A history of the gay revolution

Linda Hirshman examines the trajectory of the LGBT liberation movement

A history of the gay revolution
23 June 2012

With the steady defeat of same sex marriage at the US ballot box, it’s easy to feel the gay rights movement is stalled. However, a longer vision, removed from the daily political grind of poll counting, shows the march toward freedom is filled with triumphs.

In it’s most recent book review section, the New York Times reviewed Linda Hirshman’s Victory. Hirshman, a lawyer who writes for Salon, has penned a study that begins with the founding of the Mattachine Society to the flexing of gay political power.

‘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,’ writes reviewer Rich Benjamin.

Benjamin notes while most of the past Hirshman recounts is  common knowledge to scholars, this story is new to the general public.

It might be unfair to simplify a vibrant social movement, but the AIDS epidemic and the religious right were critical in making the gay movement what it is now: utterly dismissive of holding on to perpetual outside status.

‘During the 1980s and ’90s, the revolution’s critical turn, gay men and lesbians decided: Don’t challenge power; buy and become it,’ Benjamin explains. ‘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).’

By pointing to the similarities between the straight and not so, the movement was able to emphasize gay citizens were like their heterosexual peers, engaged in the daily life of citizenship. Soon it became more difficult for friends of gays and lesbians not to ‘acknowledge the illogic of policies blocking their open access to two conservative redoubts: the military and marriage.’

Despite his admiration for the book, Benjamin is wary of the title. He is worried it calls the game over, as if everything has been won.

‘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.’

Few would tangle with Benjamin about those points, but equality movements in the US, from suffrage to civil rights,  have a tension between success and what needs to be completed. The gay rights movement is no different.

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