The successes of the LGBT rights movement

In her thoughtful review of Linda Hirshman’s Victory:  The Triumphant Gay Revolution (2012)  E.J. Graff says that Hirshman presents a serviceable overview of the GLBT movement.  However, she says that Hirshman’s core argument for its remarkable success slights the Civil Rights and feminist movements that preceded gay liberation, and misunderstands the importance of the previous two movements to the victories of LGBT rights:

Of course, Hirshman isn’t trying to tell the entire history of the lesbian and gay movement, but so much is missing that she gets her analysis wrong. Or did she limit her focus because her analysis is off? In the book’s introduction,Hirshman claims that America’s two great preceding social movements, for racial justice and women’s equal rights, were less ambitious and therefore less successful, making strategic calculations to emphasize their similarities to the dominant social order. Lesbians and gay men, in contrast, had to work hard to open up room for our deviance, and therefore achieved more profound social change.

.       .       .       .       .

But in praising the LGBT movement’s drive to make the world safe for difference, Hirshman implies that black people and feminists never had to establish their moral cred. Is she kidding? Blacks had to fight depiction as subhumans, sexual monsters, immoral criminals, and intellectual inferiors. Feminists were painted as sterile, heartless harpies; women’s brains as supposedly too small for public life. Both groups expanded the meaning of the founding American dictum: All of us are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

To illustrate her belief that the LGBT movement has been unique, Hirshman quotes gay activist Arthur Evans as saying, “It was more than just being gay and having gay sex. We discovered who we were and we built authentic lives … and in the process came to very important questions about the meaning of life, ethics, the vision of the common good.” How is this different from Martin Luther King Jr.’s moral calls or from what happened in consciousness-raising groups? If I lead an authentic life today, I owe it equally to feminism and the LGBT movement.

We followed in other ways as well. Because feminism had changed the definition of “natural,” lesbians and gay men had an easier time becoming normal. Because feminism had taken a century to redefine marriage—from a gendered distribution of labor and power to an equal partnership of affection—our loves belong.

My sense (without having read Hirshman’s book, admittedly) is that Graff is right on.  The gay rights movement in the 1990s and 2000s, which has focused on the astonishingly conservative goals of marriage equality and the right to serve openly in the U.S. military, is indeed a movement that has made “strategic calculations to emphasize their similarities to the dominant social order.”  I believe that its recent successes are due at least in part to the very conservative nature of these goals.  (That, and the invention of protease inhibitors, which have in the past twenty years rendered HIV a chronic rather than a fatal disease.)

I would also suggest that the success of GLBT rights in the past decade is also due to the fact that it is at least in part if not wholly a men’s rights struggle.  One of the incredible ironies of the last twenty years are the successes of the LGBT movement at the same time that attacks on women’s bodily autonomy have gained renewed purchase.  (Transvaginal ultrasounds, anyone?  It’s like something out of science fiction.)  As Echidne explained recently, while mulling over the contemporary Republican governing philosophy:

What is hilarious about all this is the juxtaposition of these two issues in the Republican platform: NEVAH regulate markets! ALWAYS regulate wimminz! That’s what freedom means.

Or corporations are people. Women? The jury is still out on that.

Just for old times’ sake, here’s Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican Convention, his Kulturkampf speech in which he called the 1992 Democratic National Convention “the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history,” and also decried “radical feminism” as ” [t]he agenda that Clinton & Clinton would impose on America: abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units.”

16 thoughts on “The successes of the LGBT rights movement

  1. Obviously I’ll have to look at Hirshman’s book, but this strikes me as a very strange argument. The LGBT movement could not have existed without the changes that various waves of feminism made in perceptions of “proper” gender expression (especially in the realm of women working for a living rather than depending on men). An awful lot of homophobia is so deeply imbricated with horror of crossing gender boundaries that it’s impossible to pull the two apart. Where would lesbians be if feminists had not spent decades insisting that women are people in their own right? And yes, the movement since the advent of AIDS has become much more oriented toward “give us rights because we’re not that different from you.”

    My lesbian friends who are anti-gay marriage are so precisely because they oppose assimilating into the dominate culture instead of overthrowing it entirely. I happen to be pro-gay marriage (in fact we recently got married, 19 years after the fact) but even I feel very uncomfortable with the recent “born that way” arguments: “we deserve rights because we can’t help being this way” instead of asserting that legal rights have nothing to do with one’s private sexual choices. Is Hirshman denying what is happening all around her?


  2. “I would also suggest that the success of GLBT rights in the past decade is also due to the fact that it is at least in part if not wholly a men’s rights struggle.”

    Yes. I agree.

    Cis gay men are seen by many as the default gay/gender nonconforming people. And because of that, had the GLBT rights movement had instead been solely a LBT movement, I don’t think it would have been taken as seriously as it has been over the years.


  3. There are always, or at least often, complicated retrospective intersectings and accountings about how various “movement” chronologies and accomplishments affect or have affected each other. William Rhoden has a piece in the NYT Sports Section today suggesting that Title IX in sports has been perceived as being implicitly too much about gender and not enough about race over the last 40 years since its passage. (That’s a somehat grievous oversimplification of a long and thoughtful column, but all I have time to compact now). He also notes, as an aside, that “since the legislation was passed in 1972, the percentage of female head coaches has decreased and the percentage of men coaching women’s teams has increased.”


  4. I think you’re absolutely right about the point that the glbt movement has been successful because it’s seen as being a men’s struggle. I think you might well add that it’s also been a white, middle/upper-middle class men’s struggle to a fair extent.


  5. Bardiac–that’s a good point. Graff makes a similar point in her review w/r/t the advantages of LGBT rights:

    We’ve actually had it easier than either of those two movements. We started with a secret weapon: We were already part of every zip code in the country. White people can grow up without ever meeting a black person on equal terms. But the lesbians and gay men that straight folks meet are in their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. We are their siblings, cousins, colleagues, and choir leaders. Our habits and hopes are indistinguishable from theirs.


  6. My gob is thoroughly smacked at the notion that feminism (even in one of its softer incarnations) is an unambitious project. To succeed, it would only have to change the way the entire world operates. Just that.


  7. As someone who writes set in a previous era, I believe strongly that every good movement that has helped our culture has had strong roots in a previous movement.

    Like they say, standing on the shoulders of giants.


  8. My gob is thoroughly smacked at the notion that feminism (even in one of its softer incarnations) is an unambitious project.

    I trust Graff, but I was very surprised that Linda Hirshman, who is a provocative feminist and whose writings are unambiguous about her feminism, would argue (even implicitly) that feminism wasn’t ambitious. (Hirschman is the author of Get to Work, which argued for the feminist importance of elite women in high-powered jobs (versus “opting out.”) It was like Leslie Bennetts’s book The Feminine Mistake, only with less evidence and more rhetorical punch.


  9. Is this chick on crack?

    Like, did she pay attention to pre-Stonewall life, at all? Looked at what the Seven Sisters fought for women to have, lesbian, straight and spinster? What it took for women to break laws that made them the property of husbands or fathers, which in turn freed up single men *not* to marry them, for appearances’ sake?

    And… White, affluent, men’s rights struggle.

    As a broad who saw the HRC veer hard right in declaring gay marriage the only goal worth fighting for (since it would become a wedge that could be followed by other concepts of equality, such as anti-hate-crime legislation and workplace rights), it was as if the queers who survived HIV wanted to bury every other cultural survivor with the dead, including lesbian separatism (how many purely lesbian NGOs still exist, beyond Astraea?) and POC queer organizations.

    Gay marriage privileges lawyers and capital arrangements, naturally conservative aspects of life, over love and the different families gays and straights could make, but since the tearjerker image of being denied at the hospital bed is that powerful, it’s what they ran with, and shrinking the community’s sexual diversity, in the process.


  10. The last twenty years of the LGBT struggle used the military as a major battleground. Clinton, the first president lived with minority in perfect harmony. His close friend was Vernon Jordan and David Geffen was a close friend; many Jews were close friends too. He want to accept gays in the military. The result was the strangely hated DADT, the foot in the door.

    The final decision to integrate gays into the military was made by Admiral Mullen; Obama simply followed.

    Bottom line: I don’t buy Hirshman’s view, but missing the military as a battleground is not right either.


  11. Sorry, Bardiac, for not seeing your contribution — seeing red does that to me.

    But what you and Groff said is about passing, what the vast majority of women and minorities could *not* do: White, middle/upper-middle-class men went anywhere they wanted, including Harlem clubs and ladies’ salons, depending on who they could charm or bribe, to be let in. If custom or politeness did not stop them, what would?

    Misogyny and racism actually worked in their favor, since maintaining clandestine relationships kept elite gay male culture closer to power than any other group fighting for their civil rights. They just had to avoid being bashed or killed, as the cost of doing business…


  12. I also think it’s a bit odd to suggest that feminism and gay rights were explicitly different movements. At least in terms of prominent lesbians, the central figures of the gay rights movement were often literally the SAME PEOPLE as the central figures in the feminist movement. So, whilst we can see lesbian rights activists as a particular branch of feminism and a particular branch of the gay rights movement, in practice they were the same thing and many understood themselves as part of both movements simultaneously.

    And, how does this narrative include/exclude/deal with the whole (and now admittedly controversial) debate that it was the push for lesbian separatism that was the downfall of mainstream feminism in the 1980s? This has always been interpreted as a debate/conflict WITHIN feminism, rather than a competition between competing movements (and I think the participants understood it that way).


  13. Feminism is just more radical than gay rights. As noted in posts above, the two movements in the US have a lot in common (including race and class privilege for some participants) but one of these movements can put men–men’s desires, needs, anxieties, goodies–front and center and the other can’t.

    FWIW, I am lightly acquainted with Hirshman and although I haven’t read “Victory,” I’d speculate that she wrote it trying to find, in a hardheaded Chicago pol way, the tactics that straight women can borrow to advance their social goals. For decades Hirshman has had good friends who are lesbians and gay men, but gay civil rights has never been her passion and never affected her directly. She is an ally only.


  14. FA, I’d just as easily say that it was the co-optation of lesbian activism by straight women (the “political lesbian” woo that was responded to by “sex-positive” activists, which devolved into the MacKinnon/Dworkin Follies….), along with the necessary assistance to gay men during the AIDS crisis, that damaged lesbian political momentum, which in turn damaged feminism due to the provision of political laboratory space by lesbians, for second-wave feminists.

    Dykes could fight only battles on so many fronts before burning out altogether, and there was no larger community to help them, save the corporate pinkwashing that took over women’s healthcare activism, which got simplified into breast cancer treatment activism….


  15. Sorry, cgeye, I wasn’t trying to suggest that my narrative was the correct one and I admit that my narration of the debate leans towards a particular political perspective (mea culpa), rather I was trying to suggest that it’s a fairly central debate within histories of the second-wave that doesn’t make sense if we separate out gay rights from feminist rights.


  16. Understood — and I’m not totally right, either.

    And we both agree that gay rights and feminist rights and civil rights can’t be separated — especially when gay black men and women were in all three movements.


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