ABOUT A DECADE AGO, in my early 20s, I forged close friendships with queer people of older generations for the first time. Drag queens who had been at ACT UP demonstrations, an older lesbian couple who had haunted the same Michigan bars I then frequented, hippies and faeries and punks — they all seemed like dreams to me, the types of people I both hoped to become and, suddenly, was able to learn from directly. Yet their stories so often felt incompatible with the history I had been told of queer people in the United States, their romances and politics surprising to me. I turned, as so many queer people have done, to the steadily expanding volumes of history available then. And I learned that history to be as varied as our communities are to this day, the politics brilliantly diverging from themselves and the subcultures and movements so quickly thriving and fading once more. The experience was, in a sentimental and powerful sense, inspiring.
Standing in contrast to this diverse history is Linda Hirshman’s Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, a recent accounting of the gay rights movement in the United States. The choice to title such a book Victory while queer people continue to fight for basic rights and safety is a good indication of Hirshman’s scope. A more specific example can be found in the book’s opening pages, which celebrate Robert M. Browne: it is 2007, and Browne is being honored as the Corcoran Real Estate National Sales Person of the Year. Browne, Hirshman assures us, has had “enough top-earner, $100-million-club years” that he typically wouldn’t care about the honor. This year, however, he has agreed to show up to the event on the condition that he can accept the award in drag, which he does, sporting a woman’s bathing suit and heels, blaring “YMCA” in the background.
Browne was inspired to accept the award in drag because of belittling remarks President George W. Bush had recently made regarding the importance of HIV/AIDS in national policy. Browne’s brother, also gay, died as a result of AIDS in 1985, and Bush’s remarks infuriated Browne. His brother was, like Bush, a Yale graduate and veteran of the Vietnam War. As Browne put it, “Bush, how could he be more your person?”
The choice to cast Browne as the opening act in the victorious parade that follows is a lot like the rest of Hirshman’s history — it might seem relatively innocuous and even pleasing at first, but on further thought (especially by, say, a queer person, unlike the straight Hirshman), the narrative is dangerously underthought and incomplete. The account of queer history that Hirshman tells is an account that highlights people like Browne. The political players, from the opening pages on, are typically white men, usually from highly economically privileged backgrounds, who regularly toe the conservative and assimilationist lines and passionately champion those ideologies. They consistently view acceptance by the liberal state as the ultimate signifier of gay liberation, even as most queer people would be horrified to be considered “Bush’s people.” Most disastrously, the complexities and subtleties of race, class, war, gender, and geographic location are swept aside in order to concentrate more emphatically on moments like the opening scene, moments when an idealized American lifestyle can seem exceptional and unflawed, with the lives of queer people neatly folded in.
It might seem unfair...read more