Acceptance at What Price? The Gay Movement Reconsidered (2012 Kessler Award Lecture)

The Annual Kessler Award Lecture was given by Martin Duberman, 2012 Kessler Award winner and CLAGS’s founder. The ceremony took place on December 5th, 2012 in the Proshansky Auditorium at the The Graduate Center, CUNY. An introduction was given by James Wilson (CLAGS E.D., LaGuardia Community College/The Graduate Center) followed by testimonials from Blanche Wiesen Cook (John Jay College of Criminal Justice/ The Graduate Center, CUNY), Marcia M. Gallo (University of Nevada), and a presentation by Amber Hollibaugh (Executive Director, Queers for Economic Justice). Below is an excerpt from Martin Duberman’s Kessler Address. The full lecture is available online at and the entire lecture will be included in the forthcoming anthology, Against the Grain: A Martin Duberman Reader (2013).

I’d like to begin by defining my personal political position in order to help you better evaluate the subsequent argument I’ll be making. First, to state the obvious, I strongly believe that gay people are entitled to all the rights and privileges of other citizens in this country, including marriage.

Second, and perhaps less obvious: I’m speaking to you as someone who self-identifies politically as radical, not liberal. “Isn’t ‘radical’ the same as ‘liberal?’” People often ask me. No, it isn’t. Liberal and radical are often lumped together, usually to be denounced, but to explain my own politics, I think it’s important and necessary to distinguish between the two. Both do share a belief in the need for progressive social change in this country, but there the similarity ends. Liberals struggle to integrate increasing numbers of people into what’s viewed as a beneficent system. Radicals believe that the system does have beneficent aspects, but also believe that it requires substantial restructuring.

Social justice movements in this country have often been started by radicals who have then, and usually in short order, been repudiated and supplanted by liberals. Thus in the nineteenth century, the Garrisonian abolitionists gave way to the Free Soil Party—meaning that the call for the immediate abolition of slavery slid into the mere refusal to allow slavery to expand further. Thus, too, the Knights of Labor—“One big union,” skilled and unskilled combined—mutated into the AFL, which catered only to skilled workers and denied admission to people of color. A final example might be the broad-gauged Seneca Falls declaration of womens’s rights, with its open challenge to male domination; that got transmuted into the suffragists’ single-issue concentration on winning the right to vote. Over and over, the deeply conservative undertow of American ideology has undermined and diminished progressive goals. Central to that ideology is the conviction that any individual willing to work hard enough can achieve whatever he or she desires. It follows from this pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps assumption that all presumed barriers based on race, class, gender, or sexual orientation automatically evaporate or are reduced to insignificance when confronted by the individual’s determined drive for success. And if you believe that, there’s this little bridge in Brooklyn for sale that I’d like to interest you in.

Those in this country who self-identify as left-wing, as I do, have never been able to solve the conundrum of how to prevent a radical impulse from degenerating into reformist tinkering—which comes down to how to mobilize a large constituency for substantive change when most of its members (think the Human Rights Campaign here) prefer to focus on winning certain kinds of limited concessions (like, for gay people, the right to marry or to serve in the military) and show little interest in joining with other dispossessed groups to press for a broader social reconstruction.

Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement—the radical element in this generation—will manage to solve this conundrum. I dearly hope so, though I have my doubts, given the history of radical protest in this country.

Part of the problem, as all the surveys I’ve seen agree, is that Americans are twice as likely to blame themselves rather than structural obstacles if their income and status remain low—that, in other words, we’re a good deal less class-conscious than Europeans. Thus in the 1970s it proved impossible to draw together the class-based politics of the labor unions of the 1930s with the demand for racial justice of the 1960s into what we most need—an
inter-racial class identity. Yet there is hope, and it resides, in my view, in the eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-old cohort, the generation that spawned Occupy, which is far and away the most progressive force on the scene today.

In describing how liberalism—with much help, of course, from conservatism—has historically swallowed up any fragile shoots of radicalism in this country, I make no exception for the gay rights movement itself, in which I’ve been periodically active for some forty years.

Following the Stonewall riots in 1969, which inaugurated the modern LGBT movement, the radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) initially emerged as the dominant political force. It offered a far-ranging critique of traditional notions of gender and sexual behavior. And it emphasized the ideal of androgyny—that is, combining in every individual the characteristics and drives previously parceled out as “natural” to one gender or the other. It also aimed at making alliances with other oppressed groups, like the black Panthers and the Young Lords.

Today, GLF has long since disappeared. It has been replaced by national LGBT organizations—of which the Human Rights Campaign is currently the largest—that work toward assimilationist goals like gay marriage and the right of gays to serve openly in themilitary. And it’s precisely this agenda that for twenty years has swept the field, pushing aside and ignoring a host of other issues and insisting that we’re “just folks,” exactly like you mainstreamers in our perspectives and values, with the sole exception of this insignificant little matter of sexual orientation.

It isn’t true. Gay people are not carbon-copy straight people—just as black people aren’t carbon-copy whites. Gay radicals insist that our special historical experience has provided us, just as it has black people, with special perspectives and insights into mainstream American culture—insights we feel should be affirmed, not denied.

Gay radicals, then and now, oppose reducing our critique of mainstream values to an agenda that pledges allegiance to them, as is currently the case. That critique ranges from economic to sexual issues, from the demand for a genuine safety net for all citizens to a questioning of the universal superiority of lifetime monogamy. More than sixty years ago, the (heterosexual) philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote in his classic work Eros and Civilization a sentence that has become a kind of mantra for me: “because of their rebellion against the subjugation of sexuality under the order of procreation, homosexuals might one day provide a cutting-edge social critique of vast importance.”

It’s precisely the loss of that “cutting-edge social critique” that so much bothers me and others on the left. For us to reach the potential Marcuse envisioned for us, it seems to me that we need to assert our differentness from the mainstream rather than continue to plead for the right to join it.

We need to assert the fact that, despite enormous variations in our individual lifestyles, a distinctive set of perspectives—reflecting our distinct historical experience—exists among gay people in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary relationships, friendships, and family. Gay “differentness” isn’t some secondrate variation on first-rate mainstream norms, but rather a decided advance over them. Gay subcultural values could richly inform conventional life and could open up an unexplored range of human possibilities for everyone. Could, that is, if the mainstream were listening, which it isn’t. And the reason it isn’t is due in part to us—to our denial or concealment of our own specialness in the name of being let into what is essentially a middle-class white male clubhouse. When I speak of our specialness, I mean the challenge the radical GLF presented in the years following Stonewall. I mean the challenge to the gender binary, to the assumption that everyone is either male or female and that certain biologically induced traits adhere naturally to each gender—that women, for example, are intrinsically emotional, men intrinsically aggressive. That gender binary is not true of gay people in general.

But what is true, as a number of studies have shown, is that gay people score consistently higher than straight people in empathy and altruism. Also true is that lesbians as a group have been shown to be far more independent-minded and far less subservient to authority than straight women.

Many gay men, moreover, put a premium on emotional expressiveness and sexual innovation. Studies have shown that lesbians and gay men hold a view of coupledom that is far more characterized by mutuality and egalitarianism than is true of straight couples. If you don’t believe me, surely you’ll believe the New York Times. Back in 2008 the Times published an article summarizing recent scholarly evidence that (in the words of the Times) “conclusively shows that same-sex couples are far more egalitarian in sharing responsibility both for housework and finances than are heterosexual ones, where women still do much more of the domestic chores (and live with a lot of anger as a result) and where men are more likely to pay the bills.” As a result, the Times concludes that same-sex couples “have more relationship satisfaction” and—hold on to your beads—“have a great deal to teach everyone else.”

In other words, there really is a gay subculture, a way of looking at life and coping with its joys and sorrows that has much to offer the mainstream—and also to offer the multitude of gay people who prefer to claim that we’re just like everybody else. Those of us on the left feel much the way James Baldwin did when he asked why blacks were begging to rent a room in a house that was burning down. Wouldn’t it be better, Baldwin asked, to build a new house? In the same spirit, gay radicals denounce the killing machine known as the military and have no wish to become part of it. Nor are we interested in having our primary relationships sanctioned by church or state. Not being carbon copies, we at least aim at equality in our unions, rather than at the privileging of one partner’s personal, sexual, and career needs over the other’s. And we do not believe that being part of a couple should convey special status and reward, for that reduces the vast number of single people in our midst to some sort of second-class, second-rate status.

We are, of course, entitled to all the rights and privileges of everyone else in this country. But the recent concentration of our resources and energy on the narrow agenda of marriage and the military has implicitly denigrated both the unmarried state and the refusal to maim and kill in war. Our current national organizations for the most part have not only failed to challenge mainstream American values, but also have ignored the actual needs of most gay people themselves. Organizations like the Human rights Campaign speak primarily to a middle- and upper-class white constituency and all but ignore the gay world’s black, Asian, and Latino members, the plight of its own poor, and the history of our challenges to traditional gender and sexual norms.

Though you’d never know it from the current gay agenda, most gay people are working class—and that’s true whether “class” is defined by income, educational level, or job status. The chief concern these days of gay working-class people is finding a job with decent wages and benefits—and keeping that job, since in half the states employers still can legally fire workers simply because they’re gay.

The workplace itself remains strongly defined by heterosexual norms. Most straight workers believe gender does and should come in two, and only two, packages: the traditionally defined male or the traditionally defined female. The heterosexual norm also explicitly claims—at least officially—that lifetime, monogamous pair-bonding is the sole guarantee of a contented, moral life. Of course official rhetoric and actual behavior are often far apart, as you might have noted recently with a certain high-ranking general.

The large majority of working-class gay people, like most straight ones, have nonunion jobs. The union movement currently enrolls less than 12 percent of the workforce. Even where a union exists, gay people often don’t feel comfortable talking openly to fellow workers about their lives. Nor are their needs, like domestic partnership benefits, forcefully represented during contract negotiations with employers. The gay employee feels fortunate if homophobic harassment—literal physical assault—is absent from his or her workplace.

Under the leadership of John J. Sweeney, the AFL has made some strides in including and protecting gay union members, but homophobia in the workplace, unionized or not, is still formidable. Alas, the national LGBT organizations, enamored of the marital arts and traditional marriage, have shown scant comprehension or interest in the hidden wounds of class and the open wounds of race. In a brilliant essay entitled “What is this Movement Doing to My Politics?” The lesbian political scientist Cathy Cohen has argued that, ever since the demise of Queer Nation and the refocusing of Act-Up on issues relating to global AIDS, there is no longer a radical domestic wing of any import in the national lesbian and gay movement— which is to say, the gay movement no longer represents a genuinely transformative politics.

Remember, if you will, that as far back as 1998, the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Alfonse D’Amato for the Senate, and later GLAAD—the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—accepted money from the right-wing, union-busting Coors beer corporation. The national gay movement’s efforts, in Cohen’s words, to “sanitize, whitenize, and normalize the public and visible representations” of the community—to focus, in other words, on mainstream assimilation— has led her to ask, with what I feel is justifiable anger, “Can I have radical politics and be part of this gay movement?” Her answer and mine, I’m sorry to say, is, “We’re not sure.”

Why? Because we’re deeply concerned that the gay movement in its current incarnation is essentially devoted to winning inclusion into an unequal, greed-haunted, oppressive society.

There are currently 46 million Americans who subsist on food stamps, an increase of more than 14 million over the past four years. More than a quarter of blacks and Latinos in this country— compared to 10 percent of whites—live below the governmentdefined poverty line of $11,000 a year for an individual and roughly $22,000 a year for a family of four.

One in every five children lives in a family below the poverty line, and they often go to bed at night hungry; again, if you doubt me, have a look at the recent Frontline television program “Poor Kids.” One in every four adult black men are either in jail or have recently been released from it, often for minor drug charges. Again, don’t take my word for it: read Michelle Alexander’s recent book, The New Jim Crow. In sum, for 46 million Americans—which includes many gay people—basic human needs and minimal levels of security are going unmet.

Surely, it’s long past time for the gay movement, and for the country as a whole, to refocus its agenda. What is needed is nothing less than a massive antiracist, pro-feminist, economic justice movement. I know—easier said than done. But easiest of all is to continue to do nothing about the country’s gross inequities. Do we see any signs in the national LGBT movement that it seeks coalition with others suffering oppression, that it must cease to be a one-issue movement and instead must stand with those suffering from assorted forms of racial, class, and gender discrimination?

Yes, on the local level there are a few struggling LGBT organizations centered on dealing with the plight of its own poor people, and also on creating bridges to others. Here in New York City, there’s Queers for Economic Justice. How many of you have even heard of QEJ? It attempts, with a small budget and staff, to deal with the multiple issues of the gay poor, including those living in shelters.

In closing, I have to tell you that I think it’s a disgrace that our country as a whole is far more entranced with improving the technology of drone strikes, those anonymous killers in the sky, than with the plight of the poor. And I’m afraid I have to add that I also consider it a disgrace that our assimilationist-minded national gay movement does a far better job at representing the white middle- and upperclass elements in our community than it does representing those of our own people who suffer from a variety of deprivations—to say nothing of the non-gay multitude who are also afflicted. It is time, in my view, to reassess and revise our goals as a movement. To do otherwise is to implicate us in the national disgrace of caring much more about the welfare of the privileged few than the deprived many. We are in danger of becoming part of the problem. My hope is that we may yet become part of the solution.