Martin Duberman in Conversation

Martin Duberman in Conversation

The eminent gay historian calls for a new queer radicalism.


Martin Duberman is the recipient of the Bancroft Award, one of the highest honors of the historical profession, and numerous other prizes for his historical and creative work, including his play In White America (1963), his biography Paul Robeson (1988), his memoir Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (1991), his history Stonewall (1993), and his novel Haymarket (2003).

At the age of 87, Duberman has published three books in the past year alone: a “novel/history,” Jews Queers Germans (Seven Stories Press); his fourth memoir, The Rest of It: Hustlers, Cocaine, Depression, and Then Some, 1976–1988 (Duke University Press); and the blazing polemic Has the Gay Movement Failed? (University of California Press).

In this panoramic interview with The Nation, Duberman examines why the left still isn’t attentive enough to queer sensibilities, argues that leading gay-rights groups aren’t meeting the needs of working-class LGBTQ people, and wonders when we will recognize our common bisexuality.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Phelps: We have Lillian Faderman’s book, The Gay Revolution. We have another recent book, Victory. Then we have your newest book: Has the Gay Movement Failed? Are you painting too dark a mood, when there have been so many advances for LGBTQ people?

Martin Duberman: I don’t deny the advances. In fact, I welcome and applaud them. The work that’s been done in civil rights is wonderful. I’m very glad that I no longer have to carry around the name of a lawyer that can get me out of jail in case a plainclothes cop arrests me on the street for cruising. It’s not that I’m still cruising. [Laughter.] But you get the point.

CP: That’s what I mean: If we take the world that you so vividly depicted in Cures and compare that to the world of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender kid growing up now, it’s entirely different. Doesn’t that mean the gay movement has succeeded?

MD: I think the gay movement has succeeded in terms of the agenda it set for itself starting roughly in the late 1970s. I don’t think it has succeeded in terms of the agenda that marked the movement in the years immediately after Stonewall. And it’s that agenda that I feel needs to be addressed.

CP: How would you describe that agenda, precisely?

MD: I’d use the term that I came to belatedly, and that everyone is now using: an intersectional agenda. We have to become more aware than we are that identity doesn’t hinge on a single factor, like sexual orientation, but that all of us have multiple identities that intersect and influence each other. It’s time, for example, that the movement pay far more attention to matters relating to race and class.

CP: How would you answer a Human Rights Campaign type who says that the sorts of issues that you list—health care, homelessness, hunger, employment, education, affirmative action—are legitimate social issues but not the gay movement’s issues, per se?

MD: I would certainly agree that, lamentably, they have not been the mainstream gay movement’s issues—not since literally 1972, when the Gay Liberation Front went belly-up. But to think that single-issue politics can get us very far is naive. The backlash has intensified, for sure, especially with the Supreme Court justice about to come on. Who knows what’s going to go down the drain, including abortion and marriage rights?

I’ve never been a fan of the single-issue agenda that the HRC has pushed for the last 15 to 20 years, namely the right to marry and the right to serve openly in the military. I don’t think that the HRC agenda even encompasses all the possibilities surrounding single-issue politics. Marriage and the military don’t cover the needs of most gay lives, even though, I hasten to add, the gay majority may think so, because the gay majority, like the American majority, defines itself as middle class, regardless of income or educational level or job status. Always has. That’s part of the central brainwashing that comes along with our socialization.

CP: In your personal journal in 1996 you wrote, “Identity politics plus old-fashioned social justice politics; that’s the ticket.” In your new book, you point to various groups like Southerners on New Ground (SONG). But it seems very hard to pull off a fusion of social justice and identity politics. Queers for Economic Justice, which you helped to create, could only sustain itself for a dozen years, and the mainline gay-rights organizations, as you’re saying, don’t pay attention to the many issues facing working-class LGBTQ people. Why don’t more LGBTQ organizations see broad social-justice concerns as important? How can those that do be sustained?

MD: As optimistic a temperament as I have, I am more pessimistic these days than not. To the extent that I’m hopeful, that hope resides precisely with groups like SONG and with the younger generation—or at least with the cutting edge of the younger generation. That’s what usually defines a generation’s politics. It’s almost never a majority that defines it. I don’t think there was ever a majority that self-defined as socialist in the 1930s; nonetheless, socialists set the political agenda in a real sense.

CP: Let me get at this another way. You open the book with the Gay Liberation Front, their audacity and creativity, and their celebration of androgyny, freedom of sexual expression for all, and erotic fluidity. You praise them as cultural revolutionaries seeking to transform the whole society, as opposed to the money-dominated gay establishment of our time, which is more assimilationist, trying to fit into the society rather than transform it. How would you respond to someone who says, “That was a ’60s fantasia. It was very short-lived, couldn’t sustain itself, and flung into a million directions. Is that actually a viable model?”

MD: You could make a similar analysis of, say, the anti-slavery movement or the first-wave feminist movement. The abolitionists who called for the immediate abolition of slavery without compensation to slaveowners didn’t last very long, either. It was a utopian eruption. Whatever social-justice movement we look at, we see at its inauguration this kind of passionate, utopian intensity which does burn itself out rather fast and gives way to a moderate crowd that seizes the organizational apparatus and moves that particular protest toward mainstream acceptability. The abolitionists gave way to the Republican Party, which called not for the abolition of slavery but rather for no further extension of slavery, pledging simultaneously not to touch the institution where it already exists. The women’s movement, too: The Seneca Falls Convention was far more radical than the suffrage movement that it bled into.

The culprit lies somewhere in an essential feature of American ideology, the old bootstraps theory. The path purportedly is wide open. All opportunities are available. If one winds up being dissatisfied with what one has accomplished, it can’t be because there weren’t sufficient opportunities. Blaming “disadvantage” is irrelevant, because as everybody knows, with sufficient determination and hard work in this country you can get to the top rung of the ladder.

You and I know that’s nonsense, but I’m afraid that the large majority of Americans refuse to believe it isn’t true. As a result, they may be momentarily drawn to passionate demands for social revolution, but when they get a chance at a second thought they say, “Wait a minute. No, that can’t be right. We all know that we’re living in what is essentially an egalitarian society, so we don’t need this huge social renovation that these radicals are calling for.”

Once you make that conclusion, it’s very easy to find ways to mock and discredit the passionate idealists who are leading the charge, because they almost always do make overblown statements or claims that they can’t back up with solid evidence. That was certainly true of GLF. I read through a lot of their stuff for this book, and some of it, you laugh out loud at the exaggerated rhetoric. So where the determination to discredit exists, it’s never very hard to do.

CP: You make a number of highly interesting observations about the ways queer relationships have a lot to teach heterosexuals in terms of a more egalitarian division of household labor and so forth. Yet at the same time, if queerness is so subversive, why do most LGBTQ people in their organizations at present seek acceptance, assimilation, and all the other political strategies that you find insufficient?

MD: Life is hard and people want to find comfort where they can. We all know we’re going to die, for starters, so in this brief passage we would like whatever pats on the head we can possibly accumulate. People simply want to be accepted. They want literally to get along with their neighbors. That’s a very human kind of wish, so I am being a little tough when I say, “You’re dishonoring who you are if you pretend you’re just like the mainstreamers, because you’re not.” Most people don’t want to hear that. They want to feel that they really are just folks.

CP: One key difference you note between the gay-liberation movement and present-day leading gay-rights organizations is over marriage. The gay liberationists wanted to abolish the family, meaning, I take it, the authoritarian, patriarchal family. Now the gay movement speaks in terms of family values; you cite language of that type which you call chilling. Your analysis is that asking for marriage equality is assimilationist and accommodates gay life to mainstream values. But if same-sexuality is equally valid in marriage, doesn’t that transform the institution in a way that undermines the traditional, authoritarian, patriarchal family? Is it just assimilating to the existing society, or transforming it simultaneously?

MD: That’s an interesting position, argued as far back at least as the Weimar Republic. When I was writing Jews Queers Germans I was constantly reading about “creative assimilationism”—namely, you do join up, but in the process of joining up you inevitably change the shape of the institutions that you’re becoming attached to.

I’m not persuaded that the change is sufficiently substantial to warrant pledging allegiance. I mean, the role of women has changed in the family, but it hasn’t changed to nearly the extent that radical feminists from 1967 to ’74 were demanding. What they were calling for was, among other things, genuine equality in bringing up kids. That hasn’t happened. It remains true that most of the work around the home, whether in shopping or cooking or raising the kids, devolves onto the woman in the family.

If we’re lucky, we’re going to introduce around the edges some ideas and maybe even practices that will to some extent transform the traditional family unit, but I don’t think it’s going to be any more significantly transformed than it has been already, which is to say not a hell of a lot.

CP: One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the section where you talked about the etiology of sexual orientation and went through all the science. You cast doubt on the notion of a genetic or hormonal determinacy, which struck me as interesting because we’re at a point in the culture where almost everyone thinks in terms of the Lady Gaga song “Born This Way.”

MD: Absolutely.

CP: You both maintain throughout the book an aspiration of bisexuality and sexual fluidity as an ideal and hold, analytically, that environmental factors are most likely to determine personal sexual orientation—and that this might due to childhood development and parental behavior. This struck me as potentially at odds with Cures, because you struggled for so long to free yourself of that psychoanalytic idea that it was a distant father and a doting mother that had led you to a “lesser sexuality,” in that ’50s-era Freudianism.

MD: Oh, Christopher, you are so smart, I could smack you. [Laughter.] Seriously, I’ve wrestled hard with the question of etiology and have come up with quite different conclusions. This is the first time I dared wrestle in print.

I think there is an important split between academic gay intellectuals and the gay population over this issue. I really don’t know many university types who believe in a biological explanation for sexual orientation, whereas I don’t know anybody in the gay populace at large who doesn’t believe in it. I think that’s because people with more education—it sounds hideously patronizing, but I don’t know how else to put it—who are more familiar with the literature and especially the recent literature on the influence of genes and hormones on sexual orientation and sexual identity have almost uniformly concluded that these multiple studies don’t go anywhere. They contradict each other and themselves: They say one thing at the beginning, another in the middle, and a third at the end. They are so badly argued.

CP: There’s also an important point you make, which I think is hard for people to grasp: An environmental determinacy is just as involuntary as a biological one.

MD: Exactly. I’m a very good case in point. I have never been anything in my fantasy life other than a Kinsey 6, exclusively gay. I had a few failed experiments with women when I was young. All that did was merely confirm that I don’t feel lust toward women. I was in therapy for the better part of a decade trying to cure my orientation with absolutely no results, even though that cure took place at a time when even I was persuaded that you could shift your orientation if you went to a skilled therapist and genuinely devoted yourself to the transformation.

CP: Perhaps the reason that a lot of LGBTQ people in their daily lives want a genetic or biological explanation is so they can simply say, “This is the way I am. Leave me alone. I’m as much me as you are you.” It’s a retort to the homophobes. And to admit that it’s environmental, they worry, opens the door to someone saying, “Well, then, in a different environment you could be ‘normal.’”

MD: If we come at it from another angle, it’s no less troubling. GLF was saying, “We have to open up the heterosexual world so that its sexual experience is more diverse and inclusive. Everybody is gay. Everybody is straight.” At least some people in GLF were arguing that, and a few took it to the next step, saying, “We should be telling straight men that they’re really bisexual, that they’re repressing same-sex desire.” If that’s true, then those of us who are Kinsey 6, we’ve repressed our heterosexual desire.

We don’t know why, but certain people have patterns deeply imprinted on them from childhood, which cannot be reversed. No kind of therapy has produced results, has been able to show that people can change their fantasy desires; only their behavior can be modified, and only in some cases. Yes, you can bring some people—we don’t know how many, but some—to the point where they perform heterosexually, but you cannot change their fantasies. They are able to perform heterosexually because while having sex with a person of the opposite gender they are in fact fantasizing about someone of the same gender.

CP: Has the Gay Movement Failed? and The Rest of It are pretty hard on liberals and the left. A running theme in all your work, in fact, is that liberals have a self-conception of magnanimity on the question of homosexuality and then in practice are flaky allies at best, often tacit homophobes. You have a lot of criticism for “the straight left.” I found some of it persuasive, but I wondered if it was a bit overdrawn and the whole concept of “the straight left” too blunt now. In 1969, when Stonewall erupted, on the organized left there was virtually no organization that took a pro-gay position and many groups were outright homophobic in their platforms and theory. Fast-forward to now. We have Democratic Socialists of America—can you imagine Michael Harrington learning that 44,000 people belong to it?—which has a Queer Socialist Working Group. Even all the tiny left-wing sects, ex-Maoist, ex-Trotskyist—I don’t know of a single one that doesn’t take a pro-LGBTQ position.

MD: But what is the nature of the position? It seems to me that more often than not the position is, “You are entitled to be who you are, and we will defend your right to be who you are, but of course your lifestyle has absolutely nothing to do with who we are.” There’s an implied patronization there: “What you are really is second-rate, but we’re not going to say that anymore, because it’s no longer socially acceptable.” At least in some circles. There are plenty of circles in this country where it’s totally acceptable to say, “You are second-rate. Something went wrong, early on. You’re fucked up. The way we define a happy human being is someone involved in a monogamous, opposite-sex coupled relationship with 2.4 children.”

CP: My impression is that the culture of the left in my own lifetime has changed radically in this respect, that the AIDS crisis especially was a transformative moment. Especially among the young left, I don’t think the patronization that you’re talking about is there now. I honestly think they are very sexually sophisticated and queer fluent. The generational trend that you cite in the book, about people who identify as hetero having sex with others of the same sex and not seeing any problem in it, all the complexities of the way people think about sexuality now, I see that in the young left. Furthermore, I think all of these organizations have queer people involved in them who wouldn’t want to have their organization called the straight left and wouldn’t accept it.

MD: I’m not denying anything you just said, except I would moderate it somewhat. I think the current young generation, people in their twenties up to mid-thirties, are different from the older generations. I don’t question that. Even about the young, though, I can’t help but wonder whether their rhetoric closely comports with their inner feelings with which they might not be fully in touch or in some cases not in touch with at all. In other words, the current lingo is being widely adopted among at least the radical young, but the extent that it genuinely represents what they think about homosexuality—I wonder. Homophobia is so profound in this country and has such a deep-rooted history that if the current generation has not to some extent been influenced by that homophobic tradition, I would be amazed.

And we are consistently ignored. When left intellectuals like Heather Boushey, Peter Frase, Naomi Klein, and others write about political strategy they almost never cite the work of LGBTQ intellectuals. It’s hard not to conclude that they don’t believe we have anything to tell them. They condescend to accept us, but don’t see that we might have anything of value to say about the patterns of mainstream culture, heterosexual lives, and political institutions. They’re wrong. We have a great deal to contribute to social transformation and the redistribution of power.

CP: I’m sympathetic to your criticism in this respect: Given extreme economic inequality in the country and the left’s refocus on economic justice, there’s a danger of cultural and sexual politics being shunted aside in the return to political economy and class politics. On the other hand, I think you paint with a rather broad brush.

MD: Then why don’t they include us in their books? Why don’t Boushey, Klein, and others? If they care, if they’re looking for allies, if they’re talking about how essential it is to have coalition politics and not single-issue politics, why in the hell aren’t they reading our literature, exploring our ideas? They are essentially ignoring some very, very smart work that has been done and is still being done by LGBTQ intellectuals.

CP: Speaking of which, let’s turn to Jews Queers Germans. You call it “a novel/history.” Is this fiction with historical reference points, or history that takes liberties?

MD: Both, I guess. That moniker “novel/history” was slapped on at the last moment because everyone was getting a little nervous whether I was going to get crucified by traditional historians. It turned out the book didn’t get a single review in any of the historical journals, let alone outraged ones. It’s sort of strange. If they would take issue with me, it would be an acknowledgment of the fact that there is something here worth tangling over.

The things that interest me are not things that historians can investigate very well. I’m interested in questions of personality, relationships, and the inner life, and we’re not very good at reclaiming any of that, in part because the evidence isn’t there, or sketchily exists, and in part because that’s not the kind of stuff historians generally are interested in. I think we’re a very conservative bunch, basically, and what interests us is public events, power, and social organization. We shy away from the personal, the inner life.

CP: I notice in The Rest of It and your other memoirs that you have had an erotic predilection for young working-class men, hence the appeal of hustlers. Is there any connection between that and your concern for class now? It’s rare to read a book on LGBTQ politics that goes on for ages about the decline of labor unions, as does Has the Gay Movement Failed.

MD: You devil! No, the two do not connect. I’ve never been particularly interested in labor history or gotten involved in union organizing. I’m attracted to working-class men because of their lack of self-consciousness—unlike so many gay men—about their bodies, however objectively beautiful they might be. They physically, casually, inhabit their bodies. They don’t float above them. They don’t preen.

CP: What do you make of the sexual politics of the Trump era? There are two dimensions here. One is Trump himself, an exemplar of somebody who lived the ’60s sexual revolution but never the feminist revolution. He rates women by a numbers system, has trophy wives in succession, and is grossly misogynistic, as in the Hollywood Access tape. Yet the evangelical right has no compunction about supporting him, leading me to wonder about the state of sexual conservatism. It’s such a weird display. At the same time, we have the Me Too movement, the energization of women’s politics, and the resurgence of feminist protest in the streets, so it’s possible that paradoxically that we’re going to see progressive transformation come out of revulsion against him. Does all of this leave you with despair or hope?

MD: With hope—but hope with despair. [Laughter.] One poll has close to 50 percent of the public approving of Trump’s performance. But the resistance has been very strong. I don’t know how it’s going to play out in November, but I’m hopeful. I love the fact that so many women are running for office. Some of the early primaries have produced positive results. But I’m often stunned at what the people around Trump say and do—and actually seem to believe. They’re rolling back affirmative-action guidelines in the universities. Good God. What next? And with the Court in jeopardy of becoming dyed-in-the-wool right wing, we’re in a touch-and-go situation.

CP: Last question: You’ve published nine books in the last 10 years, at an age when many others would be in Florida playing shuffleboard. How do you do it?

MD: I grew up gay in probably the worst decade to do so in history. I achieved adulthood in the ’50s. It was awful. We were so filled with guilt and shame, so self-hating. But early on I found something I was good at, aside from tennis. [Laughter.] I was praised for my schoolwork throughout my life. The teachers loved me. I worked hard. I would get all A’s. My path was very clearly marked out. I was very lucky in that regard, as I am now in having many privileges and blessings that allow me to devote time to writing. I hope and pray that I can go on doing it.

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