July 25, 2012
Book Review: Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution
Linda Hirshman’s book, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution is a well written history of the movement that brought about changes in the legal and social establishments which treated homosexuals as third class citizens. She calls this the struggle for homosexuals to participate in the social contract with the liberal state for the same benefits as other citizens. Social movements in the 1960s and 1970s focused on civil rights for minorities and women. Gays were different. Their movement had to overcome the religious and moral opposition to homosexuality that imbued laws which treated gays as criminals and outcasts. Police routinely abused them. Government would not let them work for it or serve in the armed forces. Benefits routinely granted to heterosexuals were denied. Marriage was out of the question. Being outed as a homosexual amounted to societal humiliation that sometimes had lethal consequences.
The story of the gay revolution started when gays started to think, hey, we look like everyone else, why can’t we be treated like everyone else? Gay men were being separated from the army right after World War II, after serving on the battlefield, and denied the same benefits granted to their heterosexual counterparts. The Civil Service Commission thought gays were unfit for government jobs. Conservatives such as Senator Joe McCarthy used gays in government as boogie men for his attacks. When he was challenged with “have you no decency,” little or none of any societal decency extended to McCarthy’s targets would include the gay individuals that the Senator attacked.
Movements started, slowly, tentatively at first in order to organize gays socially, and then politically. People who joined the Mattachine Society in the 1950s did not necessarily want family, (some) friends, and the greater society to know about their membership. This group evolved into other groups, some more radical than others that began to attack the social and political structures which suppressed participation by gays in that liberal state. Some of these took the form of legal challenges. Others pushed the edges of social recognition. The legal challenges predictably failed. But the fact that someone tried led to other challenges depending on circumstances.
One of the strengths of the book is how it weaves the various groups that formed into a timeline describing their issues, their attitudes, their strategies, and particularly the individuals who drove them. The black civil rights movement had its Doctor King. I’m sure a majority of people could not identify the leaders of the gay rights movements. And there were a lot of them, each pushing forward in their own way. Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society. There was D.C. activist Frank Kameny who litigated on behalf of those dismissed by the Civil Service. Richard Socarides was an advisor to President Clinton. These are three. There are hundreds who fought the battles on behalf of gay rights. They are all in this book.
The story also includes the events that shaped the movement. The New York City Stonewall riot was pivotal in that it caught the attention of the public. Gay bar goers would no longer accept police harassment and had the temerity to fight back. That, of course, did not win the war. It did, however, encourage others to take up the cause to push back in other areas. There were marches, civil disobedience actions, and other events that brought gays into the public conscience as equal members of society. Gays organized politically in urban areas such as New York and San Francisco. They became a force in the electorate that candidates could not ignore.
That’s not to say that everything went smoothly. The religious right organized itself to assert its opposition. We see this today in the way the California marriage case is playing itself out. This is but one example in the book. There are others in how the politics of gay rights led to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the foot dragging by the Defense Department to implement the repeal. It took a court case to end that.
When AIDS came along, the gay rights organization had to fight government indifference to the disease. Funding for a medical understanding, let alone a cure, was not the priority of the Reagan administration. It was more than a matter of lobbying. The campaign for recognition included “We die, they do nothing,” which made an impression both social and political. Perhaps that decency which eluded McCarthy’s gay targets was finally forthcoming, but again, not without a fight.
The book documents all of this and more. There is the distance between those advocating for civil rights for gays and the other civil rights movements. What the movement achieved was done with little support from others seeking equality. There is the horrific death of Matthew Shepard which led to laws which stated flat out that gays aren’t targets for sport. Again, here is decency expressed in a political outcome.
Anyone interested in the social, political, and moral struggles of how a truly oppressed group fought the law, and in this case mostly beat it should read Victory. The book is published by Harper and is 443 pages with index. Harper provided a copy of the book for this review. [MG]