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The Gay Revolution, by Lillian Faderman.

May 12, 2015

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman.  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Four stars

An essential book about the movement to include gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in U.S. society from the 1950s to the present.

Lillian Faderman has long been a leading figure researching and writing about lesbian history. In the early 1980s, she began publishing books that introduced us all to lesbians from the past giving a historical validation to the lesbians who were suddenly speaking out around us. Since then she continued her careful scholarship and has won numerous awards for her books. Now, in The Gay Revolution, she tells a comprehensive story of the movement for lesbians, gay men and other sexual outsiders to be fully accepted in U.S. society.

This is a massive 8oo-page book surveys an enormous story (660 pages of text, 140 of notes), but it does not read like a survey. Faderman is primarily a storyteller and her book reads smoothly and easily. She skillfully structures her narrative in chapters, each focusing on a particular time or situation. She herself lived through these years as a lesbian in a long-term relationship. In addition she relies heavily on an immense body of interviews that she and others of collected. She tells her story from the viewpoint of those who led the movement, bringing life and excitement into events. Because of her interviews she is able to describe participants as they saw each other so we can understand individuals and sense how their personalities helped or hurt their relations with others.

The book opens with accounts of the brutality and aggression of those out to destroy homosexuality in the 1950s, a time when everyone from the F.B.I. to local police assumed that those attracted to others of the same sex were destructive to American life. Because they were viewed as threatening to American values, lesbian and gays were methodically tracked down and locked up on jails or mental hospitals. Careers and lives were ruined as public opinion was widely supportive of such measures. Changes came gradually with such treatment of gays still occurring even after legal battles were achieved.

As Faderman explains, homosexual individuals belong to all segments of American life and it is no surprise that their internal strife was a part of their movements. While her overall sympathy with their cause is obvious, she writes of the divisions within the movements with fairness and clarity. When gays and lesbians first began to protest their treatment as “criminals or crazies,” they were careful to present themselves as respectable. They wore suits, dresses and high heels and kept their early protests with dignity. Then in 1969 at Stonewall, a crowd of predominantly gay men fought back when police tried to raid a gay bar. Like other movements of the 60s and 70s, the movement split into reformers who sought change within the established power networks and those who took to the streets fighting and provoking those whom they viewed as oppressive. Often they used humor and ridicule to call attention to the denial of their basic rights, practices continuing into ACTUP and gay Pride parades.

An additional division surfacing near the same time was over gender. Lesbians had not been as politically active as gay men, usually being about a tenth of the membership of movement organizations. Even before the rise of feminism, they began to be resentful of how gay men tended to use them while ignoring their issues. They were uncomfortable in the predominantly male atmosphere of gay events. Distinguishing themselves from gay men and straight women, they became the radical edge of the emerging Women’s Movement.

Local campaigns led to small legal gains for gays and lesbians in places like Houston and California. A nationally important achievement was the removal of the definition of homosexuality as pathology by the American Psychology Association. But, as Faderman explains, backlash developed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual activists fought for family values for themselves. They worked for the rights granted married heterosexual couples, like the right to care for their lovers. Discrimination in the military was another cause for which they fought. The hard work and involvement of the LGBT community and their bravery in speaking out about their identity has led to a major shift in their acceptance in the country today. As I read this book, the U.S. Supreme Court was contemplating making marriage for lesbians and gays legal throughout the country.

I strongly recommend this book. I am not sure that it is “the definite” book of the subject as the publishers claim, because its subject to too big for any book to cover in one volume. Some individuals not included will probably have different stories to tell. The book tells the public story of the fight against discrimination. Others are needed to tell more about daily life for homosexuals in this period. None the less, The Gay Revolution is essential to anyone ready to know more about what sexual diversity has meant in the United States and how a movement developed that challenged its discrimination. Admittedly it is a big book and reading it all is a major commitment. Even readers who only sample a section or two of the book will find it rewarding.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2015 10:40 am

    Interesting observations, Marilyn. 🙂

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