Victory Author Tells Us Why Gay History Will Repeat Itself
In this second part of our two-part series with Linda Hirshman, we ask the Victory author about some of the points in her recently-released tome on modern LGBT history. We wanted to know why Hirshman is in thrall with ACT UP and why she believes Romer v. Evans is the most monumental court decision in the movement. The writer, lawyer, and pundit also explains how that decision could affect future rulings on marriage equality, and why activist Richard Socarides bristled at Victory's title. Also, see who she thinks is worthy of their own Victory spin-off book. Click here to read the interview's first half.
The Advocate: At the advent of AIDS, many gays resisted changing their sex lives. Was it simply intransigence or a feeling that they were being forced to subvert part of their identities?
Hirshman: As I say in the book, I think such a large group of people have the full range of feelings about something as individual and important as one's sex life, so all of the above. What I found politically interesting was the suggestion that unlimited sexual choices and behavior was constitutive of some peoples' identities and of the group's identity. At least among middle class gay men, however, as the word spread, it turned out that most, not all, realized it was the right to decide that mattered, i.e., that they should have the right to decide what sex life to lead. Once they took control of the decision, the obvious cost/benefit analysis kicked in and as near as we can judge the infection rate began to go down. And of course the identity did not disappear at all, it just grew stronger under the challenge.
You devote a lot of ink to ACT UP, more so than what's given to groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force or the HRC. Why?
I am interested above all in acts of successful political mobilizing. I focused on the Task Force for the lesson it held at the time it was formed — the turn to single focus, mainstream, conventional political behavior; ditto for the HRC. Once the political lesson of the TF and HRC was drawn, there was no point to endlessly repeating it. Covering everything everybody did all the time would have made everybody happy, but Victory would then be just another one of those doorstop books nobody reads. Although you may notice that when HRC did something unusually productive and original, like the black tie dinners where Harry Reid met Dan Choi and the campaign against King & Spalding (a law firm that initially defended DOMA), I did pay close attention to it. ACT UP is widely acknowledged to have been a sea change in political organizing gay and not gay — the intensity, the structure, the management of diversity, the creativity. Not since the Students for a Democratic Society, which I also spent a fair bit of time on, did political organizing change in kind and not just in degree.
Tell us about the significance of the three-pronged argument used by the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case of Romer v. Evans, which successfully overturned a Colorado law that banned all protections for LGBT people. Will it be utilized again when DOMA or marriage equality reaches the high court?
I believe Romer is the fount of all gay legal strategy. If you look at any of the Prop. 8 pleadings or argument, they are essentially Romer. As Larry Tribe said at the time, had Romer gone the other way, it would have been Dred Scott next. That said, the DOMA challenge and the Prop. 8 case both include some legal issues not present in Romer, such as the impropriety of the federal government arrogating the definition of marriage from the states against centuries of contrary tradition, not for any compelling constitutional reason, but just, as Romer says, out of distaste. Or in Prop. 8 the taking away of recent rights, which was the basis of the appeals court decision. If the court focuses on that narrow point, it will be a small v victory for the outcome, but not a grand victory like a pure marriage equality decision would be.
If the court takes up marriage equality next, as in one of the DOMA cases or in the Prop. 8 case, the arguments will look very much like Romer. That the government is imposing a disadvantage in a crucial area of human life against an historically marginalized group and with absolutely no cognizable evidence of social harm. One difference is that, since Romer, these three strands of argument have become intertwined. Rather than proving gays to be a suspect classification, the best analysis now says look at all three dynamics. Is the government acting in a crucial area, against a marginalized group, etc. It becomes a synergy. This makes sense to me, because we're really, as Romer implicitly recognized, talking about fundamental citizenship in the liberal state. I do love Romer.
Victory obviously covers so many major wins in gay liberation — from Romer to Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned sodomy bans, to "don't ask, don't tell's" death — which one is the most important?
Different ones in different realms: I have to say it's Romer for all the reasons set forth above, in the legal realm. The most important win may have been the day the U.S. government took up the cause of AIDS research in a meaningful way, a quiet, obscure set of acts involving Tim Westmoreland, Rep. Henry Waxman, and Anthony Fauci. Because late and still inadequate as it was, it was a singular victory to get the government to act, to recognize an obligation to a despised minority as humans and citizens.
Maybe it's also the day the first gay person took loving care of his partner, an act that spiraled ever outward, spreading the seeds for the recognition of gay people as moral actors. It is the affirmative moral claim that fueled the victory in the end. Just today, my Google alert produced a long, anguished essay on Victory from a Christian antigay blogger, asserting that gays were winning because they claimed the moral high ground. He didn't like what he saw, but it's true and important. Sometimes our adversaries tell us truths about ourselves.
The book has so many great personalities in it, from Frank Kameny to Del Martin to Kirstin Gillibrand. Who resonated the most with you?
I have to say it was Arthur Evans, who opens the book. Maybe it was because I met him early in the process, or because he, too, was a philosopher. But I thought his moral realism was stunning and irresistible. On almost every subject, he had profound insight — that the gay revolution had to hit the sweet spot between anarchy and authoritarianism, that America had to live up to its democratic principles, that the gay movement was not just about politics, but about how to live a good life. If you take those three insights, you have almost the whole story. Also, he touched my heart, because I knew what an important figure he was in the story, and he had such confidence that I could be of some help.
Activist Richard Socarides and others felt uncomfortable with the book's title since so many rights are still denied LGBT people, and youth bullying appears worse than ever. Have anyone gotten angry at you for the title, and if so, how do you respond?
I got a fair amount of heat for the title. Each time someone criticized it — from the estimable Nathaniel Frank in Slate to some less sensible critiques — the universe produced another victory, so I just keep reciting the victories. Just yesterday another DOMA decision. But that's not the point. There will be setbacks; I am most concerned about the Supreme Court for instance. But unlike the racial movement, the Supreme Court decision is not the engine. Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, was followed by the sit ins and the like. In the gay revolution, the social changes mostly came first. So if the court does the wrong thing, it will be more like Bowers v. Hardwick, reversible on the ground, than like Plessy v. Ferguson, which froze the scene for racial change for so long. There may be some breakthrough victories too; I'm hoping for the first gay victory in one of the referendums that are coming up. That would be a huge milestone.
My point is an obvious one: barring some ghastly fascistic development in American politics, sometime since 1996 a crucial line has been crossed. The society is not going back to the time when gay was criminal, crazy, and subversive. The jury is still out on sinful, but, as they say, thank God for the First Amendment. Dan Savage is right: it will get better. (And if some ghastly fascistic coup did happen, gay rights would be just among the many awful things happening.)
You make the point repeatedly that the gay revolution changed the world for everyone. How?
One of the most profound engines of human oppression everywhere and in every nook and cranny of society is the tyranny of sex role stereotypes. As I said in my feminist days, you cannot move to the suburbs and get away from your wife. That change is foundational.
I would have thought the feminist movement would have driven a stake into that, but it turns out it only started the process. The gay revolution accelerated and strengthened that social change, allowing people access to a full range of human flourishing and interestingly strengthening hetero women in the process. See Brian Gallivan's Sassy Gay Friend on the Second City Network for a universe of examples.
Also, because the most profound engines of condemnation were turned on gay people, the movement had to attack what it meant to be criminal, crazy, and subversive, not just that the concepts did not apply to them, but that the very concepts were wrong. They changed the way psychiatry thinks of psychiatric disorders when people are condemned but do not feel themselves to be disordered. The movement added powerfully to the definition of what was private from the criminal law and to what really undermines American values. Everybody knows about when Joseph Welch turned on Senator McCarthy but we must also recognize the impact of Frank Kameny suing the U.S. in 1957 when they fired him for being gay. We are still harvesting the fruit of that moment, may he rest in peace.
Would you be up for a sequel?
I don't think so. I think this book caught the full arc of the movement to its most interesting point. There are other books to be written — I think the marriage movement could support a free standing book of its own, which would be very interesting. Also, I'd love to see a book or a long article about Chad Griffin and Frank Schubert.