Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution - Linda Hirshman (2012)
Do you really think you ought to call it Victory?” Richard Socarides asked. I had called him to ask about the Justice Department’s dropping of DOMA and mentioned this book was almost done.
“Why in the world not?” I asked. “This is an amazing story.”
“But there’s so much that has not been done,” he replied. “People will think you’re saying it’s over and everyone should go home.”
Of course there is a lot left to be done. While things are improving on the coasts and in the upper Midwest, twenty-eight states have little or no affirmative law on any aspect of gay victory. In these states, there is no recognition of gay couples of any sort, no antidiscrimination laws or acknowledgment of bullying of gay kids in the schools. Nineteen of the antigay states have super DOMAs, forbidding recognition not only of marriage but also of civil unions or any consensual relationship, including any claim to the couples’ children. Almost a half century after Bella Abzug dropped the first gay antidiscrimination bill in the hopper in 1973, Congress still has not passed a national employment antidiscrimination law. And for the transgendered people, often not covered by even the existing gay and lesbian antidiscrimination and hate-crimes laws, the situation is even worse. In so many states, it’s as if the gay revolution has taught the society little or nothing.
And it is a fact of modern American life that whichever progressive movement is on the rise is the first to suffer from a conservative resurgence. Nixon’s southern strategy crippled the racial civil rights movement; the 1978 eruption of the religious right ended any possibility of passing the feminists’ Equal Rights Amendment. The state-based gay legal initiative largely hit a wall when the election of 2010 turned over many promising state legislatures or governorships to the Republicans. The legendary GayTM may make great headlines, but only 3.4 percent of all gay and lesbian adults contribute more than thirty-five dollars to any identifiably gay cause. The ten largest antigay organizations—Focus on the Family and the like—have twice the $500 million in revenues of all the gay organizations put together.
So celebrating the Victory of the gay revolution does not mean an imaginary gay commander in chief should land on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit with a “Mission Accomplished” sign behind him.
To celebrate gay Victory is to walk up the broken, weed-choked path to the tiny house in Northwest DC, where eighty-six-year-old Frank Kameny (1925–2011) lived for forty years. In 2009, the district named 5020 Cathedral Avenue a DC historic landmark. “For thirteen fiery years,” the Washington Post said, reporting the designation, the modest house was “the epicenter of the gay-rights movement in the nation’s capital.” A year or two before Kameny decided he’d fight back in 1957, another federal civil servant, whose name we will never know, put a gun to his head at the corner of Twenty-first and Virginia and blew his brains out. Peter Szluk, the self-described “hatchet man” of the McCarthy-era State Department, had just called the victim in to tell him he’d been outed and was no longer eligible for employment in the United States government. When they called Kameny, he pushed back, and now his house is a landmark.
To celebrate gay Victory is to march among a hundred thousand celebrants in the 2011 Pride Parade down the streets of New York City, streets once so dangerous for gay men that Martin Boyce and his pals used to peer around corners to see who was there before they would venture on. Until he or one of his cross-dressing friends picked up a copper penny at the Stonewall Inn one hot June night in 1969 and threw it at the coppers, the people who were supposed to keep them safe. We die, they said at last, reaching for the bricks at a nearby construction site. We do something. “Every Queen in that riot changed.”
To celebrate gay Victory is to know that you will never party with Larry Kramer. As thousands of ecstatic New York couples were donning impeccably tasteful and imaginative wedding garb and marrying everywhere from Niagara Falls to the steps of city hall in 2011, he submitted a statement to the New York Times complaining about the gay couples’ inability to get tax relief. Yet he is the father of perhaps the biggest victory of all. Screaming and yelling and playwrighting and polemicizing, he, not single-handedly, but irreplaceably, lit the fire under the gay community first in New York and then nationwide. ACT UP didn’t stop the dying: the numbers kept climbing to a horrendous high of almost fifty thousand in 1996, the year before the effective drugs came online. But they did something. One year before ACT UP, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that gays’ claim to be citizens under the Constitution was “facetious.” In 1987, ACT UP shut down Wall Street, in 1988 the FDA, then the NIH, and then the church. If gays were going to die, the United States was going to do something. In 2010, the United States government spent over $3 billion on AIDS. In 2011, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that new drugs, taken immediately, can stop the disease from ever getting started and end the danger that an infected person will have sex and infect another.
To celebrate gay Victory is to attend the 2010 revival of playwright Tony Kushner’s Tony Award–winning play, Angels in America. “The world only spins forward,” his prophetic character Prior Walter told the audience at the end of the second installment in 1993. “We will be citizens.” That year, the gay community in Colorado sued the state to overthrow its new constitutional amendment barring gays from politics. Three years later, in 1996, the Supreme Court presented the gay legal movement with its first supreme Victory. “It is not,” Justice Kennedy concluded, “within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort.”
To celebrate gay Victory is to attend the marriage of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the first couple to be married by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004, when he defied the California law limiting marriages to persons of opposite sexes. Del and Phyllis were certainly not thinking about marriage when they hung curtains across their living room window high above San Francisco Bay in 1955. The handful of lesbian women who made up the discussion group Daughters of Bilitis were afraid Del and Phyllis’s neighbors would see them dancing. Almost fifty years later to the day, Del and Phyllis stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Straight movement ally Newsom had heard President George W. Bush advocate for social death for the relationships of people like Phyllis and Del, proposing to amend the United States Constitution to forbid any state to recognize their union. They die? Newsom was going to do something.
And to celebrate gay Victory is to raise a glass of champagne at the wedding of navy lieutenant Gary Ross to his partner of eleven years. After decades of lying, as he defended his country as a surface-warfare officer, Ross flew to Vermont so he could marry in public one minute after DADT was repealed at midnight on September 21.
No matter how the saying goes, the arc of history more wiggles than bends toward justice. The Victory was not only the funding of AIDS research or the legalization of same-sex marriage in California or the Will and Gracetelevision show or the Supreme Court ruling that the sodomy laws were unconstitutional. But all these events together, plus many more, have served to slowly bend the arc of history toward justice.
The Victory is in the doing. In doing the work, gay activists ennoble themselves and, by proxy, other people in their community. When the story of Victory opened, people whose sexual orientation was toward people of the same gender were considered sinful, criminal, crazy, and treasonous. In 2010, Gallup, which has been asking a question about the moral approval of homosexuality for years, saw the moral approval line cross 50 percent. So far had this movement come as a symbol of social justice that, when beleaguered President Barack Obama needed to highlight his values in anticipation of the 2012 election, he ordered his administration to use foreign aid to promote gay rights abroad, and his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered a blazing speech in defense of gay rights as human rights at the big UN meeting in Geneva.
Tim Gill, the Colorado mogul, made a bazillion dollars developing QuarkXPress, the computer program for desktop publishing. Since the Amendment 2 fight in Colorado in 1992, he has devoted his time and resources to the gay revolution. Just recently, a Gill beneficiary, the Movement Advancement Project, produced some fascinating data about the movement. Gill money brought down three of the four vulnerable state senators who opposed marriage equality in New York in 2009. Two years later, Gill hit-man Bill Smith was spotted behind the scenes when the crucial Republican New York state senators suddenly found it in their interest to support marriage equality. Gill is doubtless proud of the work he did to amass his fortune, but can there be any doubt that he’s prouder of the movement work that followed?
No one said it better than Niccolò Machiavelli: “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” As this most marginalized group of Americans fought for full inclusion in the social order, they didn’t only change their world; they changed everyone’s world. Because they were different, the makers of the gay revolution could not take the easy path of showing they were acceptable citizens under an old order. They had to change the meaning of the core concepts of citizenship—morality, sanity, loyalty—itself.
Although it’s always hard to say exactly when a new order comes in, from the long view of history, gay men and lesbian women made a new world. And we are all living in it.