Monday, June 28, 2010

Concentrate on the Future, Not the Past

It's Gay Pride Day, the forty-first anniversary of the beginning of the Stonewall Riots, and I've been reading parts of Philip Gambone's Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). It's a collection of interviews with more than forty GLBTQ+ π Americans, ranging from young-ish to old, male and female and all points between. Unfortunately the interviews are quite short and don't go very deep, though part of the trouble might be that I've been reading the interviews with people I've already heard of, and they don't tell me much that's new. Richard Rodriguez is in there, for example, being as much of an asshole as usual. Gambone reports, "He tells me about the day at Berkeley when an African American student asked him why he was reading a novel by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. 'That's when I realized that I had entered a Dark Age. That I had entered an age when we were not allowed to know each other's literature'" (238).

What? The report is too sketchy for me to tell for sure, but I'd like to know why that "African American student" posed that question. I've sometimes been asked by Koreans why I read Korean literature and watch Korean films, and they're generally satisfied when I tell them that I find these interesting, and why. They ask, not to tell me I'm not allowed to know Korean literature, but because so few Americans (and too few Koreans) are interested in their culture. Even if Rodriguez' interlocutor really meant that non-Africans shouldn't be reading African literature, he was not speaking for the university. Students nowadays are expected to "know each other's literature": Achebe's Things Fall Apart is often assigned reading, and that's why we hear about culture wars, multiculturalism, and "political correctness." If there ever was a "Dark Age," as Rodriguez claims, it's over now. White students study Afro-American Studies (and join the African-American Choral Ensemble), men enroll in Women's Studies, heterosexuals do Queer Theory. The separatism that Rodriguez denounces simply isn't there in the academy.

There's also an interview with Frank Kameny, which further undermines Andrew Sullivan's claims about the history of the gay movement. Kameny tells Gambone that he "wants to watch the coverage of the city's gay pride parade. 'I may well be in it.' Indeed, that afternoon I watched from the sidewalk on P Street as Kameny, one of Capital Pride's 2009 'Super Heroes,' passed by in an open car, waving to the crowd" (171). Far from being ignored, Kameny's role as a founder of the gay rights movement is well known and celebrated, as it has been ever since I can remember.

Kameny told Gambone:
The homophile organizations that existed [in the 1950s and early 1960s] gave enormous credence to the so-called experts and authorities of the day. They weren't really militant. That wasn't me or my style... [171]
Kameny's "confrontational style became known as 'ferocious'", Gambone says. The radical gay movement of the 70s took that style and ran with it. Kameny's personal goals were what would be called assimilationist, since they involved gays serving in the Civil Service and military, and running for public office, but he also rejected the mainstream view of homosexuality as a sickness. Kameny joined the gay militants who took on the psychiatric profession -- again, far from being hostile to the post-Stonewall movement, he worked with it.
Kameny contends that these early demonstrations -- and the annual Fourth of July pickets in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which Mattachine Washington joined -- paved the way for the Stonewall uprising in 1969. "By virtue of our coming out of the closet collectively, it created the mindset for protesting, so that when the events of the moment created the eruption on Christopher Street, people were primed" [175].
Sure, there was tension between left gay radicals and those whose politics fell into the American mainstream, but that is only to be expected. Kameny rejected the collaborationist approach of the homophile movement of the 1950s, and that was too much for much of the movement. As Kay Lahusen of Daughters of Bilitis told Eric Marcus, "We had one of our major contributors write to us in a private letter that only dirty, unwashed rabble did this kind of thing" (Making History, HarperCollins, 1992, p. 125) -- "this kind of thing" being picketing.
But of course, the new wave frequently tries to put the last wave out of business. Certainly, we had our differences with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon at DOB [Daughters of Bilitis]. We had said to them, "You're over the hill. Your thinking is out of date." So GLF did the same to us.

Barbara [Gittings, Lahusen's partner] We didn't do that in a public setting.

Kay: But we took their magazine in a totally different direction, and they weren't happy with that. We thumbed our noses at them -- almost [Making History, 215].
I realize that to some extent Andrew Sullivan is doing the same thing. The difference, and it's a serious one, is that he still chooses to distort the history of the movement that came before him. There's no excuse for that in a day when that history is so widely and easily available; if he doesn't know it, it's because he doesn't want to.