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It’s impossible for me to discuss this history of the gay rights movement without noting that on the day I finished reading, the morning news announced the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina and the evening news led with President Obama’s “evolution” into a supporter of marriage equality. Should Victory become a best-seller, each subsequent reprint will need an afterword as long as the book itself to report the changes that keep coming. Because of that rapid pace of change, it’s particularly useful to see the long view of the movement and how we arrived at this point.
Victory begins in 1920, opening on a scene of cruising in Washington, DC’s Lafayette Park. While homosexuality has existed as long as there has been sexuality, Hirshman dates the gay movement to the migration from remote locations to cities in search of manufacturing jobs, and others began to follow after hearing about the opportunities, both economic and social, that awaited. From there, various social scenes came into being.
The story moves from the YMCAs to the battlefields of WWII, where those who enlisted or were drafted into service were asked directly, “Are you gay?” The wrong answer could mean being discharged and banned from future government work or, much worse, lead to electroshock therapy. The first stirrings of organized push back came as the 1940s and 50s ramped up worries about the “red menace.” Harry Hay, being a card-carrying red with a side of lavender, connected the dots between the persecution of gays and communists and formed the Mattachine Society.
In Hirshman’s telling, this history is heady and rich as it moves through the 50s and 60s, when the sexual revolution blew the doors open. The Stonewall riots were a high point of resistance, followed by numerous small but effective actions showing that silent endurance was no longer an option for a community so often abused at the hands of law enforcement. The bottom dropped out in the age of AIDS, which decimated communities and showed even those who had spent years building political capital how little they really possessed. ACT UP followed, and while the changes since then have been sweeping, they often come in a one step forward, two steps back awkward polka. Look at the time line at the end of the book; gays in the military lose, and lose, and lose until finally, in 2010, the simple entry: “DADT repealed.”
Hirshman notes that the movement sometimes tried to be too inclusive too early on, as when the Gay Liberation Front, whose dances were raising grassroots funds, split over co-founder John O’Brien’s suggestion that they give $500 to the Black Panthers, after which “all hell broke loose,” and the group ultimately dissolved into splinter groups. Hirshman points out that the impetus to connect makes sense, but not until a group has a stable base on which to rest, a theory that may partially explain why recent advances in gay and lesbian rights have not yet extended completely to the transgender community.
Hirshman, retired labor lawyer and author of several books about women in the workforce and legal professions, tells this particular history largely through the contributions of men, from Harry Hay to Frank Kameny to Harvey Milk. In the context of her narrative it doesn’t feel like a slight, but women reading with an expectation of equal representation will find it lacking. The same goes for bisexual and transgendered persons; while they figure into the narrative, it’s really gay men at the center of this particular history. Hirshman acknowledges the title doesn’t mean the war is over, noting that “celebrating the Victory of the gay revolution does not mean an imaginary gay commander in chief should land on an aircraft carrier in a flak jacket with a “Mission Accomplished” sign behind him.” Her focus is on the cumulative impact of each skirmish or protest, and from that perspective, she writes, “(F)rom the long view of history, gay men and lesbian women made a new world. And we are all living in it.”
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution
By Linda Hirshman
Hardcover, 9780061965500, 464 pp.