Excerpt from the prologue to Has the Gay Movement Failed? by Martin Duberman
It is not wrong to claim that the past 50 years have marked a notable change in attitude towards sexual minorities in the United States. In the last half century we’ve gone from being all but uniformly pathologized and condemned—yes, even hunted—to being widely accepted as a legitimate minority (something like an ethnic one, though nobody seems sure). In 1950 fifteen states included us under their “sexual psychopath” laws, some of which defined “sodomy” as anal or oral sex with humans (with “beasts,” too), and allowed indefinite confinement following arrest. Jumping up fifty years, the Supreme Court has not only declared us “fit” for marriage, but in 2003 decriminalized “sodomy” between consenting adults (more about that mixed blessing later), and in 2011 Congress repealed the military’s grotesque “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. An improved status?—unquestionably yes. Yet the extent and content of our “progress” are badly in need of deconstruction.
I’m not alone in feeling limited satisfaction with what most gay people are hailing as the speediest success story in all of our country’s long history of social protest. The grumblers among us are a decided minority. We’re over-represented among gay academics and public intellectuals, but scarcely represented at all in the LBGTQ population at large. When complaining among ourselves, someone invariably cites the contrast between the movement’s recent “assimilationist” agenda—marriage rights and “permission” to serve openly in the armed forces—with the far broader agenda that had characterized the Gay Liberation Front at its inception following the 1969 Stonewall riots. GLF had called for a fierce, full-scale assault on sexual and gender norms, on imperialistic wars and capitalistic greed, and on the shameful mistreatment of racial minorities.
Or had it? Were we mythologizing the early years of the movement, exaggerating its scope in order to substantiate our discontent with what we viewed as the shriveled posture of the movement in its present guise?
In search of an answer, I took down a book from my shelves that I hadn’t looked at in a very long time: Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, the pioneering anthology that Karla Jay and Allen Young, both of whom I knew, had edited and published in 1972. Karla was at the time a graduate student at NYU and Allen had earlier been active been in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Liberation News Service. Their anthology contained many of the crucial articles and manifestos that had emanated from the radical gay movement in its first three years of existence. I soon located a raft of other books from the period, including two additional anthologies Karla and Allen had edited (After You’re Out and Lavender Culture).
Many months of reading followed—along with a complex set of reactions, and somewhat more confusion than I’d anticipated. Yes, GLF had expressed empathy for non-conformists of varying stripes, had usually been clear-headed about our country’s predations abroad and its indifference to misery at home (its rhetoric sometimes more clamorous than its practice). And yes, it had taken a generous swipe at traditional gender roles, the nuclear family structure, and lifetime, pair-bonded monogamy. Yet it had often done so at the top of its lungs, in utopian language of sometimes lofty (and stupefying) abstraction, and with more than a little self-righteousness. And like most leftwing movements for social change, GLF’s internal debates had often been strident, with members frequently and passionately denouncing each other, often along gender lines.
Qualifiers aside, I came away from my self-imposed refresher course reaffirmed in my view that the modern gay movement in the period immediately following the 1969 Stonewall riots had indeed been broadly radical. It argued for a substantive restructuring of national values and institutions, and was strenuously at odds with a merely “liberal” politics that simply called for integrating increasing numbers of people into what was purportedly a beneficent system. None of which came as much of a surprise, since I knew that many of those who joined GLF had earlier been energetically involved in the militant student, civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements. A significant number of GLF recruits—people like Martha Shelley, Jim Fouratt, Ellen Shumsky (a.k.a. Ellen Bedoz), Michaela Griffo, Michael Brown, Karla and Allen–had previously marched on behalf of black rights, participated in early feminist protests and joined actions against the war in Vietnam. The Stonewall riots had refocused their energies on gay liberation, yet in shifting priorities they’d maintained their prior concerns with racism, sexism, and imperialism.
The gay left—like every other kind of left in this country—has rarely represented more than a small minority. GLF and its less radical successor, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), together probably numbered no more than a few hundred people–though more, doubtless, attended their dances. The straight left has periodically enlisted many more, with membership mushrooming during periods of uncommon economic hardship—like the Great Depression or the labor wars of the late 19th century—or in response to immoral foreign interventions (like the war in Vietnam). Yet once conditions improve, leftwing protest in this country has disintegrated with notable rapidity; it’s historically failed to develop the sustaining power characteristic of the left in Europe.
If GLF’s membership remained small, it spoke out against an impressive range of national shortcomings and hypocrisies. The group was quick to name the obstacles (like racism and misogyny) that kept so many stalled on the first rung of the ladder, and it rejected the kind of patriotic sloganeering that served as cover for capital expansion overseas. As well, GLF deplored the embedded class structure that most Americans denied existed (even as it kept them locked in the cellar), and rejected, too, the claim that traditional notions of “maleness” and “femaleness” were biologically grounded–that our genes and hormones dictated and warranted the view that women were intrinsically emotional and men intrinsically aggressive. Further, and centrally, the early gay movement affirmed sexual pleasure as a positive good, vigorously condemned the nuclear family as nothing more than a detention center for women and children, and viewed monogamy as unnatural.
Most of the radical young recruits to GLF had previously been in the closet in regard to their sexuality; they felt that now, in “speaking truth” about their own lives, they’d forthwith be welcomed and would link arms with those telling the truth about racism, sexism, and unjust war–with the end result of creating a powerful political coalition that would re-fashion society as a whole. As the very first issue of Come Out!, the GLF paper, put it, “we are going to transform the society at large through the open realization of our own consciousness.” To advance that goal, GLF stressed the importance of consciousness-raising groups.
In giving voice to heretical views and denouncing what the vast majority of Americans (including most gay people) viewed: as sacrosanct—racism, sexism, imperialism, and capitalism—GLF could sometimes be shrill, its analyses a jumble of ill-digested notions, simplistic and confused, its expectations naively optimistic and at times downright Panglossian. Yet their dissent from established pieties, their passionate search for ways to alleviate suffering, and not merely their own, still warrants our attention and regard. It’s easy enough to mock their lapses into extravagant rhetoric, their wholesale indictments, their ingenuous sloganeering. It can be convenient, too: by focusing on their sometimes chaotic antics, we’re able to ignore as well the injustices they fought against.
The overwhelming majority of gay people, unlike those in GLF, remained closeted, their energy bent on avoiding detection: they sought to go unnoticed, to “get along.” They silently scoffed at those who blatantly paraded their dissent—or in the case of prominent earlier homophile activists like Frank Kameny or Barbara Gittings (genuine heroes in the context of what was possible in their own day)—openly deplored their countercultural “nonsense”. Yet in the face of widespread hostility, GLF persisted, somehow persuaded that a small group, if sufficiently dedicated and vocal, could set a generational political agenda—or at the least plant the seeds for the later emergence of a larger progressive force. Boisterous and demanding, GLF announced the advent of a new kind of queer: boisterous, uncompromising, hell-raising.