Has the Gay Movement Failed?, by Martin Duberman

Sharif Mowlabocus reflects on how politics took a back seat as LGBTQ organisations advanced

August 2, 2018
Peter Tatchell is arrested in London for protesting against Robert Mugabe
Source: Peter Tatchell is arrested in London for protesting against Robert Mugabe

Since the 1970s, Martin Duberman has been committed to expanding the focus of gay and lesbian politics, a commitment that draws energy from post-Stonewall organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. In the intervening years, the US gay movement has shifted away from its leftist roots and transformed itself into a well-funded assimilationist lobbying machine. In Has the Gay Movement Failed?, Duberman analyses this trajectory and argues for a refocusing of the movement’s aims.

The book begins by outlining the arguments that earlier gay and lesbian organisations developed in relation to concepts such as the family, marriage, monogamy, gender, race and class. The author excels in demonstrating how these standpoints, while oppositional to normative US society, created sites of inter-group tensions, spawning debates and disagreements among group members. Duberman also identifies how unconscious bias, far from being a new problem, regularly undermined the inclusive ethos of the movement.

The discussion then turns to a critique of national LGBT organisations (especially the Human Rights Campaign) for investing in single-issue politics and a strategy of assimilation. This focus, Duberman contends, serves the interests of a privileged “gay majority” while ignoring the structural inequality, racism, homophobia and transphobia that pervade the lives of many working-class people. While generally on point, the critique is at times blunted by inaccurate generalisations, as in the discussion of sex offender databases, problematic oversights (for example, the failure to acknowledge peer pressure in the sex lives of young people) and a lack of critical self-reflection.

For instance, midway through his critique of marriage, Duberman “comes out” as married, yet he fails to interrogate the conflicted position that this arguably puts him in. This is not to say that Duberman (or anyone else) cannot get married on account of their politics. But recognising the conflict between the personal and the political provides a valuable opportunity to interrogate the challenges, contradictions and tensions that many of us on the gay left find ourselves negotiating. Arguably, such critical (self-)reflection also offers a space in which to consider the central question that this book needs to ask, but which (like so many others) it shies away from: why the gay movement failed. This question remains unanswered here, and that is a genuine loss because Duberman, of all people, must surely have an informed and politically engaged opinion on the issue.

Yet Has the Gay Movement Failed? remains a useful reference point that maps the history of the movement before building an argument for broadening the focus of LGBTQ politics. From this perspective, the book’s first and final sections are by far the most useful – and the most convincingly argued. The last section, “Whose Left?”, is Duberman at his finest – insightful, reflexive and critically sharp. Refusing to give up on contemporary organising, or to ignore what has been achieved in the name of the gay movement, he makes a compelling and well-researched argument for (re)connecting with the left today. In doing so, Duberman identifies exactly what is at stake if we continue to focus on ourselves, and allow the left to forget that (some of) us queers are still revolting.

Sharif Mowlabocus is senior lecturer in digital media at the University of Sussex. His current work focuses on queer critiques of assimilationist politics in Western culture.

Has the Gay Movement Failed?
By Martin Duberman
University of California Press
272pp, £22.00
ISBN 9780520298866
Published 29 June 2018

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