When I started branching out the “Not Your Average Cistory” brand, I turned to book reviews to explore the books and articles I was reading at the time. Unfortunately, this was not well suited to Instagram. With this website and my blog now, I thought it might be worth returning to the subject. I figured I would start with Martin Duberman’s challenging and thought-provoking Has The Gay Movement Failed?
Has The Gay Movement Failed? is a reflection on LGBT activism and its history. Martin Duberman is a highly acclaimed queer historian, having written the definitely book on the Stonewall Riots with Stonewall, and has been writing on gay and lesbian subjects since the early 1970s. His leftist politics are unavoidable, especially in this book where he compares the early goals of the radical Gay Liberation Front with the much more centrist and conservative Human Rights Campaign of the modern day. His prose is often highly entertaining, with an acerbic wit that paints exquisite imagery. A particular favourite is his description of the modern gay movement’s focus upon gay marriage as “a Norman Rockwell painting – the one already on its way to the attic.” (163).
For as entertaining as it may be to read, Has The Gay Movement Failed? can also be rather confusing in places. Early Gay Liberationist politics were very broad and if the reader is not so familiar with that, it can be very hard to follow at times. This was my reaction when I first read the book to the relatively extended conversation on age of consent laws. The arguments that Duberman makes in the book are fairly sound, that age of consent laws are largely hurting teenagers that are exploring their own sexualities rather than purely protecting them from predators, but this discussion is brought up very quickly and left me initially somewhat taken aback. This is the main takeaway I have for the book over all; it can jump from topic to topic rather quickly and if the reader is either not paying full attention or not incredibly familiar with the political goals of liberationist politics, it can go over their head. As such, the strengths of the book can very easily be missed.
The book begins with the “triumphalist” narratives that surrounded the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. To Duberman, these rang hollow. While there had been a significant shift in how LGBT people were treated in those 50 years, the cries of victory seemed empty when compared to the original goals of groups like the Gay Liberation Front, who sought a more complete shift in how society operated. From here, the book explores the ways that the current gay movement has not lived up to the original goals set following Stonewall. This offers a really fascinating critique of the current landscape of queer activism, especially the large groups like the Human Rights Campaign.
While the book is only a few years old at this point, having been published in 2018, it is paradoxically both prescient and outdated in certain areas. I believe the large thematic critique of the Human Rights Campaign and other centrist national organizations and their focus on single issue goals like gay marriage and repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has left the door wide open for the current onslaught of anti-transgender bills across multiple states. While the book does not predict it directly, it does feel like it offers an explanation for how we got here and why there has been as much silence as there has been outside of LGBT circles.
At the same time, there are parts that feel very obsolete. One such example is a conversation around transgender identity that is absolutely anachronous in 2018, never mind 2021. The section is relying on a book from 2007 based on research the author conducted into transgender communities in the 1990s. This absolutely astounds me. The transgender community has changed significantly between 2007 and 2018, let alone the late 1990s. This was before the “Transgender Tipping Point”, before Caitlyn Jenner, before the Human Rights Campaign was even fully on board with transgender rights. To use research conducted decades ago without considering how the landscape has changed is unbelievable, especially when Duberman then goes on to use that research to claim that trans people are “polic[ing] their borders with greater stringency.” (147) It feels completely out of step with what the current transgender community actually believes.
This is really only just scratching the surface of Has The Gay Movement Failed? and there is still much to discover about the book. I have only addressed a handful of sections that stood out to me. There is still so much in there that I did not know how to effectively bring into this short review (I am still trying to figure out how to best use this medium, after all). The book is most certainly worth a read, although I would advise against making it your first foray into queer activist history. I find that it pairs excellently with the history of Canadian queer politics in Tom Warner’s Never Going Back. If you have also read Has The Gay Movement Failed? and agree or disagree with anything I have said, I would be more than happy to continue the conversation.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.