The question posed by this book’s title seems rhetorical: Has the Gay Movement Failed? One expects the answer to be yes, and the book itself to catalog ongoing injustices against queer people. But Martin Duberman, the prolific historian and prominent queer activist, does not want to minimize the successes of the movement in the United States over the past half-decade since Stonewall. These successes include the de-criminalization of sodomy, the legalization of gay marriage, and the general, significant decrease in most measurable levels of queer stigmatization. Duberman repeatedly heralds these real accomplishments, even as worries over the persistence of more subterranean forms of homophobia and misogyny inflecting popular and scientific conversations about sexual fluidity, the age of consent, trans identity, and the causes of homosexuality. As he worries, Duberman also criticizes the gay movement’s consolidation around military service and marriage rights, seeking to revivify more radical political positions staked out by early queer activists and members of the Gay Liberation Front.

It’s a critique we’ve heard before–namely from Lisa Duggan in The Twilight of Equality, Michael Warner in The Trouble with Normal, and Michelangelo Signorile in It’s Not Over. Duberman acknowledges his debt to Warner and Signorile (although not to Duggan, who blurbs the book along with Warner), bringing to this conversation about the movement’s failure a historian’s eye for the books and other documents produced by earlier queer activists. This book is most valuable as a history of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Duberman keenly attends to the plurality of political voices within the post-Stonewall gay movement–a plurality that led to the GLF’s splintering along often gendered lines, and the effective creation of separate radical and mainstream gay movements. Whereas the latter set its sights on securing “equal rights” for gay people to marry and serve in the military, the former tended to oppose state-sanctioned marriage all together, and to see itself allied on the Left with feminists and labor. Headed by organizations like the Human Right Campaign, the mainstream gay movement has largely succeeded in achieving its vision of equality, while the radical movement for liberation languishes. Put more finely, the mainstream gay movement has succeeded by jettisoning a radical agenda–by disarticulating the legalization of marriage and military services from larger concerns about gender and sexual parity, US imperialism, and economic equality.

In his final chapter, “Whose Left?,” Duberman proposes a queer return to coalitional politics, where queer people join with others on the Left in working for a more just society. “The gay community needs allies,” he writes, “and it’s only on the Left that we have any real chance of finding them.” The issues confronting “us” are plentiful: we need to make higher education free, reform the criminal justice system, and reverse climate change, and shrink the gap between the rich and the poor. I am in agreement with Duberman’s call for a queer political agenda that aims at something more ambitious than the right to die in an unjust war or live monogamously in wedded bliss. I also agree that the state should be out of the marriage business entirely. My quibble with Duberman’s argument is simply that, despite the advances it recognizes, the criticism it offers is a bit predictable. Perhaps the book seems this way because I, like Duberman, work in the academy, where “grumblers,” he notes, are “overrepresented.” (This is very true. And here I will proceed to grumble.) The book’s highly conversational tone also signals that Duberman aims for a more general audience than academics. But I have a hard time believing that even lay readers will pick up this book published by the University of California Press if not for another call-to-arms against well-known enemies: patriarchy, homophobia, racism, imperialism, and capitalism, all of which, we know, collaborate to oppress queers, women, people of color, the poor, and the otherwise disenfranchised.

I have my doubts about capitalism’s overarching role in the ongoing processes of marginalization. This book might be more interesting for engaging the work of an economist like Deirdre McCloskey, a transwoman who has written a “bourgeois trilogy” more or less defending the mythos of the “American dream” that Duberman rejects. But my doubts mostly matter here insofar as they signal Duberman’s disinterest in making a novel political argument about the gay movement’s lost radical potential. Has the Gay Movement Failed? will anger some gay people and inspire a few others. But after Duggan, Warner, and Signorile, and after the passionate laments of so many of my queer academic colleagues, the argument comes off as slightly rote.


Has the Gay Movement Failed?
by Martin Duberman
University of California Press
Paperback, 9780520298866,  228 pp.
June 2018

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One Response to “Has the Gay Movement Failed? by Martin Duberman”

  1. 17 August 2018 at 11:39 AM #

    This was a thoughtful review.

    I am, again, turned off by the refusal of even confident overachieving Leftists like Duberman to revise their approach to political analysis.

    The book is yet another in the long line of masturbatory ego-gratifications that have come to typify offerings from the fading LGBT Left. I continue to doubt most American homosexuals want to change the role of capitalism in their lives, destructive as it is sometimes.

    Sorry, Marty, you guys lost a long time ago. LGBT Americans rejected GLF’s “overthrow the government” strategy and decided instead to mainstream.

    The fact is that the readership for this book is tiny. Most people around the nation who identify as gay will not care enough about the ideas in this book to actually buy it.

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