June 22, 2012
Posted by Richard Socarides
In the nineteen-fifties, the State Department went through something like a purge, systematically seeking out and firing gay employees, who, given the times, had been living closeted lives. Linda Hirshman, writing about the episode in her new book “Victory: the Triumphant Gay Revolution,” quotes the former head of State Department security: “The only thing I regret, was within minutes and sometimes maybe a week, they would commit suicide. One guy he barely left my office and … boom—right on the corner of Twenty-first and Virginia.”
The gay-rights movement in the United States has made great progress since then, and recently the pace of change has been breathtakingly fast. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed, multiple federal-court decisions have struck down anti-gay laws as unconstitutional, and President Obama has announced that he supports same-sex marriage—all in the past eighteen months. This Sunday, we celebrate the one-year anniversary of same-sex marriage in New York. It might seem as if full equality for gay and lesbian Americans were now a foregone conclusion.
This is the theory at the heart of “Victory”—not that we have already achieved victory, but that it is at hand. What’s clear from the book is that that success did not happen overnight, but rather, like any political progress, was the result of a lot of hard work, individual effort, and much sacrifice over a lengthy period.
But one shouldn’t get that the battle for equality is over. You can still be fired just for being gay in most states. There is no federal antidiscrimination protection. One of the candidates for President in this year’s election believes that there should be a U.S. constitutional amendment against marriage equality.
Yet signs of progress abound, especially in the cultural sphere (just look at prime-time TV), which often seems to lead in advance of political change. President Obama said last week, “Americans may be still evolving when it comes to marriage equality, but as I’ve indicated, personally Michelle and I have made up our minds.” Those remarks came while he presided over the annual White House reception for gay-pride month—an occasion the Pentagon is celebrating for the first time, too.
Hirshman, a lawyer, commentator, and (straight) feminist who has previously written about women’s-rights issues, has produced a remarkable history of the gay-rights movement in America by chronicling many of the people and events that shaped it. She has a smart and engaging style, which is serious but not ponderous. While she presents some new material (unearthed by a great deal of research), much of her book is a retelling of what is already known, but with new clarity and simple, fresh insight. While not comprehensive, it’s an often compelling overview which packs more than you would think into a rather concise three hundred and fifty pages.
The book proceeds chronologically, starting off in the early twentieth century, even before delving into the work of the gay-rights pioneer Harry Hay and the founding of the Mattachine Society, in 1950, considered to be the beginning of the movement. The events leading up to the Stonewall riots, the post-Stonewall period, AIDS and ACT UP, the promise and disappointments of the Clinton years are all covered. (My own work as a White House adviser to President Clinton on gay-rights issues is mentioned, and Hirshman, who is an acquaintance, interviewed me for the book.) A great deal of attention is paid to the legal cases, local and grass-roots activism, and efforts to change institutions such as the American Psychiatric Association. There is less about the important role of Hollywood than I would have expected. It ends with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the passage of marriage equality in New York.
No one hero emerges, although clearly Hirshman has her favorites, including the early movement leader Frank Kameny, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, and, more recently, the straight lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies, the leaders of the legal effort to overturn California’s Proposition 8, who “put their social capital in the bank for marriage equality. Probably no one else in the country could have done more.” The curious subject of why the gay-rights movement has never had a leader on the scale of a Martin Luther King or a Gloria Steinem, often debated in the movement, is not really addressed in this book.
Hirshman has her theories about why the movement has succeeded so spectacularly. It had focus. It asserted a right to be treated fairly in moral terms. Its leaders acted collaboratively. They were willing to break the rules for the greater good. She also believes that the gay-rights movement had a harder path and started out with longer odds than the African-American civil-rights movement and the women’s-rights movement, a contention which has already proved controversial:
Lacking the religious and historical jet fuel of racial civil rights and the demographic advantage of feminism, the gay revolution started out from much the weaker position of any of the modern movements. Brilliantly led, endlessly resourceful, and stunningly creative, it came the furthest.
Much of that analysis is at least debatable. Internal arguments over tactics and direction within the gay movement are legendary. And I’m not sure there is anything to be gained by these sorts of comparisons. It’s hard to imagine anything more difficult to overcome than slavery. But that is really not the point of this book. It succeeds best as story (which it mostly is), perhaps because what has transpired is too recent history to really come up with any kind of universal explanation that will stand the test of time. The best we can do for now is identify and highlight moments and episodes which were turning points, and that this book does exceedingly well.
So if gay equality is within our grasp, what remains to be done?
Next year at this time, we will almost certainly be awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court, at the end of its next term, which will likely set the trajectory of gay rights for many years to come. By then the Court will have likely heard arguments in both the challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act coming out of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in Boston, and the challenge to California’s Proposition 8 coming out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco. (While it seems certain that the Court will accept the Boston case, it is less certain that it will take the Proposition 8 case, although I think they will. I’ve posted about these cases). But either way, a year from now we will likely be on the verge of an important ruling which will articulate, either narrowly or expansively, the Court’s view on the rights of gay and lesbian Americans to full equality.
Now that the President has personally endorsed marriage equality, his own victory or loss in the election will be important to the outcome of these cases. (So will the marriage referenda on ballots in the fall—Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.) No matter what anyone says, Justices make decisions in a political context, and if he is defeated the Supreme Court will see it as an implied repudiation by the majority of Americans of his position on gay rights. On the other hand, if he is reëlected, especially by a comfortable margin, it will assure the Supreme Court Justices that being in favor of gay rights, and gay marriage in particular, is not institutionally toxic. (Amy Davidson posted about this after the recent court decisions.)
It also matters vitally that American cultural leaders continue to express public support for marriage equality. This is especially so for “unlikely suspects”—Republicans and independents who otherwise have more traditionally conservative views. Every time a Bush or a Cheney, or a sports figure or Wall Streeter, says they support the right to marry, others will give it new look, and many will come along. All of this helps to create a political environment where gay rights are seen as mainstream (because they are now).
Finally, if President Obama is reëlected, the gay-rights movement needs to figure out how to deal with him as our somewhat reluctant champion. (If the country turns to Governor Romney, there will be a whole set of new and different challenges.)
As we saw with President Obama’s immigration announcement last week and same-sex marriage last month, even though his heart may be in the right place, he often seems unwilling to take the right action until he is pressed into it, and even then only when his own job may be on the line. Over the course of the past three years, the people and organizations who lobby for gay rights in Washington have mostly been wrong in their approach to the White House—which can be summarized as: these are our friends, we should trust them. As detailed in Hirshman’s book, it was only after more confrontational activists, symbolized by the likes of former Lieutenant Dan Choi and the new splinter group Get Equal (modelled at least in part on ACT UP), came in and caused as much controversy and consternation as possible that real progress was made. Hopefully, a second Obama term will be different.
These are the tests the gay-rights movement faces in the next year and beyond. If it can meet them, it may be true that victory is at hand. As Hirshman herself pointed out at a standing-room-only event for her book earlier this month at the New York Public Library, in any civil rights battle, you rarely if ever see total victory—society changes slowly, we have a long way to go, and the way we think about some things may never change. But when the battle is over, America will have changed for everyone.