I've been wanting to read Linda Hirshman's new book Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution ever since it came out in June. But, being a poor grad student, I wasn't about to shell out the money for a new copy, so I patiently waited for the library to get it. It was a long wait. I checked the library catalog this past weekend, and it was finally in. I rushed to the library and was the very first person to check the book out. I then blew through it in a day. Immediately, I knew I wanted to talk about Victory in today's already-scheduled LGBT Literature diary. It's new, somewhat fresh, and a good opportunity for those not well-read in gay history to learn the basics.
But I'll admit, I was skeptical. As a history grad student specializing in LGBT history, I was prepared for all kinds of problems in this "popular" history of the American gay movement. Reading this sloppy quote by Hirshman did not inspire any confidence in the new book. A large part of the reason I wanted to read it so badly was so I could rip it apart. Hirshman, a straight lawyer (albeit, a lawyer with a PhD in philosophy who wrote a dissertation on social organizing in the work of Thomas Hobbes), was not a participant in the gay movement, nor did she spend her life studying the history. Writing what amounts to a sweeping history of gay activism in twentieth-century America is a pretty lofty task for an "outsider."
But, in the end, her work has left this gay historian impressed.
That doesn't mean I have nothing but good things to say about Victory. No, believe me, I have my issues with the book--some minor, some major. But before I get into all of that, let me discuss what the book was all about.
In a nutshell, Hirshman is trying to describe how gays went from this
The book's sub-subtitle puts it this way:
How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for EveryoneWhen you think about how far gays have come in twentieth-century America, it really is quite remarkable. The transition from gay street youths throwing pennies and rocks at the NYPD in 1969 to Joe Solmonese standing with the President of the United States at a Human Rights Campaign dinner is not a small one. This is what the book is about: how gays transformed themselves from a minority of sexual deviates and perverts into a political force to be reckoned with. As much Victory is about the history of the gay community in the United States, it is also about the making of the gay establishment. Love the HRC or hate it (let me put it this way: I don't have an HRC sticker on the back of my car), the clout it has in Washington is a sign of political maturation and growth. That is what Victory attempts to describe. Hirshman shows how we came from the bathhouse raids of the early twentieth century, through the McCarthyite witch hunts, through AIDS, to having enough political muscle to pass marriage equality in New York (which is where the book ends). It's a book about gays demanding (and gaining, little by little) inclusion in the liberal state. Says Hirshman:
Morally ambitious and clearly identified as different, the gay movement came from further behind than either the civil rights or the feminist movements had done. It took on the liberal state and achieved formal equality, as did the other two movements. During the AIDS epidemic, it took on not just oppression, but neglect. And then it took on the traditional institutions of heterosexual morality--marriage and the military--and is rapidly conquering both.Emphasis on "is rapidly conquering." Despite the title she chose, Hirshman is not literally declaring "victory" for the gay movement. She apparently anticipated this criticism and addressed it in the epilogue:
Of course there is a lot left to be done. While things are improving on the coasts and in the upper Midwest, twenty-eight states have little or no affirmative law on any aspect of gay victory. In these states, there is no recognition of gay couples of any sort, no antidiscrimination laws or acknowledgement of bullying of gay kids in the schools. Nineteen of the antigay states have super DOMAs, forbidding recognition not only of marriage but also of civil unions or any consensual relationship, including any claim to the couples' children. Almost a half century after Bella Abzug dropped the first gay antidiscrimination bill in the hopper in 1973, Congress still has not passed a national employment antidiscrimination law. And for the transgendered people, often not covered by even the existing gay and lesbian antidiscrimination and hate-crimes laws, the situation is even worse. In so many states, it's as if the gay revolution has taught the society little or nothing.Yet, the theme stringing together the chapters of Victory is...well, victory. This is not a downer of a book. While it recognizes the incredibly difficult times and the immense setbacks the gay movement has dealt with in the uniquely anti-gay twentieth century, Victory is ultimately about how gays have a long history of overcoming.
So celebrating the Victory of the gay revolution does not mean an imaginary gay commander in chief should land on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit with a "Mission Accomplished" sign behind him.
Hirshman begins Victory in the early twentieth century. This was a strange decision, in my opinion, since there is enough literature for her to begin in the 1800s, when sexology first termed same-sex-attracted individuals "homosexual." Hirshman deals only briefly with this (but long enough for the reader to discern that she is a social constructionist in the Foucauldian mold), moving quickly to urban gay life in the 1910s and 1920s. Drawing heavily from gay historian George Chauncey's masterful book Gay New York, she talks about gay life in the earliest part of the century after gays started migrating in large numbers to the cities to find a world they couldn't have even imagined in rural America. Gays essentially created a society and culture out of nothing, one in which camp reigned and codes were necessary to remain under the radar. But it was a surprisingly tolerant time, despite the occasional bathhouse raids and arrests. That semi-tolerance would not last long.
The book then uses Allan Berube's work in Coming Out Under Fire and discusses the importance of World War II in forging gay identity. Hirshman talks about how, under the influence of psychiatry, the military issued "blue" discharges for homosexual conduct, effectively ruining the lives of many gays and lesbians by outing them to their families, communities, and future employers, not to mention denying them of G.I. Bill benefits. It was puzzling to me that Hirshman jumps right to World War II to discuss the emerging oppressiveness of the state. Even though she lists Margot Canaday's groundbreaking book The Straight State in her bibliography, Hirshman does not deal with anything Canaday has to say. Canaday shows in her work that the federal government's regulation of homosexuality began much earlier than World War II and can be found in New Deal-era immigration law excluding gays, as well as in the emerging welfare state, which was very gendered indeed. Much of the story is lost when Hirshman skips over an entire decade and does not examine the roots of the state's anti-gay oppressiveness that would manifest itself in a much uglier form in the 1950s.
It is this period that Hirshman turns to next when she talks about the Red and Lavender Scares, drawing from David K. Johnson's book The Lavender Scare. In this section, she details the founding of the first major gay rights organization (although there was another she doesn't mention: the Society for Human Rights in 1924), the Mattachine Society, and with it, the rise of the homophile movement. Mattachine was founded by communists and was, in fact, modeled after the Communist Party structure, but, as Hirshman explains, McCarthyism tamed the organization's radical "homosexual minority" language and pushed it toward a much more conservative, education- and research-oriented agenda. The Daughters of Bilitis, which represented the lesbian side of the homophile movement, played a similar role, although the two organizations had very real differences over approach. During the upheaval of the Sixties, the homophile movement became more radicalized, but Mattachine (and DOB, for that matter) remained largely in the grips of its conservative faction.
Then, of course, there was Stonewall. It is to Hirshman's credit that she does not treat Stonewall as the beginning of the gay movement. Because it wasn't. But she gives the riots their due, without mentioning Judy Garland (thank God). We then read about the rise of the radical Gay Liberation Front (and its death mere months later) and the formation of the more reform-minded Gay Activists Alliance. Hirshman does an admirable job discussing the evolution of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s without losing its complexity. She rightly gives credit to the movement for pushing the "gay" issue out of the proverbial closet and eventually driving a stake through the heart of psychiatry's idea that homosexuality was a disease.
The rise of modern conservatism and the onset of AIDS are tackled next. Hirshman does an admirable job detailing the appearance of AIDS, the Reagan administration's neglect, the rise of Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP, and the struggle to get the government and broader American society to give a damn about the epidemic. She covers all the bases of 1980s AIDS activism. What she does not do, in my opinion, is take her analysis to the next level and explain what AIDS means from a broader historical perspective. AIDS, of course, was a turning point for the gay movement. Not only did gays realize how important federal recognition was, but they were also faced with the harsh reality of just how inferior they were under the law. Nothing quite drives that point home like watching your partner die of AIDS and then having no legal say as his family hauls his body away, gives him a church funeral, and leaves you out of the obituary. Hirshman does a fine job chronicling the events of the 1980s, but she falls short when it comes to showing just what it meant to the larger trajectory of gay activism. She does, however, give ACT UP credit for inspiring everything from Queer Nation in the 1990s to GetEQUAL today (although, as she correctly notes, the inspiration can actually be traced back to the GAA).
The rest of the book is spent on the period from the 1990s to the passage of marriage equality in New York (or, what some might call "current events"). We see how military service and marriage became mainstream gay concerns, how DADT and DOMA came about, the handing-down of Lawrence v. Texas, the anti-gay 2004 presidential campaign, Prop 8, the Obama administration's handling of gay issues, the repeal of DADT, and the multiple court battles for gay equality (some still ongoing). My biggest gripe in this section is Hirshman's telling of the DADT repeal story. Even though she includes a picture of our own Scott Wooledge and the other twelve GetEQUAL activists chaining themselves to the White House fence to protest inaction on repeal, she does not discuss the importance of the GetEQUAL activism at all or the fact that GetEQUAL activists pushed the issue into the spotlight when repeal was not even on the lame-duck agenda. Instead, based on Hirshman's account, repeal just appeared out of nowhere thanks to Democratic leaders in Congress. The leadership of figures like Kirsten Gillibrand and Joe Lieberman played a role, but Hirshman loses a huge part of the story by all but ignoring the role of activists on the ground.
Victory covers so, so, so much more that I haven't mentioned. Frank Kameny, Harvey Milk, Bowers v. Hardwick, Romer v. Evans, and more. The rise of the gay blogosphere--from Andrew Sullivan to John Aravosis to Andy Towle--is also detailed, something that will be increasingly important to current and future generations of gay historians. Over ten pages are even dedicated to hate crimes and the struggle for federal protections against anti-gay violence. As a PhD student who will likely be writing a dissertation historicizing anti-gay violence, I was particularly interested in this, especially since so many other gay histories don't even talk about the role of violence. All of this while methodically showing the many ways in which the gay movement has grown and matured since the making of gay culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Overall, Victory exceeded my expectations. As a history grad student, I found much to critique, of course. For example, it seems to be very much an urban, white, gay male story. Lesbians play a role, but they are largely given short shrift. Transgender people are almost nowhere to be found. Communities of color are not explored (E. Patrick Johnson's book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South comes to mind). And then there's Hirshman's focus on the coasts. Now, to be sure, a lot of the "action" in the gay movement happened in New York and San Francisco. But there is a much more complicated story to be told, one that includes places such as Philadelphia, Houston, the rural South (John Howard's very important book Men Like That: A Southern Queer History is not even listed in the bibliography), the Midwest, and elsewhere. Truth be told, we probably don't need another survey of gay history. Michael Bronski and John Loughery have done incredible jobs in that department already--in much richer, more complex ways.
Of course, there's only so much one can do in 340 pages. But the point is that the urban-centric, transgender-excluding, white-male-heavy approach has already been done. Hirshman does not add much new to the literature. What we have in Hirshman's book is a history of gay institutions in the United States--a history very familiar to scholars. But there's something to be said for its simplicity, its freshness (discussing very current events, for example), and its argument. It's definitely a book for those not completely familiar with gay history. For those who don't know the names and events, there is much to be gleaned from it. And even those who are well-read on gay history will find something in the book, even if you skim over much of it.
What I like most is Hirshman's seamless connection between gay history and events that are still unfolding today. By connecting today's battles with our history as a despised minority, she reminds us that our struggles today aren't new, but are rather an extension of our history fighting for inclusion in the liberal state. We've won before, and we will win again. And, I would argue (perhaps more than most), we've already largely won the battle for equal rights due to the significantly more accepting views on homosexuality the younger generations hold.
Despite its very real limitations and flaws, Victory is a solid, well-written book that deserves a wide readership. As for me, I'll be ordering a copy for my shelf. If I were you, I'd order a copy, too.