Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990.
No one has yet attempted a narrative history that illuminates the more than four decades of homosexual emancipation activity in the United States. But Eric Marcus's collection of oral histories, Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990, will certainly help to define the contours of the story. Making History includes the reminiscences of forty-nine women and men. Most of them are gay, but some are heterosexual allies who have enlisted in the movement. Their experiences range from San Diego to Boston, and from Boise to Atlanta. Their stories of tragedy, courage, endurance and - ultimately - of triumph constitute a remarkable tale of collective resistance.
Marcus divides the history of the movement into five phases and provides a brief historical introduction to each section. The driving force of the book, however, is the testimony of his informants. Each new cohort of activists builds, whether consciously or not, on the work of those who preceded it. Through this we come to see the accretion of small changes that, cumulatively, have made lesbian and gay life today so dramatically different from the experience of the post-World War II years.
The pioneering activists of the 1940s and 1950s worked in a staggeringly inhospitable environment. They wondered whether it was even legal for them to meet, and their worries were hardly assuaged by visits from the F.B.I., seizure of their magazines by the Postal Service and the uninvited presence of police at some of their public gatherings. Still, they established a small but stable public presence for homosexuals, while their occasional victories, such as the Suprerne Court's upholding of the right to publish material about homosexuality, paved the way for later ones. As the political climate opened up in the 1960s, some "homophile" activists pushed beyond the educational goals of their predecessors. Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen describe the movement's first public demonstrations on the East Coast in the mid-1960s - several years before Stonewall - while others recount the beginnings of San Francisco's "gay renaissance" in the wake of a massive police raid on a church-sponsored gay dance early in 1965.
The Stonewall riot in New York City in June 1969 dramatically altered both the shape of the movement and gay life. As Martha Shelley, who made the transition from the homophile activism of the Daughters of Bilitis to the street-fighting politics of the Gay Liberation Front, describes it, "Gay liberation just blew away the last restraints." Drawing freely from the experience and insights of the New Left, black power, feminism and the counterculture, a younger generation of men and women exploded onto the American landscape. Boldly redefining "coming out" as a public declaration of identity, they forever changed the social meaning of homosexuality. The exhilaration of those heady years vibrates on every page. One can forgive their naive faith that revolution was on the horizon, since each day's activity reinforced the feeling that the impossible was within reach.
AIthough Marcus defines the period from 1973 to 1981 as a "Coming of Age," the descriptions of these years suggest otherwise. Yes, there were victories: Gittings recounts the American Psychiatric Association's removal of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, and Jean O'Leary narrates the organizing effort to have the 1977 International Women's Year conference in Houston endorse lesbian rights. But more common are the bittersweet stories of confronting homophobia. Vernon Berg failed to win reinstatement in the Navy; Dave Kopay, a professional football player, never got the coaching job he wanted; and Randy Shilts describes the discrimination he encountered as a young journalist. Gay liberation, born as the radicalism of the 1960s waned, suddenly ran smack into the new conservatism of the 1970s. I sense from these stories a movement in disarray by the time Reagan was elected, not quite sure of where it was going or of how to get there.
The 1980s gave activists direction. As the tragic scope of the AIDS epidemic became clear, the movement regrouped and hordes of new recruits poured in. The anger engendered by the epidemic bristles through the latter part of the book. And the activism that sickness and death made necessary went beyond AIDS. The accounts of these years reveal a movement whose roots are now deep in American society. Some gays and lesbians have created institutions that have the aura of permanence, while others are working their way into the mainstream.
With only a few exceptions, these oral histories are rich enough in information and insight that I wish Marcus had chosen to interpret them more than he has, to tease out their significance and offer a more extended analysis of the evolution of the movement and the community that nurtures it. Nonetheless, there are conclusions to be drawn. For one, I was struck by the way that gay oppression recapitulates itself in the experience of men and women coming of age across several generations. Each life replicates a cycle of confusion, isolation and vulnerability, yet over time the cycle is compressed. There is a vast difference between the story of "Paul," born early in the century, who was approaching middle age before he found a group of gay men, and Deborah Johnson, who by age 18 was leading rap groups at the Los Angeles gay community center. Homophobia may still be alive and well, but the movement has created the resources and institutions to counterbalance it.
Throughout these pages runs the tension between those who see themselves as essentially the same as heterosexuals and who reach for integration, and those for whom gayness marks them as fundamentally different and who therefore embrace a separatism of sorts ("queer nationalism" in the current parlance). At first glance this debate seems to parallel the distinction between conservatives and radicals. But can one really describe as conservative Kathleen Boatwright, who, in her Sears dress, challenges the homophobia of Episcopalian women at their Triennial Conference? One thing seems clear: A debate that has lasted now for forty years is unlikely to be resolved in favor of either position. In fact, the movement seems to gather strength from the tension as each side embraces tactics to suit its self-conception.
The movement's cycles of growth and stasis also suggest the critical role that galvanizing incidents have played in the gay rights struggle. The persecutions of the McCarthy era propelled the movement into existence. Police raids in San Francisco and New York in the 1960s sparked an era of militancy. The gay rights repeal campaigns of the late 1970s drove a whole new legion of men and women to activism. As Jean O'Leary put it, "One thing our enemies will never understand, that they just don't seem to get, is that the harder they try to push us back into the closet, the more outpouring there's going to be. . . . By trying to repress us, they really bring out the militancy in us and make for a lot more visible gay people." From this vantage point, the movement's spectacular growth in the past ten years makes perfect sense: AIDS serves as a continuing galvanizing "incident," an endless series of diagnoses and deaths, each of which fuels anger and a commitment to activism. We all yearn for the end of the epidemic, but I cannot help but wonder what will happen to the movement when the magic bullet is found.
Finally, Marcus's collection of oral histories raises the intriguing issue of the relationship between politics and culture in the life of this social movement. Certainly the legislative victories, the policy changes and the institutional adjustments that the movement has extracted are critically important. I wouldn't spend so much of my time as an activist if I did not believe that to be true. Yet I also sense that the movement's well-being is not ultimately dependent on roll-call votes.
As much as anything, the lesbian and gay movement operates on the terrain of everyday life. The community centers, the bookstores, the Sunday services of the congregations of the Metropolitan Community Church, the infinite series of coming-out experiences, the conversations with family, friends and co-workers: All these serve to reshape consciousness and to alter profoundly the substance of daily experience. It took personal courage for each of the men and women
whose stories Marcus has given us to exit the closet. But once they and tens of thousands of others took that step they became an irresistible force pushing toward a new world.
John D' Emilio is the author of Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University (Routledge).