Has the American gay movement failed? It’s a striking and likely counterintuitive question for 2018, when marriage equality is the law of the land and gay people occupy prominent positions in nearly every field of endeavor. From my own perspective, the premise is almost insulting. Growing up in Kansas in the early 2000s, I associated gay liberation with noisy radicals who didn’t have families, and gay pride rallies with distasteful displays of overcharged sexuality. I was deep in what scholars call the glass closet: though many friends saw me as gay, I remained unattuned to my sexuality, unaware of the source of my teenage angst. Now, I am an out gay man and a queer historian to boot—an unthinkable prospect for a doctoral candidate at a prestigious university only a generation ago. I do not live in fear of sodomy laws, now defunct thanks to the gay movement, and while I am not married, I have gay friends who are and whose lives are better for it. So what gives? How could a movement that has wrought such extraordinary change in the last thirty years have failed?
That is the question posed by Martin Duberman, doyen of American gay history, in Has the Gay Movement Failed?, a tour de force of queer history, sexology, and politics since the end of the Second World War. Duberman contends that since the Seventies, the gay movement has devolved from one screaming “change the system!” to one timidly requesting “let us in.” To someone like me, whose life experiences so flatly contradict the book’s headline argument, he would undoubtedly rebut: you are cis-gendered, white, well-educated, and male—in short, precisely the kind of person for whom the gay movement (and the entire socioeconomic system we inhabit) was designed to succeed. He argues that as activists began to focus on the needs of the LGBT community’s most privileged members, they emphasized the acquisition of social and legal equality over the radical refashioning of society. The movement left behind its most vulnerable members: the working poor, people of colors, trans individuals, and women.
Some of those groups who today feel excluded from the mainstream gay movement were present at its birth. Queer people of color and trans individuals, such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, were in the vanguard of the 1969 Stonewall riots and helped to found the Gay Liberation Front (or GLF) in New York City soon thereafter. They were “Storming the Citadel,” as Duberman characterizes GLF’s heroic origins. The group was a radical leftist organization that “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 and ethnic minorities.” Its members were veterans of the 1960s movements, radicalized by the Vietnam War and eager to apply the lessons of civil rights to the queer struggle.
Though GLF only ever represented a tiny fraction of the American gay population and existed from 1969 until 1972, Duberman views it as a font of radical creativity, an exemplar of everything that today’s gay movement is not. Heteronormative social institutions and marriage in particular were targets of scorn and critique: GLF members largely agreed, for instance, “Monogamy was unnatural and should be avoided.”
Radical anarchy was the order of the day at GLF meeting, which never employed any governing structure or “Robert’s Rules of Order,” something Duberman denigrates as a paving stone on the path to moderation. GLF also denounced racism and “openly and strenuously support[ed] the Panthers and the Latino Young Lords.” Its members even took part in the Black Panther’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1970. These were heady days of euphoric utopianism in Duberman’s telling, when it seemed possible to tear down the idols of the racist, capitalist patriarchy.
But GLF was no Camelot. For all its revolutionary rhetoric, Duberman points out, the group soon collapsed under the weight of its ambitions and inability to account for intersectional oppressions. Although the group was pledged to anti-racism, “Ron Ballard, an African American, was all but alone in consistently attending GLF meetings.” Duberman queries, “if blacks were welcome in GLF, why did so few—indeed almost none—show up?” His hypothesis is that unconscious racism pervaded the group’s mostly white members.
Similarly, though GLF was anti-sexist, men dominated the group. Women soon broke off to join or found other organizations, believing that lesbians needed their own spaces. Duberman locates sadomasochism as a particular source of acrimony between gay men, who believed it to be a liberatory sexual practice, and lesbians, who wanted no part in “eroticizing violence.”
Likewise, while GLF was largely anti-capitalist, the alliance of socialism and gay liberation never sat easy. The Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and the Young Socialist Alliance were all homophobic institutions: Duberman points out that the American Communist Party expelled gay organizer Harry Hay in 1951. For their part, most GLF members remained “immune to Marxist class analysis.” A few passionate socialists founded the group’s Red Butterfly cell, but eventually broke off.
The Gay Liberation Front itself eventually dissolved, torn apart by its “structureless structure” and its inability to appeal to diverse constituencies within the queer family. “The tiny number of blacks and Latinos in GLF soon decamped to new radical formations for people of color, like Third World Gay Revolution,” Duberman writes:
The lesbian minority in GLF concluded that their gay male “brothers” were incapable of treating them as more than distant cousins; even those of goodwill proved more comfortable being around men than women. A sizable group of “liberal”—as opposed to “radical”—gay men decided, after all, that they preferred representative to pure democracy, Robert’s Rules to creative anarchism, and equal rights in “things as they are” rather than working toward “things as they might be.” In 1973 they formed the National Gay Task Force—only belatedly adding the word “Lesbian”—and set out to lobby for an end to discrimination (rather than an end to injustice).
The AIDS crisis of the 1980s was the point of no return. Not only did a new gay movement arise to fight for the community’s survival against the hostile Reagan administration (the most famous of these groups was ACT UP), but it also turned against the sexual liberation of the 1970s. That decade had brought, after all, “the bathhouses, the rambles, the backroom orgy bars [that had] been the very breeding ground of the epidemic.”
The collapse of gay radicalism, combined with the dismissal of sexual revolution, made possible the “marriage crusade” that Duberman derides. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC)—the country’s largest gay rights organization today with a membership of over three million and an annual budget of over $40 million—first came into being in 1980 under the name Gay Rights National Lobby. The new agenda focused on “a particular, and limited, set of issues: marriage equality, open service in the military, safe schools, adoption rights, antidiscrimination and hate crime legislation.”
The HRC’s success and its focus on marriage has, in Duberman’s opinion, drained the gay community of radical initiative, focusing its energy on fitting in. The shift from tearing down patriarchal institutions to adapting to them has, in Duberman’s view, fundamentally weakened and narrowed the gay rights movement to the detriment of queer people who are not middle-class, white, and male. Quoting Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, the genderqueer author of That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, he laments, “When did our dreams get so small?”
Duberman’s history of GLF, his clear-eyed assessment of its radicalism, its shortcomings, and its utopian tragedy, is one of the great things about Has the Gay Movement Failed? The arguments against marriage and rights-based activism are not, after all, new. There is a fertile queer left that has been making these arguments for years. Duberman’s contribution is to give them a sense of historical movement and purpose, a scholarly poise that—in contrast to more impassioned anti-marriage polemics—conveys intellectual weight. I suspect the irony is not lost on Duberman himself: for all that he rails against respectability politics, his own (respectable) treatment of the issue makes it far more palatable to readers in the gay mainstream.
Because marriage equality has been the banner cause of mainstream gay activism since the 1990s, it is also the principal target of Duberman’s (and other queer activists’) ire. In critiquing the struggle for gay marriage, Duberman makes two large arguments about how the struggle for matrimony has harmed queer people. On the one hand, he contends that the marriage debate has turned gay activism “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.” The implication is that the marriage fight has redeployed resources that would have been better spent fighting some other evil, whether queer homelessness, violence against trans people, or capitalism itself. The second argument is that allowing gay people the right to marry has narrowed the queer world’s romantic and sexual possibilities. It excluded from the fruits of gay activism “nontraditional families … no blended households of spinster siblings or senior citizens, no polyamorous lovers, no adult children serving as caretakers to elderly parents, no extended kinship networks or cross-generational partnership.”
On the first point, Duberman insists that the HRC is more interested in helping “those already privileged” rather than queer people “suffering at a basic level from economic deprivation.” But there is little evidence that the resources the HRC commands would have inevitably flowed to some other, more radical political agenda. Duberman himself admits, “Marriage rights did not land on the top of the agenda as the result of a ‘plot’”: it was a successful goal precisely because it was popular with large swathes of the community. Would the same numbers have opened their minds, and their pocketbooks, to more sweeping goals, such as deconstructing capitalism or abolishing marriage entirely? Perhaps. But there is no evidence to support such a hypothesis.
And as Duberman himself notes, in the wake of the Obergefell decision, the HRC has pivoted to the left, focusing more on the needs of working-class people. Is it possible that such a leftward turn by the behemoth of gay rights might have been impossible without first winning the prerogatives of first-class citizenship for gay people? Or, for that matter, without first convincing a vast majority of gay people that its best alliance lay with the left?
His second argument, that marriage is often inferior to the kinds of relationships queer people built before having access to it, is stronger. Duberman cites evidence that “studies of heterosexual marriage largely agree that it is not good for one’s erotic health: sexual attraction to one’s mate usually lasts, with luck, about five years.” Gay non-monogamy is happier and more fulfilling on balance than heterosexual monogamy. And he worries that heteronormative marriage is actually supplanting queer relationship forms. “It’s already true,” Duberman notes, “that in some cases of same-sex divorce, ‘extramarital sex’ has been cited as sufficient grounds for denying financial support to the ‘sinning’ partner.” In his rendition, marriage is less a privilege and more an erotic straightjacket into which the gay movement has forced queer people.
But left undisputed are the benefits that marriage extends to queer people (indeed, Duberman mentions that he himself is now married). The U.S. Government Accountability Office found 1,138 statutory provisions in which marriage is used to determine rights and benefits. Maybe it would be better if we could do away with marriage entirely and extend “all the privileges marriage confers … automatically to all our citizens,” as Duberman suggests. But in the meantime it seems churlish to suggest queer people should deny themselves access to those rights for the sake of political argument. To be fair, Duberman himself rejects the argument that gay people should not have the right to marry. But those sentiments do exist among radicals, such as queer scholar Eric Stanley, who proclaims, “Marriage is Murder.”
And while I’ll admit my sympathy with programs of radical change, my own work as a historian of gay rights movements in Europe has convinced me that instrumentalist approaches tend to win the day. No, homophobia has not been eradicated, as Duberman is quick to point out. But historians and sociologists know that changed laws often lead to changed opinions. In West Germany, repeal of the country’s sodomy law in 1969 contributed to a precipitous drop in anti-gay animus. In 1970, 53 percent of West Germans thought homosexuality was very or somewhat bad. By 1982, that number had shrunk to 28 percent.
Duberman’s complaints are genuine and deserve to be taken seriously as warnings against slipping into self-satisfied contentment. But in his identification of the modern gay rights movement with the HRC and its neoliberal (he does not use the word—but that is what it amounts to) agenda, he describes a community that is unfamiliar to me, and, I would suspect, to many queer readers. While Duberman does mention grassroots queer initiatives such as Queer Nation, Queers for Economic Justice, the Combahee River Collective, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in passing, he remains thoroughly fixated on the HRC and allied organizations. Queer groups remain, in his estimation, on “the margins of the national gay movement.”
For instance, Duberman does not describe the on-the-ground efforts of municipal LGBT centers to provide shelter and services for the queer homeless. These centers—of which there are at least two hundred—also work with trans youth, provide STI screenings, and create community for queer people without one. These organizations are little concerned with the distinction between rights and radical change: they are busy making sure all queer people have access to food, shelter and safety. But such work rarely makes headlines.
There are plenty of other queer initiatives that do not appear in Has the Gay Movement Failed? Of gay groups’ new initiatives to fight gun violence in the wake of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, Duberman makes no mention. Emma González, anti-gun violence activist and survivor of the Parkland massacre, is a perfect example of the kinds of intersectional queer politics that the mainstream gay movement has made possible. The book only briefly dwells on the ways in which sexual minorities are particular victims of the American prison-industrial complex in what scholars David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe have called the “war on sex.” Nor does Duberman mention LGBT organizations such as Black & Pink currently working to break our country’s addiction to incarceration or the Movement Advancement Project’s research on LGBT incarceration. I mention these efforts, because Duberman, by equating the “national gay movement” with the HRC and its fight for marriage equality, has performed an intellectual sleight-of-hand. Marriage equality and assimilation never were—and certainly are not now—anywhere close to the sum of gay activism in America.
The American gay movement is of course far from perfect. But it is also a house of many mansions, from the conservative Log Cabin Republicans to the radical queer groups Duberman lauds. The sometimes-uneasy relationship between the mainstream gay movement and Black Lives Matter is a perfect example of its irreducibility to a single political slogan. While Black Lives Matter has protested the lack of racially inclusive spaces and the large police presence at Pride events around the continent, BLM was founded by queer women and understood itself to be a queer movement from the start. For their own part, some LGBT groups have worked to build bridges with BLM members. Likewise, while gay male dating apps are notoriously racist spaces, the most popular of them, Grindr, recently rolled out changes designed to confront that racism.
If anything, the considerable ideological ferment within the American gay scene is a sign of just how alive it is politically. Yes, the movement’s greatest successes have been to expand bourgeois rights to gay men and lesbians. But radicalism in the movement is by no means extinguished and queer struggles against racism, sexism, vampire capitalism, and the Trump administration continue.
Duberman complains too about how conservative the HRC can be, sometimes even endorsing Republican candidates. But the group (and the movement overall) largely supports the Democratic Party. In fact, Duberman loses sight of just how remarkable the alignment of gay people with the center-left is. In the 2018 election, over 80 percent of LGBT voters chose the Democratic Party. In most European countries with comparable gay scenes there is no such political or ideological cohesion. A 2017 poll in Germany found that gay voting habits were not measurably distinct from those of heterosexuals. Some 22 percent opted for the center-right Christian Democrats and 12 percent for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). In France, around 20 percent of gay people favor the far-right National Front. The AfD and National Front are no less homophobic than the U.S. Republican Party—the American gay movement has simply been vastly more effective at mobilizing LGBT voters.
Has the Gay Movement Failed? is a forcefully written book that is well worth the read for anyone interested in gay history, gay politics, or indeed the fate of progressivism in the United States. Duberman is not wrong to fear that homophobia could rise again, that the left itself could turn homophobic, or that privileged gay people (men, mostly) could divorce their interests from their less privileged brethren. There is historical precedent for all of this. The Trump administration’s recent attempt to write trans people out of the law is merely the latest in a long litany of efforts to instrumentalize homo- and transphobia for reactionary political ends.
But even after I’ve checked my privilege, I don’t agree that the gay movement has failed. In fact, I come away more convinced than ever that marriage equality—and the citizenship it stands for—was a necessary prerequisite to the queering of progressivism. It served both to bind LGBT voters to the political left and to make progressives acknowledge that sexual minorities must have a seat at the table.
I am an optimist, because I know things could always be worse—history is nothing if not a catalog of the horrors humans can visit upon one another. And Duberman’s book fills me with courage, for it itself is evidence of a queer left that has not died. I remain in awe of the change wrought by the American gay movement and hopeful of the change yet to come. I feel as the revolutionary philosopher Rosa Luxemburg once did, that “the revolution will rise up again, clashing its weapons, and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!”