Friday, June 2, 2017
The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle Paperback – September 27, 2016 by Lillian Faderman ( Simon & Schuster)
Lillian Faderman’s “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle” opens with two vignettes. The first is of Prof. E.K. Johnston of the University of Missouri, prosecuted for sodomy in 1948. The respected 50-year-old “lost his job, his good name, his beloved students, his entire career — even his pension.” The second depicts a ceremony for Army Col. Tammy Smith’s elevation to the rank of general in 2012. According to tradition, the stars on a new general’s epaulets are affixed by the two individuals most meaningful to her — in Smith’s case, her father and her wife. Faderman then asks one of the framing questions of her important book: “What long-fought battles, tragic losses and hard-won triumphs have brought us as a country from the days when a much loved and gifted professor could be disgraced, thrown in jail and hounded out of his profession as soon as his private life was revealed, to the days when a military officer could marry the woman she loves in broad daylight and be promoted, in a very public ceremony, to the rank of general with her wife by her side?”
A reader might fairly ask whether Faderman’s answer could offer anything new. Recent years have generated a shelf of books on the gay rights movement geared toward both scholarly and popular audiences. Linda Hirshman’s 2012 book “Victory,” for instance, skillfully covers the same period, from World War II to the early 21st century. Because of such works, the broad contours of Faderman’s narrative will be familiar to many readers — the witch hunts of the 1950s; the early homophile movement driven by organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis; the Stonewall riots of 1969; the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification, in the 1970s, of homosexuality as a mental disorder; the AIDS crisis; the decriminalization of sodomy; the implementation and repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; and the push for marriage equality.
Yet Faderman’s book populates even the familiar corners of gay history with new and vivid life. Perhaps the most obvious contribution is the equal attention it gives to women. Faderman is often called a “lesbian historian,” based on her distinguished work in the field, notably “Surpassing the Love of Men” (1981) and “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers” (1991). She brings the heft of a career to bear here — of the more than 150 interviews she draws on for this new book, some date back decades, like her 1987 interview with the lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. An expert in lesbian history certainly has an advantage in writing a truly balanced account of the movement as a whole, given that such accounts have often heavily favored men.
Faderman makes her commitment to gender parity evident early on, when a chapter on the male-dominated Mattachine Society is followed by one on the Daughters of Bilitis. Later in the book, Faderman describes how Martin chastised her audience at a Mattachine convention in 1959 for conflating gay rights with gay rights for men. “What do you men know about lesbians?” she asked. “Lesbians are women, and this 20th century is the era of emancipation of women.” Yet even in 1970, Betty Friedan of the National Organization for Women expressed concern that lesbians would, as Faderman puts it, “give feminism a bad name,” calling them the Lavender Menace. In what scholars of identity have designated the problem of “intersectionality,” lesbians found themselves falling between two camps, outsiders to both a male-dominated homophile movement and a straight-dominated women’s movement.
Faderman’s attention to women is more broadly symbolic of her inclusive approach. It is a common plaint that the movement has insufficiently documented its foot soldiers. “The Gay Revolution” takes up the major antagonists and protagonists of the movement — the stories of Anita Bryant and Harvey Milk are particularly resonant — but this is also a self-consciously restorative account, marking the contributions of figures, straight and gay, who are less well known. The psychologist Evelyn Hooker showed her colleagues in 1953 that they could not distinguish between the psychological test results of gays and straights, thereby beginning to challenge the coherence of homosexuality as a diagnostic category. Jeanne Manford, who helped start Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays after one of her gay sons died of a drug overdose and another was brutally beaten, “opened a whole new rhetoric” by transforming “the outcast homosexual into somebody’s child, a member of the family.” And Leonard Matlovich, decorated with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart after three tours of duty in Vietnam, paved the way for Gen. Tammy Smith’s open service when he challenged the Air Force’s exclusion of gays in 1975.
Like any account, this one has its blind spots. While it occasionally uses the term L.G.B.T., the dearth of transgender individuals in this narrative is all too typical of “L.G.B.T.” histories. And at the opposite extreme, there are times when the multiplicity of voices threatens to devolve into cacophony. We jump from character to character more swiftly than in a Dostoyevsky novel. But here as there, patience is rewarded. An investment in these pages yields the full complexity of the journey — its contingencies and ironies, its eddies and byways, and its unresolved conflicts.
Histories like this one would be critical to any movement, but they may be of particular importance to a movement whose members are not physically distinguishable from their peers. For much of the “gay revolution” — and of course still today — gay individuals have felt pressure to remain closeted. Speaking at an American Psychiatric Association panel in 1972, a masked gay psychiatrist testified as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” stunning the crowd with his assertion that “there are more than a hundred homosexual psychiatrists registered at this convention.” The 1987 edition of Ronald Bayer’s book “Homosexuality and American Psychiatry” described this speech as “by far the most dramatic event of the panel,” but could not or would not reveal the name of the speaker. Faderman identifies him as John Fryer and gives us the back story of how Fryer’s lover, a former drama major, had the idea to dress Dr. Anonymous in a Richard Nixon mask and to hide his 6-foot-4 frame with a tuxedo three sizes too large. The revolution needed to progress for this history to be written, and of course, this history will in turn contribute to the continuing revolution.
Toward the end of his career, the poet Robert Lowell cautioned: “We are poor passing facts, / warned by that to give / each figure in the photograph / his living name.” The heterosexual Lowell used the word “passing” to mean “ephemeral” rather than “invisible.” But the urge to record surely applies to, and seeks to counter, both senses of the term. Faderman has a gloriously fanatical commitment to illuminating and commemorating her subjects. To read her is like viewing the AIDS quilt, which overwhelms the viewer with the care taken in each of its numberless panels. Any revolutionary would be lucky to stand in a light so steady, so searching, and so sure.