Gay liberation: a performance review

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Wednesday August 1, 2018
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Author Martin Duberman. Photo: Courtesy the subject
Author Martin Duberman. Photo: Courtesy the subject

There are less loaded ways to ask the question "Has the Gay Movement Failed?" than making it the title of your new book from the University of California Press, as the eminent gay historian Martin Duberman just has. His proposed title inserted "Status Report:" before the question, and his book is no jeremiad. It addresses anyone with ideas more inflected than "Gay is good," with which Duberman would certainly agree, if with 250 pages to add.

Duberman's memoir "The Rest of It," published and reviewed here just months ago, rests his personal case in 1988, abbreviating his evolving views of the movement in which he has been an active participant from the beginning. Ad hominem score-settling and sour grapes made the memoir unpleasantly acidulous. "Has the Gay Movement Failed?" is not a gentler book but a vastly more considered one, which conscientiously gives credit where it is due. It's critical at the core, in its close inspection of evidence and trends without withholding hope - which, un-ironically, is the book's third-to-last word.

I can imagine its being tossed, unread, into a fire of its burning fellows at the corner of Castro and Market the night of the Supreme Court's decision on Obergefell. It seems like only yesterday - in jurisprudence time, it was - that Justice Kennedy, whose swing vote bestowed legal marriage equality on American LGBTQs, made his suspect, unsavory departure from the Court. Roe is not the only decision now looking down the barrel of the Federalist Society's pick to replace him.

Duberman's roots were in the lefty Gay Liberation Front, and such as he rides a hobbyhorse in this book, it's today's "faith and family" Human Rights Campaign (HRC). He rails against its tilt toward assimilation - into not just the marriage compact but also the military, and latterly, its embrace of church membership.

To condense Duberman's abiding concerns to preposterously simplistic terms, they are anti-assimilationist - while simultaneously being critical of the barriers queer and heterosexual "lefties" put between themselves to their mutual disadvantage. With no lack of appreciation of the civil rights advances of marriage and military-service equality, he sees the hazards - increasingly apparent since January 2017 - of thinking that either one means we've won.

Another throughline - in my words, not Duberman's - is the gentrification and boutique-ing of the gay movement. It's a rebuke to present-day gay politicos for looking at, but too often past and away from, the deep tribulations of queer people of color, the immense challenges facing increasingly out transsexuals and the plight of the LBGTQ poor and imprisoned (who, he comments, say the rest of us live in "minimum custody").

We speak of the benefits that would accrue from teaching LGBTQ history in public schools. LGBTQ adults' reading Duberman's latest book would yield more. It is level-headed in its deep consideration of all aspects of gender and sexual orientation and their respective implications for policy, medical and legal.

Its third chapter spills over with science, none of it dreary - primarily because Duberman maps the faultlines in all the research, irrespective of the researchers' attitudes about queer people, and sees their implications in policy and law.

He is polemical in his exposition of the ways "science," that most protean of human enterprises, can land people - and in particular the ones it doesn't "study" - not just in boxes but also in cells and coffins. "Like Alice in Wonderland, we've fallen down a rabbit hole," he comments in a chapter dense with explications of the changing and dueling studies of gender and sexual orientation and their etiology. "But we need to get out of it fast."

His prescription is that, despite the bi-lateral aversion, queer activists would do well to join their straight counterparts in addressing, together, their shared concerns about social injustice. "We need to show up for their issues if we expect them to show up for ours."

He sees particular promise in "the younger generation of radical gay local organizations ... focused on survival issues - like how to provide for homeless youth, how to combat brutal deportation policies and an inhumane criminal justice system, and how to cope with violence against trans people... . Their primary concern is with the least privileged members of the LGBTQ community, the people most desperately in need of help. And the need is great."

Without a word of it changed, this book might read significantly differently now than it would have before Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court - a month ago! Duberman notes that as he wrote - last February - the president signed a "religious-freedom" executive order.

It was only in 1995 that the word "Pride" inserted itself into the name of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Like happiness, pride is something one can - at least in principle - feel in whatever circumstances. Freedom is another matter; ask our counterparts elsewhere in the world. Right now is the time to give Duberman's book a close read, and listen to this 87-year-old, gay-married guy.