Pinko Nostalgia

The dean of Queer Studies misses being oppressed.

Full disclosure: the one time I met Martin Duberman – who, now aged 88, could arguably be identified as the dean of Queer Studies – he was a jerk. It was 1994, and he was already a “distinguished gay historian,” and I was this young upstart who, the year before, had published a successful book, A Place at the Table, that challenged the longtime effort by Duberman and others to keep the wagon of gay rights forever hitched to the mule of the far left. We met on the set of Charlie Rose’s program, where we took part in an episode commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots. He was unconscionably rude and condescending. Re-watching that episode recently – on which Duberman’s most memorable line was something about “celebrating diversity” in a “conformist society” – I was reminded of what an intellectual lightweight he is.

Not that you’d know it from his list of accomplishments and accolades. The founder of CUNY’s Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies, he’s won a bushel full of awards and honorary degrees. His two dozen or more books include a reverential biography of the Stalinist singer Paul Robeson and an equally reverential biography of another full-fledged Commie, Howard Zinn (whose People’s History of the United States is more responsible than any other single book for the contempt in which many young Americans today hold their own country). As those last couple of items might suggest, Duberman is a hard leftist. And it’s his stubborn refusal to grow beyond the fatuous politics of his youth and middle age that forms the foundation of his new book, Has the Gay Movement Failed?

It should really be entitled Has the Gay Movement Failed the Left? Or maybe, since the author is so staggeringly self-absorbed: Has the Gay Movement Failed Me? Duberman’s answer: you betcha. A quarter of a century ago, along with the rest of the gay left, he deliberately presented straight Americans with an image of gays as marginal, promiscuous rebels – unalterably hostile to capitalism, the family, religion, and every other bourgeois convention. For Duberman and friends, the unforgivable thing about gays like me was that we told straight America – correctly – that most gay Americans were ordinary, politically moderate, law-abiding folks who just wanted to be able to lead our lives in peace.

While Duberman and company presented gays as the spearhead of an insurgency that would utterly transform American life, we asked simply for (as the title of my book put it) a place at the table and focused on issues like same-sex marriage and gays in the military. For them, marriage and the military were anathema – the very pillars of the bourgeois America that they hated. But instead of formulating rational responses to our arguments, Duberman and his militant allies opted for name-calling, mocking us as “self-hating” gays, “sex-negative” reactionaries who sought to mimic “breeder” (heterosexual) lifestyles and turn gay America into something resembling The Ozzie and Harriet Show or a Norman Rockwell painting.

Well, guess what? Duberman, the old iconoclast, is now married – and, as noted in a recent profile, he’s lived for decades in a high-windowed apartment on a quiet Chelsea street that sounds like the epitome of bourgeois luxury. (In his book, he confides that for a long time, partly on the advice of a Tibetan astrologer, he avoided committed relationships.) Bourgeois luxury notwithstanding, however, he still considers himself a proud subversive. The premise of his new book is that while virtually all gay Americans are glad that their sexual orientation is no longer such a big deal – glad, that is, that they can lead their lives without being fired or evicted or beaten up or rejected by their families just because they’re gay – Duberman and his fellow Queer Studies professors aren’t thrilled at all. Because this was never their objective. They didn’t want acceptance – they wanted revolution, which would overturn not only the democratic-capitalist system but also every imaginable social and cultural norm.

To this end, as Duberman recounts in his book, he and others founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which existed for a few years around 1970, savaging the West and (among much else) lending support to the violently antigay Black Panthers. There followed other groups, all of which claimed to speak for gays even though their radical politics had nothing remotely to do with the views and values of the average gay American. Despite their names and their claims, in short, these groups weren’t really about gay rights; they were about hijacking the gay-rights cause so they could have vehicles for their subversive rhetoric. To be sure, their purported goals were so extreme that they stood no chance whatsoever of success. But one always had the impression that some of these firebrands, at least, didn’t really want success – that they got off on perpetual protest and wouldn’t know what to do without it. It was their calling. Their _métier._ It’s what kept them busy.

Not until the early 1990s did some of us come along and start talking and writing and expressing concern about real gay lives. Next thing you knew, millions of gays were coming out of the closet, showing America just how unscary and white-bread we were, and making it clear that we didn’t want insurrection – we just wanted to be able to live openly without fear. And America being the decent country that it is, that happened faster than most of us ever expected.

Duberman hates that. Despises it. He writes with palpable disgust about how, over the years that followed the brief, golden GLF era, some Christian denominations became increasingly welcoming towards gay parishioners. How dare they? For him, and for the GLF, religion was supposed to be the enemy! He admits to his “distaste for mainstream gay culture’s turn,” beginning in the 1990s, from the loneliness of the closet and the desperation of anonymous hookups “to domesticity, family life, and upstanding citizenship.” Well, the hell with him. How dare he spit, in this fashion, on the contentment of others – and from the perch, moreover, of his comfortable Chelsea home?

How to make sense of this truly reprehensible indifference to millions of other people’s happiness? Is Duberman an out-and-out hypocrite, too lacking in self-awareness to recognize the utter disconnect between how he lives and what he preaches? Is he a prisoner of ideology, of nostalgia, or of narcissism – or all three?

Both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal gave Has the Gay Movement Failed? starred reviews – an indication that every library in the country should stock this book. That was predictable enough – for while the “assimilationist” gay movement, as people like Duberman called it, prevailed on the larger societal level, he and his fellow gay “progressives” have continued to dominate the media, the academy, and the rest of the cultural establishment. Meanwhile, despite his rote insistence that the gay-rights movement must stand “with those who are more oppressed,” his book doesn’t contain a single word about the brutal oppression of gay people around the globe, especially in Muslim countries, or about the looming existential threat that Islam represents to gays all over the Western world. But for Duberman to acknowledge this threat would, of course, be unthinkable: after all, his primary devotion has never been to gay rights but to the left. And in the year 2018, being a diehard leftist means, among other things, making common cause with Muslim leaders who hate Jews, subjugate women, and support capital punishment for gays.