Is Gay Good?

Reading between the lines.
June 2 2012 12:07 AM

Is Gay Good?

Linda Hirshman’s history of gay rights argues that the moral battle has been won.

(Continued from Page 1)

But did it change to the point that revolution, to use Hirshman’s word, properly characterizes the struggle for gay equality? “Fueled by its moral ambition,” she writes, the movement not only claimed a place for gays and lesbians at the table, but allowed them to “take on their whole society and wrench it onto a different path altogether.” Yet although Hirshman argues that the movement “changed America for everyone,” again and again she describes the conservative co-optings of a political movement whose ultimate effect was less to change the nation than to compel it “to include [gays] in the social contract.” Fighting their way to equal citizenship is no small accomplishment, but it’s a different achievement than changing the nation for everyone. And it’s a more modest achievement than convincing the country that you’re morally good. After all, if just over one-half the nation finds homosexuality acceptable, that still leaves almost one-half that doesn’t. And there’s probably not a single gay American whose day-to-day experience allows them yet to forget this—another reason that declaring “victory” seems a bit of a stretch.

Author Linda Hirshman.
Author Linda Hirshman.

Photo byNina Subin.

Hirshman surely knows this, and in fairness her focus is more on the moral certainty of gay people than the moral conversion of straights. By 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, “all the pieces were in place” for victory, Hirshman tells us, including that “a critical number of movement players were unambivalent about their moral rectitude.” And when the president signed into law the end of the ban on openly gay troops the next year, “the moral self-confidence that has characterized the successful parts of the gay revolution from the beginning won the day.” Yet did the gay movement get where it got by internalizing moral certainty? Even after the “mainstreaming” years of the last two decades, as activists turned away from their liberation ideology in favor of joining the most traditional American institutions—the church, the military, and the conjugal family—there was rarely an embrace of morality. Instead, the struggle remained focused on tolerance more than approval, rights more than virtue.

The 2003 landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down state sodomy bans, Lawrence v. Texas, was decided on privacy grounds, not equal protection. And when California voters yanked away the freedom to marry from gay people in a 2008 ballot initiative, the LGBT movement chose to fight that battle in defensive terms. The right wing whipped up opposition with ads saying that allowing gays to marry would mean teaching school children it was OK to be gay. The gay movement did not respond, You bet, and that’s a good thing, but insisted, Oh, we would never teach your kids something like that.

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Certainly a focus on the moral virtues of gay people has become a central theme of the movement as it turned to inclusion in mainstream institutions, as Hirshman points out: “When the gay revolution took after marriage and the military, it was making a bid for membership not just in the cold precincts of the liberal state, but in the club of social acceptance. ” Marriage is, by definition, a quest for public recognition, and leaders like Evan Wolfson recognized early on that marriage equality was perhaps the most potent weapon to insist on the moral equality of gays, who must not be left “in a little huddle,” as Wolfson said, forever separate and unequal.

But does this fact support the argument that “moral confidence” propelled movement victory? African-Americans felt plenty of moral gravity for their cause, yet Hirshman says their movement “fell short” of their most ambitious goals, in part because they could conceal their difference better than gays—a bizarre claim on its face. And if moral certainty was central to the LGBT movement, whose morality was it? Indeed, the whole mainstreaming trend embodied by the fight for marriage and military service is heretical to some who have viewed their movement in fiercely ethical terms, but who have always trumpeted an alternative set of ethics to those of the dominant society: that pleasure is a good in its own right, even when not linked to procreation; that communal ties may create more inclusive care than the isolating and exclusionary nuclear family; that dominant norms are not good just because they’re dominant, but only if they serve the common interest; that people should feel safe to be different.

To Carl Wittman, who implored gays to “stop mimicking straights” and instead teach them new things about sex and love, or the contemporary queer thinkers who continue to prioritize liberation from dominant norms over affirmation by the majority, mainstream acceptance of LGBT people in church pews and military barracks is hardly a triumph. That Hirshman starts her book with a parable about “a cross-dressing homosexual activist” being named real estate national salesperson of the year and hence becoming a “poster boy” for establishment success might add insult to injury. Is that really what we were fighting for?

Of course, pleasure has become far more acceptable to most Americans; the supremacy of the nuclear family has come under needed scrutiny; the primacy of norms has been challenged. Gay people didn’t cause these things to happen—Puritan values began to collapse for complex reasons long before the first gay rights group met in Chicago in 1924. But the LGBT movement contributed mightily. The world feels different, and better, as a result of their struggle for equality. That a straight woman has written such an adoring history of the movement is itself a testament to its impact. Hirshman has done a great service in putting the question of morality in this movement on the table. Though important chapters are yet to be written, this book will help the world to see that gay is good—and getting better.

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Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman. Harper.

Correction, June 1, 2012: Because of an error in the photo information provided by Getty Images, the caption atop this article misidentified Michael Thomas-Faria as Frank Faria.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, is the director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School.

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