Rain­bow revo­lu­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY E. J. GRAFF E.J. Graff, au­thor of “What Is Mar­riage? The Strange So­cial History of Our Most In­ti­mate In­sti­tu­tion,” is the man­ag­ing editor of The Washington Post’s Mon­key Cage blog and a se­nior fel­low at the Schuster In­sti­tute for In­ves­tiga­tive

A history of gay rights.

When a fed­eral judge in Ken­tucky sent county clerk Kim Davis to jail last month for re­fus­ing to is­sue mar­riage li­censes to same­sex cou­ples, many evan­gel­i­cals and con­ser­va­tives cheered Davis as a mar­tyr for bib­li­cal truth, but most main­stream politi­cians and news out­lets es­sen­tially rolled their eyes at her re­fusal to carry out the law. And that makes my head spin. Only 20 years ago, Amer­i­cans over­whelm­ingly agreed with Davis that same-sex mar­riage was a ridicu­lous idea. Only 60 years ago, fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments and the main­stream media en­forced her be­liefs, send­ing ho­mo­sex­u­als to jail and sham­ing them pub­licly for their im­moral per­ver­sions.

What the heck hap­pened? How did a once-de­spised mi­nor­ity win full for­mal equal­ity (with some caveats, be­low)? How did gay peo­ple be­come moral he­roes to many Amer­i­cans while Davis and her like be­came the ridiculed out­casts?

Lil­lian Fa­der­man has the sprawl­ing, com­pli­cated an­swer in “The Gay Revo­lu­tion.” This is the history of the gay and les­bian move­ment that we’ve been wait­ing for: com­pul­sively read­able, care­fully an­chored in the his­tor­i­cal record, over­flow­ing with riv­et­ing sto­ries, hu­man pe­cu­liar­i­ties and thought­ful anal­y­sis of the messy po­lit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions that dogged this un­tidy move­ment. Other books have pur­ported to ex­plain how the un­ruly LGBT move­ment tri­umphed. “The Gay Revo­lu­tion” suc­ceeds.

The book opens in 1948, as a re­spected and beloved jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri turns him­self in to po­lice. Af­ter the pro­fes­sor was outed in a witch­hunt that in­volved co­erc­ing gay men to iden­tify their sodomitic co-con­spir­a­tors, a war­rant was is­sued for his ar­rest. The pro­fes­sor tries to fight back — but it’s the wrong era. He is jailed, shamed and stripped of his rep­u­ta­tion, ca­reer and pen­sion. And he’s not alone: Fa­der­man shows us one such per­se­cu­tion af­ter another, il­lus­trat­ing the heart­break­ing cli­mate for ev­ery ma­jor na­tional is­sue on which les­bian and gay peo­ple have since tri­umphed.

For those of us who’ve been read­ing gay history since scholars such as Fa­der­man, Ge­orge Chauncey, John D’Emilio and Michael Bron­ski be­gan pub­lish­ing their re­search sev­eral decades ago, some of what fol­lows is as fa­mil­iar as a bed­time story. In Cal­i­for­nia, here’s ground­break­ing gay ac­tivist Harry Hay get­ting ousted from Mat­ta­chine, the “ho­mophile” group he started, af­ter the mid­dle­class men and women it at­tracted be­gan to re­ject his com­mu­nism and aim in­stead for re­spectabil­ity. In the Dis­trict of Columbia, there’s Hay’s mir­ror im­age, Frank Ka­meny, a bril­liant as­tronomer who in 1957 was dis­missed from the U.S. Army Map Ser­vice and stripped of his fed­eral se­cu­rity clear­ance for ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity — and who be­came a life­time cru­sader for gay rights. Here’s Bar­bara Git­tings in her proper dress and Ka­meny in his shirt and tie, the “mother” and “fa­ther” of the gay rights move­ment, po­litely pick­et­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment at a time when do­ing so could de­stroy lives. Here is the drag queens’ gid­dily an­gry kick­line at the 1969 Stonewall Inn ri­ots, as street youth and butch les­bians and out­cast gay folk refuse, at long last, to be carted off to jail for be­ing queer.

But even as Fa­der­man builds on 40 years of schol­ar­ship in LGBT history, she goes be­yond what’s al­ready been chron­i­cled, be­yond the fa­mil­iar peaks and val­leys that have en­tered the cul­ture’s civil rights lex­i­con. For ev­ery story I al­ready knew — and many I did not — Fa­der­man of­fers new ma­te­rial, in­sights, anec­dotes or syn­the­ses. She has delved into the col­lected pa­pers and archival ma­te­ri­als that have be­gun find­ing their way into schol­arly li­braries. She has done orig­i­nal in­ter­views with such lesser-known but crit­i­cal play­ers as Col. Mar­garethe Cam­mer­meyer, a pi­o­neer in work­ing to knock down the gay ex­clu­sion from mil­i­tary ser­vice be­fore “don’t ask, don’t tell”; with Michael Pe­trelis, who along with fu­ri­ous prophet Larry Kramer helped found and build ACT UP into an out­ra­geously ef­fec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion that forced the U.S. gov­ern­ment to re­spond to the AIDS epi­demic; with New Eng­land le­gal pow­er­house Mary Bo­nauto, whose painstak­ing strat­egy and tac­tics won the early vic­to­ries that helped ig­nite the mar­riage move­ment — and the back­lash — in the rest of the na­tion.

One of Fa­der­man’s finds has to do with the cam­paign by les­bians and gay men to per­suade the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion to stop list­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as a men­tal ill­ness. Key ac­tivists man­aged to get a booth and panel at the APA’s 1972 con­ven­tion — pos­si­bly the first time many of the at­ten­dees would see a gay per­son who wasn’t com­ing in for treat­ment. They strate­gized to make the panel per­sua­sive. Git­tings and Ka­meny agreed to be on the panel, along with two non-gay psy­chi­a­trists who did not think that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was an ill­ness. “Kay Tobin, Git­ting’s part­ner, came up with a star­tling sug­ges­tion. ‘ You’ve got two gays who are not psy­chi­a­trists and two psy­chi­a­trists who are not gay. What you need now is a gay psy­chi­a­trist.’ Git­tings and Ka­meny un­der­stood good theater. . . . Gid­dings started search­ing for the fifth psy­chi­a­trist.”

Un­for­tu­nately, all the gay shrinks were afraid of los­ing their jobs and their stand­ing. At last, Git­tings tracked one down who was will­ing to con­sider join­ing the panel— but not as him­self. So Git­tings had an idea: dis­guise

him. Ka­meny ex­ploded in anger, say­ing that would go against ev­ery­thing they stood for, but he couldn’t find an al­ter­na­tive. The gay shrink was John Fryer, who “was six feet four, weighed about three hun­dred pounds, and had bull­dog jowls. Dis­guise seemed im­pos­si­ble. But Fryer’s lover, a drama ma­jor in col­lege, was tick­led by the chal­lenge. He dressed Fryer in a tuxedo that was three sizes too large and so made him look smaller, a rub­ber mask of Richard Nixon that went over his head and face and was crimped to look clown-like, and a frizzy fright wig. . . . He was billed as Dr. H. Anony­mous. Ka­meny had to con­cede he’d been wrong about not pre­sent­ing a psy­chi­a­trist in dis­guise. The ef­fect was sen­sa­tional. . . . [At the end of his talk, Fryer] was given a stand­ing ova­tion.”

I also learned here how for­mer Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor Ron­ald Rea­gan was per­suaded to op­pose the Briggs ini­tia­tive, which would have made it illegal for any gay per­son to teach school, and in do­ing so pre­vented it from be­com­ing law. And Fa­der­man in­tro­duces then-clos­eted Midge Costanza, an aide to Jimmy Carter, who lost her po­si­tion af­ter she or­ga­nized a White House meet­ing with gay ac­tivists led by her un­ac­knowl­edged girl­friend— a story I’d heard only through gos­sip and which was cer­tainly not this metic­u­lously foot­noted.

Through anec­dotes like these, we watch as les­bians and gay men take po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions, win public of­fice, build na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and achieve Supreme Court vic­to­ries — in­ter­rupted by plague, as­sas­si­na­tion, sick­en­ing bal­lot cam­paigns, witch­hunts and ab­hor­rent fed­eral laws, all out­matched by ever more or­ga­niz­ing. It’s thrilling.

Part of what’s thrilling is how Fa­der­man shows these ac­tivists and ac­tions with flaws and all, por­tray­ing the chaos and in­fight­ing, the deep and an­gry di­vi­sions. She shows les­bians and gay men of­ten fight­ing one another, some­times about sex­ism, some­times about which is­sues to em­pha­size (say, op­po­si­tion to raids on men hav­ing sex in bath­rooms, or fight­ing for­women’s right to con­tinue to see their chil­dren af­ter di­vorc­ing their hus­bands and dat­ing women). She cov­ers the clashes be­tween the rad­i­cals and elites, the ones who wanted to tear down the es­tab­lish­ment and the ones who wanted to be the es­tab­lish­ment. She shows the loony utopi­ans — sep­a­ratist col­lec­tives, any­one? — and the in­side play­ers. She shows the decades-long in­ter­nal strug­gles over how to win: Should a cam­paign timidly talk about hu­man rights and ab­stract prin­ci­ples, or openly ar­gue in fa­vor of gay peo­ple’s hu­man­ity and fam­i­lies. And if the lat­ter, how?

Of course, the book is not com­plete. Even 600-plus pages of text couldn’t pos­si­bly chron­i­cle ev­ery ef­fort over al­most 70 years. Fa­der­man con­cen­trates on na­tional ac­tion, with some bias to­ward Cal­i­for­nia and the West Coast. She leaves out myr­iad state or­ga­niz­ing ef­forts, in which coura­geous in­di­vid­u­als around the coun­try painstak­ingly built lo­cal coali­tions and trained their state lead­ers and leg­is­la­tors to see gay peo­ple as wor­thy of anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions. But if she can’t tell ev­ery story, she tells enough of the right ones to paint the big pic­ture well.

The book ends with Pres­i­dent Obama call­ing Edie Wind­sor from Air Force One to thank her for help­ing to bring down the De­fense of Mar­riage Act in Wind­sor v. United States, the penul­ti­mate step in dis­man­tling same-sex cou­ples’ ex­clu­sion from U.S. mar­riage laws. To­day, les­bians and gay men are full cit­i­zens of our re­pub­lic. Which isn’t the same as full ac­cep­tance or cul­tural welcome. Many young peo­ple still have to come out in the hos­tile mi­cro­cli­mates of their fam­i­lies or are bul­lied in school; LGBT peo­ple aren’t cov­ered by any na­tional anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws, an es­pe­cially im­por­tant short­com­ing in those parts of the coun­try where we’re still thought to be per­verted and queer; skir­mishes are con­tin­u­ing with our most de­ter­mined re­li­gious op­po­nents; bi­sex­u­als are still eyed with sus­pi­cion; and the trans­gen­der col­umn is a cou­ple of decades be­hind the other letters in win­ning ac­cep­tance and free­dom. The story is far from over.

But there’s no deny­ing that a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions of gay men and les­bians — Fa­der­man’s gen­er­a­tion and mine — grew up be­ing spat upon, bashed and threat­ened for be­ing queer. Now, amaz­ingly enough, we are more of­ten than not treated as bor­ing and nor­mal. “The Gay Revo­lu­tion” tells you who changed our world, and how.


THE GAY REVO­LU­TION The Story of the Strug­gle By Lil­lian Fa­der­man Si­mon & Schuster. 794 pp. $35


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