A new book by Martin Duberman is always a major event - and since the pioneering gay historian has just received a lifetime achievement award from the Publishing Triangle's LGBT book industry professionals, it's an excellent time to join him in reviewing the past 25 years in Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political memoir, 1985-2008. Set in New York City against a rolling backdrop of George H. Bush's inaction on AIDS, Bill Clinton's gaffes on gays in the military, and the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the books focuses on the surprisingly moving and dramatic story of the struggle to build the country's first undergraduate LGBT studies department at the City University of New York.
Alive with incisive political reflections, personal soul-searching, and plenty of gossipy asides about his academic and political rivalries, Waiting to Land picks up the story Duberman began in Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey, about coming out before 1970 and choosing to live openly as a gay man, and Midlife Queer: Autobiography of a Decade, 1971-1981, about channeling the excitement of gay liberation into a national political agenda. With an engaging mix of heated diary entries, letter excerpts and straightforward narration written in 2008, It binds together the strands of his life as an activist academic and author or editor of more than 20 books (including Stonewall, the basis for the 1995 movie about the Greenwich Village uprising, and Paul Robeson, a biography of African American actor and activist). The result is a gripping glimpse into the inner life of a gay man who has dedicated himself to making a difference for gay people of all backgrounds, and a cautionary tale about idealism's limits in a hierarchical and conformist culture.
Having established yourself as a historian and activist in the 1970s and '80s, you channeled your considerable energies into creating the first LGBT studies department at the college level in the U.S. in the 1990s. Why were you certain of this path for the LGBT movement?
We had reached the point by the mid-'80s where a number of scholars-most not affiliated with academia, like Jonathan Ned Katz and Joan Nestle-had produced significant amount of work. I sensed the moment had come that this info needed to be centered in an academic context. Of course, there's a danger when you institutionalize anything that you'll become part of the institutional culture, though you may disapprove of it, or try to do things differently. In the early founding group, were all a little nervous about this, but felt it was important to advance gay scholarship - because there were all kinds of perks, such as grants - though we were given almost none in the beginning.
How long did the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) take to become solidly established?
The university contributed nothing to our effort except a few in-kind services, so it took us five years, from 1986 to 1991, to raise the $50,000 we needed. From the beginning, we did a lot of public events where we'd explain our situation and pass the hat. Everyone on our early board was an activist. But right down to the present day, a lot of wealthy people don't associate scholarship with activism, even though there are many ways that two work together. An example I give in the book is that Hidden from History, the collection of historical essays I edited, was cited as swaying votes in the Vermont legislature.
What impressed you about the emerging LGBT scholarship?
I felt the material queer scholars were beginning to produce was invaluable to the mainstream as well as to LGBT people: we knew a lot about sexuality, relationships, gender. And because of having a different historical experience, we have a different set of values and perspectives on the need for respect for a variety of people, for those who are minorities, and those who don't conform. That's part of what kept me going. I think the other part probably relates to the fact that I had been an activist, I was on the founding board of the National Gay Task Force, the founding advisory board of Lambda Legal Defense - I can't even remember everything I did in the 70s, but it was a lot.
Your experience seems emblematic of your generation - insofar as you were liberated by the gay movement and became an activist, and then pushed to institutionalize a LGBT social vision, despite losing so many fellow activists to AIDS.
Yes, but there were many others who bought the argument from the '60s that we were damaged, sick, and incapable of intimacy. I had to fight though that - most of us from that generation retain a certain self-loathing, a fear of intimacy. There are a lot of scars I live with, that are direct or indirect result of homophobia I grew up with: I don't travel easily, I don't sleep well [laughs]. I have a wonderful partner at this point, but I have gone through a lot of stormy affairs. It's been a hard fight to accept myself to the point I currently do. A lot of people of my generation couldn't fight through it, and they live with a very negative image of themselves, so they can't fight, and they can't go public that they're gay.
Yes, there's a lot of damage done, especially by the virulent homophobia of the 1950s. I often think about how little distance we really have on that time.
We've only come a partial way from the racism, classism and sexism in our own community. I've been talking to a lot of LGBT black people because of a book I'm writing about four gay heroes that involves [poet and activist] Essex Hemphill - and they tell me they don't feel the mainstream gay movement is their movement. It doesn't include their experience, their needs.
What gives you hope, as far as the LGBT movement goes?
I was part of the group that set up Queers for Economic justice-most are in their 20s and 30s-and I was enormously impressed. They do seem to be radical and inclusive, but I'm talking about a handful of people here - a lot of people are also joining Log Cabin Republicans.
Even though you dedicated yourself to establishing the academic field of LGBT studies, you've also consistently questioned the polarization of gay and straight identities. Where do you see this debate going in the LGBT movement?
I think there is that inherent contradiction in trying to establish an identity that may prove a disservice to everyone. I'm thinking now of the Kinsey Report way back in 1948, where a third of self-labeled heterosexual men had had a same-sex experience to orgasm, and that's when the U.S. was entering a very conservative period. I have argued -though can't claim this for myself -that bisexuality is probably closer to what our innate capacities really are. We're not meant to be gay or straight. It's the same for gender: I mean, men and women, does that really cover it? That's why I think transgender issues are likely to be at the cutting edge of the movement as we go forward.
You've grappled with a lot of backbiting, leading to the collapse of the coalition that attempted to work with various New York City institutions to honor the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, among other things. What's the best way to overcome it, in your experience?
I'm told you also find a great deal of backbiting and animosity in the African-American movement and the feminist movement. Part of explanation is that we have been oppressed. When we come out, it's a gesture to liberation, but it hardly represents full liberation from the lousy self-image we've carried around for years, as gays or blacks or women. Also it's usually safer to vent among one's own. The best way to overcome that is good old fashioned consciousness-raising. We would have retreats at CLAGS, and ask why there was so much tension and apparent distrust. It would help, but how long it would last is arguable. We've had three women as the executive director, but there hasn't been a black or Hispanic executive director. So there's more work to be done.
As the son of an immigrant to New York, who has worked with students from similar backgrounds since the 1970s, you also care deeply about putting economic equality on the LGBT movement's front burner. What's the best way to accomplish this?
A lot of Waiting to Land is about my feeling that the gay movement is unaware of class issues. We like to think that anyone who works hard can pull themselves up, while completely ignoring the obstacles. At the same time, the straight left remains largely unaware of LGBT concerns. They say, "of course you people should have your rights." But if you say to them, "haven't you been attracted to someone of your own gender?" it's a red flag. They don't want to think about the texture of our lives, because they don't want to think about their own lives. I find it a really peculiar situation. The LGBT movement is not aware of class, and the class-based left wing movement is not aware of us - thus the title of my book, Waiting to Land.
So here you are, stranded, still searching for a world you many not find.
My search has been embedded in a life of material comfort, of partnership, of all the privileges that relate to being male and being white, even though I've been discriminated against as gay person and have internalized a lot of that - or did. Our society in general can easily put me in a despairing mood. To some extent today's young are more radical than the preceding two generations, or maybe three-but they are not connecting with those from other movements, and they are small in number. So I will die unsatisfied-but that's part of my temperament too.
You recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Publishing Triangle. How do you most want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as somebody who tried to use his privilege to question privilege and even to sabotage it where possible.
Would you say you've been successful at that?
Partially. Part of the flack I received as director of CLAGS was that in a semi- or unconscious way, I made certain assumptions like - "Of course we can do this!" - when really it was a matter of everyone fulfilling the task they'd committed to. That attitude arises from a privileged background. A lot of people can't complete what they really wish to do. Without question, I'm aware I contributed, without wanting to or intending to, to whatever explosions were happening with CLAGS. I tried not to, but most of us are not sufficiently in control of our subconscious to do that.
You mean, you were human after all?
Yes, I'll have to settle for that.