by Rich Benjamin for The New York Times:
His dashing ascot billowing, his flat cap perched just so (to hide his bald spot), the cleft-chinned Harry Hay had some impressive head shots. As a student at Stanford in the early 1930s, he had come out to his classmates as “temperamental,” code for “homosexual.” In 1934, having dropped out of Stanford and moved to Los Angeles to try a career in pictures — and having already begun to hone his identity as sensualist and agitator — he joined the Communist Party. Around 1936, he turned up at a Halloween party dressed as “the demise of fascism.” The other homosexual bons vivants were stumped: none were terribly turned on to politics, so none knew what Harry’s costume meant. These men, and others like them across America, had no core ideology, no political groups to join, no leaders. Hay changed that. In 1950, he helped create the Mattachine Society, the country’s first gay rights organization, and demanded that the people it represented “be respected for our differences, not for our sameness to heterosexuals.”
This year, the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest advocacy and lobbying organization for gay, bisexual and transgender rights, appointed Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, as the first national corporate spokesman for its same-sex marriage campaign. “Ameri ca’s corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and is the right thing to do,” Blankfein says in a Web video. The organization also bestowed on Goldman Sachs its 2012 “corporate equality award.”
How does a movement get from there to here — from Hay to Blankfein? Linda Hirshman’s “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution” sets out to explain, tracing the history of gay rights from the early 20th century to the present.
Ever since the Enlightenment, when intellectuals articulated the crucial promises of the modern liberal state — security, liberty and self-governance — society’s dispossessed have struggled to claim these rights as their own. The gay and lesbian movement, like the black civil rights and women’s movements, has from its earliest days sought security (protection from violence and discrimination), freedom (inalienable human and group rights) and self-governance (the ability to participate effectively in political and economic life).
Hirshman’s book, drawing from an arsenal of archival records, firsthand interviews, court documents and previous histories, is a sprawling account of juicy trysts, hushed political meetings, internecine movement skirmishes, sudden mutinies and activists turning personal humiliation into rocket fuel. The emerging facts are not new to scholars, but as popular history, “Victory” excels. Hirshman is a nimble storyteller with an agile curatorial eye for what matters: witness her recounting of the zany founding of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund and her contrasting of San Francisco’s disciplined, well-oiled political machine of the 1970s with New York City’s angry, anarchic community pre-Stonewall. See too her exposé of the rivalries between movement factions, like the pro-Black Panther gays versus the get-along gays — and, of course, the lesbian feminists versus the chauvinist gays, who didn’t want expansive rights, just a place at the straight white men’s table.
A lawyer and feminist scholar and the author of several previous books, Hirshman writes with knowing finesse. Harvey Milk, “at 40-something, was almost twice as old as the other cool gays walking down the newly colonized gay Castro neighborhood in their tight jeans,” she explains. “But he did bring his current lover, the perennially younger man of the moment, Scott Smith. Scotty and Harvey opened a camera store in an old Castro storefront, just to do something, not that they knew anything about cameras.” She introduces another historical figure: a “lady like” Dianne Feinstein, “Jewish, conventional, daughter of a doctor and wife (serially) of several wealthy men.” Hirshman’s observations land with that tart humor and piquant irony beloved by gay men. Some call it camp, others call it dish. Hirshman is heterosexual, but this book isn’t straight.
“Victory” transports readers to receding gay worlds, with companionable aplomb. On March 24, 1987, hundreds of Act Up activists, stomping, shouting, chanting — and hanging an effigy of the F.D.A. chairman — put a chokehold on Manhattan traffic and Wall Street. Their aim: to push “a coordinated, comprehensive and compassionate national policy on AIDS.” Two years later, Act Up members logjammed trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; they chained themselves to the V.I.P. balcony, blew miniature foghorns to drown out the opening bell and unfurled a banner: “sell wellcome.” Days later, Burroughs Wellcome cut its AZT drug prices by 20 percent. For years, Act Up blanketed major cities with its beguiling anticorporate logo, a fuchsia triangle and the phrase “Silence = Death.” Act Up set the gold standard for effective guerrilla activism.
“We’re middle-class white guys, and we’re not used to being ignored,” one early AIDS activist recalls. And in 1986, Jim Pepper, a blue-blooded Southern money manager who had supported the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, agreed to sponsor the first New York AIDS Walk, effectively outing himself to his straight peers. AIDS outed many rich, successful gay men to their powerful circles, loosening the oppressive vise exerted by potent institutions.
The AIDS crisis and a ferocious revival of the religious right during the Reagan years provoked the gay movement to step up its game. During the 1980s and ’90s, the revolution’s critical turn, gay men and lesbians decided: Don’t challenge power; buy and become it. Disciplined, top-down, media-savvy, Ivy League-staffed organizations started mobilizing — the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal. Emphasizing their constituents’ similarities to their heterosexual allies, these organizations swept aside the gay community’s more “radical” elements (trannies, sexual libertines, socialists). The new gay organizations co-opted conventional political weapons: self-selected candidates, political action committees, black-tie fund-raisers, research institutes and lobbyists. The Gay Establishment was born. As any marginalized person in this country comes to learn, aping the mainstream conjoins political and economic benefits. Assimilation pays.
As more gay people came out and were seen in the quotidian roles of citizenship — as respected voters, workers, neighbors and patrons — the more their heterosexual friends and colleagues began to acknowledge the illogic of policies blocking their open access to two conservative redoubts: the military and marriage. Hirshman provides a standout analysis of the military-service and marriage battlefronts. The challenge for the movement was how to square private acts with public identities. To what extent should it pursue libertarian-style privacy-rights appeals over egalitarian social- acceptance ones? More crudely, it was “Get out of my sex life” versus “Codify equal protection for what I do and who I am.” Hirshman offers a crystal- clear legal and philosophical explanation of the constitutional doctrine at stake, particularly in Romer v. Evans, the 1996 Supreme Court decision striking down Colorado’s “Amendment 2” (which had banned state protection for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals), and in a string of state-level legal decisions affecting same-sex marriage rights.
Chief among Hirshman’s strengths is her understanding of power. She gets how mainstream authority in America impels markets, the state, the elite, the media and religious groups to consolidate influence and keep the opposition in check. It follows that she also understands shrewdly how power can be undone.
At times I was unsettled by this exemplary book, which describes a transformation I do remember, but took cover from, sequestered in my psychic closet. I remember, as a high school student, visiting my brother at Yale in 1989 and spotting an acne-faced Yalie sporting Birkenstocks, stringy orange hair and a pin on his satchel: “Homosexual Marriage Now.” I remember seeing on the news gay activists visiting the Clinton White House “welcomed” by Marines wearing surgical gloves. I remember attending the first run of “Angels in America” on Broadway and, even as a dilettante, recognizing that Tony Kushner’s play was a cultural game changer. I remember shouting down a shrugging Amtrak agent after the railroad lost my luggage and, with it, my auto graphed copy of Paul Monette’s AIDS memoir, “Borrowed Time”; six months later, Monette was dead. I remember studying queer theory under the tutelage of Judith Butler, for intellectual calisthenics, not political conditioning. I remember straight friends and colleagues looking me in the face to declare their support for “civil unions,” not “gay marriage,” smug in their “tolerance” yet blithely indifferent that their nonmarital alternative offered less than full equality. Like many gay men who’ve divorced themselves from gay activism, I’ve lived our history as an out-of-body experience, at a remove from its real- time impact on my people and country. For most of my life, I was a parasite to the movement, what Hirshman calls a “free rider,” someone “passing as heterosexual while the out activists labored to make the world a better place.” Having hidden from, or sleepwalked through, the slipstream of gay history, I find “Victory” to be an astute jolt, as remarkable for its emotional punch as for its historical insight.
In the book’s epilogue, Hirshman, sounding pre-emptive and defensive, insists on the title’s accuracy. No one should be fooled. True, were Harry Hay living today, the pearl-clutching Communist would applaud his movement’s success. But “Victory”? There are no federal protections against anti-gay employment discrimination. Same-sex marriage is explicitly forbidden in 38 states. Most Southern states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Gay families face codified and implicit discrimination when adopting children. Gay youth across the country are stigmatized by their peers. “Triumphant”?
Barnumesque title aside, Hirshman must surely understand that social movements are not “won,” any more than most social wars (against “terror,” “drugs” and so forth) are “won.” Social progress proceeds in a push-pull ebb and flow of advancement and backlash. America’s women have made enormous strides in political representation, even as their reproductive rights remain vulnerable to the regulatory fiat of the state and the moralism of political paternalists. The labor movement, the immigrant movement, the antiwar movement, the environmental movement, the poor people’s movement: can any say they’ve won? Gay men and lesbians may be winning the culture war at the moment. But they’re nowhere near “victory.”