Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Letting the Professionals Handle It

I've finished reading Linda Hirshman's Victory, and I was right: it's fluffy and breezy and a decent introduction to recent gay, lesbian, and drag-queen American history.  As a lawyer, Hirshman is at her best when she writes about the legal battles the movement has fought.  I've read enough in that area to be able to say that she seems to know her stuff.  She still falls on her face whenever she ventures beyond the legal dish, so as I said before, if you're at all interested in our history, don't stop with Victory.  Hirshman lists a number of valuable works on GLBT history, so please read some of those.  When they disagree with her at any point, though, you can be fairly sure that it's Hirshman who's wrong.

Some of the errors are weird, and it's not always easy to figure out who's responsible for them.  For example, she introduces software mogul Tim Gill thusly:
Twenty-five years before Romer, a scared freshman at the University of Colorado had wandered into the student gay group, then called Boulder Gay Liberation. “Hi,” he said. Then he shook for ten minutes while the person manning the office tried to comfort him by talking about something like “queer theory” [264]
In 1971?  (Romer v. Evans was decided in 1996.)  Give me a fucking break.  Queer theory didn't emerge until the 1990s.  Maybe Gill misremembered what that peer counselor said to him, maybe his terror rendered him incapable of understanding, but it wasn't queer theory or anything "like" it. 

Even closer to her own field, Hirshman shows odd judgments.  Describing Evan Wolfson's monitoring of state responses to the push for same-sex marriage, she writes:
Where the states had routinely recognized the nuptials of other states, however bizarre their content (twelve-year-olds, cousins), they now forbade recognition of unions of the same sex [236].
Hirshman should know that, historically speaking, it's an age of consent above 12 or so that's "bizarre," and first-cousin marriage, however much it squicks out many open-minded American liberals, is not a big deal either.

One thing Hirshman does handle fairly well is the ongoing class conflict between gay white professionals who take for granted that they should be running the gay movement, and the trashy queens, the effeminate troublemakers.  While it's true that the professionals can go places and talk to people where the queens can't, the queens go on fighting when times get rough and the professionals cower in their closets.  It's not all that neat a distinction to begin with: Hirshman begins her book with the spectacle of high-end real estate agent Robby Browne, who celebrated his achievement as Corcoran's salesperson of the year by putting on a drag show starring himself and a dozen Broadway chorus boys.  Nice work if you can get it!  She also mentions the role of the international drag network, the Imperial Court System founded in 1965 by Jose Sarria, which supports many charities, gay and nongay.  (Though even here she screws up: she cites breast cancer and domestic violence as nongay issues.)

I don't know if she intended to do so, but Hirshman repeatedly shows how much damage entitled white male professionals have done to the gay movement, from the 1953 takeover of Mattachine that drove out the commies like Harry Hay and scared away most of the membership, to their amazing cluelessness about the opposition they would face in the important conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s.  She notices that the suits were unprepared for the militarist counteroffensive against lifting the ban on gays in the military in 1993, and that in California the "certainty of a hostile referendum if they won in the state court seems to have disappeared from the political calculus" (304). Inspired by Massachusetts, these geniuses ignored the much greater difficulty of initiating a referendum there, compared to California. And once the campaign on Proposition 8 was underway, "That the No [on 8] forces would have been caught unprepared for a save-the-children pitch reflects a mind-boggling level of historical illiteracy" (306).  It's especially ironic when you remember that these guys are the ones who want to keep unsightly trashy gays out of sight because of homophobia; they don't realize that the bigots hate nice Homo-Americans in suits just as much.

On the passage of Amendment 2 in Colorado, Hirshman writes,
The Equal Protection Coalition never dreamed Amendment 2, which had never led in the polling, would pass. But Tea Schook started having a very bad feeling when she observed morality politics at work in a local group of women who were supposed to be sympathetic: “That was supposed to be our voter. We watched how one very poisonous woman turned a bunch of people who really didn’t have an opinion into some very rabid, queer-hating people. We didn’t know how much of a shoo-in hate really was.” Lawyer Mary Celeste was in bed with her partner, Beverly, watching a report on TV about how Amendment 2 would never pass, when Beverly said, “And if it does? What is our fallback position here?” The next day Mary and Beverly and some other gay lawyers started plotting litigation strategy (250).
"We didn't know how much of a shoo-in hate really was"!  What planet had she been living on?  Such people like to present themselves as the hard-headed realists who know how to deal with the real world, unlike the airy-fairy radical idealists, but when they're confronted with the real world, they fall apart. That's not to say that lawyers and litigators, media experts, consultants and analysts, oh my! are utterly useless; they just need to get it into their heads that that other people besides them have expertise, and that they are not the gay movement, let alone the total gay population. They are the servants of the movement, not its Empresses.

Hirshman is also suitably critical of the Democratic Party in general and of Barack Obama in particular, describing their many betrayals of their gay supporters.  "Doubtless mindful of the electoral reality it faced, the Obama campaign had repeatedly insulted or ignored the gay movement" (318). She gives a detailed account of the Obama administration's backtracking on the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask Don't Tell. But even before Obama,
Every single one of the eleven states with anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot passed them in 2004. Looking at 2006 coming down the road, medical technologies heir and gay philanthropist Jon Stryker tried to figure out what to do next. He dispatched his adviser, progressive gay political consultant Lisa Turner, who had worked in state capitals as political director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and for the Victory Fund, to look into the matter. Turner learned something startling: the Democratic Party in the initiative states had done nothing to stop the tide in 2004. Their field offices played no role. Their workers carried no literature. In some of the states, the Democratic Party would not even let the gay opponents to the initiatives have access to the precious rolls of Democratic voters, the voter files.

Former White House gay staffer, Paul Yandura, whom Turner knew from the community of rich gay philanthropists and their advisers, was furious. Since the Clinton years the gay community had thought it could buy its way to political power by funding the Democratic Party. Yandura had raised a bunch of gay money for the Democrats. And the dishonest beneficiaries wouldn’t even stay bought [298].
It was worth wading through the previous 300 pages of Victory just to learn this, which I hadn't known before.  Chances are you'll learn something from it too.  Think of it as beach reading.