Some Problems with Victory: The Ongoing Battle for Gay Rights

By T Clutch FleischmannMarch 9, 2013

    Victory by Linda Hirshman. Harper. 464 pages.

    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 to highlight Browne in this type of critique. He is, in Hirshman’s rendering, an affable and successful man who playfully uses his success in order to draw attention to a serious issue. His place of employment, however — Corcoran Real Estate — has been the repeated target of investigations by journalists and government officials because of Corcoran’s blatantly racist real estate practices, the most ludicrous of which was the “gentrification map” that was created to help white families end up in predominantly white neighborhoods, which came to light in 2006. While it is noxious enough that Hirshman’s celebratory moment of queer success is inseparable from an unabashedly racist and classist business practice, there is also a disconnect between Browne and a thriving queer political scene that fights gentrification and unfair economic practices. Groups like Queers for Economic Justice (likewise operating out of New York) are quickly rising on the forefront of a new generation of activism committed to using queer history and identities in order to undermine the disastrous behavior of people like Browne. It’s not surprising that Hirshman leaves all of this out, of course — if you’re going to title your book Victory, there’s not going to be a lot of room for people still involved in the battle.


    How, exactly, does one tell a queer history? The topic hinges on shifting language, unrecorded stories, and political and cultural censorship. To try to peer into the queer past is to face a mirage of anachronisms and palimpsests, harried with opportunities to impose your own politics and contemporary labels. Yet it also remains entirely necessary, an endeavor that gives queer people access to political tools and lessons that have been denied us. Simply testifying that we were here before, out and active — a fact I honestly did not realize until I left high school in 2001 — can affirm survival when survival seems impossible.

    While Hirshman approaches this topic with a blankly enthusiastic thumbs-up to the United States, the majority of queer scholars and historians approaching queer history in the country have taken varied, subtle, and often contradictory approaches. Two texts that stand out as particularly salutary are Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States and Susan Stryker’s Transgender History. Bronski’s text starts itself off in colonial (and, briefly, precolonial) times and launches forward from there. It contains a large number of historical moments and figures that have been excluded from most popular versions of queer history, which tend toward a Mattachine–Stonewall–AIDS progression that emphasizes the same key facts over and over. The highly public 1850s relationship between the actress Charlotte Cushman and the writer Matilda Hays, both of whom were celebrated artistic and social figures, would seem to fit as comfortably in the context of Bronski’s history as it would seem out of place were it included in Hirshman’s. Likewise for Marie Equi, born in 1872, who openly raised a child with her female partner while devoting herself to labor rights organizing and suffrage, performing abortions, and becoming prominent enough as an activist to both earn praise from the United States Army and later to face imprisonment for her antiwar work. Just as strikingly, Bronski will go on for pages at a time without actually mentioning a queer person or the idea of queer politics, instead providing the history of, for example, social purity movements, which is crucial to any honest understanding of the United States’ own relationship to its queer past. In analogue to this, Stryker offers a history that refreshingly prioritizes the experiences of transgender people, a group often at the forefront of queer politics yet all but erased from many accounts of the queer past. She makes self-reflexive contextualization central to her telling, resulting in a text that encourages readers to challenge ourselves even while we feel the rush of optimism that comes from learning that, yes, in fact we do have a history.

    And yet Hirshman’s erasure of transgender people is particularly nasty and deserves note here. The transgender women and street hustlers who formed the 1966 youth group Vanguard, for instance, are cast in Victory as “a pre-hippie group” who “put on wigs in solidarity with the cross-dressers busted at the [Compton] cafeteria” The radical transgender people at the Stonewall bar are likewise “men in wigs in a bar.”

    Bronki’s and Stryker’s modes result in historical narratives that are incompatible with Hirshman’s. Victory, for instance, gives us a gay rights movement that did not truly begin until the founding of Mattachine in the first years of the 1950s and assimilated its way forward. Prior to that, she describes the gay movement as being pre-political, or, more specifically, as “community first, politics later.” Stryker, in contrast, notes the 1895 transgender rights group Cercle Hermaphroditos and the impact of Magnus Hirschfield, the famous German sexologist who toured the United States in the early 20th century promoting the rights of queer and transgender people. Organizing for transgender rights across social, medical, and political communities throughout the early decades of the 20th century is apparently irrelevant to Hirshman’s narrative. Bronski’s account of a complex social fabric, with anarchists and labor organizers and politicians advocating for sexual liberties in the 19th and 20th centuries, is similarly incompatible with Victory — likewise for the cultural impact of the Harlem Renaissance, for Eleanor Roosevelt and her efficacious and largely queer circle of female friends, and for J. Edgar Hoover’s campaigns. To imagine a history of gay politics in the United States untouched by these formative people and movements is to imagine a fallacious history.

    The scope of Hirshman’s and Bronski’s projects is clearly different, and Hirshman’s attention to the mainstream gay rights movements in the 20th century lends itself to more visibly state-oriented politics. And in truth, much of the history that she does tell is important to understanding queer history in the United States. Her account of Colorado’s Amendment Two, for example, provides a useful behind-the-scenes peek at state-level rights organizing. Where Hirshman goes offensively wrong, however, is in treating this aspect of queer history and queer politics as the only aspect that matters. She favors sweeping generalizations, such as when she positions the 1990s as “the beginning of the triumphal last phase of the gay revolution” before launching into a long account that rarely departs from the deals and compromises made in political offices and the courts; the realities of grassroots organizing and burgeoning, diverse queer politics are left untold. To generalize about queer life and politics based on a limited focus is to irresponsibly disregard the thriving and complex political history that allowed Mattachine to arise in the first place.

    The scope of Hirshman’s history is directly limited by the formula she writes herself at the beginning — a formula that is, even in its conception, both ludicrously inaccurate and politically dangerous. As she has it, the path to victory involved categorically overcoming the idea that gay people are “sinful, crazy, criminal, and subversive” by gaining acceptance from (respectively) the Christian church, the mental health establishment, criminal law, and the federal government. Further, she posits: 

    [G]ays would have to fight for moral acceptance and respect. Not being categorized as crazy or the rest, women and people of color — and their “vanguard” movements — could move directly to claim the goods of the liberal state: security, freedom, and equal self-governance.

    Hirshman wants to have it both ways, with women and people of color (distinct groups, in her narrative) having gained direct access to the liberal state while also having somehow failed in their own movements. From the basis of this contradiction, she explains that the gay movement succeeded because it did not fall into the traps of intersectionality of politics and identity that transformed other social rights movements (at one point she refers to “the poisonous feminist slogan, ‘The personal is the political’”). She makes a few passing suggestions that the gay rights movement, by entering into these institutions, transforms them in a way that previous social movements had not, although she fails to adequately explain what that change looks like or entails outside of charting the influence of queer rights on the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

    It seems necessary to take a deep breath before unpacking the untold ways that Hirshman is wrong here. I’d like to use that breath to point out the blossoming of vital queer history projects through which queer people are telling our own history in ways that acknowledge our complexities. They include the ACT UP Oral History Project, the Transgender Oral History Project, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Queer Zine Archive Project, and the (always thrilling) Pop-Up Museum of Queer History. A few moments spent browsing any of these archives will provide more self-growth and education than the entirety of Victory.

    One of Hirshman’s grandest flaws is her positioning of the queer movement as an attempt to gain approval from institutions of mental health, religion, criminal justice, and the government. As Hirshman had to have realized through her research, the driving vanguard of the queer movement has in fact consistently attempted to abolish, evade, or radically confront these institutions. An institution that labels any class of people as inherently “sinful, crazy, criminal, or subversive” is an institution that has no right to exist, and the most potent actions of the queer rights movement have stemmed from the realization that simply gaining approval from, say, professional mental health organizations is a craven success if that same institution continues to use its power in oppressive ways. We see this happening today. The major mental health organizations, for instance, might acknowledge that someone is not categorically ill if they express same-sex sexual desire, but those organizations continue to use their power to actively prevent transgender people, especially poorer, younger, and genderqueer trans people, from receiving access to vital medical services. The recent shift in definition by the American Psychiatric Association regarding gender dysphoria disorder, although lauded by most gay rights groups, actually increases the limitations on access to healthcare for the great majority of poor and incarcerated transgender people. The number of transgender women of color who will end up in prison during their lifetime is radically disproportionate to other population groups, while the criminal justice system in general seems intentionally designed to extend the legacy of slavery, to terrorize immigrants, and to devastate communities, families, and political movements. Across time, large numbers of queer people have seen the danger of the very existence of these institutions and sought to abolish them, not to enter into them in solidarity. They stand in the middle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and chant “Stop killing us,” they throw coffee in the faces of police officers outside the Compton Cafeteria, and they form alliances across classes and social boundaries in the 19th and 20th-century anarchist movements. On the few occasions when Hirshman even recognizes these protests, she condemns them: she deems the St. Patrick’s ACT UP action “The Demonstration That Went Too Far.” Bronski, on the other hand, again offers a refreshing alternative take, asserting that “the people who have had to go too far to assert their own independence and deeply held beliefs about social justice […] have made the most lasting changes in American social policy, political beliefs, and everyday lives.”

    Hirshman also makes the incredibly bizarre supposition that women and people of color did not have to combat these cultural stigmas. To restate this ridiculous claim more directly, she tells us that women do not have to combat the idea that they are crazy and that people of color do not have to combat the idea that they are criminal. Of course, all four labels have been applied with regularity to people of color and women, and that remains the case today. Overcoming those ideas (and the institutions that perpetuate them) is central to the political movements most intimately linked to those communities. That Hirshman claims otherwise is baffling.

    What strikes me, though, as the ultimate fallacy of Victory is Hirshman’s insistence that social movements fail when they address the intersectionality of issues, especially her axiomatic claim that the gay movement’s success lies specifically in the refusal to deal with intersectionality. Marcia Gallo’s Different Daughters, an accounting of the early lesbian rights organization the Daughters of Bilitis, makes particularly clear that, from the start, the group included women of color and people across a variety of classes, all the while maintaining a “conscious outreach to black communities and newspapers.” Another of the first gay organizations in the United States, the Knights of the Clocks, was formed in 1948 with hopes to “promote fellowship and understanding between homosexuals themselves, specifically between other races and the Negro” (founder W. Dorr Legg, quoted in Bronski), neatly understanding that a focus on queer community must make intimate to itself a progressive understanding of race. Likewise, straight radicals in non-queer movements have consistently used their own political positions to openly advocate for the inclusion of queer politics, most famously Emma Goldman in the anarchist movement and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers. Hirshman’s dismissive statements — “the more inclusive [a movement] becomes of other identities the weaker it gets” — serve to erase this history entirely. It is true that divisions along race, gender, war, and class have at times divided queer movements, but those divisions are the fault of racism, misogyny, and other oppressive forces, not of the people who tried to overcome those forces and build coalitions. As the contemporary right wing attempts to divide resistance movements along identity lines, Hirshman’s erasure becomes particularly treacherous.

    Victory has been lauded across the mainstream press, and certainly the people reading Hirshman’s version of queer history outnumbers those who have read, say, Bronski’s version of Stryker’s version by a massive margin. When I recall myself as a high school student in a small town, yet to know a single other queer person and scouring local libraries for whatever sources I could find of my own history, I am certain that today this would be the book I would find. And this book would lie to me. It would teach me that my community had already achieved a victory, that the life I was living, rich with oppression and danger though it was, was the best life I deserved. It would teach me that the very institutions and sources of power that were complicit in my oppression were in fact my friends. And it would also teach me that those people who should, in fact, be my friends, those related social movements committed so fiercely to the freedom of all people, those social worlds I had not yet encountered — those potential allies, this book says, are not worth my time. Even more than that, to seek community with those people with whom I have historically sought alliance, and from whom I have historically at times received support, is dangerous, and will come only at the risk of my own security and happiness. This is unabashedly what Hirshman celebrates, a message that is as untrue as it is inimical.

    Queer people should not tolerate our history being told like this. We owe too much to ourselves, and even more importantly, we owe too much to future generations. As Sarah Schulman writes in The Gentrification of the Mind, “When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen.” Books like Victory actively strip away that context for justice that precedes and necessitates queer culture and, in so doing, negates freedom-seeking behavior before we have a chance to realize the need for freedom.

    There is a massive amount of work to be done for queer people to be truly free, and that work involves directly confronting heterosexism, as well as overcoming white supremacy, the prison industrial complex, HIV/AIDS, compulsory relationships, capitalism, and countless other forces. It involves the queer community developing new tools to come together inclusively, but it also requires us to pick up those tools from the past that have worked so well, to see ourselves diachronically rather than as uniquely synchronic. That ACT UP and other movements around the early days of the AIDS crisis accomplished what they did should inspire us, and we should be gleefully and respectfully extending their triumphs and learning from their faltering, all the while keeping an eye on our own expanding contexts. When we are provided with false histories such as Victory, we are disempowered because we lose access to these tools. We must do better. We must be honest with ourselves. We seek liberation; we have no other choice.


    LARB Contributor

    T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of the book-length essay Syzygy, Beauty, available from Sarabande, and is a nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM.


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