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.”