If there is one book that I would suggest everyone read in 2016, it is Lillian Faderman’s epic history of LGBTQ rights in the United States, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.
Many of us are familiar with the Stonewall Uprising, and the subsequent Christopher Street Liberation Parade that birthed a hundred Gay Pride events worldwide, but fewer of us truly understand the events that lead up to it.. or to a similar “uprising” at a bar in LA before that, or the systematic destruction of gay lives before that. This book put into perspective the reaction of feminists to the “Lavender Menace,” and LGBT reaction to Anita Bryant‘s virulently anti-gay campaign and the importance – both bad and, almost counter-intuitively, good – of the AIDS crisis.
More than anything, it puts into perspective the setbacks we’re struggling with now. As one reads, it becomes obvious that any progress is met with an irrational anger and attempts to send us back into the closet. And those angry attempts gain traction, which galvanizes our community and allies and we push back harder and make more progress. Again and again, the same scenario plays out, the destruction of lives, followed by the reversal of the law that enshrined bigotry. It’s almost said how predictable it becomes, honestly.
It’s fascinating, too, to realize that as bad as the current bathroom and freedom to discriminate laws are, the playing field is different. The law of the land no longer considers gay people criminal or crazy. It’s these discriminatory laws that are on the defensive now. They will be overturned. And the next step will give rise to other irrational laws that attempt to enshrine hatred and those too will be overturned. The cost, of course, is real lives thrown into chaos. But the arc of the universe continues to bend towards justice.
The other significant lesson one can take from this book is a primer on organizational lifecycle. Faderman tells the story in cycles, rather than purely chronologically, detailing the people, the organizations and the circumstances of specific battles such as the removal of homosexuality from the DSM, the decriminalization of “being gay,” the repeal of DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and so on. In each cycle we see people banding together, and breaking apart, over and over and over. Every group pushed forward, then is overtaken by a groups of younger, more radical protesters who demand more. It’s an honest and fascinating look at how hard it is to keep people focused – even when their lives are at stake.
Faderman, best known as a historian of lesbian history and content in books such as Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, takes on a long and dark history in this book…and she does a very good job of it. But she doesn’t make too much of an attempt to remain an unengaged observer. It’s not hard to tell, for instance, in her chapter on gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, her unbridled contempt for California politician – now Senator – Dianne Feinstein. While in an academic look at history this kind of personal emotion is discouraged, it is exactly this personal passion for the topic that makes The Gay Revolution such a compelling read.
At 650 pages of content and another 150 of notes, the book appears too large and intimidating to tackle. But I blew threw it in mere days, and kept making time to read “just a bit more” until I was done. It was that good a book.
Overall – 10
This is our history. These are the names and places we need to remember. You should really read this book. Consider it your summer homework.