Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sinking to Whose Level?

I'll probably finish it, because it's a breezy, fluffy read, but there are real problems with Linda Hirshman's new Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (Harper, 2012).  I happened on a copy at the public library a few days after Band of Thebes touted it, and it looked like fun.  An admitted heterosexual, Hirshman's also a lawyer and a pundit according to the bio on the dust jacket, but "pundit" predominates.  The book is excessively US-centric, as though European gay organizations didn't exist.  (Magnus Hirschfeld gets one passing mention.)  It's also full of errors large and small (the cutest, so far, is when she misnames poet and troublemaker Tuli Kupferberg "Tilli", in the text and in the index); she buys into a half-understood pop Foucauldianism, and for the history of religious prohibitions of male-male sex she draws on folklore.
The roots of the injunctions against nonreproductive sex go back to the story of Sodom in the Old Testament (that's why they call it sodomy) [72].
First, just how far back is the story of Sodom?  I have the impression that she thinks it was written at the time of the events it describes, but it's almost certainly a thousand years later.  And while I disagree with Christian apologists who deny that the story has anything to do with buttsex, it's not clear that the point of the story is that nonreproductive sex is bad: it's more that the Sodomites were so depraved that they'd violate the laws of hospitality to strangers.  Wouldn't Abraham and Sarah (half-siblings, according to Genesis) have been committing nonreproductive sex during all the years when they thought she was barren?  The first real biblical story about nonreproductive sex would be the story of Onan in Genesis 38.  Onan, you may recall, was struck dead by Yahweh for refusing to inseminate the widow of his late brother; the poor woman had to go so far as to pose as a roadside hooker and trick her father-in-law Judah into giving her a baby.  Onan's name was appropriated in the 1800s for "onanism" or masturbation; but his transgression had as much to do with Onanism as Sodom had to do with Sodomy.  The sexual values enshrined in Genesis have not, by and large, been considered normative in the Christian West.

And so on.  But sometimes Hirshman gets downright offensive, as in her account of the first night of the 1969 Stonewall riots:
When the tactical policemen lined up in the traditional phalanx formation to clear a street, the gay street kids lined up opposite them in Rockette formation performing high kicks and singing mocking songs.  "We are the Stonewall girls, we wear our hair in curls."  The tactical cops went nuts, clubbing the dancers, which, of course, only reduced them to the level of the people they despised.  New York's finest backed down by the queers.  They were murderous with rage [99]
Now, the first thing to be pointed out about the words I've put into boldface is that New York's finest had been clubbing, even killing impertinent gay street kids for many years.  Hirshman knows this, she's read the history and she cites it, she even mentions some cases.  So clubbing down the Stonewall girls was strictly business as usual.

The second and more important thing is that those street kids were above their attackers, on a level the Mayor's thugs couldn't hope to reach.  (Perhaps she feels the same way about Bloomberg's storm troopers beating up and gassing Occupy protesters and bystanders.)  I recognize that there's a thin layer of irony on Hirshman's prose in that passage, but it doesn't work.  Fie on her.

She goes on from there to a confused account of changing protest tactics in the late Sixties, conflating nonviolence with nonresistance.  As a whole she knows better, and she sees the value of confrontational activism, as well as the weakness of rejecting it.

As you can see, I'm about a third of the way through Victory.  I could only recommend it to a reader who knows nothing about GLBT history, as an accessible introduction to the subject for the United States only.  From there you should pay attention to the books she cites, and read them.  Hirshman did almost no original research except to interview surviving activists, so she's heavily dependent on the work of others.  Nothing wrong with that, but you should be too.