Queer Historian Martin Duberman on Stonewall & His New Book
By 1969, Martin Duberman, one of the founding fathers of LGBT studies in the academy, had spent nearly two decades in reparative therapy, desperately trying to stamp out his same-sex desires. It took a seminal moment in gay American history—the Stonewall Riots—to compel Duberman, then 39, to defiantly and resolutely reject the psychological establishment’s “cure” for homosexuality. “I don’t remember a sudden revelation,” the 83-year old recalled in a recent interview with The Slant, “but it was close to one.”
From his art-filled, book-stacked apartment in New York City’s gay enclave, Chelsea, Duberman reminisced about those heady days in the 60s and 70s when social movements–Black Power, Women’s Lib, Free Love–rebelled against the status quo and galvanized queers to start their own revolution: “After the rioting, the first gay organizations sprung up: Gay Liberation Front and Alternate You. I quit therapy and started participating in all the activism around gay rights.”
Through that turbulent awakening, Duberman grew into a formidable thinker and activist, advocating on behalf of the disenfranchised at every rung of society, sounding the alarm on the AIDS crisis, and rallying for the institutionalization of queer studies at Yale (he failed), and later at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he succeeded after a five-year battle: In 1991, the prestigious Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) was founded, and he helmed it until 2001.
Despite his enduring commitment to gay rights and lifelong dedication to queer scholarship, Duberman is deeply disappointed in the contemporary LGBT movement, noting that for the past 20 years it has been focused on marriage equality and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In Duberman’s view, the gay agenda is grossly myopic and its goals of assimilation counter the spirit of Stonewall and Gay Liberation, which sought to affirm, rather than obscure, queer differences. “That’s what’s happened to every single movement for social change in our country. The women’s movement is no different. Seneca Falls in the 1840s called for a broad gauged denunciation of male control. That turned into the Suffragist Movement, merely calling for the right to vote. Give me a break.”
To commemorate the forty-fourth anniversary of Stonewall this month, and Duberman’s scintillating new work, The Martin Duberman Reader, The Slant sat down with the CUNY professor of history emeritus to hear more of his thoughts on the state of gay politics, the revolutionary potential of trans folks and the crucial difference between liberals and radicals.
Lets go back to your youth. Tell us a bit about how your gay consciousness emerged and how your experience of coming out might compare to the coming out process today?
I suspect it depends on where people are located. There is a huge difference between the large cities and small towns or rural areas. Well, lets see. I’m so old. It’s long story. The gay consciousness has had many decades to evolve.
Start with those early days, when you were first grappling with your sexuality.
Well, when I was growing up the psychiatric profession overwhelmingly believed that homosexuality was pathology: You were sick; you were disturbed; you were ill. The good news was supposed to be that you could be cured by presenting yourself for psychotherapy and cutting off all your escapes hatches. When I first went into therapy, I was told that if I wanted this to work–if I wanted to end up straight–I would have to stop having any kind of sexual contact. If you tell this to somebody in their 20s, when they’re at their horniest, it’s not easy. And yet, I was so brainwashed that I tried. At the time, I had just begun graduate school so I was 21, or 22 and I was in a five-year relationship. It was a good relationship. I was told by the therapist I had to give him up, never see him again, let alone have sex with him.
Then, a later therapist–I’m embarrassed to tell you how old I was at that point because by then I should certainly have known better–blamed my mother. It was the standard psychiatric theory then: If you’re looking at a gay boy, you can be sure he has come out of a family configuration in which the father was either absent or hostile and the mother was overwhelmingly present. The boy ends up identifying with the mother who is a constant presence and being antagonized by the father. I can’t remember all the details of the theory, but God knows most of us believed it.
A lot of people feel that once you come out, everything’s going to be fine. That may well be true of Jason Collins, the basketball player who just came out. My partner and I saw Oprah interview him and he seems like a lovely guy, although an utterly traditional one. Everybody was instantly supportive and all the publicity surrounding his coming out has been glorious. It’s a whole different world today.
I did not ever come out to my parents.
Did they have an inkling that you might be gay?
Yes. My father died when I was 26, but even if he had lived, I wouldn’t have told him. I never told my mother, but through my sister, I kept hearing that my mother kept pestering my sister, saying, “I have a horrible feeling that Martin is homosexual. If you know, you have to tell me. We have to get him into therapy.” My mother was in fact a very good and tolerant person. I don’t mean to demean her. She was simply parroting back what society was telling her at the time.
So you came out to your sister?
Yes, she was a close friend of mine when we were growing up. I told her when I was in my late teens or 20s. There were very few gay bars then, but I’d take her to one of the earliest dance bars–the Grapevine–which was both men and women.
In New York?
Yes, I think it was pre Stonewall. I don’t know for sure. At the time, we all regarded Stonewall as the only place where you could dance, and that was almost exclusively a gay male bar. An occasional woman would appear, but she was probably attached to somebody working there. At the time, Stonewall was my bar of choice because I love to dance. I was there two or three times a week a least.
At what point did you give up on reparative therapy?
I don’t remember a sudden revelation, but it was close to one. It was around the time of the Stonewall Riots. After the rioting, the first gay organizations sprung up: Gay Liberation Front and Alternate You. I immediately knew once I started participating in all the activism around gay rights. I went to a Gay Liberation Front meeting. Then, around 1971, we started the Gay Academic Union. I also got on the first board of The National Task Force and on the advisory board of the Lamda Legal Defense. As soon as all these organizations popped up, I affiliated and resigned from therapy immediately.
I had been described by a therapist I had for a decade as the most defiant human being he ever met because, I “would not get on the side of my own health,” he said. I kept giving up sex and then not giving up sex, back and forth, so I was ready to let go.
People have said to me, “How in God’s name did you stay that long, and how were you brainwashed by this nut to such a extent?” And I say, “Take it as an index of just how deeply those of us of that generation had internalized homophobia.” And the truth is we’ll never get rid of it.
How do you mean?
Once you declare for gay liberation, you’re not liberated. You’re simply saying, I’m beginning the process of liberation now. If you’re of a certain age, that process is never going to end because there’s just…too much to work through.
Recently, I had an episode I won’t go into the details, but I got very upset over what had transpired between me and a friend, and I realized my feelings went way back to those years of being put down the whole time I was growing up as a pathologized creature, a second rate life, a deeply disturbed human being.
Interesting, but you’ve also learned to see your position as an outsider as a strength. In the chapter of your latest book, The Martin Duberman Reader, you cite Herbert Marcuse, writing: “Because of our rebellion against the subjugation of sexuality under the order of procreation, ‘homosexuals might one day provide a cutting-edge social critique of vast importance.’” In what ways has that turned out to be true and it what ways has it not?
Oh boy. You’ve pushed the red button because I have very strong feelings about this. That quote from Marcuse has long been my mantra. I really do believe that because of our special experience, we do have a set of perspectives about gender, monogamy, family, friendship, parenting, which the mainstream would deeply profit from if only it would open its ears. It won’t open its ears unless we continue to demand that it does. But instead of demanding it to, we say, “Oh no, we’re not different from you; we’re just like you. All we want are all the rights and privileges that the rest of you have. See, we want to have children. See, we want to settle down into monogamous marriages. Oh and we have Republicans!” It drives me mad.
What do you say to the gay people who say they just want to blend into the mainstream and don’t want to be a subversive radical force in our culture? How do you reconcile the desire to maintain an outsider point of view and the fact that that point of view depends on your oppression or subjugation in some way? It’s a tricky thing, isn’t it? Outsiders provide a vital social/cultural/artistic perspective that benefits the greater good. But the expense is being undermined and mistreated by the dominant culture?
Yeah. That’s a huge question. I don’t really know how to begin to tackle it. I would probably say, for starters, what radical feminists used to say to those women back in the 60s and 70s, who said, “Look, we believe in traditional sex roles. We do think women are more naturally emotional, empathic, etcetera, and that men are inherently more aggressive, competitive, etcetera.” The radical feminists said, “That’s an example of false consciousness. We know you don’t see it and we don’t know how to get you to see it, but we are convinced, that except for the obvious physical differences, there aren’t any differences between males and females.”
What about gays? Do you think they are inherently, or just culturally, different? In other words, if our difference is just a perception based on the social/legal/political/Judeo-Christian lens through which we are situated and seen, will we cease to be different once we’re accepted by all these systems of thought?
There’s long been a parallel discussion in the black community about exactly these issues. Blacks too have a different historical experience and political minded radical blacks don’t want all of that dissolved into some middle class, white version of who they are. James Baldwin put it this way: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Lets just build our own house. A whole raft of studies demonstrate that gay people tend to have better, more egalitarian relationships, in which both people are of equal importance and make equal contributions to each other’s well being. This is an ongoing struggle that every minority faces: How do we hold on to our different perspective?
You seem to hold a lot of hope for the radicalizing power of transgender people. You write: “…the transgender movements challenge to a binary notion of gender is of potentially huge importance.” But don’t they also reinforce the binaries you claim they challenge? On some level, it seems that they reinforce the idea that biology is destiny by needing to occupy a male or female body in order to express the full range of masculinity or femininity? In the case of Female-to-Males, many identify as “heterosexual men,” as opposed to the more radical “transmen,” which doesn’t seem all that subversive.
Absolutely. That’s a good and troubling question. It gets at Marcuse’s point. The potential in the transgender movement is enormous because what it’s saying essentially is, there isn’t anything essential! These individual configurations are all that we should be concerned about. It’s back to the old androgyny model that all the characteristics and qualities which traditional culture parcels out to one gender or the other should henceforth be combined in everybody. I think that that’s what’s revolutionary about the transgender movement. But I think the parallel is again the same with the gay movement. A lot of gay people just don’t want to accept the potentially revolutionary nature of their personhood and a lot of transgender people don’t want to accept it either. We want to fit in. We want to belong. We want to be just like you. And life is a horrible struggle. It’s understandable that people would want to belong, so they wouldn’t have to fight battles every single day in order to be accepted or appreciated.
Too bad we as a society can’t help people feel the power and beauty of their outsiderness.
That’s where we should be headed. Affirm who you feel you really are. Get rid of all that excess cultural baggage that’s been laid on you, telling you who you are. It’s very difficult.
In the chapter titled “Coda” you write: “Liberals struggle to integrate increasing numbers of people into what’s viewed as a beneficent system. Radicals believe that the system does have beneficent aspects, but also believe that it requires substantial restructuring.” Doesn’t the tension between these two modes of thinking brushing up against each other offer a better chance at forward movement than either one by itself? Also, the word “radical” is a term that has been hijacked by the Right to diminish and discredit progressive agendas, so we thought it was interesting that you choose to identity yourself as a radical. Why not the word “progressive” as opposed to “radical”?
You know, I sometimes use the word progressive instead of radical. In fact, I often do. But the word progressive is fairly recent. It wasn’t always available to me, but I don’t disagree with any of what you observe, but most of our social protest movements have been started by radicals, and they have very quickly been siphoned off, at best, by liberals, who think that basically our institutions are fine. Radicals don’t agree, they know there’s institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism.
If you’re going to join the liberal camp and say that our basic institutions are in wonderful shape and that some tinkering around the edges is necessary, that is not going to meet the problems of our society because more than that is needed and things are growing increasingly worse.
It’s not just the gap in income, but something like 47 million Americans are surviving on food stamps. I mean how can mere liberalism deal with that? Print up more food stamps? I mean you’ve got to do something about the excesses of capitalism.
[Laughs] When confronted with these terrible problems, you can’t have answers in advance. In the process of struggle, partial answers begin to emerge and they’re not all going to be valid. But what’s the alternative? Settling for things as they are? Things as they are stink. So you’ve got to try something, and hopefully you work your way toward a better kind of society, a more equitable, just society. But no blue prints in advance. As much as I admire Karl Marx, a lot of his blue print is simply wrong. I mean, he certainly identified the problems of capitalism. But then he tried to find solutions in the British Museum instead of out in life working with like-minded people struggling toward answers of some kind.
Will you talk a little about the influence of queer culture on mainstream America?
So far, I don’t think the effect on mainstream culture has been significant, and I think that’s the fault of both the gay movement and the mainstream, which is willing to accept and tolerate us to the extent that we act like good middle class white people. They have no tolerance or understanding at all towards, for example, transgender people. I don’t know what else I can say, push me a little.
Do you think same-sex marriage can possibly influence the institution for straight people?
No, I don’t and that’s why I’m against it. Besides, why should married people, gay or straight, get all these special advantages in terms of gift taxes, social security benefits and all the rest of it? It just underlines still further the inequality of the culture.
We wondered what you thought about feminism in relation to men’s liberation. Does feminism’s longstanding assumption that men are always positioned above women make the feminist philosophical framework less effective in addressing the struggles unique to men. Are you at all sympathetic to the struggles some men’s rights activists have identified like a family law system that privileges mothers in child custody cases, the cultural vilification of male sexuality, and social customs that impose an crippling expectation of masculinity on men?
I think that’s a good point. I agree with it. Men have problems. I mean, it isn’t only outsiders who have problems. But I think if their roles were less rigidly defined, they’d benefit. If they weren’t defined as, for example, the breadwinner, the authority figure, etcetera. All of us forget that the privileged don’t have unclouded lives. Hardly. Life is tough, and unfortunately, we’re born with the consciousness that we’re going to die and that alone is enough to prevent us from being constantly joyous.