiatric establishment, and challenged anti-gay laws, particularly those defining same-sex intimacies as a “crime against nature.”

That work was interrupted in the early 1980s by the devastation of AIDS, which concentrated gay men’s minds horribly on a new threat. Tens of thousands of them were dying of a nearly unstoppable virus—whose existence President Ronald Reagan didn’t speak of publicly until 1987. Hirshman shows how powerful white gay men, discovering that being despised meant you could be left to die, put their Rolodexes and insider skills to work. In 1986, the Supreme Court infamously ruled that it was constitutional for the state of Georgia to arrest a man for having sex with another man in his own bedroom. Nine months later, playwright Larry Kramer launched ACT UP, a group that in its few furious years of theatrical actions—like getting its members arrested on Wall Street, creating memorable graphics and slogans (Silence = Death), and researching drug--development reforms—did change America for everyone. The FDA altered its protocols; the scientific community and Congress found the time and money to research a global scourge that, in this country, just happened to strike first at social lepers.

 

***

After writing about ACT UP, Hirshman stumbles. Victory hopscotches across big, publicized, personality-driven triumphs, overlooking the community-building that was changing the world so those triumphs could occur. She means to trace the intellectual superstructure of what happened—the headline events that ended our exclusion from civil society—but even there she has serious lapses. Hirshman fails to mention the early and well-attended mass marches on Washington that transformed all of us who were there in 1979, 1987, and 1993.

Those marches were crucial in forging a national organizing infrastructure and in expanding our sense of worth and power. After the astonishing experience of standing together in public—in the sunlight! on the National Mall! openly gay!—hundreds of thousands of people returned home and started coming out, making room for their lives in their communities. Lesbians built sperm banks so they could create families together. Others founded bowling leagues, student groups, hiking clubs, and more ways to socialize beyond the bathhouses and bars. Legal organizations and local groups steadily picked off barriers to full civic protection so an individual could come out without being deported, losing custody of her children, or getting fired from his teaching job. The 1993 march was a tipping point. Coming after AIDS, when we had all been seen as plague carriers, it marked the first time the news media presented us not just as drag queens and dykes on bikes but also as Gap-T-shirted, home-and-hearth homos who would head back to Iowa—the boys and girls next door.

Similar holes mar Hirshman’s reporting on the marriage movement. She gives us visionary advocate Evan Wolfson, who built Freedom to Marry, the national marriage-equality group; Margaret H. Marshall, the South African–born Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice who decided the breakthrough Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health (2003) lawsuit, which launched the first same-sex marriages legally recorded in the United States; and David Boies and Ted Olson, the nationally prominent lawyers from opposite sides of the political aisle who united in a splashy lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8, the statewide California referendum that had ended marriages like Phyllis and Del’s.

But Hirshman misses the steady push from the grass roots that eventually forced marriage-averse lesbian and gay leaders to take up this fight. She misses our first breakthrough: the pioneering Vermont lawsuit that resulted in civil unions in 2000 and triggered a national backlash. She misses the groundwork laid in New England by the brilliant and publicity-averse Mary Bonauto, civil-rights project director at GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), who has been Wolfson’s peer in strategizing for and winning the freedom to marry. She gets small things wrong in other areas as well. For instance, she quotes Sue Hyde, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force honcho, discussing efforts to help lesbians and gay men in the military before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but does so in a way that suggests that Hyde would have been in favor of President Bill Clinton’s early, abortive attempt to end the ban. I know otherwise.

Of course, Hirshman isn’t trying to tell the entire history of the lesbian and gay movement, but so much is missing that she gets her analysis wrong. Or did she limit her focus because her analysis is off? In the book’s introduction, Hirshman claims that America’s two great preceding social movements, for racial justice and women’s equal rights, were less ambitious and therefore less successful, making strategic calculations to emphasize their similarities to the dominant social order. Lesbians and gay men, in contrast, had to work hard to open up room for our deviance, and therefore achieved more profound social change. She writes:

Women and racial minorities did not necessarily ask the dominant society to love them or approve of them. They sought to be secure against violence, to be tolerated as they exercised their human liberty, and to have equal access to political and economic life. … But both of them fell short of achieving all the elements of a full human life for most of the people they represented: they got little or no economic assistance or cultural validation. … At the end of the day, both these modern movements got most of their traction from maximizing their similarity to dominant political and social hierarchies.

By definition, people involved in the gay revolution could not replicate the majority behavior. … Instead of bringing their marginal group into conformity with the mainstream norms, they challenged the accepted versions of sin, crime, sanity, and loyalty, and changed America for everyone.

But in praising the LGBT movement’s drive to make the world safe for difference, Hirshman implies that black people and feminists never had to establish their moral cred. Is she kidding? Blacks had to fight depiction as subhumans, sexual monsters, immoral criminals, and intellectual inferiors. Feminists were painted as sterile, heartless harpies; women’s brains as supposedly too small for public life. Both groups expanded the meaning of the founding American dictum: All of us are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

***

To illustrate her belief that the LGBT movement has been unique, Hirshman quotes gay activist Arthur Evans as saying, “It was more than just being gay and having gay sex. We discovered who we were and we built authentic lives … and in the process came to very important questions about the meaning of life, ethics, the vision of the common good.” How is this different from Martin Luther King Jr.’s moral calls or from what happened in consciousness-raising groups? If I lead an authentic life today, I owe it equally to feminism and the LGBT movement.

We followed in other ways as well. Because feminism had changed the definition of “natural,” lesbians and gay men had an easier time becoming normal. Because feminism had taken a century to redefine marriage—from a gendered distribution of labor and power to an equal partnership of affection—our loves belong.

We’ve actually had it easier than either of those two movements. We started with a secret weapon: We were already part of every zip code in the country. White people can grow up without ever meeting a black person on equal terms. But the lesbians and gay men that straight folks meet are in their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. We are their siblings, cousins, colleagues, and choir leaders. Our habits and hopes are indistinguishable from theirs.

Contrary to Hirshman’s claims, we asked for less economic and political change than our predecessors did. Yes, the AIDS movement sought investment to study treatment and find a cure, but scientists understood that a global AIDS pandemic would be a public-health crisis for everyone, not just gay men. By comparison, both blacks and feminists sought, and seek, much more far-ranging economic and political changes: in housing policy, in financial institutions, in family structures, in equal access to jobs, and in the balance of power at home and at work.

Hirshman charges earlier movements with leaving behind the poorest and the least connected as they started to assimilate. But—and I do not say this with pride—that’s been just as true for gay men and lesbians. Those who have benefited most were already well off and well connected. Those left behind—transgender folks, homeless gay and lesbian teens, anyone poor—started with less social or financial capital.

Despite my fundamental disagreements, I do hope that Victory finds a heterosexual readership. However spotty, the book gives a moving picture of a history many won’t know. I learned about parts of the movement I hadn’t seen up close, from the inner workings of ACT UP to the genesis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Every character in here is worth meeting, every victory worth celebrating. There’s more to tell, but isn’t there always? If you don’t know us yet, Victory is a good place to begin. 

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