Saturday, September 07, 2019

Historian Martin Duberman on the Rightward Shift of the Gay Movement

I realized today that with my sudden need to return to Australia last month I did not finish this year's Queer Appreciation series, one comprised of informed and insightful writings to mark Gay Pride . . . or, as I prefer to call it (since 2011), “Queer Appreciation.”

In a previous installment of this year's series I shared black feminist author and activist Barbara Smith's critique of the contemporary gay rights movement. In today's installment I share a similar critique by historian, author and activist Martin Duberman (right), who writer Jonathan Kozol describes as "a deeply moral and reflective man who has engaged the greatest struggles of our times with an unflinching nerve, a wise heart, and a brilliant intellect." . . . Yes, definitely my kind of guy!

Actually, I find both Duberman's and Barbara Smith's insights interesting and relevant – including personally relevant. After all, both identify the early-mid 1990s, which was the time I relocated to the U.S. from Australia, as the critical point when the gay movement in the U.S. shifted markedly to the right. In the 25 years since, I've witnessed (and often proactively sought to disrupt and correct) this unfortunate shift.

The words of Duberman that I share today are excerpted from the memoir section of The Martin Duberman Reader: The Essential Historical, Biographical, and Autobiographical Writings (The New Press, 2013).


The effect of AIDS on public opinion had [by 1992] become a double-edged sword: heightened fear of dreaded gay “carriers” counter-balanced by increased sympathy for their suffering. President Clinton’s new administration in 1992 exemplified the contradiction: when his initial impulse to lift the ban on gay and lesbians serving openly in the military met with a barrage of opposition, he scurried for cover, settling with relief on a “compromise” solution of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that all at once fully exploited the military service of gay people while pretending they didn’t exist as human beings.

At the core of homophobia, it has always seemed to me, lies the central fear of “differentness.” Why the full, splendid spectrum of humanity should inspire terror in some people rather than joyful wonder is a puzzler. What can be learned from a neighbor whose expressions, habits, and values are a duplicate of one’s own? “Nothing!” exults the crowd, “and that’s exactly the way we like it. It was hard enough learning the dominant social codes; having finally mastered them, and feeling accepted and comfortable, let us alone!”

Yet the softening of homophobia was real. In a culture with a profoundly contradictory heritage of conformity and permissiveness, the way forward would necessarily be gradual (though only if the demands were for full and instant change; you ask for the whole pie in order to get a portion of it) and would periodically be marked by retreats – yet the fact would remain that nowhere else in the world was there a comparably vibrant and effective gay rights movement. In the 1970s, when the first gay civil rights measures were submitted to public referendum, only 29 percent of the voters reacted favorably; by the early nineties, the percentage had risen to 39 percent – and would continue to rise.

In 1993,a Newsweek article wrote us up as “the new power brokers” (a weird exaggeration) and the cover of an issue of New York magazine read “The Bold, Brave New World of Gay Women.” Yet the early nineties also saw a 30 percent increase in assaults and hate crimes against gay people. The dragon of homophobia had hardly been slain. The slow increase in respect and acceptance amounted to no more than a fragile inclusion,and the inclusion was pretty much confined to those gay people who looked and behaved like “normal” folks – meaning primarily middle-class white men who put their faith in polite lobbying, eschewed confrontational tactics, and shied away (as the seventies gay movement had not) from left-wing issues relating to racism, sexism, and economic inequality. The April 25, 1993 March on Washington, which I took part in, exemplified the turn away from “extremist” ACT-UP zaps; to me it seemed a bland, juiceless event more parade than protest – especially when contrasted with the earlier marches in 1979 and 1987.

. . .[B]y the mid-nineties many in the gay world, and particularly in the more tolerant urban areas, chose to believe that equality was around the corner, bound to happen, that a little more tidying up around the edges – perhaps best done by pushing the freaks as far off-stage as possible – and the struggle would be over.

Paralleling the rise of optimism about the goal of converting AIDS to a “manageable disease” was a surge of conviction that as a people we were now unstoppable. Some prominent gay leaders and organizations, and in particular Elizabeth Birch and the influential (largest and wealthiest) Human Rights Campaign, were entirely in accord with the goal of assimilation and with fostering an image of gay people that would accelerate that process. That meant replicate themselves, featuring one segment only of a diverse gay community: mostly white, educated, well-spoken folks who dressed for success and held mainstream values.

Those gay people with left-wing politics saw assimilationism as defeat and deceit – a misrepresentation of the many different communities that constituted the gay world and a denial of the subversive potential of our distinctive values and perspectives. The lefties didn’t want to serve openly in the military; they wanted to destroy the war machine. They didn’t want to settle down into traditional marital relationships, nor give them privileged status; they wanted to challenge sexual monogamy, gender stereotyping, and traditional patterns of child rearing.

But left-wing gays had shrunk by the mid-nineties, in contrast to the early seventies, to a small, nearly silent voice in the community as a whole. The majority of gay people chose to see themselves as “just folks”; their highest aspiration was to join the mainstream, not to challenge its orthodoxies.

Many ACT-UP chapters had ceased to operate by the late 1990s and others had refocused their efforts on the global issue of getting affordable versions of the new drugs to poor countries. By this point the gay movement as a whole had drifted decidedly to the right, with the issues of gay marriage and gays in the military leapfrogging to the top of the agendas of the most powerful movement organizations (and especially the Human Rights Campaign). As early as 1994, during the celebrations of Stonewall’s twentieth-fifth anniversary, one of the top fund-raising events – to the disgust of everyone one inch left of center – was held on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid; for weeks before, ads for credit cards with rainbow flags appeared in the gay male press. That press, incidentally, was itself becoming unrecognizably different from the politically aware publications (New York Native, QW, etc.) that had once held sway. By the late nineties, the popular favorites were Genre (specializing in poolside swimwear) and OUT, which as late as 2008 boasted a five-man fashion department, but not a single literary, theater, or politics editor.

NEXT: Queer Black Panther

For previous installments in The Wild Reed's 2019 Queer Appreciation series, see:
Quote of the Day – May 31, 2019
James Baldwin's Potent Interweavings of Race, Homoeroticism, and the Spiritual
John Gehring on Why Catholics Should Participate in LGBTQ Pride Parades
A Dance of Queer Love
The Queer Liberation March: Bringing Back the Spirit of Stonewall
Barbara Smith on Why She Left the Mainstream LGBTQI Movement
Remembering the Stonewall Uprising on Its 50th Anniversary
In a Historic First, Country Music's Latest Star Is a Queer Black Man

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Lose/Lose Situation
Making the Connections
Michelangelo Signorile on the Rebellious Purpose of Queer Pride
Reclaiming and Re-Queering Pride

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