How the gay movement's successes surpassed feminism and civil rights -- and became a model for a new era
At the height of the real estate boom in the 2000s, Robert M. “Robby” Browne, 2007 Corcoran Real Estate National Sales Person of the Year, put on his woman’s bathing suit and silver heels and walked out onto the Club Exit stage. A thousand screaming, cheering, photo-snapping real estate brokers roared their approval. The openly gay Browne, six feet tall and nearly two hundred pounds, danced a sweetly amateurish version of the Village People’s gay anthem, “YMCA,” as ten half naked male Broadway dancers backed him up.
“Is there any question of who the star is?” Browne asks proudly, watching the video today. For most real estate brokers, a third year as Corcoran’s top producer would have been stardom enough, but when Corcoran CEO Pam Liebman began planning the 2007 event, Browne thought he wouldn’t bother to attend. He’d had enough top-earner, $100-million-club years. He was turning sixty, and he was thinking about his life as a whole. Finally he said he would show up, but only if he could accept the award in drag. Browne’s beloved gay older brother, Roscoe Willett Browne, died of AIDS in 1985. He’d never forget the day when President George H. W. Bush said that dying of AIDS wasn’t as important as losing your job. “George H. W. Bush did not acknowledge the sacrifice of my brother and our love. My brother. He’s in his eighties and he still has his brothers and I don’t have any brothers,” says Browne. “And my brother was a Yalie and he was in Vietnam; Bush, how could he be more your person?” We exist, says Browne, looking at the video of his awards ceremony. “This show says we exist.”
Exist? You can’t pick up a paper without seeing evidence that gay people exist and are compelling American society to acknowledge them. The federal government protects them from homophobic violence and twenty-one states have laws against discrimination; 141 cities across the country constitute enclaves of equal treatment. A federal nondiscrimination bill gains more support in Congress with each passing year. Poll numbers show Americans overwhelmingly support protection for gays and lesbians against hate crimes and equality in health benefits, housing, and jobs. In July 2010, a federal judge struck down the federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, that excluded gays from the federal benefits for which married people were eligible and that allowed the states to refuse to recognize the marriages if they pleased. In August, another federal judge invalidated the amendment to the California constitution, added by Proposition 8, that limited marriage to a man and a woman. September had hardly dawned when a third federal judge found the policy requiring gay soldiers to hide their sexual orientation, don’t ask/don’t tell, unconstitutional as well. The United States Congress repealed the law prohibiting out gays and lesbians from serving in the armed forces. Right after the Fourth of July in 2011, the federal courts in California ordered the United States military to stop screwing around getting ready and just cease enforcing it at once.
Gay playwright Edward Albee’s play about the unbounded nature of love objects, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” won the Tony Award for best play in 2002; the heroic biopic about San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk, “Milk,” won two Oscars in 2009. So many people in show business have come out as gay that some gay media are now pooh-poohing their confessions as cheap shots meant to bolster their flagging careers.
Two of the most famous heterosexual lawyers in America, David Boies and Ted Olson, brought the suit against the California marriage ban in 2009. Win or lose, Boies and Olson’s case has already achieved the crucial social goal of making same-sex marriage a legitimate claim. On the eve of the closing argument in the case in 2010, a New York Times editorial called same-sex marriage “A Basic Civil Right.” In 2011 the poll numbers in favor of same-sex marriage crossed 50 percent. Regardless of intermittent setbacks, gay people like Robby Browne have succeeded in forcing society to acknowledge that they exist—as humans with a right to life and as American citizens with a claim to equality under the United States Constitution. Most of all, they have staked their claim to be treated, without lying or hiding, as moral persons, whose lives, loves, and ambitions have value and cannot be discounted.
The year 2009 saw the fortieth anniversary of the uprising in a New York gay bar called Stonewall. In 1969, “homosexuals,” people who wanted to have sex with members of their own sex, were considered sinful by the church, their sexual practices were criminal in forty-nine states, the psychiatrists said they were crazy, and the State Department held that they were subversive. Forty-two years later, almost to the day, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of the state of New York, signed the law that enabled them to marry in New York. The Empire State Building was lit up in the rainbow colors of the symbolic gay flag.
How did this tiny minority of despised and marginalized people do it? They did it in America, what we philosophers call a “liberal (small L) state.” America’s roots go back to the beginning of modern Western political thought in the seventeenth century, when the philosopher Thomas Hobbes speculated that people create their governments; states are not handed down from God to Adam to the king. During the century and a half after Hobbes wrote, the English and their American colonists launched a variety of social movements—the English Revolution and the American Revolution among them—that pushed and pulled on the deal between people and government until they produced the basic outline of the modern western state, the liberal state. The liberal state makes three promises to its citizens. First, security: the state will protect its citizens from one another and not hurt them worse than the people it is protecting them from. Second, liberty: citizens have certain rights as human beings that even the state cannot interfere with. And finally, self-governance: for those aspects of life the state can control, citizens must decide for themselves on equal terms what they want the state to do. It’s a good deal. No wonder so many people want in.
By the late twentieth century, Americans had already undertaken two great social movements for inclusion in the liberal state, the racial civil rights movement and the feminist movement. Since people aren’t all that easy to organize, theorists have often speculated about how they did it. Their conclusions are that movements arise only when people come to see that their problems are political, not natural or personal, what theorists call “oppositional consciousness.” This “aha!” moment in the civil rights movement dates back at least to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903, when he observed that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” In addition, movements need access to resources, as when the NAACP started getting hold of real money and the movement gained astute leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Students of the racial civil rights movement made the assumption that before people engage in new movements they do a rational cost-benefit analysis, weighing the benefits of political action against the cost. When people created social movements against all odds and acted against their own individual self-interest on behalf of the group, theorists had to rethink what really drives people to take action. As the racial civil rights movement gave way to other movements—the feminist, and, finally, the gay-liberation movement—sociologists produced more theories to explain the new movements; indeed, the later thinking is often called “new social-movement” theory. In the newer thinking, theorists speculated that people draw their sense of who they are from the groups or social networks they are already in. From those starting places, they conceive a positive vision of themselves and then a desire to change the way the larger society perceives them all. New social-movement theorists came to the realization that sometimes group identity is so strong that people act on behalf of the group whether it benefits them individually or not.
Classical or new, each of the movements before the gay movement was seeking citizenship in the liberal state. Women and racial minorities did not necessarily ask the dominant society to love them or approve of them. They sought to be secure against violence, to be tolerated as they exercised their human liberty, and to have equal access to political and economic life. Each movement got traction in these crucial areas. But both of them fell short of achieving all the elements of a full human life for most of the people they represented: they got little or no economic assistance or cultural validation, and, when the inevitable backlash came, they stalled or lost ground. It would take a newer new movement to make the next moves: it would take the gay revolution.
The gay revolution achieved more because it faced different challenges. The path to liberal equality almost always involves mimicking as much as possible the behaviors and beliefs of the straight white men in power. The racial civil rights and feminist movements both made substantial detours into defending difference—black separatism and difference feminism. They failed to establish that their divergent cultures were as worthy as the dominant one and all they did was to split their movements. At the end of the day, both these modern movements got most of their traction from maximizing their similarity to dominant political and social hierarchies.
By definition, people involved in the gay revolution could not replicate the majority behavior. Their very political identity was behavior that distinguished them from the majority, including, but not limited to, their sex lives. The liberal state has a basic concept of a person entitled to be a citizen. When gay activists began their efforts, the churches considered them sinful, all but one state criminalized their sex acts, the doctors thought they were crazy, and politicians saw them as traitors to the nation. Sinners were kept away from sacred rites like marriage; criminals were imprisoned; crazy people were put in asylums; and people of doubtful loyalty were fired from their government jobs. Sinful, criminal, crazy, and subversive, the gays who made the gay revolution had the vastly harder task of convincing society to recognize they were even suitable candidates for citizenship despite their difference. Although liberalism pretends to be morally neutral, homosexual sexual behavior pressed that liberal commitment to the limit. In so doing, instead of bringing their marginal group into conformity with the mainstream norms, they challenged the accepted versions of sin, crime, sanity, and loyalty and changed America for everyone.
The movement succeeded, uniquely and in large part because, at the critical moments, its leaders made a moral claim. “Gay,” as movement pioneer Franklin Kameny put it on the iconic button of the gay revolution in 1968, “Is Good.” Even though it’s different. No one told it better than activist Arthur Evans: “It was more than just being gay and having gay sex. We discovered who we were and we built authentic lives around who we were and we supported each other doing that and in the process came to very important questions about the meaning of life, ethics, the vision of the common good and we debated these issues and we lived them.”
Morally ambitious and clearly identified as different, the gay movement came from further behind than either the civil rights or the feminist movements had done. It took on the liberal state and achieved formal equality, as did the other two movements. During the AIDS epidemic, it took on not just oppression, but neglect. And then it took on the traditional institutions of heterosexual morality—marriage and the military—and is rapidly conquering those arenas as well.
Fueled by its moral ambition, the gay movement is the model of a new era. It is ironic, yet fitting, that the only counterpart to the morally driven gay revolution is its contemporary and fiercest opponent, the morally driven religious right. Indeed, it is the moral certainty of the gay revolution that explains why, unlike the racial and feminist movements, it has been able to stand up to that powerful counterforce and, slowly but surely, prevail.
The theories all suggest that a whole lot of things have to go really right for people to act collectively against legitimate political authority. Lacking the religious and historical jet fuel of racial civil rights and the demographic advantage of feminism, the gay revolution started out from much the weakest position of any of the modern movements. Brilliantly led, endlessly resourceful, and stunningly creative, it came the furthest. When we ask how a cross-dressing homosexual activist got to be the poster boy of the most successful real estate brokerage firm in New York, we are also asking how people cooperate to get anything done, much less take on their whole society and wrench it onto a different path altogether. The gay Victory is not just a story, although that would be enough. It’s an epic.
From the book “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution.” Copyright © 2012 by Linda Hirshman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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