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Has the Gay Movement Failed?

by Gert Hekma in Films & Books , 29 januari 2019

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
Length: 7 minutes


A pioneer of the American gay liberation movement, the historian Martin Duberman, has recently published a new book: Has the Gay Movement Failed? (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018). The answer is an overwhelming Yes, the gay movement has failed.


Its most important recent successes were the opening up of marriage and access to the army for GLBT people. It is wonderful that couples can now get married, but nothing is arranged for singles or people with multiple partners and other relationship constructions. Don’t they have rights? It is great for people who want to join the army, but what does it offer to people who do not want to be in the army and crave world peace?

The gay movement has emerged from the 1970s with broader ambitions, such as fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia - left-wing notions about poverty, work and economic equality, good education, against religion, war and nuclear energy, against old-fashioned male-female behavior, against marriage and family, and in favor of sexual freedom. The list goes on. Duberman uses this list - which was endorsed by radical gay movements such as Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) as well as feminist and other organizations in the USA and the United Kingdom - as a starting point for his book.

But do other activists share these ideals? In the Netherlands and other countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy, they also shared these goals and dreams, but not in Eastern Europe and Spain, Portugal and Greece, where dictators and colonels ruled. These countries were in a different place during the sexual revolution, for instance when it came to the extent in which a gay movement was even possible.

Duberman
Since 1960, historian Duberman wrote some thirty books on various issues and people, such as “Stonewall” (1993), “Paul Robeson” (1989), and “Lincoln Kirstein” (2007), but also autobiographies such as “Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey” (1991), “Midlife Queer: Autobiography of a Decade 1971-1981” (1996), and “The Rest of It: Hustlers, Cocaine, Depression, and Then Some, 1976-1988” (2018). He also edited collections of essays and fourteen volumes on gay and lesbian lives for the young (1994-1997), wrote drama and fiction, founded the New York Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS, 1991; no LGBTIQ or other abbreviation yet) and edited with George Chauncey and Martha Vicinus the pivotal collection of essays “Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past” (1989).

He now is eighty-eight years of age and has fought for gay liberation and much more. He looks back with a sense of dissatisfaction.

I have not read all the studies and essays by Duberman, but he has played an important role in the gay movement by setting up the New York Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies and through the many books he wrote and edited. His autobiographical books are somewhat vain, very much in the “who knows who?” mode, and offer little insight into those portrayed. As the titles indicate, he played with fire: cocaine, rent boys, psychiatric cures, depression. With his personal problems he drifted apart from religion, but remained Jewish, ending up with Freud. Entertaining and painful was a story he unearthed about two ultra-conservative young white men from the South of the USA, who were sexual free spirits and defended slavery in the period before the Civil War (1861-’65).


Duberman belonged to the left-wing activists of GLF who wanted nothing to do with war and slavery. This group has become smaller and greyer, and at the same time, the goals of the GLF and GAA have disappeared into the mist, while new, more general lobby groups have emerged, such as Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National LGBTQ Task Force, and others. They represent the middle class, are in favor of marriage and being permitted to join the army, and have little to no regard for disadvantaged gay men and lesbians who have useless or no jobs, or are sick, homeless, old or young.

It is great to be able to get married, but not everyone has that perspective or desire. The world has changed, and perhaps has become more gay-friendly, but also more heterosexual and homo-normative; with more demands on how to behave as a straight, gay, or just another exemplary American, or Dutch, person (no smoking or drinking, less fat, meat and salt). No sex before the age of eighteen. Maybe you are allowed earlier to be gay, lesbian or transgender, but to actually “do” it?

Duberman chooses groups that stood for sexual freedom and leftist ideals, and regrets that gays and lesbians no longer take left-wing views. With US statistics, he lists the disasters of neoliberal politics, such as the huge income differences and extreme poverty. For example, eight men, six of whom are Americans, have just as much as the poorest half of the world’s population. With haves and have nots, it goes beyond economics, since the dichotomy also applies to education, health, care for the elderly, and the prison system.

There are 2.3 million people in jail in the United States, a country with five percent of the world’s population and twenty’five percent of its prison population that relatively often is black, Latino and male. He also has figures for the GLBT population as a whole: only a disappointing four percent indicates giving money to GLBT charities. He is good at statistics about these and similar issues, but he does not have a good answer to the question why the left does not stand by gay people and vice versa - Except for the American idea that poverty and disadvantage is natural fate, and that it is due to personal commitment if you are doing well. Diligence gets you from a dollar to a million.

He objects to a neoliberal gay world because he sees how many homosexuals have succumbed to wasteful consumerism (holidays, cars, clothes, home deco). Partly for this reason, the left and queer people have grown apart. The left is more material in the public domain, gays in their private lives. When I lived in the United States for some time in 1999, the idea was that the ideals of the left-wing action groups were as good as dead.

I would have preferred Duberman to have focused on the more specific questions of sexuality and identity, and less on general “solidarity” issues about money and health. On the latter, most GLBT people have little control, and the first issues are not as relevant for the left. At the same time, the sex policy under Trump in the USA has become a lot more toxic - after the US Supreme Court had accepted gay marriage, hundreds of regulations and laws were introduced at various legal levels (nation-wide and state-wide) in order to put GLBT people at a disadvantage. Many questions concerning sexual orientation and gender remain relevant, such as education, health, violence against homosexuals and transgender people, the problem that many employers can simply dismiss GLBT people, and so on.

Melbourne, 1972
There are specific issues that affect sexual minorities more than other citizens, for instance family and parenthood, also in the Netherlands. Think of co-parenting. Just as the month of December is over, a month in which sexual outsiders in the private world are more often confronted with questions from family: about having one or multiple partners, and if you have one or more, whether they will be joining the festivities with the family. If you have contemporaries who have (grand) children, then you know that their conversations are often in the language of children on baby related subjects.

Gay Parade GlaskowWill parents support straight and gay children when buying a house? The right of inheritance is geared towards family, and if there are no (symbolic) blood relationships, more (tax) duties follow. These are the issues that see more equality for gay people, but it certainly is not on the same level. In the past, Dutch lobby group COC Netherlands sided with feminists such as d’Ancona and Sax, and was in favor of true equality and individualization of relational rights for everyone and not in favor of marriage. Equality has become a dogma that is good for political civil rights, but at a social level is less realistic when it comes to sex or relationships. People are unequal in terms of wealth, beauty, education, age, sex experience, gender, and so on. And unequal in marriage, really something for the gay movement to want to abandon, because it didn’t bring equality!


Martin Duberman, Has the Gay Movement Failed?, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018, 272 pages,  ISBN 9780520298866
Gert Hekma is retired professor Gay Studies at the University of Amsterdam

 



 





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