There are a few books every year I wish I had written. The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman just leapt to the top of that list. It is, unquestionably, a landmark book and will likely be the template by which subsequent scholarship on our collective lesbian and gay history will be judged.
Faderman has long been, with Martin Duberman, Jonathan Ned Katz, John D’Emilio, Bonnie Zimmerman, Esther Newton, and a handful of others, one of the premiere historians of lesbian and gay America.
We are fortunate to have her (as we are them). The Gay Revolution proves why.
Lesbian readers know Faderman from her histories of lesbian lives, To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America—A History, Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the 17th Century to the Present, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, Scotch Verdict, and Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present.
In The Gay Revolution, Faderman takes on our collective LGBT history from the pre-Stonewall days through to now. It’s a massive undertaking and Faderman approaches it with diligence, tenacity, and just the right touch of awe. These are stories we should all be familiar with, but since they aren’t taught anywhere but the random college gender studies course, how could we? Even those of us, like myself, who are assiduous students and writers of LGBT history will find new data in The Gay Revolution.
The breadth of Faderman’s scholarship here may be lost to the non-academic reader who will be pulled in right from the prologue by Faderman’s easy, colloquial, immensely readable style. But over 100 pages of footnotes allude to that breadth; her research is extraordinary. Faderman has plumbed the archives of libraries, newspapers, legislative bodies, lesbian and gay organizations, police files, and also interviewed more than 100 activists and others to get this meticulously researched book to us. It is, unquestionably, her crowning achievement as a historian.
The battle as Faderman lays it out, is almost a class struggle—one of “the people” (lesbians and gay men) and society’s hierarchy, the “suits versus streets” that she illumines. Gay men and lesbians are pitted against every controlling body in America: the press demonizes us in service to the courts, the military, the schools, the psychiatric community. We were treated as pariahs because we had been medicalized and psychiatrically profiled and deemed to be dangerous, unstable, even treasonous. Lesbians and gay men can be committed to psychiatric hospitals against their will (as I was by my parents as a teenager). The FBI could keep fat files on “known homosexuals.” Bars could be raided and the patrons arrested and charged. As Faderman states it, literally thousands of gay men and lesbians were arrested just for being gay men and lesbian. That was enough. Being homosexual was itself a crime. You could come into work one morning and get fired because someone had reported seeing you going into a gay bar or walking a little too close to another man or woman.
As Faderman lays out lesbian and gay history in America, we were/are in a battle for our very lives, and she explains how and elicits testimony from the victims, the survivors, the activists, the names lost to history and rediscovered by her.
Her prologue, with all its damning realities for lesbians and gay men in the era before Stonewall, sets the tone of the book. Beginning before many of us were born and when Faderman herself was still a child, in 1948, Faderman literally sets the stage for what is to come. In this instance, it is a literal stage at the University of Missouri School of Journalism where Professor E.K. Johnson, acting dean, is trying to get through the annual awards ceremony before being arrested. At the end, after congratulating students and glad-handing fellow faculty, Johnson drove to the police station and turned himself in.
His crime? Homosexuality. He’d been outed by a former lover.
This, Faderman explains, is where we were in those years. Long before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), which itself would net and destroy many homosexuals (Faderman addresses that later), police and prosecutors all over America were hunting down closeted men and women who were just trying to live their gay and lesbian lives, and arresting them using vagrancy and lewdness laws and whatever else they could find. The post-war years were especially daunting as gay men and lesbians were moving to the cities in large numbers to escape small-town whispers, only to find themselves caught in a different web of exposure. Arrests ruined careers. Police and lawyers were also, sometimes, blackmailers. In the case of Johnson, his former lover of a decade had been arrested and pressured to name names, as the HUAC hearings would do almost a decade later. A “homosexual ring—or what we would now call a circle of friends who met for parties and socializing—was “uncovered,” as the newspaper stories would detail as salaciously as possible.
It is both mesmerizing and gutting to read this book. I found myself crying in frustration, anger, and compassion for these gay brothers and lesbian sisters whose lives were riven by the efforts to rid the country of them and “their kind.”
For his part, Johnson’s life was sundered. At 50, he was ousted from his university with the kind of vitriol that would have made it impossible for him to ever get another teaching position. His name was all over the Missouri newspapers. As Faderman notes, one newspaper’s headline about his case declared simply, “Homosexual!”
That was enough. That was a scandal of incalculable proportions.
From the seeming safety of 2015, with marriage equality nearly secured (Kim Davis, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz, and other public officials are still attempting to subvert June’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling), it is sometimes easy to forget just how new our movement is and both how far and how little we have moved the civil rights needle. As Martin Duberman, founder of City University of New York’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies to further LGBT scholarship and curriculum has said about this period in our LGBT history, “I’m overwhelmed at the great distance that we have all traveled.”
Faderman takes us on the journey and her book will astound with the various vistas of our collective history.
In her prologue, Faderman starts with Johnson and ends with the 2012 ceremony to bestow the rank of brigadier general (two stars) to Army Col. Tammy Smith. What made the 2012 ceremony the first of its kind in America was that Smith was married to another woman, and her spouse, parents, and in-laws all participated in the ceremony, pinning on her stars, exchanging her epaulets for new ones.
Those two stories are Faderman’s lead-in to over 100 interviews, reams of research, countless tales of how we got from Johnson to Smith in 64 years time. And how many of our brothers and sisters have died along the way to the advancements that have been procured, but which have yet to be fully codified.
Faderman explores the confluence of sociology, psychology and existing laws to show how the “gay liberation” movement evolved. She details how the newly minted terms from psychology were used to brand homosexuals as “psychopaths” and “loonies” who made America unsafe, especially for children. Lesbians and gay men were crazy; how else to explain their behavior? But it was, as the law got involved, a crazy that was also dangerous to society, and homosexuals were hunted down wherever possible and routed from their perverse nests—or so the media presented it.
Over 10 separate and distinct parts, Faderman delineates how we got to now. She begins with the scapegoating of homosexuals—in society, in the military, in the schools. What’s defining about the chapters in the first section, “Scapegoats,” is how neatly lesbians and gay men were excised from “normal” society in an almost surgical way. In the war years, we were banned from the military. Psychiatry was used to brand us as dangerous. Our sexual identities were labeled in ways that allowed us to be demonized as dangerous to children. (Think of Lillian Hellman’s groundbreaking play The Children’s Hour.)
Activism became essential, and Faderman introduces “The Homophiles” to a new generation (and possibly to older generations as well) in three chapters devoted to the burgeoning movement for gay and lesbian civil rights. Moving seamlessly from the HUAC hearings and McCarthy-era scares that destroyed many a homosexual life to the work of the early activist groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, Faderman illumines the work individual gay men and lesbians did to propel the very concept of gay liberation forward.
It’s not all “onward to the battlements,” however, as she explains how Barbara Gittings was fired from The Ladder, the magazine of DOB in 1966, just before the current issue went to press, because Gittings was getting weary of waiting for change and wanted to use both DOB and The Ladder to propel it forward. And two women we now think of as premiere activists, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, thought it carried too much risk But without radicalizing the masses of lesbians and gay men, there can be no acceptance of lesbians and gay men as full citizens of our own country, as Faderman lays it out. So that radicalizing had to begin.
And it does. The Stonewall years follow in the footsteps of The Homophiles. No longer polite, no longer in suits and ties and flowered dresses, the activists post-Stonewall are determined as they are angry. The days of rage become years of struggle. Faderrman moves from the American Psychiatric Association striking homosexuality from its DSM in 1973 to Anita Bryant resorting again to the myth of “homosexuals” targeting children in 1977 to the rise of Harvey Milk and his assassination at the end of 1978.
It’s riveting stuff, made more so by knowing these are our stories, these are our lives, this is where we came from, these are the people who changed America, one exposure, firing, determined step forward at a time.
Midpoint in the book come the plague years, which for some of us were the defining years of our personal activism. As gripping as the early years of The Gay Revolution are, I found these chapters most powerful—perhaps because these are the years when my own activism was charged and because, well, our people were dying all around us. The urgency with which Faderman writes about this period took me back to that time with all its outrage and suffering. The lack of response to the epidemic, which started with a handful of gay men and spread to thousands in the course of a year, led to a kind of activism we hadn’t previously seen. It would be difficult to understate the importance of Larry Kramer and his founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, but without that, how many more would have died?
One quibble I have with this book is the elision of lesbians from this section. While Faderman notes the work of Jean O’Leary, lesbians, especially those of us in New York City at the time, were deeply engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS. That is missing here.
But the struggle of that period and how it was a tipping point, Faderman gets exactly right. She says what we all thought at the time: “AIDS could easily have meant the end of the movement for gay civil rights—not just because extremists were calling for its end, but also because gay people were paralyzed by confusion and fear.”
And then we weren’t. And then we surged forward out of the depths of despair, people like Kramer and Michael Petrelis leading the charge in ACT-UP, with other radicalized groups following suit. Faderman charts the rise of ACT-UP and Queer Nation and NGLTF and a host of local groups that began to flourish in an attempt to counter the reintroduction of the narrative that gays and lesbians were a scourge on America.
From there Faderman takes us into the long battles to achieve some measure of equal standing as citizens—and to be recognized as citizens at all. She devotes several chapters to the fight to serve in the military and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, delves into hate crimes legislation, writes about “our” children, the decriminalizing of sodomy laws, and ends that segment of the book—“LGBT American Citizens”—with a chapter on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which she titles, “A Forty-Year War: The Struggle for Workplace Protection.” This is likely the most maddening chapter in the entire book, since we are now in the 21st year ENDA has been put forward in Congress, and we appear no closer to its adoption. The final three chapters of The Gay Revolution focus on the fight for marriage equality and the “evolution of a President.”
There are, of course, omissions. Faderman, a life-long Californian, situates the entirety of the book on the two coasts. Everything takes place in San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C. There is no mention of the work of Midwestern activists or Southern activists, and the elision of cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Miami, with their extraordinarily forceful activism, is a significant missing piece. Boston was always a radical town, and the importance of the gay press in that city is missing here, as is Philadelphia where Gittings centered her activism.
Also muted is the gay press itself and other organizations that propelled America forward in the gay rights movement. I also think the impact of some lesbian and gay celebrities is underplayed, notably Rock Hudson and Ellen DeGeneres. I would have liked to have seen not fewer individuals, but more organizations mentioned. I know from my own perspective as a life-long lesbian activist, it was my finding these organizations as a teenager that led me to my own activism.
Still, no history is a perfect rendering of how an activist movement grew. Faderman gets the chronology right and the issues right, and more than anything The Gay Revolution’s sheer readability and accessibility overrides these flaws. The totality of this history is amazing, frustrating, daunting stuff, and Faderman takes us on the journey with the sureness of a tour guide who has been on this path for decades—as she has been—collecting her research, honing her individual theses, presenting her conclusions with finality.
As I write this, Pope Francis has just arrived in Washington, D.C., for several days in the United States. He will visit New York City and spend the majority of his time in Philadelphia, where an anticipated million people will attend an open-air Mass. Among those meeting Pope Francis will be Margie Winters, a Philadelphia teacher and lesbian. In July, Winters was fired from her long-time position as teacher and director of religious studies at Mercy Waldron Academy, a private Catholic K-12 school. Although the school knew she was a lesbian when she was hired, when she married her long-time partner after marriage equality became legal in Pennsylvania, several parents complained, and Winters was fired. Like Johnson, at 50, and after 18 years in Catholic education.
Winters’ story is a common one; lesbians are now the most frequently fired of the LGBT community, and this is the circumstance: With marriage equality has come the use of morals clauses in the contracts of teachers and others. And as Faderman details, the manipulation of the law and other social constructs is what kept lesbians and gay men in the closet for generations. We may have moved the needle, but as Winters’ case and so many others illumine, we are nowhere near full equality. How different is Johnson’s 1948 story from Winters’ 2015 one? The headlines were still the same. Fired for homosexuality. Fired for being. Winters fired, like Johnson, for living her life, which included being married to her spouse and teaching her students.
Faderman’s central question is this: “How does the amazing evolution in image and status of gays and lesbians, as well a bisexual and transgender people, affect all Americans? And what remains to be done before they will truly be first-class American citizens?”
The simple answer, after reading The Gay Revolution is “change the laws.” But that is clearly not enough. The application of law does not account for people like Kim Davis or the majority of the Republican candidates for president who are stalwart in their belief that lesbians and gay men should not have the same protections as heterosexuals. Hate crimes against lesbians and gay men are on the rise, not the decline, with three lesbians victimized in the New York area in just the past two weeks, one being beaten and dragged from a restaurant while she was eating with her mother. Killings of transgender people, especially trans women sex workers of color, is wildly out of proportion to their numbers in society and should be a headline, not a footnote.
It may seem churlish to find fault with such a strong book, but I would have liked to see a greater presence of lesbians throughout. But that said, this is an incredible book, a book every lesbian and gay household and every library in America should have on their shelves.
It’s exciting to read Faderman’s prodigious history of our lives and our achievements and the activism that led us to now. For those of us who have come of queer age post-Stonewall, it’s a record of personal experience as well as larger history, and Faderman brings it to vivid, emotional life with her many stories of individuals folded into her monumental scholarship. A must read.
This article is reprinted with permission from Lambda Literary Foundation and LambdaLiterary.org, where it originally appeared. The Lambda Literary Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting LGBT literature.