Positioning the Radical: An Interview with Martin Duberman, Kessler Award Recipient 2012

Benjamin Gillespie (CLAGS Events and Outreach Coordinator,
PhD. student in theatre) interviews Professor Martin Duberman
about his life as a historian, playwright, scholar, and activist;
his recent honorary degree from Amherst College; and being
awarded the 2012 Kessler Award.

Benjamin Gillespie (BG) You were recently awarded an honorary doctoral
degree from Amherst College for your prolific and groundbreaking career, as
well as your passion for honoring the pasts of those that live in the “margins
of our society.” In your keynote address, you critiqued the assimilationist focus
of the national gay rights agenda, which features marriage and the military as
its central components, and—paraphrasing your words—ignores the needs of
the lower economic factions of queer society within the American corporate
capitalist system. Seeing as Amherst is a liberal institution, how was this
critique received?
Martin Duberman (MD) I had wondered whether or not there would be some
hostility, but anyone who said anything—at least subsequent to the speech—
was positive about it and agreed with me. One young guy said, “it’s amazing that
someone as old as you are would have radical ideas!”
BG Radical ideas are something you have had for a long time. Perhaps the
audience at Amherst appreciated your critique more than some gays, who are
pushing instead for assimilation and integration.
MD Sure. It was, of course, a self-selected audience. And Amherst is
liberal—even more than it used to be. Its outgoing president, Anthony Marx,
has recently been named head of the library system in New York. In the past, he
made sure that a number of Africans received scholarships to Amherst College.
It was interesting how many of the students that were there were minorities. It
wasn’t that long ago that it was completely white and male.
BG That is another part of your critique, isn’t it? That the assimilationist
agenda is generally geared toward the upper-middle-class white male?
MD Certainly. But that’s hardly surprising. It has always been that way.
BG And this was the first time Amherst awarded an honorary doctorate
to a “marginalized person,” correct? In the description I quoted earlier, it is
interesting how they never mention gay or queer, but use the language of
“marginalizaton.” Do you have any thoughts on this?
MD I think that it is all code for gay. Well, not all gay. Back in 1963, I wrote
a play called “In White America” about being black in white America, which
continues to be performed. When they say, “live on the margins,” I think the
reference is also to race, not just sexual orientation.
BG I think another word they could have used was ‘radical.’ You often
distinguish between liberal and radical political positions, identifying yourself
as a radical because you are someone who has struggled and continues
to fight to substantially restructure the system itself, rather than push for
LGBT integration into the system as it currently exists. Can you say anything
more about this distinction and how it has influenced your career as a gay
MD It does seem to me that being allowed “in” to
mainstream culture is not the goal that the Gay
Liberation Front (GLF) originally aimed at. It wasn’t
that we wanted to become accepted members of
established institutions; it was rather that we
wanted to change the institutions. Rather
than being allowed to join the military, we
wanted to challenge the whole idea of
war and state-sanctioned killing. The
whole war machine was our target and we weren’t eager to put on the uniform.
The same is true of marriage. As gay people, we learned a great deal about
relationships that perhaps mainstream America didn’t know or wasn’t willing to
acknowledge, in terms of the roles people play in a partnered relationship. The
studies that have been done make it very clear that gay relationships (and I mean
gay inclusively—lesbian, trans, queer, etc.) tend to be much more egalitarian
than heterosexual ones. Also, there is the whole issue of monogamous marriage.
I think that there is a wide spectrum of different kinds of gay relationships:
some are monogamous; some are “open”; some are sexual for a time, but then
become companionable.
Radicals still don’t accept that institutions currently structured are in any sense
universal or maximally indicate human needs. In our point of view, we don’t want
to join up. Yes, we want all the rights everybody else has. But at the same time,
we want the right to challenge traditional institutions. The original GLF differed
much from today’s politics. We don’t want merely to be good patriotic citizens
because there is a lot wrong with national values and national policies and we
want to challenge those.
BG Let’s move to something more personal. To quote you in Cures: A Gay
Man’s Odyssey, you state, “It was easier for me to harangue the country about
changing its ways than to change my own; perhaps because—a notion I can only
entertain in retrospect—the country really did need to remake itself, whereas I
did not.” Here, you were referring to having an optimistic viewpoint when it came
to the country’s politics, but a more negative opinion of your own struggle with
a gay identity that you hadn’t yet accepted.
Looking at this experience retrospectively here, you point out your own guilty
conscience, which essentially pushed you to want to conform (at that time)
to mainstream heterosexual value systems and beliefs. Thinking about your
talk at Amherst, this still seems to me to be a prevalent problem—that is, gay
assimilationism and the guilty conscience of queer radicalism.
MD Some of this may be generational, but shame and guilt remain elements
of the gay personality, simply because that is
how we were raised—to feel ashamed of our
orientation and guilty about it. And even though
you know better or learn better, as you become
part of a community and become politically
active, there remains an emotional residue that
cannot be fully erased, even if you know its
foolish. It’s deeply imprinted on us, especially
for those today who grow up in rural areas or in
small towns and cities where the freedoms of
places like New York don’t exist. There is still a
great imprinting of shame.
But you make a good point. It means assimilation
is the equivalent of acceptance. If you are
accepted by the mainstream, you no longer have
to be ashamed of your differentness, and even
beyond that, you no longer have to see yourself
as different. And that’s one of the reasons I
react negatively to assimilationism. I feel we
are different: we grow up as outsiders and that
affects our perspectives and values. And we
don’t want to throw that subcultural awareness
away in order to be accepted as “just folks.”
BG It has recently been announced that you
were selected to receive the Kessler Award in the
fall for your significant influence in LGBT studies
and the body of work you have produced in this
area. As the founder of CLAGS, its Executive
Director for the first decade of its existence, and
a continued supporter of its efforts, this award
must have a special significance for you—a full
circle kind of significance. Can you say anything
more about that?
MD For starters, I can tell you a bit more
about how the Kessler Awards came about. Dave
Kessler and I had known each other since our
graduate school days, and we had stayed in touch
through the years. When I started CLAGS, I knew
that Dave had done very well as a psychiatrist,
and so I approached him about endowing this
lectureship. I didn’t have to do any sort of hard
sell. Dave saw it as a worthwhile idea and gave
CLAGS $100,000. With that endowment, we’ve
been able to continue to give this award. I guess
it is especially nice for me—feeling full circle—
because the award emerged from a personal
friendship. And the Kessler award has turned out
to be a successful community event. The first ten
years were produced as a book. It will be nice to
do the lecture myself and have Dave be present
for it.
BG What will you talk about?
MD I was originally going to talk about how
CLAGS began, but I’m afraid too much of it
would be unfamiliar to the audience. The kinds
of issues being raised back then might be too
boring for a current audience [laughs.]. I think
I will talk about anti-assimilationism. It is a far
more immediate event, since Obama has just
come out in favor of gay marriage.
BG In your lecture at Amherst, you also
brought up Obama’s recent endorsement of gay
marriage. Even with all the media attention it
has received, it seems to me that his personal
acceptance of the issue is not going to put into
motion the changes that need to be made, which
is clear in cases like North Carolina, where
marriage and even civil unions have been barred.
Even if marriage is a side-stepping issue—one
that avoids the larger economic problems for
queers in the U.S.— it is still the public issue
right now, and therefore we can’t ignore it.
I think discussing anti-assimilationism in this
arena will allow you to receive the attention you
deserve for your sustained commitment to gay
MD Thank you. As for Obama, at least he
recognized it [gay marriage] and took a clear
position on it. But I do feel strongly about the
lack of economic equality and opportunity in the
country and about the need sharply to narrow
between rich and poor. As of now the country
closer to being a corporate oligarchy than a
BG How is it that you’ve been able to balance
your research, activism, and teaching for all of
these years, building up such a rich profile that
has been recognized by so many accolades?
MD I doubt if that question can be answered–
for example, why I became a writer instead of, say,
a lawyer. People develop their own mechanisms
for coping with life’s stresses, and for me, it’s
always been important to stay busy. Writers are
rarely laid back, relaxed types. They tend to be
classic Type A’s–at their happiest when at their
most productive. Even today, I keep involved-
-writing, reading, staying abreast politically. I
don’t think anybody knows much about how his
or her own inner workings and evolution. To take
one example, I know when I was growing up, and
straight through college, I was hardly a political
radical. I’d like to say that it was public events
that educated me, but I don’t think anyone can
know for sure the sources of their motivation.
BG CLAGS just celebrated its official 20th
anniversary last year—a remarkable feat for a
center fostering LGBT studies, and one that has
harnessed a consistent radical queer agenda.
What do you see as the central issue(s) that
should be in focus at CLAGS now and in the years
to come?
MD It was really CLAGS’ twenty-fifth
anniversary. It was 1986 when I first gathered
a few people in my apartment to talk about the
possibilities of what became CLAGS. It took five
years of work and planning. We were warmly
welcomed at the The Graduate Center, CUNY from the
beginning, but it was made clear to us that we
had to raise $50,000 to prove we were viable as a
Center before we could get formal accreditation.
So it all really began twenty-five years ago—we
were just not formally accredited until 1991. Our
first public conference was in 1987 on “Gay Life
in New York.”
BG Are there any current projects you are
working on?
MD Type A’s ALWAYS have a current project!
For the last few years I’ve been working on a
biography of Howard Zinn, the political radical
and historian who wrote the best-selling book, A
People’s History of the United States. His family
has opened up all his archives to me, so it’s
the first time his story has been told. He was a
remarkable human being. The biography will be
published by The New Press on October 1 [www.
thenewpress.com]. I’ve also recently completed
Against the Grain: A Martin Duberman Reader. It
includes selections from my various books and
essays, and The New Press will be publishing it
in the spring of 2013.