FROM THE STACKS DECEMBER 19, 1993
Twenty-five years ago this past spring, on May 10, 1968, the "Night of the Barricades" in Paris, 20,000 students paraded through the Latin Quarter threatening vague unimaginable revolutions against the prejudices, power, practices and hierarchies of every conceivable thing that could be labeled a yoke on the neck of mankind. Activists from the old-fashioned Marxist youth groups and the official student organizations had every hope of keeping order among the marchers and providing marshals and imposing leaders and slogans. But Marxist youth movements and official student organizations were themselves a yoke on the neck of mankind. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the enrage from Nanterre, stood on a bench with a bullhorn hectoring the crowd with slogans all his own: "There are no marshals and no leaders today! Nobody is responsible for you! You are responsible for yourselves, each row of you responsible for itself! You are the marshals!" And the youth of France marched by in a tizzy of utopian aspiration.
Exactly how, with what twists of the analytic imagination, do you write the history of quasi-insurrectionary moments like that? The first impulse of any sensible historian might be to trace the footsteps of the influential leaders and the doings of powerful institutions, and generally to bring to bear the ordinary gray categories of political analysis. But there were nights of the barricades all over the world between the spring of 1968 and the spring of 1970. The young generation filled the streets, and the leaders of ordinary political organizations ran around influencing nobody and the hipper firebrands shouted weird anti-leader slogans of their own. And if you took those ordinary political categories and applied them in a spirit of scholarly zeal, uprisings that once lived and breathed would drag themselves across your page and expire on the spot.
For the '68-era movements were political events, but also carnival events. Leaders and institutions played their roles; but a history of the leaders and institutions would be the history of everything except the spirit of insurrection. And once you had committed yourself to the conventional political considerations, how would you be able to explain that the slogans about making love instead of war and forbidding to forbid stood at the mysterious heart, and not on the freaky sidelines, of the many curious events?
The leftism of the '60s staged its uprisings in any number of fields, and one of those uprisings, as it happens, was intended to overthrow the habits and the predilections of conventional history-writing. New Left political movements broke away from the old working-class parties in the later '50s and early '60s. And in those same years and under some of the same impulses, a number of historians made a break of their own and began to work up, out of some older inspirations, the project that E.P. Thompson described in 1966 as "history from below." To write history from the point of view of the downtrodden was always a difficult thing. It made for dreary narratives sometimes. The historians were always in danger of lapsing into a nostalgia for the marginal. But history from below had several virtues, too, and the grandest of those, certainly the cleverest from a literary perspective, was the ability to tell two stories at once, while seeming to be telling one.
The apparent story, the one that sometimes seemed a little slow and tedious, was typically a minutely documented tale about, say, riotous crowds in the eighteenth-century streets, or about drinkers in the taverns of long ago and how they spent their idle, boozy hours, or about rural people with quaint and unusual customs, or about some other ungainly topic whose drama and importance were other than obvious. But beneath those many arcane details you were supposed to glimpse a few glittering hints of something huger and deeper, and when you put those hints together, what you half-detected was a buried epic of freedom and history, in a fragmented version. You saw the great drama of the left: the story about people who have been exploited or persecuted coming to understand their true condition, and painfully thinking their way through to an idea that life can be better, and rousing themselves at last to fight for a juster world, not only for themselves.
From time to time the historians themselves seemed to be up on a bench, shouting: "At moments when human freedom surges up from the unknown depths, famous leaders and powerful institutions do not, in fact, count for much! Humble individuals and lowly despised corners of society make their own history--at least they can, and someday soon they will, and the tiniest details of the forgotten past show their capacity to do so!" But history from below was always a disciplined style of writing, never a demagogic one (at least not in the hands of its better practitioners). The moral fervor flickered for a moment, and then you were back to poring over obscure documents and forgotten events, and you could almost forget that anything impassioned or unusual had taken place.
The classic themes for the historians-from-below in the '60s were topics like the French Revolution of 1789 and the rise of the labor movement, which lent themselves naturally, maybe too naturally, to the up-from-below idea. But as the years have passed, one other field of scholarly investigation has similarly lent itself, namely, the story of the 1968-era movements themselves--the most natural topic of all, you might suppose, for a style of writing whose every page exudes a remnant scent of the '60s left. No one seems to have noticed the achievement, but writers in a number of countries, not just academic historians and not just in English, have worked up something that could be called, with a bit of exaggeration, an international style for writing the history of those several uprisings.
The style, if I can describe it broadly, has two main methods or approaches that derive from the academic school of history from below, together with sundry nonacademic inspirations from documentary filmmaking and the roman vrai and Latin American "testimonial" literature. By now each of the two main approaches has managed to generate, in one country or another, a history of the period that, because of its vividness and its authenticity, can be regarded as more or less classic.
There is the method of braiding together a collective biography of innumerable big shots and small shots in the style of a Victorian novel, to show that events come about because of a large number of modest personal histories and not because of impersonal forces and giant institutions. The great example is the giant two-volume history of the '68 movement in France, Generation, by Herve Hamon and Patrick Rotman, whose 1,311 pages have got to be the most grandiose account in any country of the '68 upheavals. And there is the "micro-history" method of reconstructing in hyper-detail the story of a single representative event, in order to demonstrate that crowds and mass protests consist of specific individuals responding to personal promptings in understandable ways. The classic example is Mexican. It is La noche de Tlatelolco by the chief chronicler of the '68 generation in Mexico, Elena Poniatowska, who weaves together a huge number of "oral history" testimonies with crowd chants and newspaper clippings to reconstruct the gruesome October '68 massacre of the student movement in Mexico City.
I don't know why, but writers who have set out to compose full-scale surveys of the '68-era movements in the United States have mostly shied away from these two techniques. Still, here and there you do find the international '68 style applied, on a small scale, to American themes. Some years ago the English historian Ronald Fraser and a phalanx of colleagues set out to compose an oral history overview of '68 movements in several of the Western democracies (under the title 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt), and the American students were accorded their portion, with vivid results. But more vivid, more authentic, even than Fraser's work, it seems to me, is Stonewall, the new book by Martin Duberman. This is a modest volume, closer to a popular history than to a full-scale Thompson-like academic study, yet with a perfect focus, from the viewpoint of the international style.
For if the single violent incident that Duberman has reconstructed was, in comparison to the Latin Quarter uprising or the massacre in Mexico, small and almost peaceable, no one can say that memory of the event has faded, any more than has memory of the French May or the Mexican October. And if Duberman's strand of '68-era radicalism could never be confused with the movement of an entire student generation, if Duberman's strand was in fact so marginal and idiosyncratic in its early days that most of the historians of the era have passed it by entirely or have recorded its existence with only a handful of squeamish and embarrassed sentences--even so, no one can say that modest origins have meant a modest future.
On the contrary: the small has grown and will probably keep on growing, until one day the single radical strand that Duberman has described will end up looking like not only the hardiest but the truest of all the products of the '68-era upsurge--'68-ness itself, in leafy bloom. For what Duberman's book has so tenderly brought to life is the political tendency that announced its existence to the world on June 28, 1969, thirteen months after the uprising in the Latin Quarter, when New York's Greenwich Village went through its own Night of the Barricades in the odd-angled eighteenth-century streets outside the Stonewall Inn at Sheridan Square, and the modern international movement for gay liberation was born.
Duberman's method is to recount the biographies, beginning with childhood, of only six people, instead of the dozens that you find in Generation. Yet six life stories are enough to beam a clarifying light on the uprising that finally took place in the Village and on quite a bit that happened to the gay movement later on. The purpose in writing a group portrait, as he explains it, is to affirm a democratic belief in "the importance of the individual" and the "commonality of life." Here again he follows the international school. But in the case of Stonewall, collective biography lets the historian accomplish something else, too, which is to lower us, by a ladder of intimate details, into realms of psychological reflection and sexual motivation that, until shown otherwise by the scholarly examples of Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault (themselves the philosophers of '68), were normally considered too murky or too remote from public events to be taken into serious consideration.
And so we find ourselves reading that, of the two women in Duberman's group portrait, both went through a youthful phase of having boyfriends, and both had early lesbian relations, too--even back to summer camp at age 7, if you count the childhood crushes of Duberman's woman No. 1, Karla Jay. Woman No. 2, Yvonne Flowers, announced to her family her attraction to women by age 12 or 13. As for Duberman's four men, none of them seems to have experienced any appreciable longings at all for the opposite sex. In the old Kinsey system for grading homosexuality and heterosexuality, grade one meant pure heterosexuality and grade six meant pure homosexuality; but with Duberman's males, sex is six or nothing.
Foster Gunnison Jr., the most conservative of Duberman's personalities, recognized himself as homosexual at the advanced age of 20, and followed this recognition with a life of near-perfect chastity. The sexual orientation of Duberman's three other men was entirely clear in childhood. Craig Rodwell (who died of cancer this past summer, at age 52) attended a Christian Science boarding school for "problem" boys in Chicago and found himself having some sort of prepubescent sex with fully half of the other "problems" in his class of ten. Ray "Sylvia" Rivera had sex with his cousin at the age of 7. And each of Duberman's males, Gunnison apart, had sex either as children or as early teenagers with adults. Jim Fouratt, the last of Duberman's males, traded sex for car rides during his teenage years in Providence, Rhode Island.
In high school, young Rodwell used to cruise for gay men in Chicago. Rivera's experience was altogether extreme. His long-suffering Venezuelan grandmother brought him up in the New York area Spanish-speaking and working class and did her best to keep him on a reasonably normal track. But by fourth grade the boy was wearing makeup. In fifth grade he was seduced by one of his own teachers and was having sex with other men, too. At the age of 11, he ran away to live as a transvestite prostitute under the name "Sylvia" on Times Square, where his poor old granny used to hunt him down and one time even frightened off one of his johns, not that hounding the boy brought him home again.
We are not in the land of the bourgeois sexual ideal. Duberman keeps studiously cool in the face of his own tales, even if he knows that a percentage of his readers are clutching the walls merely to read that such lives exist. Sex between people of the same gender? Everything's o.k., his demeanor makes clear, and the liberal morality of our post-'68 era nods assent. And between youngsters and adults? We non-Ancient Greeks draw the line. But though Duberman normally feels no reluctance to wave his fist and to declare positions on the most contentious of issues, on this delicate topic he merely reports without judging, and his reporting shows that simple codes of morality never seem quite adequate to the human complexities of sex.
The men whose childhood stories he tells look back on their precocious experiences, and wistfulness suffuses them, the way it suffuses anyone whose early sexual experiences were halfway agreeable. The life that young Rodwell led at 14 or 15, cruising for men at the Chicago ballpark and in department stores and having sex in the toilet stalls of public men's rooms, strikes Rodwell the adult as "high adventure." Fouratt seems to have regarded his hitchhiker escapades as a lark. Even about Rivera, Duberman says that prostitution at Times Square made him feel "elated" and "euphoric"--though it's true that on another page, Rivera appears to have expressed a hope in his adult years that other boys won't have to go through what he endured--or rather "she," in the pronoun that Duberman considerately chooses to employ.
The bad part for these men wasn't the sex, it was the circumstances. Fouratt was one time taken by a group of men and raped and beaten. Rodwell's early experiences were especially awful. One of his adult lovers was arrested for having sex with boys and committed suicide. Another of his adult lovers was sentenced to five years for the crime of consorting with Rodwell himself, who was likewise arrested, though he wasn't prosecuted. When he got to be 18, in 1958, Rodwell moved to New York, and soon enough he was arrested once again, this time for wearing too small a bikini at the Riis Park beach in Queens, and arrest led to a beating and three days in jail.
He went cruising for a lover in Washington Square, was arrested again, and again ended up beaten. He took a summer job at the elite gay men's resort at Fire Island, and there, too, the shadow of official repression fell everywhere, and from time to time the police raided the resort and chained the men one to another and to a telephone pole in gangs as large as thirty or forty, until a police launch brought them to be booked and fined on the mainland. And over these ugly and humiliating scenes in Chicago, Providence, New York and Fire Island hovered clouds of anguish, sometimes of mental imbalance.
Rodwell tried to kill himself twice and spent a month at the psychiatric ward at Bellevue. Rivera spent two months there and tried to commit suicide at least once. Fouratt attempted suicide. Whether or not suicide figures as a larger factor among homosexuals than among other people (which is one of the many unresolved issues that continue to surround the debate over homosexuality), the urge to die does seem to pop up pretty often in the bitter tales that Duberman has collected.
The pioneers of the modern gay movement had to ask themselves some very hard questions about the inner anguish and the suicidal impulses. For what if the predicament of homosexuals was finally a function of their own mental illness, of the "psychopathic personality disorders" that military psychiatrists began to warn of back in 1942? What if homosexuality was an insanity? The modern gay movement was founded in a small way in 1950 in Los Angeles by maybe a dozen men, some of them with Communist Party connections (along with Rudi Gernreich, the fashion designer whose own contribution to the radicalism of the '60s was the famously funny-looking women's topless swimsuit). These men put together a semi-clandestine organization with a name drawn from a medieval secret fraternity, the Mattachine Society, to advance the rights of homosexuals, and the Mattachine addressed the psychological question at once. The members proposed that, in Duberman's summary, "most gays had internalized the society's negative judgment of them as `sick,'" but in reality they weren't crazy at all and were, instead, "a legitimate minority living within a hostile mainstream culture." Those were advanced views for the 1950s.
But the Mattachine fell into an internal squabble over organizational matters, the Communist sympathizers were driven out, some of the early glamour wore off and things went from bad to pathetic when the Mattachine's national center got converted into a front for a San Francisco businessman's gay sex club and porno theater. The Mattachine, as Duberman describes it, settled into a cautious placidity. Typical meetings of Mattachine's entirely proper and legitimate New York section in, say, 1960 featured middle-aged men in business suits filing into a room provided by Freedom House, the human rights group, to listen respectfully to psychiatric experts, "who pontificated at length about the entitlement of homosexuals to civil rights even though their sexual development might have been distorted."
Yet if gays were not only persecuted by police and condemned by the great religions but also were even in their own eyes ill, how were they going to organize themselves to press for civil rights? They needed reservoirs of self-confidence and had not a drop. They could hardly turn to the American Psychiatric Association, which as late as 1973 insisted formally on seeing homosexuality as a psychological disorder. A leader of the far-from-placid Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., Frank Kameny--a hero of the movement, though not among the ones who are profiled in Duberman's book--drew the unavoidable conclusion as early as 1964. "The entire movement," he said, "is going to stand or fall upon the question of whether homosexuality is a sickness, and upon our taking a firm stand on it."
Among the people whom Duberman does describe at length, Foster Gunnison in particular set out during the middle '60s to prepare the ground for that kind of rigorous stand in the years to come. Gunnison had a sophisticated business background, derived from his years working for his father's prefabricated construction company, which he put to use trying to unite the several tiny and scattered gay organizations: Mattachine, the Daughters of Bilitis, which was Mattachine's slightly younger lesbian sister, a number of regional groups. And he had courage. Together with Rodwell, Gunnison was one of the very few who went each year, beginning in 1965, to picket the White House for "Equal Rights for Homosexuals" and to endure the contempt of the public and the snickering of the press.
But organizing came hard. The leaders of gay groups in the early and middle '60s tended to be, for easily imagined reasons, hard-bitten individualists. No particular style or outlook drew them together. Gunnison himself, in matters of dress, was a partisan of Brooks Brothers. His political ideas were strictly conservative, apart from his militant advocacy of what was still called the "homophile" cause. He wanted full acceptance of homosexuality by conventional society, but he hoped that society, once it took that radical step, would in all other ways remain conventional still. He had no use for Communists, and as for "beatniks and other professional nonconformists," he worried that if people like that ever got hold of the movement, all was lost.
To go plunging into the beatnik and left-wing depths of downtown New York was, however, the gay movement's inescapable destiny. I suppose that New York's theater world has always had a gay tinge; clever and mordant drag shows have been an ancient staple in the downtown Manhattan streets for as long as anyone can remember. But in the course of the '60s that old downtown tinge took on a fatefully deeper hue. You can practically see the change creeping across the background of Duberman's collective biographies.
Fouratt left his home in Providence and in 1961 found his way, via a doomed effort at joining the Catholic priesthood, to the New York theater, and he hung out at places like the Caffe Cino in the Village, where the atmosphere was such that Joe Cino himself, the proprietor (and soon enough another suicide), used to call out, "Get real, Mary!" to any shy gay performer who kept his gayness under wraps. And as this sort of avant-garde marched steadily avant, its population and even its geography tended to grow, until whole city blocks in Greenwich Village and on the Lower East Side took on the freaky theater quality of exhibition and provocation.
Duberman wants us to remember that not everything in the new countercultural neighborhoods meant new and exemplary attitudes toward homosexuality. Even on the extreme left, in the young people's oases that lay somewhere beyond the hidebound downtown Communists and Trotskyists (whose principal party, the Socialist Workers, retained a ban against homosexuals until 1970), you couldn't count on enlightened behavior. Fouratt went from the theater to the theatrical politics of the group around Abbie Hoffman, who was the Pan of St. Mark's Place in the mid-'60s. It was Fouratt--the "original flower child," in Hoffman's appreciative phrase--who thought up the clever stunt of dropping dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange, which made Hoffman famous. He helped put together the Central Park Be-In of 1967 and a few other trippy efforts to raise political protest to the plane of the Zen surreal, where the sexual atmosphere was supposed to be open to every sensual possibility, closed to none, in a spirit that might be called the polymorphous transcendental.
But the truth about polymorphous transcendentalism was sometimes disappointing. Duberman tells us that Hoffman used to drop in on his buddy Fouratt and snub his buddy's lover, as if a homosexual couple was too much for even Pan to abide. Karla Jay was a student at Columbia University's Barnard College in the late '60s, on her way to a career as an academic literary scholar, and had similar unhappy experiences in an uptown student version. A few days before the Latin Quarter erupted in Paris, the Columbia students staged a grand-scale uprising of their own, which led to a long, violent strike that was mostly over issues of civil rights and the war in Vietnam, but also echoed with protests against the ordinary sexual conventions of university life. Yet there, too, on the uptown barricades, the revolution against sexual convention kept ending up in outbreaks of male hetero-inanity, and the radicalized young women gagged in unison and raced off to organize the consciousness-raising groups of the early New York feminist movement. Jay made her way into an influential little group called Redstockings, which was the epitome of every radical feminist idea; and even there she felt less than perfectly at home.
Duberman is pretty severe about these sundry left-wing failings. But as you read his account, it's easy enough to see that, via the hippie sensual ideal (which helped overthrow the rule of tradition in sexual customs), then via the feminist challenge (which overthrew the overthrow), then via an unexpected shimmer of the homoerotic that began to run through some of the new women's organizations, the question of homosexuality was creeping up on every side. Already in the hippie sensibility, bisexuality glowed with special prestige, roughly the way that taking ever stronger drugs was seen as evidence of spiritual superiority. In the pre-guerrilla revolutionary cells of the Weather Underground, bisexuality became, by the early months of 1969, positively mandatory, enforced on all the prospective warriors of the impending armed revolt. Every month that passed seemed to bring crashing to the ground some taboo or inhibition that used to be regarded as basic to civilization. And to raise a few modest questions about homosexuality in that kind of environment became ever easier, ever less avoidable.
Any number of challenges began cropping up within the already existing semi-underground world of gay society--within, for instance, the world of New York lesbianism. This was not a very ancient world. According to the historians of lesbianism, the first more or less modern lesbian circles in the United States arose only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the custom in those early circles was to re-create lesbian versions of the him-and-her gender distinctions of the larger world. Another of the social histories-from-below that has recently been published is a book that innocently carries the fetishistic title Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, which is an academic study in the true Thompsonian vein, full of arcane detail and French-inspired invocations of colonial oppression and anti-colonial resistance; and from the tiny piled-up facts and personal interviews you can see in spectacular exactitude what the pre-'68-era lesbian world tended to be like.
The book describes the lesbian scene in Buffalo between the late 1930s and the early 1960s, where the women regarded themselves either as "butches" (alternatively, "lesbians," "stud broads," "diesel dykes" and "truck drivers") or as "femmes" (alternatively, "girlfriends" and "ladies"). Everyone knew her proper place and dressed accordingly and made love either "actively" as butches or "passively" as femmes. And the attitude toward this sort of homosexual convention on the part of the new young generation of hippie-minded radical young women circa '68 can be pictured in an instant. Duberman's Jay, having been dismayed first by the swaggering machos of the student left, then by the radical feminists, wandered into the Manhattan lesbian bars and was immediately asked: Which are you, butch or femme? Neither, thank you. She was something new, a young woman who was attracted to women (as well as, in those days, to men) yet was not at all attracted to the idea of playing a single fixed sexual role that might be defined by anyone but herself. By the late '60s personalities like that were becoming so common as practically to be a sociological category.
A different kind of challenge to homosexual tradition turned up in the old-line homophile groups. As early as 1961, young Rodwell, the Mattachine firebrand, showed up with six other rebellious souls to demonstrate at Manhattan's Whitehall Street draft board against the army's anti-gay policy--which was the kind of action that made the business suit rank and file squirm with dread. In 1967 Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in the Village as a serious movement center, which upset some of the older-style homosexuals still again, if only because the store claimed to be gay yet failed to carry the pornography that gay bookshops had always carried before.
And while these several historic changes worked their way through the mostly underground New York gay world, one other unmistakable transformation went spreading through the uptown and downtown streets during the several months before the historic riot. You can see it in the background of some of Duberman's stories. The uptown student politicos and the downtown freaks--the two wings of the New York counterculture--kept bumping up against the police department, and the bumps were getting sharper.
Something very close to rioting broke out a couple of times in the midtown streets in the fall of 1967 when top figures from the Lyndon Johnson administration came to speak at Manhattan hotels. In March 1968 some fairly rough fighting broke out at Grand Central Station during one of Abbie Hoffman's demonstrations--with Fouratt in faithful attendance, half-disgusted at Hoffman's cynical willingness to conjure up violent situations. A month later, when the Columbia insurrection took place, battles between students and police were such that, on a single miserable day, 712 people were arrested and 148 got themselves clobbered by police billy clubs and blackjacks badly enough to count as injured, and some of the police were injured, too, and it was a wonder that no one was killed.
The next fall there was an uprising at City College further uptown, then a bigger and more violent one in the spring of '69, led by the black students. The New York Black Panther Party had gotten organized by then and was hard at work in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Already the Panthers had quietly launched a guerrilla war, with policemen as their victims. Demonstrations went on throughout the spring on behalf of twenty-one Panthers who had been accused of a hair-raising conspiracy to blow up sites around the city, and the demonstrations sometimes drifted into scenes of mass vandalism with a lot of broken windows and scuffling with the police.
By June 1969, when the fateful incident at the Stonewall Inn finally occurred, these many events guaranteed that the sidewalks of a place like Sheridan Square would at any time of night or day be filled with all sorts of impossibly hip young veterans of God knows how many nasty standoffs with the police, and any number of those young people were bound to have mused at length over what seemed like an impending citywide hippie-black-Latino-student insurrection--the uprising that was supposed to take place along the uptown-downtown double axes of East and West 116th Street, East and West 8th Street. The New York Commune, it was going to be, or maybe the Battle of Algiers.
The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, just west of West Eighth, stood on the downtown axis, next door to the Lion's Head, the writers' bar. The Stonewall catered to male gays, but not exactly to the Fire Island elite. Fouratt and Rodwell would never have been caught dead there; they regarded the Stonewall as a hangout for unsavory "chicken hawks," older men on the prowl for boy prostitutes--though Duberman, no stranger to the bar, is reluctant to accept that description. Nobody disputes the filthiness of the place. The liquor was bootlegged or hijacked, and in either event was watered-down. The glasses were rinsed in the kind of water that will sooner or later give you hepatitis. But the Stonewall was not lacking in color. The bar was one of the gnarly marvels that only great cities can produce. The classic nineteenth-century novelists lived and breathed to write about such places.
Mafia guys from the neighborhood were the owners and managers--though the guys in question were, it turns out, fairly queer themselves. A gangster named Petey used to hang out at the bar wearing a black shirt and a tie, like any movie hoodlum, except that he kept falling in love with drag queens like "the beautiful Desiree" and "blond Harlow." The Stonewall was not a drag queen bar (the Washington Square Bar on Third Street and Broadway was the drag queen bar), which meant that, at the Stonewall, only a few full-time transvestites might be hanging around, though others were camped out across the street in the little park. But drag queening has its degrees. At the Stonewall, there were "scare drag queens"--these were "boys who looked like girls but who you knew were boys"--and there were "flame" queens, who wore make-up and teased their hair but dressed in male clothes, sort of.
A chubby queen named Maggie Jiggs stood behind the bar and poured the drinks and dealt acid and uppers. The chinos-and-penny loafer crowd stood around listening to Motown on the jukebox. And regularly, as just another dab of color, blue-uniformed police from the Sixth Precinct--known not quite fondly as "Alice Blue Gown" and other names--staged their raids. New York State statute required that everyone wear at least three pieces of clothing "appropriate to one's gender," which was a requirement designed precisely to suppress bars like the Stonewall Inn, where clothing and gender kept wandering off in separate directions. Alice Blue Gown would round up the cross-dressers along with some of the employees and anyone who lacked i.d., and the bar would be padlocked for the night--though never for good, since the queer Mafia kept the crooked precinct well supplied with bribes, and locking the doors forever would have impoverished all and sundry.
Duberman leads us with poker-faced affection through the historic evening by following the single one of his people who happened to be drinking at the bar on the historic night. This person was Sylvia Rivera, the drag queen. By June 1969 Sylvia was an upstanding citizen, almost, living in New Jersey with her lover, Gary. She had been invited to a birthday party for another transvestite, Marsha P. Johnson, who him/herself went on to play a significant role in the early super-radical moments of the gay liberation movement. Sylvia decided to pass up Marsha's party. But the whole detailed cityscape portrait of the Stonewall Inn is Duberman's moment of narrative glory, and I will let him grandly escort Sylvia to the bar:
It wasn't that she was mad at Marsha; she simply felt strung out. She had been working as an accounting clerk in a Jersey City chain-store warehouse, keeping tally sheets of what the truckers took out--a good job with a good boss who let her wear face makeup whenever she felt like it. But it was an 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shift, Sundays through Thursdays, all-night stints that kept her away from her friends on the street and decidedly short of the cash she had made from hustling.
Yes, she wanted to clean up her act and start leading a "normal" life. But she hadn't counted on missing the money so much, or on her drug habit persisting--and $67 a week in take-home pay just wasn't doing it. So she and her lover, Gary, decided to piece out their income with a side gig--passing bad checks--and on June 27, a Friday, they had just gotten back from papering Washington, D.C. The first news they heard on returning was about Judy Garland's funeral that very day, how 20,000 people had waited up to four hours in the blistering heat to view her body at Frank E. Campbell's funeral home on Madison Avenue and Eighty-First Street. The news sent a melodramatic shiver up Sylvia's spine, and she decided to become "completely hysterical." "It's the end of an era," she tearfully announced. "The greatest singer, the greatest actress of my childhood is no more. Never again `Over the Rainbow'"--here Sylvia sobbed loudly--"no one left to look up to."
No, she was not going to Marsha's party. She would stay home, light her consoling religious candles.... But then the phone rang and her buddy Tammy Novak--who sounded more stoned than usual--insisted that Sylvia and Gary join her later that night at the Stonewall. Sylvia hesitated. If she was going out at all--"Was it all right to dance with the martyred Judy not cold in her grave?"--she would go to Washington Square. She had never been crazy about the Stonewall, she reminded Tammy: men in makeup were tolerated there, but not exactly cherished. And if she was going to go out, she wanted to vent--to be just as outrageous, as grief-stricken, as makeup would allow. But Tammy absolutely refused to take no for an answer and so Sylvia, moaning theatrically, gave in. She popped a black beauty and she and Gary headed downtown.
It got to be 1:20 in the morning, prime time at Sheridan Square. Eight officers of the Sixth Precinct burst into the bar, as they had always burst before. Except the great mystery of historical change had already occurred, and because of the slow work of the old-fashioned homophile political organizations, or because of the hippie piety about an all-accepting sexual spirituality, or because of the winds of insurrection and impudence that were blowing around the world, or because the feminists had succeeded in making everyone skeptical about traditional sexual relations, or for all of these reasons, the roomful of drinkers who should have gulped and blinked in fear and humiliation at the sight of Alice Blue Gown instead grew cold and mocking.
The police checked I.D.s and told some of the people that they could leave. When these lucky persons emerged from the bar to Christopher Street, they saw that a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk, and the campier people from the bar struck starlet poses as they exited the door, and the crowd cheered. A paddy wagon pulled up and the cheers turned to boos. Who was that random nighttime crowd? The exact social makeup of riotous crowds (we partisans of history from below disdain the tainted word "mob") was always the most central of questions for the historians. We know that not everybody pouring out of the bar or walking down Christopher Street at that instant came from Rivera's world of the stoned-out petty chumps and homeless prostitutes. Nor were they all of them the chinos-and-penny loafers homosexuals of the timid middle class.
Craig Rodwell was, by June '69, nicely established as a Greenwich Village store-owner, and here by chance he happened to become, strolling down the sidewalk, a distinguished member of the riotous assemblage. By happy coincidence here came Jim Fouratt, who was not only fairly well known as an actor and as a mover in the permanent Yippie revolution but had taken a job high up at cbs, promoting rock music. Another of the narrative histories of the modern gay movement, a collection of interviews by Eric Marcus with the Thompsonian title Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights 1945-1990 (but with a strictly popular oral-history format) shines a spotlight on some additional faces in that late-night crowd.
Among the lucky unarrested persons stumbling up to the sidewalk from the bar was Morty Manford, a famous figure from the Columbia student left in those days, who would soon enough emerge as a notorious architect of gay rights "zap" hecklings against Mayor John Lindsay. Walking down the street was Vito Russo, a well-known film historian in the years to come. Here briefly was Martha Shelley, a secretary at Columbia who played a major role in the Daughters of Bilitis, giving a late-night street tour to a couple of visiting lesbians. ("What's going on here?" her visitors asked. "Oh, it's a riot. These things happen in New York all the time.") In still another book I notice that one of the future personalities in the gay-rights-for-service-people movement also happened by (though it's not clear exactly when), dressed in his bell-bottoms and love beads and not looking like the former Air Force sergeant that he actually was. So there were political skills and famous careers in that random late-night crowd. This was Manhattan!
Duberman hasn't been able to establish exactly what set off the riot, but he knows that the police were loading the wagon with transvestites when somebody saw, in the historian's description, "a leg, poured into nylons and sporting a high heel, shoot out of the back of the paddy wagon into the chest of a cop, throwing him backwards." Transvestites came leaping out of the wagon. Somebody was shouting, "Nobody's gonna fuck with me!" Stones, bottles and coins flew through the air. The police fled into the bar. By then the crowd was feeling its power. The bar window broke. Some fool in the crowd poured lighter fluid and tried to set the place on fire.
Inside the bar, the police called for reinforcements from the Tactical Patrol Force, who were, among all the units of the New York Police Department, the most widely feared by everyone with experience in the political demonstrations of the time. tpfers were beefy men, bristly with clubs, guns and tear gas cannisters, and when they marched in formation they wore helmets and visors. Duberman compares them to Roman legionnaires. Two dozen of these legionnaires showed up on Christopher Street. They linked arms and advanced up the block, looking like what anyone in 1969 would have instantly called scary mothers.
But as this force moved forward, the crowd merely doubled back and regrouped. A few people circled around the block to harass the legionnaires from the rear, shouting and throwing things. And so Alice Blue Gown, the beefy tpf mothers, the drugged-out transvestites, the loafers-and-chinos set, the lesbians, the queer Mafia, the flame queens, the scare drag queens, the gay Yippies, the resentful discharged veterans of the United States Armed Forces, the beatniks, the intellectuals, the student activists, the guitar-pickers and the homeless riffraff of the little downtown park--this explosive crowd, living testimony to the sexual chaos of humble humanity, squared off in the street, and fumes of scorn and joy and sexual titillation went mixing with the smoke from the burning trash cans.
The TPFers whirled around. They found themselves face to face with what Duberman describes as "a chorus line of mocking queens, their arms clasped around each other, kicking their heels in the air Rockettes-style and singing at the tops of their sardonic voices":
We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair...
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!
Talk about weird revolutionary slogans! People were hurling rocks and bricks. The police grabbed someone off the sidewalk and beat him, though the poor victim turned out to be Dave Van Ronk, the folk singer and not a homosexual, who happened to be drinking at the Lion's Head.
Fouratt and maybe a few others in the crowd tried to cool things down, which was a decent thing to do--though Fouratt was also calling in his own reinforcements from among the city's radical left (some of whom responded, others not), which must have kept the tensions high. Rodwell was calling in the press. And though the fighting died off after a couple of hours, on the next day and for two more days after that, the confrontations resumed, along with the derisory singing and the kick-lines. Then it rained and there was peace--only to break out into angry standoffs once again, when the rains cleared and The Village Voice came out with a suitably incendiary issue.
The actual amount of violence from either side doesn't seem to have been especially high after the initial moment--not compared to the civil rights movement in the South, in which some twenty-eight people were killed over the course of the '60s, nor compared to the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico, nor to the May '68 fighting at the Sorbonne, nor even to the Columbia strike a little more than a year earlier, where that same tpf had pretty much gone on a rampage. Yet those June and July '69 crowds in Greenwich Village were furious even so. And their fury had an odd quality: it didn't fade.
Exactly why that was, why the noise from that riot went on resonating during the months after Sheridan Square was finally cleared, why those days of street scuffling afterward ascended into the zones of legend and myth, why the annual June commemorations under the name of "Gay Pride" or "Gay Freedom" (as proposed by Rodwell) gradually became, as Randy Shilts says, "the high holy day of the national gay movement," why the history of homosexuality neatly divides into pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall eras, not just in the United States but in a variety of countries--that is easy enough to see, if you let yourself look through empathetic eyes.
Duberman takes pains to show that the riot at Sheridan Square was not, in fact, the first bit of trouble on the street between gays and the police. In San Francisco as early as 1966, three days of fighting followed a police raid on a gay hangout called Compton's Cafeteria, and there had been other incidents, and the West Coast marched several steps ahead of the East. Only those early West Coast developments took place in too staid a time, and the noise from those protests did not penetrate beyond a few small California precincts.
That was not a problem in the summer of 1969. Life was a loudspeaker that year. And what everyone--some people, anyway--heard at the riot on Christopher Street was distinctly new. It was the sound of voices tuned to a different pitch, airing emotions that had never been aired publicly before. And in response to that sound, around the country the many homosexuals who for so long had lived in secrecy or in self-repression seem to have begun undergoing, one by one, their own personal Stonewall insurrections, released by public events into a personal "no" that by the intensity of its tone and the novelty of its cry tended then and tends even now to make anyone standing nearby gape with astonishment. For who outside of the world of the homosexuals could have known, until that moment, how much unhappiness and despair were woven into that clandestine world, or how big that world would turn out to be?
Where precisely to channel the newly released energies once the six days of fighting were over was a bit of a problem. Ideas went into the riot, but they were shattered there, and did not come out again. The old homophile notion of achieving rights for gays along the dignified lines of the old pre-Black Power civil rights movement was discredited in a nanosecond. During the nights and days of Christopher Street agitation, the Mattachine Society posted leaflets in the Village telling gay people to cool it. But cooling it was exactly what whole crowds on the sidewalk no longer wished to do. That most mysterious of social changes, a mass instantaneous radicalization, had taken place.
Civil rights liberalism was already a speck receding into the distance, and the only remaining question was which among several varieties of radical leftism would those suddenly fired-up young people seize on for their own. Looking back on those times, you might think the new gay militants would naturally have lined up with the libertarian left and found some way of saying, along with Cohn-Bendit, "Nobody is responsible for you! You are responsible for yourselves!" The old- line anarchists had their little foothold in the downtown theater avant-garde--the Living Theater was anarchist--and even the French Situationists had their New York branch, and to go in one of those directions would not have been inconceivable.
But in the history of the American youth movement, June 1969 was precisely the month in which the libertarian and radical democratic ideas went down to their miserable, final defeat. Students for a Democratic Society fell apart that month in a convention in Chicago, and over the spot where sds once reigned arose a newer impulse that was dominated by the round enigmatic face of Mao Zedong and the idea of joining, in Mao's phrase, "the raging tide of the people of the world against the U.S. aggressors." And if the proposed new raging tide seemed, at first glance, to leave very little room for Americans of any sort, on second glance there was, in fact, an honored place for Americans in the new idea, so long as they could show themselves to be the victims, and not the beneficiaries, of the imperialist system.
The Chicago SDS convention and a second convention a few days later in Oakland, hosted by the Panthers, set out to identify the several elements of American life that could plausibly claim to stand outside the privileged circle of imperialist freedom and prosperity, and to group these elements into an "American Liberation Front" that would take its proper place behind the leadership of Fidel Castro and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and Mao (though it's true that, in Oakland, some preferred Brezhnev). The new idea was a national variation on the New York insurrection that so many people kept expecting to take place.
It pictured a network of semi-Bolshevized ethnic street gangs headed by the Panthers, and behind them the Young Lords Party among Puerto Ricans, the Brown Berets among Mexican-Americans, the Young Patriots of Chicago among working-class whites, the Chinese-American Maoists and any number of other groups reaching all the way to the extreme left of the not yet ethnically divided student movement and the dope-smoking Yippie outlaws. And with these very peculiar ideas in the air, Fouratt and Martha Shelley and some of the other faces from the crowd at Sheridan Square broke off from the straight-laced old homophile organizations to put together their own gay wing of the revolutionary alliance in the form of the Gay Liberation Front, which was a spectacularly novel idea.
Needless to say, not everyone in the older homophile circles burst into applause at the notion of enlisting the gay movement in the world crusade led by Mao. Even Duberman, the anti-anti-Communist, feels a genuine compassion for the plight of poor old Foster Gunnison in this astonishing new post-Stonewall circumstance. The conservative nuts-and-bolts hero of the older homophile movement had to stand back and watch as his own worst nightmares about commies and nonconformists materialized into real life packed auditoriums. Gunnison showed up at gay meetings where he wasn't known, and people took him to be some kind of police spy and saw him to the door.
For among the younger people who were just now coming out as homosexuals, what was the homophile past? Brooks Brothers, what was that? The idea of forming a liberation front and aligning with Panthers and Mao and the Viet Cong and Castro: that was the notion of the hour, even if Shelley and some of the other participants harbored a few discreet reservations at the time. Shilts tells us that Gay Liberation Fronts arose "in every major city in the United States." New gay newspapers spread the news. And the gap that opened between the brand new gay militance and the older dogged homophile campaign was, I suspect, even more cavernous than the gap that had opened perhaps a year or two earlier between the Negro civil rights movement of the past and the Black Power movement of what looked like the future.
Thus the gay revolution got off on a very awkward foot. The proposed international allies of the new gay movement could not have been more disastrously chosen. Mao's Red Guards, as Shilts reminds us, "were known to castrate `sexual degenerates' publicly." As for Castro's pathologies about homosexuality, these had already earned him an immortal place in the history of homophobia. Fouratt, in the same year that he helped found the GLF, also helped found the Venceremos Brigade to bring Yankee volunteers to toil in the Communist sugar fields--and when the time came to depart for the Caribbean and start cutting cane, the gay Yippie, as Duberman scrupulously records, found himself forbidden to participate, out of fear that a Christopher Street ebullience might contaminate the Fidelista ethic. At home in the United States, there was the continual embarrassment about the Black Panthers, whose own sexual ideas were other than progressive--not to mention that the Panthers, at their chilling California core, were murdering off their own comrades and shaking down the struggling black businesses of poor straitened Oakland, racketeer-style.
The new ideas about gay liberation were not exactly helpful from an organizational point of view, either. The basic notion of putting together a revolutionary coalition among groups deemed to be innocent of imperialist crime implied a system of defining people by their historic grievances, the grievances of blacks, of Latin and Asian immigrants and--by extension--of women and homosexuals. But grievance means fission, in the law of political organization. The Gay Liberation Front clung to the highly unBolshevik anti-elitism of the earlier New Left in regard to conducting its meetings and shaping its organization, which guaranteed bedlam; and the shape that bedlam took was a progressive fracturing along lines of sub-grievance and double-sub-grievance. GLF ecumenicism included women and men both, but the women quickly split off into a Women's Caucus, then the black and Hispanic women split off into their own group and the Hispanic women left to form "Las Buenas Amigas," who themselves were lucky not to splinter along lines of skin tone or Latin American country of origin, and the GLF was soon enough a memory.
Still, some inner essence of those early ideas clung to life, and adapted, and soon enough began to flourish. For deep within those several founding notions from 1969 you could already see, in germ, the fateful idea of ascribing everyone's personal traits and beliefs about politics and culture to the one or two ethnic and sexual factors that might constitute the basis for a historic grievance. There was already a tone of pious sympathy for the victimhood of each and all (except, of course, for the hetero-Euro-males). There was already the expectation that with sufficient pity and piety all around, the many victimized ethnic and gender personalities would form themselves into their respective "communities" under the banner of their respective "cultures," and the communities would generate a movement for a new society that was no longer pictured as worldwide Marxist-Leninist liberation nor even as libertarian socialism but was seen finally as a democracy of communities. Not liberty in the old sense, but "diversity" in the new sense.
The idea that came to be known as "identity politics" had, in short, made its entrance into American life. And if this idea slowly spread outward from the left-wing world into the easy liberal assumptions of well-meaning Americans on campuses everywhere and in the Democratic party, that was because, for all the silliness in the identity politics idea, and for all the crippling effects of reducing everybody's personality to two or three factors, and for all the kitschiness in the new idea of "cultures" and "communities," identity politics did address some very keen modern anxieties.
For look what the more radical young people, not just the gays, had gone through by the early 1970s. Huge crowds of young black people, having been catapulted by the civil rights revolution into the colleges and universities, found themselves hurtling into the blue yonder of an American middle class that their own parents had never dreamed of entering. Masses of young women, having stumbled onto the ability to pursue independent professional careers, were throwing aside the outdated ideas of their own mothers and were declaring themselves to be women of a bolder and more aggressive type than the world had ever seen. These people were nervous! And in the aftermath of the Stonewall riot, the radical young gays found themselves in circumstances that were still more extreme and unprecedented.
The young post-Stonewall gays were no longer merely coping with homosexuality, as gays had always done before, with a lowered head and a guilty conscience. By proclaiming homosexuality as their right, they were bound to feel that they had overthrown Catholicism or Protestantism or Judaism, as the case may be. They had overthrown mom and dad. Ten thousand years of repression crumpled at every step they took. They were free; and freedom was terrifying. They could no longer fall back on traditional religion or on the culture of their parents. They felt supremely alienated from what they imagined to be the main currents of American life (little realizing that they themselves were a main current). In which case, who exactly were they anymore? They were American rootlessness uprooted. And to people in that alarming circumstance, identity politics offered a consolation.
The new idea proclaimed itself to be a radicalism beyond all radicalisms; but its deeper message was a soothing, traditionalist reassurance. Identity politics taught that forthright radical homosexuals and other brave social pioneers did in fact dwell among the comforts of a noble community with the kind of ancient roots that flower into confident modern-day personalities. Or at least the homosexuals would dwell in such a community, if only they could demonstrate that the premises of identity politics were true both in general and in their own special case as homosexuals, and that community in the identity politics version was real and not just a slogan.
The tremendous outpouring of gay creative energy during the quarter-century after Stonewall, the sexualized art works, the solemnity about pornography, the efforts to work up a distinctively lesbian or homosexual aesthetic, the homosexual interpretations of literature, the rise of gay and lesbian studies as academic disciplines--these many notable features of recent times show, I think, how strongly people have felt the need to build up the gay culture that identity politics said must surely exist. And if in the atmosphere of excitement and revolution, it was sometimes very difficult to draw a line between the good new work that came of these efforts and the mass of bad new work; if a militant wind began to blow and accusations of bigotry and homophobia went careening around college lawns and everyone was taught to talk with the sweet, unctuous decorum of diplomats and to refrain from disparaging even the wildest of claims and political pretensions on the part of individuals who might be ethnically or sexually different from themselves--who could be surprised?
In the identity politics vision, where democracy is a matter of communities, and communities are defined by their culture, to criticize someone's cultural expression is to question the dignity and the rights of an entire population, which is a daunting thing to do. So there was a moral intimidation in the new idea. The intimidation spread a blanket of protection over the cheesiest renditions of old wives' superstitions and bad poetry and silly history. And there was, in the identity politics idea, a virtual guarantee of rejection on the part of a larger public, if only because to underline the gay identity has to mean underlining the sexual component, and one man's turn on is bound to be another man's gross out.
Arlene Stein, the editor of a new lesbian anthology, Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation, ruefully notices a part of the problem in regard to the lesbian movement. "The paradox," she writes, "is that if we don't name our difference in explicitly sexual terms, we remain invisible as lesbians--but if we do name it we're typecast as little more than sexual beings, and the vast complexity of our lives disappears." But such is the allure of the identity politics paradox that even the author of those self-conscious and slightly embarrassed cautionary words has gone ahead and awarded herself, by the title of her own book, the honorific "sexpert," which anybody would like to be, though maybe not twenty-four hours a day.
At the "high holy day" Stonewall commemorations straight into the 1990s, the dour gay politicos would come marching by demanding civil rights. But in public demonstration of that same inbuilt paradox, next would come, row after row of them, the sexperts, naming their difference. Bare-chested young men danced erotically on flatbed trucks. Women marched by in masses with their blouses stripped off. Fetishists decked out in leather motorcycle caps and studded risque leather pants came rolling along in still more trucks, followed by strangely flabby and obese sado-masochists who marched down the street literally flogging one another. Random persons paraded between floats in a pathos of individual isolation carrying placards of their own handmade construction that affirmed the strangest of all strange slogans: "Rectal Pride," "Vaginal Pride."
Because of the epidemic, a warm, sickly breeze of Thanatos blew across these public scenes. On the back of a flatbed truck bearing the grim banner "hiv-Positive" came yet another gaggle of handsome young men with sinuous arms and gleaming chests who seemed to be, still, soaring on a cloud of sexual exaltation, dancing seductively, almost as if beckoning to the crowd and crying out "Join us!" Those marches were a political protest, but by the paradox of identity politics, the marches were an erotic festival, too--despite everything, even death. For the parading marchers were making themselves sexual on the occasion of their merry and tragic and political "holy day" in the same way that Polish-Americans put on embroidered peasant costumes for the Pulaski Day parade.
A reign of terror was guaranteed to come of this even without the pressures of an epidemic. In any movement based on a cultural identity, sooner or later someone will always step forward to declare his own identity to be truer and more authentic than everyone else's. He will announce a grave impending threat to the collective identity, and on that basis will take into his own hands the right to make decisions for all, and to unmask the traitors, and to carry out the executions. One of the authors in the Sisters, Sexperts, Queers collection, Alisa Solomon, describes a fairly depressing zealotry against "ideological contamination" in some nether portions of the lesbian movement, where aids has not had to be a central concern. And if you throw in the epidemic, the threshold for genuine hysteria was bound to slide ever downward.
One of the political responses to the disease among gay activists--the formation of the group ACT-UP in 1987 to stage protests against irresponsible foot-dragging by the government and the pharmaceutical industry--reverted as if by instinct to the noisy style of the Stonewall-era movement, to good effect, at first. As someone has observed, there was, even in the origins of aids activism, that same gay social base in the New York theater, this time with Larry Kramer, the author of one of the first aids plays, A Normal Heart, as founding father. But theatricality is an inebriant, and once a large number of people had tasted its pleasures, there was nothing to keep the livelier types from acting up in other ways as well.
ACT-UP gave birth at the beginning of the '90s to a group with a broader mandate that called itself "Queer Nation"--whose name (like that of the "Lesbian Nation") resurrected Abbie Hoffman's old Yippie notion of the "Woodstock Nation," from the Woodstock rock festival of August 1969, a few weeks after the Stonewall riot. And with '69 resurrected on every side, the terror announced itself at once. You could see it not just in the internal campaigns against ideological contamination (which by then were an old story in the gay movement), nor just in ferocious condemnations of the Catholic Church and other implacable enemies of an enlightened sex education, but above all in public acts of retribution against the gay revolution's own inadequate partisans and ungrateful intended beneficiaries.
The "outing" of fellow homosexuals serves, in effect, to blackmail influential persons into helping the gay cause, as interpreted by the blackmailing "outer." Yes, there might be a personal or professional cost to the poor soul who has been "outed." The threat of getting blackmailed might discourage a timid gay person from a public career. The "outings" might sometimes manage to "out" individuals who were never really "in." But what is that to Robespierre? Show me a guillotine and I will show you a career ladder. Among the several books on gay themes that have recently been published is one called Queer in America, written by a public relations flack named Michelangelo Signorile, who went from the service industries of the Broadway gossip columns to a giddy career of Yippie agitprop in Queer Nation, where his proudest achievement, recounted in cheerful detail in his book, is to have become famous for harassing one of George Bush's assistant secretaries of defense. Signorile telephoned his chosen victim at home in the middle of the night and then, not liking the assistant secretary's way of talking, took it on himself to reveal this man's homosexuality to the world.
The same assistant secretary emerges in Shilts's study of gays in the military as a man who "was not particularly circumspect about his opposition to the gay policies" of the Pentagon and who may have used his high position to whisper liberal advice about gay issues to still higher officials in the Bush administration. But outing, as I figure it, is not really designed to advance the cause. Outing is a way of expressing what Shilts, in an irritated mood, calls "the deeper intolerance many gay radicals held toward anyone, heterosexual or homosexual, who did not subscribe to their rigid ideology." It is an act of supreme power, like a mob boss's power to "whack" some poor slob who falls down in his payments. And as in all reigns of terror, a fog of conspiracy theorizing drifts across the field in order to justify the most lurid of actions.
"There exists in America," we are told by the author of Queer in America, "what appears to be a brilliantly orchestrated, massive conspiracy to keep all homosexuals locked in the closet"--requiring, of course, the efforts of himself to destroy it. The components of this conspiracy are, as anyone could have guessed, "the media industry, centered in New York," "the political system, centered in Washington" and "the entertainment industry, centered in Hollywood," all of which are full of cowardly homosexuals who are eager to sell out the cause but who will soon enough meet the wrath of the militant queer avengers. Phrases from the McCarthy era pop up as if from the national id: "naming names," "is there an absolute right to privacy?" And we are reminded again what a shame it is that the great historian Richard Hofstadter died before he could add a post-'60s chapter about homosexual militancy to The Paranoid Style in American Politics.
Yet how is it that none of these embarrassments and misfortunes has managed to sink the gay movement? The organizational chaos of the Gay Liberation Front in the months after the Stonewall riot, the calamitous notion of allying at home and abroad with every pirate and tyrant who ran up a revolutionary flag, the invention of a kitschy cultural identity on the basis of sex and the ensuing campaigns to eroticize art and culture, the snarly air of intolerance radiating from the radicals, the parading fetishists, the maneuverings of the flacks and the blackmailers and the conspiracy theorists, not to mention the horrors of disease and the chill breeze of Republican presidential landslides: any one of these elements would have sufficed to sink a flimsier cause, exactly as happened to the larger New Left, in no time flat. But the gay ship was unsinkable.
For the gay movement's reason for being was always too clear and obvious to be ruined by some idiocy or other. It was a movement for the right to love. It was grand; nothing could pull it down. It took that other theme of the great nineteenth-century novels, after the eccentricity of city life--the theme of natural love bumping up against society's artificial laws and customs, bumping up even against death--and turned love's story into a crusade in the streets. The gay movement was the most romantic political campaign that ever existed. To prosper under the conditions of American life in the years after the Stonewall riot all that was needed was to announce the idea of gay rights--and followers were going to flock to the cause and were going to brush off the nonsense that came wafting from the daffier professors or the less scrupulous self-promoters, and still more followers were going to join the campaign, and the entire movement was going to advance in stages so clear and logical as to radiate a quality of sociological permanence.
The first of these stages, in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall riot, was a gay twist on the hippie inspiration to go build geodesic dome communes in the Rocky Mountains, except that gay community-building confined itself in a practical spirit to the project of colonizing big-city neighborhoods. Ever since the 1910s in Greenwich Village, later in other cities, a few gay bars and other businesses had huddled together as a kind of avant-garde center or vice zone, and these few seamy streets now began to flourish into full-fledged, sprightly "gay ghettos"--fixtures of modern urban geography not just in Greenwich Village and in the Castro district in San Francisco, but in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle and other places, too.
An unlucky mix of factors in the '70s--the polymorphous transcendentalism of a gay hippie world that was never reined in by indignant feminists, the old-fashioned gay orgy scenes that now went on all but freed of police raids, the slightly sinister disco tone of postrevolutionary decadence and chemically improved ebullience--produced the big, delirious gay sex clubs, which proved to be a medical misfortune even before aids, and afterward became a catastrophe. But the view that gay communities depended on erotic extravaganzas was never quite true.
When the epidemic began noticeably to spread in the early '80s, it was the new neighborhoods and the neighborhood organizations that gave the activists some modest first mechanisms to begin the dismal task of organizing against the plague--even if those anti-aids mobilizations were always too weak and too late and involved a lot of intramural fighting. So the gay movement turned out to have a strictly practical side, and the people whose hearts did not beat for utopian glitter or for identity politics or for the cult of ecstasy discovered a grim sort of trade union usefulness in the new gay movement institutions. Perhaps they discovered a moral gravity in their gay affiliations, too, and time and disaster made the bonds between individuals and the movement grow tighter, not looser.
Within six months of the Stonewall riot, the more level-headed types split off from the GLF to form the Gay Activists Alliance, which was the GLF without the part about Fidel Castro and the Black Panthers; and from the gaa split off a still more establishment-oriented group that called itself the National Gay Task Force (with the word Lesbian added later); and each of these groups proved to be more powerful than the last. Yet neither the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force nor any other group ever managed to dominate the field of gay politics, nor did gay politics ever generate a single widely-accepted national leader--and this failure, which in the case of most political movements would signal weakness and fragility, seems to me to have been, in the case of the gay movement, a sign of strength. "There are no marshals and no leaders today!"
There was only the ideal model of a grass-roots insurgency, '68-style. By 1976, according to Shilts, a quarter of the country's campuses could claim a gay student organization--where there had been hardly any a decade earlier. Gay Democratic clubs took root in all of the biggest cities. Yet if there was a single dramatic proof of the movement's vitality, it came when the same movement began to assert a claim to citizenship in society as a whole and not just on the bohemian margins, and the gay campaign started cropping up in places that were inconceivably far removed from the Greenwich Village sidewalks. And so the movement that got its start among the kick-line queens at the Stonewall Inn and the hyper-revolutionary students of 1969 began to spring up spontaneously from deep within the ranks of the armed forces of the United States.
Randy Shilts's study of that momentous development, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military, conforms to the same inspiration for history-by-interview and collective biography that you see in Martin Duberman's book and in some other histories of the gay movement--though Shilts goes at these interviews in a spirit of popular journalism, without any suggestion that he has pondered his links to the school of history from below or the international '68 style. Mostly the book is a heroic feat of documentation. Shilts has conducted 1,100 interviews, and he has worked these interviews up into 700 pages of stories and anecdotes, with each anecdote going on for perhaps a page and a half, then yielding to the next. A little less heroism might have been just as well. Yet those 1,100 interviews manage to unearth a hidden life that has been lived by many thousands of people under the most pitiable conditions, and by stringing one story to another Shilts is able to show that soldier after soldier has spun a variation on a single unvarying biographical theme.
This is the theme of a teenage boy or young man who is privately troubled by his attraction to other males, or else by his failure to feel much of a sexual urge at all. The boy or man would like to grow up in conventional masculine directions. So he does what any football coach would advise him to do: he enlists in the service, only to discover that his adolescent doubts and worries are becoming graver by the minute and that high school was bliss compared to the miseries of life in a uniform.
The young man finds himself more or less having an affair with another man, or he finds himself drawn to the bustle and the comradeship of the gay bars. It is the nature of military life to encourage a bit of homoerotic foolery--at any rate, a keen sentimental affection between buddies in a unit. Yet there are buddies and there are buddies, and some of the foolery is not just foolery, and for the soldier whose homoeroticism is the real thing, deep feelings turn out to be at stake, and the depth of emotion is exactly what must be concealed. So the young man gropes his way into a circle of other people with the same experience, and his circle of friends finds its way to still other hidden circles, and the result is like the gas and cable networks under the city streets, going everywhere, visible nowhere.
But then, if Shilts's research is to be believed, what a network this turns out to be! Each of the great ships in the U.S. Navy--though I suppose we knew about the Navy, didn't we?--seems to have had its own hidden gay subculture. Over the years, the "Connie girls" (i.e., boys) flourished aboard the U.S.S. Constellation, the "Easy girls" aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, the "Rangerettes" aboard the U.S.S. Ranger. The John F. Kennedy was at one time known to some as the "Jackie O," the Dwight D. Eisenhower as the "Mamie." According to Shilts's information, in the late '70s fully 60 percent of the crew was homosexual on the U.S.S. La Salle, "the gayest ship in the Navy," which steamed into the Persian Gulf and met up with some merry Arab oil princes, and quite a time was had by all.
The olive drab Pentagon, seen through Shilts's lens, looms as a giant pink triangle of homosexuality. There was once a men's room in corridor six of the Pentagon where "men literally stood in line outside the stalls during the lunch hour, waiting their turn to engage in some hanky-panky." Nor is homosexuality confined to the humbler ranks. "Every service has had at least one gay person at four-star rank since 1981, and at least one gay man has served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in that time." As for the women, according to some lesbian sources that Shilts cites, the number of lesbians in uniform has never sunk beneath a full 25 percent of the female population, which might seem a lot except in comparison to the amazing days of the Second World War, when lesbians accounted for fully 80 percent of the women, and it was heterosexuals who comprised the small minority.
Seven hundred pages of this! To read is to blink. You have to wonder: How much of what Shilts reports can really be true? Maybe Shilts has turned into a gay version of Leopold Bloom, Joyce's addled Jew, who stumbles around Dublin crowing to himself about the many distinguished persons who have been Jews. One of the gay rights pioneers tells Eric Marcus in Making History that the Mattachine Society back in the early '50s used to build up a mystique of power by boasting about unnamed "senators and generals" who were secret members. Maybe every uniformed gay whom Shilts wheedled into giving an interview took the opportunity to indulge in a bit of happy boasting along those reassuring Mattachine lines, and claim piled on claim, until Shilts's research had painted the military lavender.
Yet how do we know who is authentically homosexual? Who counts as a true-blue lesbian is a famously tricky question, much fought over within the lesbian movement, due to an unmistakable tendency among some young women to feel an attraction now to women, now to men, then to take a few tours through the lesbian bars only to end up, androgynous butterflies that they are, in the arms of some properly heterosexual male--which is a phenomenon that drives the harder-line lesbian militants to apoplexy. Shilts himself reports the statistical claims about lesbianism while carefully refraining from endorsing them.
The anecdotes meanwhile point to one more station in the gay soldier's typical progress through the military. That is the moment when, having made the sexual discovery, the unfortunate man or woman in uniform looks up and sees the steely blade of institutional repression inexorably descending. A tale of secret interrogations, spyings, coerced confessions, mail searches, telephone tappings and pressures on people to testify against one another suddenly reveals itself to the astonished soldier's eyes. Then come the formal charges of sodomy or committing indecent acts or fraternization with the wrong people or "conduct unbecoming an officer." Shilts cites a South Carolina lawyer who has dug up a German witch-hunters' guide from 1484, the Malleus Maleficarum, to show the medieval spirit of these inquisitions. And just as in the witch-hunting crazes of centuries ago, the zeal for persecuting gays seems to rise and fall according to a logic that is impossible to detect.
During the Vietnam War gay bars, clubs and social circles made up a "vast gay subculture" of the American military, especially in Saigon, where wildness among the friskier gays seems nearly to have rivaled wildness among the friskier straights. But that was war; peace is hell. A sample paragraph from Shilts's book records just a few of the persecutions that went on in tranquil 1980:
Eighteen women came under investigation at the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego in 1980. Another half dozen were charged in a lesbian purge at Fort McPherson and Fort Stewart in Georgia. Thirty gay airmen came under investigation at Malmstron Air Force Base near Great Falls, Montana, during the summer of 1980 and at least eight were discharged. At least two airmen had nervous breakdowns after OSI interrogations, according to a report in the Gay Community News. Still another investigation focused on the women's volleyball team at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. This investigation followed a probe of the women's softball team at West Point.
And so it went until the ever-vigilant four services had discharged 1,966 people for homosexuality in a mere twelve months.
It is not often remarked how much damage the military has done to itself with these persecutions, mostly by eliminating people with rare or valuable skills. The dollar cost to the military, as estimated by Congress's General Accounting Office, has been $22.5 million a year, though as Shilts observes, the true figure has got to be a lot higher--hundreds of millions of dollars a year, he thinks--given that most of the people who come under suspicion tiptoe out of the service before getting formally accused. As for the cost measured in injuries to the soul--this, of course, is beyond reckoning.
It is infuriating to read about these things, and it has infuriated Shilts to report them. Sometimes his fury gets the better of him, and out come the comparisons to the Nazi murder of the Jews, which is a trope that pops up pretty often in gay rights literature. But the anecdotal method of his journalism has its own discipline, and after a few lines of spleen the discipline asserts itself, and the next anecdote moves into place. And as the pages turn and the number of these anecdotes creeps upward, you no longer need Randy Shilts or the gay rights movement to get mad on your behalf. Your own fist pounds the table, and the more you pound, the more you wonder why these military persecutions always seemed, until recently, like something less than a moral outrage. The abuses were never invisible; yet neither were they seen. Everything was public; nothing was noticed. How could that have been?
I think the explanation--part of it, anyway--has to do with the extreme peculiarities of a movement that went from minuscule to mass in very few years. Those early protests against military gay policy back in the '60s never had the remotest chance of bringing the military issue to public attention. The entire national organized homophile membership at the time that Rodwell picketed the Manhattan induction center was just 400 people, men and women both, according to Marcus. Without the Stonewall riot and the noisiness of New Leftism, the gay movement was nothing at all. But New Leftism made the movement anti-militarist, which meant that, when a few peeps of protest against the military prejudice did begin to be heard, it was not because of any careful agitations by the gay political groups.
Instead the first audible protests arose because, by 1974 or '75, even the most conservative and Republican of military officers, if they happened to be gay, were inhaling the post-Stonewall cultural atmosphere, and to inhale was to be transformed, and the transformed soldiers were coming up with lively responses of their own, one rugged individual at a time. With a sailor here and a sergeant there, by 1976 the political and legal challenges to the military policy were springing up on a weekly basis. Plainly the typical career of a homosexual in the armed forces had generated yet another phase, which was the moment when enough was enough and the accused person got over his mortification and began to shout, in the vivid language of June 28, 1969, "Nobody's gonna fuck with me!," which might as well be the national motto. The soldiers called their lawyers. And that was the crossover moment when the newly assertive military gays reached out to the antimilitary gay movement that had created the conditions for the new assertiveness.
The anomalies were not slow in appearing. At the annual Stonewall marches around the country in the mid-'70s, people were still chanting slogans that derived from the GLF and the high tide of the New Left. Lesbians chanted, "Dare to struggle, dare to win, dare to snuggle, dare to win," which may have carried no echo in their own minds but was nonetheless a cozy, ladylike adaptation of Chapter Seven, "Dare to Struggle," etc., from Mao's Little Red Book (which begins: "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs!"). Gays chanted: "Ho ho homosexual, the status quo is ineffectual," which was a not-so-distant echo of anti-war chants in praise of the same Ho Chi Minh against whom the American military had fought with such little success. Yet in 1975 Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first and most celebrated of the gay soldiers to put up an attention-getting fight for his own career, turned up at one of these parades in New York and was welcomed as a hero of the movement--even if the other paraders must have scratched their left-wing heads over what to do with a U.S. Army sergeant. And this kind of anomaly, once it had cropped up in the gay demonstrations, proved to be a perennial.
You could see it at the March On Washington by several hundred thousand homosexuals in April 1993, the hugest such gathering in the history of the world, as was repeatedly said. The march adopted gay rights in the American military as the chief of its several demands--yet some of the 1993 nostalgics for 1969 still raced around in loincloths, and more than a few of the speakers and performers at the podium still displayed an instinctive disdain for anything connected to a uniform. The long-ago New Left could never make up its mind about the horrors of American oppression versus the glories of American pop rebellion; and it was clear that, a generation later, shadows of that same confusion hovered over the gay movement. Maybe gay oppression derived from the larger cruelties of the American system, which ought to be overthrown, or maybe the dream of gay liberation derived from the larger dream of American liberty, which ought to be expanded. Maybe the uniformed military gays waving from the podium were the agents of imperialism, or maybe they were the sword and shield of American-style individual freedom, and who could say?
The level of muddle was fairly impressive, and it was hard to see who was going to clear it up. The old-time movement ideologues were not about to overthrow the beliefs that had served them well enough over the years, and the shrewder movement leaders could scarcely be expected to irritate and divide their own march-going and dues-paying constituents by launching a debate over basic political beliefs. If anyone was going to work up some genuinely new thoughts and give those thoughts a sharp enough edge to command attention, it would have to be intellectuals of the sort who don't mind a little unpopularity. And if any such people existed, they would probably have to be a new generation entirely--just the way that, among black intellectuals, only an unpopular and sometimes conservative new wave of writers in the course of the 1980s was able to challenge the old Black Power orthodoxies from those same radical '60s.
Does that sort of development seem likely among the gay writers? Shilts himself may be a sign of such a possibility, due to his choice of journalistic topics and his snappish rejoinders to radical critics. You could point to a number of articles in the pages of this magazine as still another sign. And there have been other indications, less visible but more astonishing. At the Washington march in April I doubt that many knapsacks carried, stuffed among the bologna sandwiches and bottled water, a rolled-up copy of the previous month's issue of Commentary, which has never been the gay movement's friend and comfort. Yet here were hints about possible new directions in gay intellectual life where no one would have thought to look. Having published perhaps one too many fulminations against the evils of homosexuality over the years, the editors of Commentary found themselves, in their March issue, publishing no fewer than fourteen pages of letters responding to the discussion of homosexual themes, and while some of those letters stoutly defended the magazine's customary antipathy, several of the others struck a different note altogether.
The authors of those letters were not, by and large, avatars of the radical '60s. They were the readers of Commentary magazine. Yet in textbook illustration of the fact that homosexuality is not ideologically determined, some of those Commentary loyalists happened to be gay themselves, and chose to announce that fact, and saw no reason to keep their indignation hidden, either. Cultural developments travel a little slowly among the right-wing intellectuals, but they do travel, eventually. For here was the Stonewall uprising at last, fourteen pages of it, angry and inflamed, finally arrived at the door of the neoconservative flagship journal.
What do these new conservative gay writers think? The first and most passionate of Commentary's letter-writing enrages was, to the surprise of at least some of his occasional readers, Bruce Bawer, who for many years served as the main literary critic at Commentary's sister journal in the arts, The New Criterion. Bawer has just now expanded his letter into a book called A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society explaining his thoughts in detail, and at the core of that explanation is a portrait of the author himself. The portrait is not exactly a confirmation of every Jean Genet cliche about outlaw homosexuality that you keep stumbling on in the literature of gay studies. The pillar of Bruce Bawer's week is Sunday attendance at Episcopal services. He lives quietly and monogamously with his companion, Chris. Each molecule of his existence, except one, seems to be profoundly straight. Yet that one small departure from the conventional norm has brought down on his unoffending head any number of insults and injuries over the years.
His friends invited him to a wedding that he himself, playing Cupid, had helped bring about. But when he and Chris arrived for the ceremony, the bride and the groom went out of their way to look down their smug heterosexual noses at their own non-hetero guests. He labored for four thankless years as the film critic of the neanderthal American Spectator, but when he declined to strike even the briefest mention of homosexuality and aids from one of his reviews, he was forced out of his column, if only to maintain the integrity of the magazine's commitment to its own intolerance. And the sober way in which Bawer records these humiliations, the precision of his complaints, the care with which he avoids any note of self-pity, in sum, his rectitude and dignity in the face of an endless drizzle of minor and major insults and wounds, yields at last to a barrage of controlled anger. He is a man with a rifle and a motive. He asks: Is homosexuality immoral? Is it incompatible with ordinary decency? Is it un-Christian, un-Episcopal? Unintelligent? Is it a threat to children? And his book advances to the sound of a steady fire of no, no, no.
Here at last is a book-writing Foster Gunnison, at war with a single prejudice and with nothing else. He doesn't want an avalanche of social reform; he wants a social and cultural adjustment, namely the one that bears on himself. And as the centerpiece of that minor adjustment he calls for "the legal recognition of gay unions"--whether these unions go under the name of marriage or of domestic partnership. He wants gays everywhere to be able to enjoy the kind of household tranquility that he and Chris have managed to enjoy, and he wants respectable gay lovers to receive the same kind of respect as respectable heterosexuals. That is what he means by "a place at the table." The complaint that gay companionships cannot really be a "moral equivalent" of heterosexual marriage strikes him not only as offensive but farcical, given the many cheating husbands and wife-beaters and bickering couples that he says he knows. Love's content, not its form, is the important thing for him. For Bawer is, in the end, a true man of the modern gay movement, which is to say, a romantic, and honesty and love are his gods, even his God, if I read him correctly on the subject of Christ.
The argument is attractively made, and it comes burnished with the sheen of righteous rage, and I only wonder if the passionate insistence of his feeling about honesty and love still leaves him in the realm of opinion that can be counted as genuinely conservative. For what happens to a family where love is no longer quite as romantic as it used to be? A good many people who wish to preserve the conventional family at nearly any cost--the advocates, that is, of a conventionally conservative position--may think, not unreasonably, that personal honesty can pose a bit of a problem from time to time; and where honesty is a problem, hypocrisy is a solution. Those less than happy marriages that Bawer airily disdains may strike the advocates of "family values" as safer and more reassuring than no family at all.
He doesn't care for the radical gay writers. When he thinks of Allen Ginsberg and the ink-stained wretches of The Village Voice, his indignation gets its second wind and the rifle-fire of no, no, no resumes at once. He denounces the "false dichotomy propounded by the gay subculture: out, proud and promiscuous versus closeted, ashamed and repressed." He says: "Sexual orientation is one issue, sexual irresponsibility another." The notion of sexuality as a kind of utopia that keeps popping up among the radicals strikes him as a lunacy. Where others see a commendable gay radical freedom-forging, he sees a pitiable gay self-hatred. Yet I wonder if the radicals don't have a clearer understanding than the former critic from The New Criterion why it is that arguments for honesty and romantic love might seem threatening to a conservative version of family stability that has always had to rely in the last instance on the virtues of self-abnegation and duty toward others.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Bawer's thousand contentions, his book makes an impressive point, it seems to me, merely by virtue of its lucidity and its provenance. For just when you might have thought that the gay movement had run out of ideas and was trapped forever in its own splendid colorfulness and its unresolvable ambivalences about the wider American culture, fourteen pages of letters in Commentary and A Place at the Table come wandering down a revisionist path where only a few lonely writers have gone before. The suggestion is strong that history has not yet said its last word about the gay movement, and there are newer people still to be heard from. Bawer himself is emphatic about this.
He thinks that, among the intellectuals, there are more gay conservatives than gay radicals, though the conservatives are only beginning to come out of hiding. He thinks the gay majority has not yet been heard from. And if any of that is true, the interesting possibility arises that, sooner or later, hipsterdom will have had its day, and the gay movement will move along to still another stage. For here come the squares. They are men and women both, and they are adjusting their ties and arranging their skirts, and they are clearing their throats, and if Bawer's book is any indication, they are slowly preparing to announce in a polite and well-modulated tone: "Pardon the intrusion, fellow citizens, but henceforth nobody's gonna fuck with us, either."
Single-issue reform campaigns and movements are so old in American life that Tocqueville was already struck by their importance and their democratic role in the 1830s, as recorded in his chapter on "The Usages that Americans Make of Association in Civil Life." But from Tocqueville's time until our own, the grandest of America's single-issue movements have tended to divide into two loosely defined categories, and the two categories have stumbled their way to different fates. And if only we knew which of these categories corresponded to the highly unusual movement that sprang into life during Greenwich Village's Night of the Barricades in 1969, we might be able to predict what the fate of gay liberation, too, will eventually turn out to be.
The first category of single-issue campaign, the kind of movement that seemed so exotic and un-European to Tocqueville, has always aimed at achieving that most arrogant of goals, a moral improvement in the hearts and the practices of other people. The most classic and characteristic of those moral movements, the temperance campaign, made Tocqueville laugh, until he reflected that under democracy, the aristocratic class that ought to set examples of superior behavior for the plebian mass of society has been driven into exile or has been hanged or has met some other democratic misfortune; and the remaining plebian population has no alternative but to organize mass movements on behalf of whatever change in behavior seems like a good idea. So he came to respect these campaigns.
It's a little odd to suggest a comparison between the old-fashioned straitlaced campaigns and something as extravagant and modern as gay rights. Yet here and there in the argument for gay rights a hint of moral exhortation in the old style does crop up, and why not? The slogan "gay is good," Frank Kameny's impossibly radical 1968 variation on "black is beautiful," contains, as if in computer code, any number of buried assertions: that sexuality in general is good; and that morality in sex is to be judged at least in part by its inner meaning for the individual and not by some external or religious rule; and that homosexuality is therefore not only a tolerable way to behave but is positively commendable, just as is heterosexuality. A program for moral improvement does lurk somewhere within those Freudian assertions. There is the invocation to be true to yourself, sexually and otherwise. There is the proposition that self-fulfillment is virtue--even if, in other circumstances, self-denial might also be virtue.
From the ancient Protestant perspective that underlay the old nineteenth-century movements for better behavior, the modern arguments in homosexuality's defense add up, no doubt, to a satanic program. But even in the nineteenth century, American Protestantism had its dissenting sects, and from sects to sex was never a distant leap. "Plural marriage" and other sexual experiments in sundry socialist communes were always an eye-catching element of the nineteenth-century reform tradition. Compared to the old Owenite communities and Fourierist phalansteries, not to mention the nineteenth-century Mormons, all of whom had in common the aim of rearranging domestic sexual relations in the name of a higher moral idea, what really is so bizarre about the gay movement of today?
Yet if the gay campaign rests on an argument for moral improvement, we might wonder if the movement of today will prove to be any stronger or longer lasting than those other, older campaigns. The Stonewall riot was followed by seven Biblical years of steady advance, and the gay movement had reason to savor the likelihood of a future full acceptance into society. By February 1977, no fewer than nineteen states had repealed their sodomy laws and forty cities had enacted civil rights ordinances mandating gay rights, and the Democratic party was strong, and all looked well.
But later that same year, as Shilts reminds us, Anita Bryant, the orange juice queen, invoking "the laws of God and the cultural values of man," organized a countermovement to a gay rights ordinance in Miami, which proved successful, and the Miami phenomenon went national. The countermovement against homosexuality took its prominent place within the Reagan coalition, and the advances from 1969 to 1976 went into an extended period of hand-to-hand combat with the right-wing counterrevolution both in the armed forces and everywhere else. The violence and the unpredictability of these debates were such that by the time Bill Clinton ascended to the White House, the advances and the retreats seemed to occur on an hourly basis, even in the calculations of the president himself. To see any kind of grand historical trend was not so easy.
For if the back-and-forth of argument over gay issues merely throws one movement for moral improvement up against another, nothing can guarantee that gay prospects won't keep on wavering forever, and every on-rushing wave for social tolerance will go spilling up against an equal wave for traditional values, and the question never will get settled. One day the fervor for gay reform might even subside, which is usually the fate of single-issue movements that are fundamentally moral in their appeal. Prohibition, for instance, silently withdrew to a handful of "dry" towns and counties, where even today people can quietly refrain in peace and suffer the derision of the lost-soul "wets" who comprise the rest of the population.
In a book called The Corporate Closet: The Professional Lives of Gay Men in America, James D. Woods and Jay H. Lucas report on intimate interviews that they have conducted with seventy gay men who hold mostly good jobs at mostly well-known companies. These men (and a number of lesbians whom you can see, as it were, out of the corner of your eye) enjoy more rights and more respect than anyone would have dreamed of twenty-five years ago. A blessed handful of corporations have become genuinely decent, at least in intention, toward their gay employees. Yet the striking thing is how afraid so many of these men and women remain. They still hide behind an intricate filigree of deception and disguise. They are a target, but not a force. It's hard to see how anyone could ever drive the gay movement out of Greenwich Village or the Castro district; but in the offices where some of these people work, there wouldn't be much of a fight.
Still, in American history, and not just in America, there is a different kind of single-issue campaign--not a campaign for moral reform, but a movement for political and cultural enfranchisement. The enfranchisement of poor white working men during the presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, the battle for trade union rights and government protections for industrial workers that began in Jackson's time and has never ended, the abolitionist movement to free the slaves and later the civil rights movement to free the freedmen, the women's suffrage movement of earlier times and the modern feminist movement that arose a split-second before gay liberation: these were never movements for moral improvement or for better behavior, except maybe in a secondary way. They were movements to lead one sector of society after another outward from the gloom of bottom-place standing in the social hierarchy into the glorious mediocrity of the American middle. And with movements like these, a question of progress and its irreversibility arises, and at once plunges us into a deep question of philosophy.
The idea of progress in these waning days of the twentieth century has reached the point where mere mention of the word makes people break out in the same patronizing smile that crossed Tocqueville's lips upon discovering a naive American phrase like "temperance." The belief in history's forward motion turns out to be an oddly self-negating idea, such that anyone who subscribes to the idea with any fervor at all is halfway guaranteed to set mankind back a good thousand years, given the chance. And yet progress, especially in the experience of us fellow-citizens of Andrew Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr., has been known to take some less alarming forms, which are neither so heated and furious as to be utopian and dangerous nor so slow and cool as to be entirely undetectable.
In the introduction to his book about America, Tocqueville talked about a progress of that middling sort--the progress that he detected over the course of 600 years, which he thought was gliding forward at fifty-year intervals and was leading toward ever more equality, ever less hierarchy. The scale and the grandeur of the forward motion seemed to him, after so many centuries, a matter of "providence." And if there is any ground for talking about that kind of progress, if it still makes sense to speak of a gradual inclusion into society of ever more marginal and downtrodden sectors of poor unhappy mankind, if progress has not at last stumbled to an end under the hot rays of television culture and fundamentalist preachings, as some people think, and if forward motion is still somehow discernible in spite of the violent backward jolts that are perfectly capable of lasting for periods longer than Tocqueville's fifty-year intervals--if any of that is true, then the prospect for people whose desires are homosexual appears a little brighter.
Or at least the prospect of some version of gay liberation would look brighter if homosexuals could be shown to be somehow analogous to the other historically oppressed sectors of society that have benefited from irreversible emancipations. Do those analogies exist? The white workingmen, the blacks and the women who have benefited from past and present emancipatory campaigns have been around forever, and the Jews and other religious minorities in need of emancipation in the past have been around for what seems like nearly as long. But while homosexuality itself is doubtless eternal (and may even be genetically programmed, according to a much-contested theory), the antiquity of a group of people who can be called "homosexuals" is a vexed question, to which vast portions of the literature of modern gay studies have been devoted.
According to Michel Foucault, who counts as the literature's founding father, a word to describe homosexuals didn't even exist until 1870. Until then, you could talk about certain sexual pleasures or practices that people might partake in, and only later could you talk about a full-blown human type. In Foucault's formula, "The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species." The current wave of books on homosexuality includes one called Out in the World by a gay American writer named Neil Miller, who takes this sophisticated Foucaultian observation and more or less proves its validity with a quick tourist's hop around the world. Miller visits the gay social worlds of a dozen countries in Europe, Africa, the Mideast, East Asia, Australia and South America and produces some nice verbal snapshots of the people he meets. His book is modest and casual, full of the kind of sweeping generalizations that travel-writing requires but that might grate in the ear of anyone being generalized about.
"The prevailing sexual mode for Egyptian men seemed to be the polymorphous perverse," says Miller. Conceivably Egyptian readers might wish to comment. But these thumbnail descriptions and tourist summaries of Miller's do bring out several curious variations in sexual customs and attitudes around the world. Visiting the black townships of South Africa, he discovers that people there aren't sure if male homosexuals should count as male or female or as a third sex that might even be capable of bearing children. He discovers a homosexuality that is strictly regimented by a notion of "male" roles and "female" roles, so that everyone is either a "king" or a "queen," more or less like the old-fashioned American lesbian bars in Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold.
In some countries not even the homosexuals consider themselves homosexual. In Thailand, Miller stumbles on a sexual atmosphere dominated by prostitution, straight and gay. In Latin America and elsewhere, he discovers a way of categorizing male homosexuality that considers the "passive" role homosexual but the "active" role not, which is a pretty common idea in Anglo-America, too. And from these observations Miller speculates that a modern-style homosexual identity--Foucault's "species"--crops up only at a certain moment in the development of society. This moment, he thinks, arrives when four minimum requirements have been fulfilled: a fair amount of personal freedom and tolerance; a degree of economic development that is strong enough to allow people to get away from home and move about freely; a relatively high status for women; and what he calls "a decline in the power of the family and religious institutions in defining and determining every aspect of an individual's life."
Reading Miller, you'd have to conclude that before these four rigorous conditions have been met, many people might experience homosexual urges and might even act on them in a regular way, though probably with a lot of angst and inconvenience, exactly as in the different stops on his worldwide tour. But once the conditions have been met, those same angst-ridden persons would probably notice that life can hold out better possibilities for themselves, and an ever-growing number would leap at the chance to live as homosexuals in the modern style of the West, perhaps still maintaining a false front in public but no longer pretending to themselves. In the United States, Miller's four requirements were met during the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and after that, a feeling about being distinctly gay cropped up at an ever-increasing rate, even if the straight world never quite figured out what was happening.
But once this new gay feeling had been fanned into street demonstrations by the radical breezes of the late '60s, the campaign for gay liberation did, it seems to me, take the form of a movement for enfranchisement. For the people who had now come "out" could never exactly go back "in." Human dignity doesn't bob up and down like grain prices. Naturally the gay movement is unlike any of the movements for enfranchisement that have come before, but then, each of the movements for enfranchisement has been unlike the ones that came before. Everything that has happened in American history would lead us to suppose that, if the gay movement does in fact count as such a movement and not just as a moral campaign, sooner or later it will have its day. Some kind of inevitable force does come into play, and the ever larger wing of the gay movement that has gone from bohemian antimilitarism to wanting a place within the armed forces and the rest of mainstream society has made a logical decision, and American liberty will increasingly mean not just the freedom to live the life of Christopher Street but also the life of Main Street, and be gay even so.
It is tempting to propose a still more grandiose claim. Neil Miller makes the point, though he feels slightly uncomfortable about it. The variations of homosexuality that he discovers around the world testify to the splendid multiformity of man; yet in each of the stations of his journey, he also stumbles on a few portentous signs of the single newer idea about homosexuality whose origin is the United States as well as Western Europe (where in Holland, Denmark and Norway, gay rights, having been inspired by the post-Stonewall movement, have prospered beyond anything achieved so far in the United States). "It was significant," he tells us, "that in many of the countries I visited, the leaders in creating a gay movement"--here he mentions the names of gay leaders from Cairo, Hong Kong and Bangkok--"had all spent time in the West." Random copies of the American gay magazine The Advocate turn up in Cape Town. A lesbian leader in Japan, where there are not many lesbian leaders, tells him: "You know, they say that whatever happens in the United States happens ten years later in Japan."
Plainly the spread of aids has prompted people in one country and another to put together some of these embryonic gay political organizations. But cultural factors seem to be the main impetus behind the new gay organizations, and chief among these factors, say what you will, is the worldwide spread of American pop culture and of the American-influenced culture of Western Europe. Miller, being a reasonable man, is of two minds about the ubiquitous creep of American images and ideas. Yet he notices that even the lowly and much reviled Western porno videos spread the kind of message that ought to be called "socially redeeming." From watching Western pornography some people in other parts of the world have learned the strictly modern news that the same person can have sex in both the "active" and "passive" positions, that "kings" can be "queens" and vice versa, and this constitutes a turn against social hierarchy in a realm that Tocqueville never got around to mentioning. And since the Americanization of culture around the world appears to be something that no one has yet figured out how to stop, at least not for long or in a total degree, some of the new thinking about homosexuality that already figures in popular American culture does seem bound to spread, regardless of the outrage and the scimitar-brandishing it might inspire.
Given the degree of wealth and secularization that produces Miller's list of four preconditions for a modern gay identity, what can possibly prevent the new thinking from producing some actual gay movements in countries around the world? And given some further progress toward secularism and democracy, what will prevent these movements from one day bursting into the open, to the amazement of everyone, with genuinely modern demands for the right to dignity and a private life?
A grand spectacle does seem to be taking place before our eyes, and this spectacle, when you get it into focus, has every appearance of being "history from below"--not the history that is written on the page, but the history that is written on the street. When the sounds from the noisy spectacle on the street reach our ears, they seem to be saying: "Ordinary individuals and lowly despised corners of society do make their own history--at least they can, and someday they will, and history shows their capacity to do so, and in fact some of us ordinary and despised people are doing it right now." We seem to be hearing: "There are no marshals today--not on the question of heterosexuality versus homosexuality. On that most crucial and personal of questions, you, each and every one of you, are responsible for yourselves." We are hearing: "Concerning homosexuality, it is forbidden anymore to forbid."
In earlier times, in the era that was only yesterday, many a solid citizen would have laughed at cries like that. Rights for the small minority of persons whose impulses in love and sex are not absolutely typical: what hilarity! A giant smirk crosses nine-tenths of the globe even now. There is reason to think that the battles over gay liberation will go on wavering, now forward, now back, very likely with violent shocks and setbacks for generations at a time. But there is reason also to think that, along with the other consequences and quarrels of modernity, these battles will spread and not grow narrower, and the final vector will point toward more liberation, not less. There is reason to think that on the matter of homosexuality, some small but important aspect of human personality has begun to change, not just in two or three cities, nor in two or three countries, but, weird though it is to suggest such a possibility, everywhere.