Interview by Lauren Gutterman
Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (Simon & Schuster, 2015) provides a moving and far-reaching account of the LGBT movement in the United States, from the founding of the homophile movement in the 1950s, to recent struggles for an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the United States Supreme Court’s recognition of gay couples’ right to marry across the nation this past summer. Faderman conducted an astonishing number of oral history interviews for the project; these humanize the book’s epic scope and eloquently convey the courage of those who have fought for gay rights from the grassroots level to the halls of Congress. The Gay Revolution focuses on the accomplishments, rather than the limitations or mistakes, of the LGBT movement, closing with words of Franklin Kameny, “We started with nothing, and look what we have wrought!”
Faderman’s book is aimed at a broad audience. Many of the events and historical figures covered here will be familiar to historians of sexuality in the modern US, but Faderman also draws attention to lesser-known LGBT activists. All readers are guaranteed to find something new. In one of my favorite anecdotes, Faderman describes how lesbian activists broke into the headquarters of a Seattle anti-gay rights organization, Save Our Moral Ethics (SOME), in the late 1970s and poured vials of their own and other lesbians’ blood over the group’s petitions and records. In an open letter to SOME’s staff, the women declared,
We have brought our blood here to you today for three reasons: to share our lives, our human-ness with you in the clearest strongest way we can; to challenge your human-ness by showing you that the work you do here imperils our lives…
In bringing to light such vivid and often overlooked moments in the struggle for LGBT rights, Faderman has done historians of sexuality a tremendous service.
Lauren Gutterman: The Gay Revolution provides a sweeping account of the gay and lesbian movement from the 1950s to the present. It is beautifully written, engagingly told, and I’m sure it will have a wide readership. Who do you want most to reach with this book? Put differently, if this book impacts just one person’s life, who would you want that person to be?
Lillian Faderman: As I wrote the book, I felt I wanted to speak directly to two very different people. One was a member of the general public, who I wanted to reach because in the last few years people have been marveling that members of LGBTQ community went “overnight” from being pariahs to being accepted by the majority of the country as first-class American citizens. Well, it wasn’t overnight. LGBTQ people have been battling to get their rights for more than sixty years. I wanted to show this history of struggle to the general reader: how “homosexuals” were persecuted by the law, the federal government, the psychiatric profession, the media—and then how we fought back, beginning in the 1950s, and how all those battles that we waged through the next decades finally changed the minds of most Americans and, presumably, of this general reader who I’m addressing.
The other person I wanted to talk to as I wrote the book was L or G or B or T or Q. I think that especially many younger LGBTQ people don’t know how long and hard the war has been, don’t have vivid knowledge of how truly terrible things once were and what was done to make them better. As I try to show, we still have determined enemies out there; and I fear it’s true that if you don’t learn from history you’re destined to repeat it. I want The Gay Revolution to speak to the LGBTQ reader in presenting these important lessons of history.
LG: Though The Gay Revolution is organized roughly chronologically, you play with time in an interesting way. Some historical moments appear in your book more than once from different perspectives, and you also skip ahead in time to show the impact that organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis had on future activists. Can you tell us more about your narrative strategies and the challenges you faced when organizing this ambitious story?
LF: You’re right that the book is organized roughly chronologically, but the organization is also thematic. For example, in the book’s first section, “Scapegoats,” I show how throughout the 1950s and into the ‘60s, “homosexuals” (all LGBTQ people then were called “homosexual” by the straight world, and “gay” among ourselves) were punished as “loonies,” “lawbreakers,” “sinners,” and “subversives.” Then in the next section, “Homophiles” (a word coined by the early activists because “homosexual” seemed to emphasize “sex,” which was too explosive in the ‘50s), I go back to the beginning of the 1950s to show how at the same time that scapegoating was going on, a handful of people began organizing and fighting back. Or, to give you another example, there’s a section called “A Place at the Table,” that shows how in the 1970s and ‘80s, middle-class gay people in bigger and bigger numbers joined the struggle for equal rights. There’s a later section called “Demanding to Serve,” that begins with the early 1970s when Sergeant Leonard Matlovich became an inspiring poster boy for gay men and lesbians who wanted to stay in the military and not have to hide who they were. So while the book generally moves ahead in time, it also moves back when necessary to pick up a particular theme.
LG: This book covers more than fifty years, it is national in scope, and it addresses legal, social, political, and medical aspects of the struggle for gay rights. Despite this broad perspective, however, The Gay Revolution feels very human and personal. What techniques do you use to give readers the sense that they are getting an intimate look into the lives of historical figures?
LF: To write this book I did more than 150 interviews, not only with leaders but also with everyday LGBTQ people. I also did research in a dozen or so archives and library special collections around the country. I was especially excited when I could find relevant personal letters that would help me tell stories about the people involved in the history I wanted to depict. I needed to present historical facts, but I also needed to get behind those facts to the individual lives that created them. So, for example, I discuss how in the 1950s homosexuals were treated as mentally ill, and then I zoom in on the story of Sally Duplaix, who was kicked out of Smith College because her roommate told the dean that Sally was having a lesbian affair with another student. Sally’s expulsion led to her parents forcing her to go to a psychotherapist, who said she wasn’t cooperating and needed to be put into a residential “rehab” facility where she’d get psychotherapy seven days a week. There, she still refused to promise she’d stop being a lesbian, so she was sent to a private mental hospital where they gave her electro-shock treatment. When she still refused to promise to go straight, the doctors threatened to send her to the state mental hospital, where, she’d heard, homosexuals were being lobotomized. So finally she told the doctors what they wanted to hear, which got her out of the private mental hospital. But when she died in 2012, at the age of 76, she was still a lesbian. This was the sort of story-telling I tried to do throughout. Whether I was talking about movement leaders or the effects of homophobia on everyday people, I tried to get behind the facts with these kinds of personal glimpses into people’s lives.
LG: Many of my students see the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) —with its commitment to intersectionality and its calls for social revolution—as the moment when the gay movement held the most political promise. You state, however, that for many people the gay movement did not really begin until organizations like the Gay Activists Alliance and the National Gay Task Force began to focus on formal politics. How do you want your book to impact the existing narrative around the GLF?
LF: I don’t say that the movement didn’t “begin” until it focused on formal politics, but rather that the focus on formal politics created a different kind of movement. I show that the LGBTQ community has always been politically diverse—even when we were all called “homosexual” or “gay.” For example, I depict the overthrow of the founders, all Communists, of the first important homophile organization, Mattachine. These founders were the first to define homosexuals as “an oppressed cultural minority.” But they were forced out in 1953, three years after Mattachine began, by a group of more conservative homosexuals whose argument was, “Except for the unimportant fact of our sexual preference we’re no different from the rest of America, and we demand the same rights that all Americans should have.” As the Mattachine example shows, we’ve always had these conflicting philosophies in the movement, and there have always been these internecine battles among movement radicals and those who are more “mainstream” in their vision.
I also make the point that the first big radical group, the Gay Liberation Front, which formed right after the Stonewall riots in 1969, was crucial to the growth of the rights movement. One of GLF’s main goals was to engage in coalitions with all other oppressed minorities. It succeeded less in doing that than in putting “gay” on the map, because GLFers grabbed media attention as it had never been grabbed before. They were the ones, for instance, who marched in the thousands in the first Gay Pride parades. The unprecedented attention they enjoyed made a critical mass of gay people feel that it was safer to come out, and that steered the movement toward its own more mainstream values. I show that without the GLF, there wouldn’t have been a huge movement, and so—ironically—there wouldn’t have been legalization of same-sex marriage or the right to serve in the military.
GLFers, who wanted to overthrow the whole system, were, in effect, the “bad cops” who made those mainstreamers who said, “We just want the same rights that everyone else has,” look like the “good cops.” I saw it as my job as a historian not to argue that the bad cops or the good cops had the right idea, but rather to show what those ideas were. I portray not only those who struggled to serve openly in the military and to be able to get married, but also those who are now furious, as William Dobbs, a radical activist I interviewed told me, because “the movement has gotten hijacked” by “the drive for a homogeneous, orthodox American culture.”
LG: You conclude The Gay Revolution by acknowledging that the LGBT movement is far from over. What lessons do you think your book holds for activists continuing to work on employment discrimination and transgender issues today?
LF: Soon after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, the pundits were saying we’ve achieved victory and so the movement is essentially over. Well, at the conclusion of my book, which was written the day of the repeal, I predicted that the Religious Right will continue to give us grief, and of course it’s turned out to be true. The Right’s main focus now is on same-sex marriage, but if they succeed there we can be sure their next focus will be on rolling back all the progress we’ve made in the various states on employment and transgender issues. It would be 1977-78 all over again. In the 1970s more than 40 cities had passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gay people. When Miami passed such an ordinance in 1977, religious right-winger Anita Bryant started a campaign to repeal it. As soon as she succeeded, ordinances were also repealed in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. That emboldened John Briggs, a right-wing state senator in California, to get an initiative on the ballot that would prohibit homosexuals—or anyone who said anything positive about homosexuality or equal rights for homosexuals—from teaching in California’s public schools. Early polls said that the Briggs Initiative would win by a landslide. That was when all segments of the LGBTQ community (radical, liberal, conservative, working class, middle class, affluent, white, people of color) started pulling together to fight against the Briggs Initiative—though they worked in their own organizations (some radical, some more conservative). The Briggs Initiative was defeated.
The important lesson, as pertinent today as it was in 1977-78, is that, despite our multitudinous differences, we need to be aware that we have a common enemy and we need to find ways to pull together—even if it’s like the fingers of a hand, separate but working in harmony—in order to fight that common enemy. These days we need to do it not only to keep marriage safe for those same-sex couples who want to marry, but also to fight for federal legislation to prohibit employment discrimination and transgender discrimination.
The good news is that such an effort is starting to happen. For instance, last spring, the National LGBTQ Task Force, which began life in 1973 as the “mainstreaming” National Gay Task Force (NGTF), devoted much of its Creating Change Conference to transgender rights; and Lambda Legal, which was founded at the same time as NGTF and with similar mainstreaming goals, now makes transgender rights a big priority.
Lillian Faderman is an internationally known scholar of lesbian history and literature, as well as ethnic history and literature. Among her many honors are six Lambda Literary Awards, two American Library Association Awards, and several lifetime achievement awards for scholarship. She is the author of The Gay Revolution and the New York Times notable books, Surpassing the Love of Men and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.
Lauren Gutterman is an Assistant Professor in the American Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a PhD in History from New York University and recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. She is currently revising a book manuscript Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage, which examines the personal experiences and public representation of wives who desired women in the United States since 1945.
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