After the raid of the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, and the six days of protests that followed, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed, calling for a “fierce, full-scale assault on sexual and gender norms, on imperialistic wars and capitalistic greed, and on the shameful mistreatment of racial and ethnic minorities,” writes Martin Duberman in Has the Gay Movement Failed? “Or had it?” He asks. “Were we mythologizing the early years of the movement?”
In his critique of the past 50 years, Duberman revisits the early gay movement and its progressive vision for society and puts the left on notice as failing time and again to embrace the queer potential for social change. In the following excerpt, Duberman urges for a more transformative, inclusive reinvention of the movement.
Excerpt from Has the Gay Movement Failed? by Martin Duberman
From the chapter “Whose Left?”
The national gay movement’s recent absorption in the right to marry has focused our energy on a goal—the loving couple, the tight-knit family—that positions the movement squarely within the framework of a Norman Rockwell painting—the one already on its way to the attic. As the bridal parties continue their stampede to the altar, they seem not to have noticed that nonbelievers are burning down the church.
If forced to choose, those of us on the Left would probably opt for the infidels. It’s no longer the case—as it was back in 1970 with the Gay Liberation Front—that the national gay movement can claim to represent any position situated even one inch left of center—or that it wants to be. For that matter, it’s not clear whether there’s a coherent Left to be part of, to what extent its programmatic goals align with those of the LGBTQ movement’s left wing, or whether in any case the Straight Left gives a damn.
Many of the issues that currently define and dominate left-wing politics in general—making higher education free, raising the minimum wage, reforming the criminal justice system, reversing climate change, addressing the predations of globalization, repairing the infrastructure, taxing the wealthy, guaranteeing an annual income—are surely not central or even, in most instances, peripheral to the agenda of the gay movement’s national organizations. Its tactics, goals, and ambitions are simply hell-bent on getting inside the machine, and careful not to throw even a small wrench in the gears.
The most conservative of the national gay organizations, the Human Rights Campaign, having captured the crown of legal marriage, has shifted its priorities not to a more inclusive support for the goals of the Left in general, but rather to getting federal legislation passed to end all remaining forms of discrimination against gay people. That goal is indisputably worthy—and just as indisputably insular. HRC’s focus remains entirely inward; like a blinded mole, it has burrowed still deeper into the tunnel of self-protection—and the rest of the world (including the low-income gay world) be damned.
HRC has recently been speaking out against the spread of anti-trans “bathroom bills”—despite an abysmal earlier record on trans rights—yet at the same time has elevated Caitlin Jenner to its ranks of “Celebrity Supporters,” though her parodic attempts at replicating pre-feminist “femininity” has few supporters in the trans community—not to mention the feminist movement. In 2016 HRC endorsed Republican senator Mark Kirk of Illinois in his successful reelection campaign over his challenger, Democratic representative Tammy Duckworth. Kirk had scored only a 78 out of 100 on HRC’s own score card, in comparison to Duckworth’s 100, but the organization nonetheless attempted to justify its endorsement on the grounds that Kirk had come out in support of the “Equality Act,” HRC’s suggested federal antidiscrimination bill, and in the conviction that sympathetic Republicans should be rewarded when sticking their necks out. HRC prides itself on its sophistication in playing “the long game.”
It shouldn’t. It has opted for an appallingly short-sighted strategy. The only way the “Equality Act” will ever be passed by the U.S. Senate is if the Democrats regain control of Congress. HRC president Chad Griffin defended the support of Kirk by saying he’s “a strong ally in the Republican Party,” but that was way overstating the case; Kirk was nobody’s idea of a progressive—and Tammy Duckworth most definitely was. As Michelangelo Signorile wrote on Twitter, HRC as recently as 2014 “was still supporting the narrow Employment Non-discrimination Act” [ENDA] with its appalling exemption for “religious conscience,” while every other national LGBTQ group—except the Log Cabin Republicans—had joined the twenty-first century and pulled its support.
In contrast to HRC, the younger generation of radical gay local organizations is 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. To them, devoting energy to pie-in-the-sky lobbying for repairs to our infrastructure is comparable to petitioning for free lessons in Mandarin. 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.