Has the Gay Movement Failed?

Has the Gay Movement Failed?

by Martin Duberman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298866
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/08/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 394,468
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at City University of New York, where he founded and directed the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. He is the author of numerous histories, biographies, memoirs, essays, plays, and novels, which include Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey, Paul Robeson, Stonewall, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, and more than a dozen others. He is the recipient of the Bancroft Prize, multiple Lambda Literary Awards, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Historical Association, and he has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2012 Duberman received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College and in 2017 an honorary Doctor of Letters from Columbia University.

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Storming the Citadel

The Gay Liberation Front had originated in New York City following the 1969 Stonewall riots, but it spread quickly to a half-dozen other cities and college campuses in the United States — and had a particularly influential chapter in London. It was there that the Gay Revolution Party (GRP) issued a manifesto that envisioned a polyamorous sexuality freed from all association with procreation, and posited as well an ideal of androgyny — individuals combining in their persons the traits previously parceled out as intrinsic either to males or to females. A successful nonviolent gay revolution would be characterized, the GRP man ifesto read, by the extent to which it did not "lead to straight-defined homosexuality with marriages and exclusive monogamy." Instead of fighting to gain entry to those antiquated institutions, the focus should be on expanding the scope of sexual expression for everyone. As Alan Sinfield would later put it, it wasn't the case of "an out-group need[ing] concessions, [but] rather the mainstream needing correction."

One English publication in particular, a forty-two-page pamphlet entitled With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression, still resonates above all others for its lucidity and perception. It appeared in 1974, several years after GLF's heyday and perhaps profiting in clarity from the preliminary, more muddled discussions that had preceded. Its authors were the mathematician Andrew Hodges (later Alan Turing's biographer) and the artist David Hutter. The two announced at the top their primary purpose in writing the pamphlet with a quote from the London Gay Liberation Front Manifesto: "The ultimate success of all forms of oppression is our self-oppression. Self-oppression is achieved when the gay person has adopted and internalised straight people's definition of what is good and bad."

Unlike their GLF counterparts in the States, the authors of With Downcast Gays (WDG) focused less on social than on self-oppression, though the two inevitably comingle; as Hodges and Hutter succinctly put it, "We have been taught to hate ourselves." How so? Even as young children "we never hear anything good" — this was 1974 — "said about gay life, and only see it referred to as a subject for mockery, disgust or pity." Reared "in alien, heterosexual nests," we grow up hearing the same message reiterated at home, and it's one that, inescapably, we come to internalize.

The vast majority of gay people manage to avoid or deny that fundamental fact, WDG goes on — which in turn explains why the ranks of gay liberation remain so thin; the vast majority of homosexuals remain "masochistically" detached from active protest. If cornered and challenged, if told that "it is society that must adapt to us, not us to society," they angrily deny their own oppression. "Like underpaid but genteel office-workers," Hodges and Hutter write, they "refuse to join the union. They prefer the imagined status that comes from identifying with the management" — an ahistorical yet telling retort to a gay movement that forty years later would put "marriage rights" at the top of its agenda.

WDC, in opposition, flatly rejected any and all efforts "to accept heterosexual conventions." The attack on gay male promiscuity as "sick" and "degenerate," the authors argued, should be met not with shamefaced apology, but with an expression of "pity for heterosexuals who find themselves trapped in an unhappy marriage." Gay men should "rejoice in the liberty their own homosexuality bestows," in the accessibility and ease with which they're able to make sexual contact and to avoid the "tedious process of persuasion — the ritualized escalation of intimacy to be carried out before sexual pleasure is reached." Nor was it true, Hodges and Hutter continued, that promiscuity was incompatible with forming lasting relationships.

But those relationships, they argued, were usually not carbon copies of durable heterosexual ones. Along with being more egalitarian and emotionally expressive, same-sex couples (so WDC asserted) "can identify with the sexual feelings of those they care for in a way logically impossible for non-gay people." In other words, a gay man can understand why his partner finds, say, that third man across the barroom attractive, and why he wants to bed him down. And why shouldn't he — or they — do so? To avoid jealousy? To avoid threatening the stability of the primary relationship? Both dangers can be negotiated — or long since have been (though the process can often be a good deal more fraught than Hodges and Hutter's somewhat airy confidence suggests).

Today a reader of WDG wonders, too, about the authors' blanket assertion that "it is easy for a gay partnership to develop into a non-sexual relationship in which the partners share loving companionship but find sexual pleasure outside the union — unlike many heterosexual marriages which turn into a boring embittered cohabitation in which sexual attraction has long vanished but fidelity is still rigidly enforced." Embedded in that sweeping contrast are a host of dubious or at least debatable claims — including the long-standing conundrum about how "natural" (or "unnatural") the relationship between love and sex is. Sidestepping that particular riddle for the moment, suffice it to say for now that some unknown but apparently significant number of both homosexual and heterosexual couples do seem to believe that sex is hottest with comparative strangers and love is the property of emotional trust and intimacy.

As for the "rigid" enforcement of heterosexual fidelity, males seem to ignore the directive often and with ease (even if recent research indicates that women are more lustful); for females, too, a woman's sense of sexual entitlement has grown exponentially since the 1950s. As for the current crop of Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000), the "hookup culture" has become something of a cliché — though the evidence that it brings satisfaction is to date mixed. One recent study concludes that 42 percent of never-married adolescents ages fifteen to nineteen say they have had sex at least once, and a 2013 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report found that the number of high school students who reported having had sexual intercourse had actually decreased over the last decade from 47 percent to 41 percent. Yet a third survey suggests that twenty-somethings, too, are having less sex than their parents did, and with fewer sexual partners. In her 2016 book, Girls and Sex, Peggy Ornstein agrees that there's no evidence to suggest that the rate of young women engaging in sexual intercourse has risen in recent decades. What has changed, Ornstein argues, is that more young women are performing rather than feeling sensuality — and performing (faking orgasm) to please not themselves, but their male partners.

The authors of With Downcast Gays would have been pleased to know that considerable evidence has accumulated to suggest the superior satisfactions associated with gay sex. Among queer women, according to one recent study, a growing number are indulging in polyamory (multiple, and simultaneous, relationships) and enjoying them a good deal more than their straight "hook-up" counterparts seem to be. What's more, the feeling of "compersion" (the opposite of jealousy) — that is, "shared delight in the compatibility of one's lover with someone else" — has become notable among white, middle-class, urban, and college-educated women.

Such "sexual generosity" has long been known among gay men, though its frequency is much debated. Some forty years ago in WDG, Hodges and Hutter advocated "the eroticism of novelty in favour of the repressive dogma that sex is only satisfactory with one lifelong partner." "Puritanism," they claimed, "lies at the heart of the distrust of promiscuity. ... Gay sex, unencumbered as it is with conception and contraception, could be [note: they don't say "is"] as free and available as sunshine and air"— obviously a statement that preceded the outbreak of AIDS — "and yet we are encouraged to disown these benefits in favour of the dubious respect gained by mimicking the outward forms of family life." WDG castigated those gay men — and there were many — who were urging gay people "to accept the claustrophobic restrictions of a life-long union. They are busily pushing us into the prison from which intelligent heterosexuals are trying to escape."

Hodges and Hutter were no less radical in their attack on traditional gender roles. Speaking for many male liberationists of the day — but most assuredly not all (or the lesbian contingent in GLF would not have felt increasingly alienated) — they rejected traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity, "with their respective associations of dominance and submission." Further, they advocated that gay men "should attack the idea that there is something wrong with effeminacy," while lesbians, comparably, should defend "butch" dress and mannerisms, pointing out that in the pre-Stonewall period it had been "camp queens and diesel dykes" who'd born "the brunt of heterosexual hatred." With Downcast Gays urged gay people to avoid trying to look like everyone else, trying to mimic "respectable" images — that is, "gratifyingly masculine or feminine" ones — and to adopt instead, even if the gesture initially felt awkward and artificial, "political drag."

Though many gay men back then agreed with Hodges and Hutter that monogamy was unnatural and should be avoided, few volunteered to jump into frilly blouses and skirts (or whatever was regarded as currently appropriate female garb). My own lifestyle at the time is a case in point. Reading a newspaper interview I gave in 1977, I find that I echoed Hodges and Hutter's antipathy to "middle-class monogamy"; it's "not my preferred goal for the gay movement," I told the interviewer; "absolute monogamy," I went on, implicitly involves "the devaluation of sex" and considers "sex a destructive force unless it has the sanction of love." I further argued that gay men were "leading the way" in exploring a variety of sexual scenarios for themselves, in giving way "to a variety of impulses and moods."

I gave my own sexual history as an example: "In my first relationship I felt I had to be the 'dominant' partner, to do all of the fucking because I had to imitate the straight male role. It took me years to overcome that, to overcome the feeling of compromising myself whenever I did play a 'submissive' role." In general I felt that "gay men know a lot more about sexual responsiveness, and the erotic potential of their bodies, particularly of their nipples and assholes, than straight men." I argued that "the discovery of submissive fantasies in males is one of the things gay people should stop apologizing for and begin to affirm." I believed that "we would automatically become a more potent force for changing society than we currently are, because we are presently often caught up in the process of denying the truth of our own experience, e.g.: claiming that we are just as macho-masculine as straight men, and no more promiscuous."

The extent of gay male promiscuity in the pre-AIDS seventies, even in New York City or San Francisco, can be exaggerated. A Kinsey Institute study published in 1978 estimated that roughly 20 percent of gay men (about the same percentage that chose celibacy) frequented the orgiastic frontiers — could in other words be accurately described as members in good standing of the sexual revolution. Yet at the same time — according to McWhirter and Mattison's The Male Couple, the standard work of the period — virtually all male couples had, after five years of being together, devised some formula that allowed for outside sexual activity. Hodges and Hutter would likely have hailed this as proof that when free to do so, couples discarded the artificial practice of monogamy. More recent studies, like Sex at Dawn, though attacked by some as "pseudoscience," have made the case for heterosexual couples adopting the same practice.

AIDS, of course, changed the gay scenario. Yet some twenty years into the epidemic, and despite ample reason for fear, a number of studies from the early 2000s have reached a similar conclusion: though monogamy has gained more adherents than earlier, only between onethird and one-fourth of male couples together more than five years are sexually exclusive; the majority of subjects defined "fidelity" in terms of emotional commitment rather than sexual faithfulness — a much higher percentage than found among either lesbian or heterosexual couples.

The Gay Liberation Front was organized around affinity cells, with people encouraged — in the anarchist tradition historically characteristic of this country's social protest movements — to congregate around their primary interests. Anyone could form a cell or join a new one. There was no application for membership, no paid staff, no dues — not even a constitution, bylaws, or mission statement. In New York the June 28th cell, for example, published Come Out! a community newspaper that had a substantial readership; the Aquarius cell planned the well-attended GLF dances; and the Red Butterfly cell described itself as "an association of revolutionary socialists" and concentrated its energy on "the class struggle" (John Lauritsen, along with John O'Brien, led the Red Butterfly cell and insisted, to deaf ears, that GLF should shed its anarchist tendencies and become a disciplined vanguard party). There was even a cell that — based on R.D. Laing's then widely fashionable Politics of Experience — announced that "paranoia is a state of heightened awareness."

Every Sunday night the cells gathered for one large unstructured meeting in the basement of the Church of the Holy Apostles on Manhattan's West 28th Street. By lot, a new chairperson was chosen every month to run the meeting, with consensus (not majority vote) the guiding principle. Nothing remotely akin to parliamentary procedure or Robert's Rules of Order was followed, which made the achievement of "consensus" far from easy, and sometimes impossible, as defenders of the essential soundness of American institutions verbally battled self-styled revolutionaries calling for the destruction of the state.

A typical Sunday meeting at 28th Street would, at least intermittently, descend into chaos. When it did, it was often the men, exercising their sense of entitlement, who constantly interrupted and monopolized discussion. One central division among the male members was between those who emphasized the importance of consciousness-raising sessions to explore their own sexism and racism, and those who scoffed at such "bourgeois navel-gazing" and insisted on focusing instead on political activism. The two were not, of course, mutually exclusive; any number of GLFers went back and forth between self-examination and, say, "zapping" (successfully) the Village Voice for refusing to print the word gay.

A number of GLF's public "actions" proved milestones. In the summer of 1970, a week after the murders at Kent State and the onset of bombing in Cambodia, a contingent of gay radicals invaded the national convention of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). They sat in on panels and presentations that ranged from the problem of Native American suicides (managing never to mention white genocide as a root causal factor), to the utility of aversion therapy in treating homosexuals (without considering the possibility that homosexuality wasn't in fact a "mental illness"), to the use of psychiatric "expertise" in assisting law enforcement (bypassing the issue of how society "uses police to oppress people and prevent change," as one of the protestors later put it).

The radical contingent at the APA also heard Dr. Irving Bieber, professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and a leading expert on homosexual "neurosis," once again recite his well-known theory of how a particular family culture produced male homosexuals: "Mothers of homosexuals are usually inadequate wives. They tend to dominate and minimize their husbands and frequently hold them more or less openly in contempt"— with the unhappy result that male offspring fail to identify with an appropriate male role model. Bieber's fellow expert, Dr. Charles Socarides, also gave a talk; he stressed that homosexuality was an emotional illness fraught with guilt and anxiety. That led Chicago's GLF to pass out a leaflet to the doctors in attendance asking if Socarides would "also consider Judaism an emotional illness because of the paranoia which Jews experienced in Nazi Germany?"

When Dr. Nathaniel McConaghy of Australia began describing his success in giving homosexual male patients injections of apomorphine and then, while suffering from nausea, showing them slides of attractive males, the GLF attendees erupted. Joined by a group of some twenty feminists, GLF members jumped up from their seats in the auditorium with shouts of "Torture!" "Get Your Rocks Off That Way?!" and so forth. The disruption gave a number of psychiatrists pause, and it was only three years later that the APA voted, in a historic referendum, to drop homosexuality from the category of mental illness.


Excerpted from "Has the Gay Movement Failed?"
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue xiii

I Storming The Citadel 1

II Love, Work, Sex 51

III Equality or Liberation? 93

IV Whose Left? 161

Notes 209

Index 229

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