Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Clap Your Hands If You Believe in the Ferryman

I've begun reading For the Ferryman: A Personal History (Chelsea Station Editions, 2011) by Charles Silverstein, a psychologist who played a significant role in the gay liberation movement.  He presented an argument to the American Psychiatric Association's Nomenclature Committee that contributed to the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, and went on to write pro-gay books on numerous subjects that many gay people nowadays would tell you were impossible to write about positively in those ancient times.  One was A Family Matter (1977), on dealing with parents and other family members; another was Man to Man (1981), on the management of committed gay male relationships.  Most famous, probably, was The Joy of Gay Sex, co-written with Edmund White, which first appeared in 1977 but has gone into three editions, the latest in 2009.  I could have sworn I'd heard that Silverstein died twenty years ago, but Google tells me he's still alive at 85, which pleases me a great deal.

I'm about a hundred pages into For the Ferryman; it's not great literature, but it's a good read and a significant document of the post-Stonewall era, and there are a couple of passages I want to pass along.

One involves the Gay Activists Alliance, the second and longer-lived gay activist organization to emerge in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion.  GAA's headquarters was a former firehouse, which supported its activities with weekly dances that drew crowds of a thousand or so every Saturday night.  (There's a scene in the movie Parting Glances set at the Firehouse during one of those dances.)  GAA was an avowedly anti-capitalist organization, but:

On the other hand, GAA had to pay rent and the phone bill and buy beer for dances.  Therefore, we charged an admission fee of two dollars for the dances.  The result of the conflict of values was an irresponsible accounting system.  The first year the treasurer was caught with his hand in the till.  Unwilling to trust the police and the courts, GAA held its own trial and ended up the treasurer's membership.  (The former treasurer threatened to run for president in the next election, saying that stealing the money was our own fault because we let him [95-96].

And the name of that treasurer was... Donald Trump! -- No, not really.  Unfortunately, antisocial behavior among LGBTQ people is still sometimes excused on the grounds that the offender suffered under heterosexism and can't be held responsible.  It occurs to me now that charging admission to the dances as a fundraiser to cover expenses wasn't capitalism, but people had the same trouble defining their terms that they do now.  Besides, many GAA members at the time were probably still influenced by the hippie ethic, which held that everything should be free; but it was still necessary to get money for necessities even for nominally free stuff.  GAA could have called the admission fee a "donation," and maybe they did.  It's not capitalism unless you're accumulating capital and making a profit.

The next bit has bearing on an issue that's still very much with us:

The word "homophobia" is another example [like "gay"] of using words to reinterpret the world.  It has very little meaning from a psychological perspective, especially because of its use of the word phobia.  It was a brilliant political conception first publicized by the psychologist George Weinberg and used so extensively that people believed it to be a significant psychological term.  Its political function was to attack institutions or people who depreciated gays.  The people who who beat us on the streets or called us fags were no longer merely prejudiced.  They suffered - and here is the brilliance of the term - from a mental illness called "homophobia." We provided a medical diagnosis to balance the scale that had previously been tipped to our detriment.  "Homophobia" was as effective in going on the offense against discrimination as the word "racist" was to the Black Liberation Movement and "sexist" to the Women's Liberation Movement [96-7].

Now, that's interesting, but even though Silverstein was on the ground at the time, I don't believe it.  It has been many years since I read Weinberg's Society and the Healthy Homosexual, but I don't recall any sense that he was using "homophobia" as a political conception.  As late as 2012 he was arguing in all seriousness that it should be entered into the next revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is a bad idea all around.  Far from casting "homophobia" as a political tactic, Weinberg insisted that it must be an illness because people did bad things to gay people. It makes no sense to call a majority attitude (as antigay bigotry was in the 1960s and 1970s) an illness.  Among those who "believed it to be a significant psychological term" were the many LGBTQ people who went into the helping professions after Stonewall, so whatever political sting the term may once have had, it's long gone now.  Also, "racist" and "sexist" are not pseudoclinical terms, so they're not comparable to "homophobic."

Oh, one other thing, on the same page.  Silverstein says of the first Gay Pride Marches that

we did not call them "parades" as they do now.  Parades have a celebratory air about them, suggesting a time for fun and frolic.  We were not celebrating, we were marching for our civil rights, exhibiting ourselves to a shocked heterosexual audiences and shouting for other gay people to come out of the closet.  This was not accidental.  GAA did not want their marches to deteriorate into the parades they have now become [97].

I've written about this before.  If GAA didn't want their marches to "deteriorate" into celebratory parades, they shouldn't have included celebratory, carnivalesque elements in the very first march.  But the marches' tone was out of their control almost immediately, even just in New York, let alone all the other cities that quickly followed their lead.  In the beginning, the celebration had a political edge, because those shocked heterosexuals had never seen such goings-on outside of New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  Silverstein tries to play down those aspects, summing up the first march with "We greeted each other with friendly kisses and 'Happy Birthday,' as if we had started life anew at the Stonewall" (97).  (N.B.: Silverstein wasn't at the Stonewall, as he informs his readers himself - see page 87.)

Harumph, harumph!  Ah well.  Silverstein's perspective is worth having, and I look forward to the rest of the book.