Sunday, June 20, 2010

Social Justice for Me, But Not for Thee

Once again Andrew Sullivan demonstrates his aggressive fondness for disinformation. As he advances toward his 50th birthday, that becomes less and less excusable because of his youth.

In a June 16 post Sullivan writes:

The salience of the drag queen revolt in the West Village in June 1969 is not in any historical dispute. It was a cultural and psychological breakthrough - an empowering moment that clearly shifted something deep in gay America's psyche. But the notion that before this, there was no gay rights movement, that those amazing drag queens were the first gay Americans ever to stand up for their rights in public, is as preposterous as it is now deemed indisputable. Take this quote from Eric Marcus in the NYT today:

“Before Stonewall there was no such thing as coming out or being out,” says Eric Marcus, the author of “Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian & Gay Equal Rights.” “People talk about being in and out now; there was no out, there was just in.”

Has Eric Marcus heard of Frank Kameny? Many Dish readers have....
Why yes, Eric Marcus has heard of Frank Kameny. His oral history of the gay movement, Making Gay History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights 1945-1990 (HarperCollins, 1992), mentioned in that Times quotation, includes a lengthy interview he did with Kameny. Kameny told Marcus, "I was not open about being gay at that time -- no one was, not in 1957. But I was certainly leading a social life. I went to the gay bars many, many evenings. I've never been a covert kind of a person, and I wasn't about to be someone simply because I was working for the government" (94). He also said:
First of all, up to this time, homosexuality had never been publicly discussed. ... Virtually from one end of the decade to the other, outside the medical books, there was nothing anywhere on the subject. It was blanked out, blacked out. It wasn't there! ... And so the movement, predictably, in retrospect, did not take strong positions. It gave a hearing to everybody, saying, "As long as it deals with homosexuality, all views must be heard, even those that are the most harshly and viciously condemnatory to homosexuals. We have to defer to the experts." My answer to that was, "Drivel! We are the experts on ourselves, and we will tell the experts they have nothing to tell us" (97-98).
Kameny somewhat overstated his case there. There had been public discussion of homosexuality before he was radicalized. The Kinsey Reports (1948, 1953) had led to some public discussion of homosexuality, but gay voices didn't participate in it, partly because the media would not have permitted them to do so, and almost no gays would have done so openly if they had. The closest to such a gay contribution was Donald Webster Cory's The Homosexual in America (originally published in 1951), but Cory was also a pseudonym. By Sullivan's standards, Kameny himself would have been saying that there was no gay rights movement before Stonewall. And Kameny's attitude did not define the movement in those days -- it put him at odds with it.

Of course, what Marcus said to the Times in no way claims that there was no gay rights movement in America before Stonewall: he was talking about being out, being openly gay. While a few people were out in that way before the Stonewall riots of June 1969, it was not characteristic of the movement. Kameny was, if memory serves, one of the few activists in the pre-Stonewall era who didn't use a pseudonym in their movement work. Sullivan concedes that "There was 'out' before Stonewall. It was a different kind of out. But I'd argue that the courage of a civil servant in a suit and tie marching outside the White House in 1963 deserves just as much respect and focus as Village bar patrons six years later." True, but who said it didn't? Kameny was widely known as an important pioneer and respected (though there were of course dissenters) by younger activists when I came out in 1971, included in movement writing about the history of the gay movement, and the IU gay organization invited him to speak at its Midwestern Conference in the mid-1970s.

Typically, Sullivan refers to the Stonewall riots as a "drag queen revolt." In a follow-up post he admits that it wasn't: "It's also worth noting that many of those who fought back that night were not drag queens, but just regular homos who had had enough." "Regular homos"! In Sullivan's world there's no middle ground between "regular homos" (presumably white men like himself) and drag queens. He repeats his core falsehood: "My point was to push back against the idiotic - and politically loaded - notion that the gay rights movement began with Stonewall." No one that I know of, certainly in the gay movement, has ever said that it did. Sullivan's Exhibit A is the quotation from Eric Marcus that says something quite different, so I presume he has no real evidence to support his claim. He points to gay rightist Bruce Bawer's notorious essay "The Stonewall Myth," which makes the same false claim about the same straw men, and was demolished nicely (along with an early article on the subject by Sullivan) by Tony Kushner in his 1994 article "A Socialism of the Skin." (All but the last three pages of Kushner's article is available at that link. The Nation, where it first appeared, doesn't have it online. Shame on them.)
And the concerted attempt to erase the history of this older, more centrist (and therefore more radical) gay politics is itself a political move - to co-opt the gay rights movement for the New Left, rather than seeing it as a much more complex and diverse movement, that often used radicalism and revolt, but also deployed argument and logic in the long and winding road to equal dignity. In fact, this fusion of proud and openly gay engagement with American society with sporadic revolt against it has been the key to the movement's astonishingly swift success.
Sullivan's hobbyhorse, which goes back to the beginning of his career as a gay writer, is that "the gay rights movement" has been hijacked by the Left. This politically loaded claim is about forty years out of date: the US gay movement was dominated by the left for a very brief period right after Stonewall, and almost immediately abandoned Gay Liberation for a single-issue focus. Many New York activists left GLF to form Gay Activists Alliance within a year, and for most of the decades since, the movement has been dominated by "centrists" and assimilationists.

Those people are still too far left for Sullivan, though; that's his complaint. But it's Sullivan, not those forever unnamed gay leftists, who is trying to "erase the history" of the US gay movement; his picture is not only at odds with the history but even with the account of his own personal friend Frank Kameny. The Gay Liberationists also "deployed argument and logic in the long and winding road to equal dignity"; it's the gay Right that has relied mostly on ad hominems and fantasy. (And pseudonyms -- the leadership of the Log Cabin Republicans were still using fake names into the late 80s at least -- from fear of retaliation not from the Gay Left, but from members of their own party.) Sullivan's history of reaching out to the most bigoted elements of the Right is a sign not merely of naivete but a studied refusal to learn from experience. He's constantly shocked! shocked! to discover that so many conservatives, from the Pope on down, are hardline bigots; he continues to blame their bigotry on the "politics of performance art," and can't understand why they won't accept a nice Catholic boy like him as the true face of the gay movement, power glutes and all.