Progressive Dismiss History in Favor of Preferred Narratives

James Kirchick writes:

The role of [Frank] Kameny and other gay rights pioneers has been neglected by many historians, journalists, and cultural influencers, who prefer to locate the origins of the movement for gay equality in “a race riot against the police started by hustling transwomen of color.” They speak of the “privilege” supposedly enjoyed by Kameny and the other gay white men who dominated the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement, as if being a homosexual in mid-century America — hunted by the police, purged by the government, confined to mental institutions, and subjected to barbaric forms of medicalized torture — was a blessed way of life. That the movement’s intellectual roots are reformist and bourgeois does not suit these people’s ideological commitments or theory of history.


One Comment for “Progressive Dismiss History in Favor of Preferred Narratives”

  1. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    I’m 75 years old, was an adult (that is, 21, not the pseudo adulthood now conferred at 18) at the time of Stonewall, and my adult life brackets the movement for gay/lesbian equality under the law, Stonewall to Obergefell.

    I agree with Kirchick that “the movement’s intellectual roots are reformist and bourgeois”. The men and women who formed the driving force behind the gay rights movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s were, for the most part, white, college educated men from middle class families, and that remained true into the 1980’s.

    The wealthy and most privileged whites remained above the fray, as the wealthy and most privileged always seem to do, living in protected enclaves created by wealth and privilege. Whites from families lower on the socio-economic scale, African-Americans (with a few exceptions like Baynard Rustin and James Baldwin), and Hispanics were culturally marginalized (and, as a result, had little sense of entitlement), had other, more urgent issues to attend to, and were not as active.

    While that changed over time to a large extent, I think that it is a fair (and historically accurate) observation that the early movement for legal equality was dominated by white middle class activists, mostly male, whose values shaped the movement at the time.

    I would be remiss, however, if I did not make a few related observations:

    (1) The gay rights movement arose from the white middle class precisely because that group saw itself as privileged and entitled, and treatment of gays and lesbians at that time deeply offended their sense of privilege and entitlement. The gay rights movement, in a word, was sparked by ethnic and social stratification of the American society of the time, in the sense that white middle class gays found it intolerable to be treated like lower-strata whites and minorities like African-Americans and Hispanics.

    (2) As African-Americans, Hispanics and lower-strata whites joined and began to shape the movement, inevitable links were made between the experience of those groups in other areas to their experience as gays and lesbians. The lines drawn between the experiences of those groups and the experience of white middle class whites has created considerable controversy in the movement and about the movement. It is one thing, apparently, to advance the cause of equality under the law for the white middle class, and quite another to advance the case of equality under the law for historically marginalized groups. We see ferocious opposition to the idea of “wokeness” among conservative homosexuals, for example, and that opposition, I suspect, is the inevitable result of the movement’s reshaping as African-American, Hispanic and lower-strata white values supplant white middle class values.

    (3) I have not discussed the divisions in the early years of the movement between gays and lesbians, but I think that an accurate account of the time requires a brief discussion. Women, at the time, were very much second-class citizens, confined to home and marginal employment opportunities for the most part, and lesbians had different attitudes toward the goals of the gay rights movement than did the white middle class men who dominated the movement and shaped its early years. It was no accident that lesbians pushed the gay rights movement toward feminism. I remember considerable conflict between gays and lesbians during that period, papered over to some extent, but simmering under the surface well into the 1980’s and 1990’s.

    (4) While I believe that understanding the history of the gay rights movement accurately is important, I think that the challenges we now face are different, and in some ways more difficult, than the challenges we faced in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The gay rights movement was grounded, to some extent, in classical liberalism and the values of the Enlightenment, both of which hold little or no sway in current American culture. Our politics are now shaped by identity politics, the politics of resentment, tribalism, and religious nationalism. American politics are toxic and the values that gave rise to and sustained the gay rights movement are no longer relevant at a practical level. The struggle for gay and lesbian equality is in a new phase, if for no other reason than the constitutional underpinning of decisions like Lawrence, Romer, Windsor and Obergefell have been swept away, and I have no idea how it will turn out.

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