Two books on LGBTQ subjects have been published in the last few weeks that respond to an LGBTQ need to study ourselves and our past. Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution, September 2015, covers the period between 1945 and May 2012, and Kerry Eleveld’s Don’t Tell me to Wait, October 2015, covers the period between the inauguration of Barack Obama and May 2012. (Both books are available in print and digital versions. Publication data is given at the bottom of this post.) These books end at the same place in twenty-first century history, with President Barack Obama completing his “evolving” and coming out in favor of marriage equality. Because the event was so important to the whole culture and was critical to LGBTQ, we ask, How did it happen that during the administration of this President, at this moment, everything changed? Was it President Obama who made it all possible? The Congress? LGBTQ activists? What does that mean for us? Did we—LGBTQ men and women in the street—make this major success possible?
The movie, Stonewall, by Roland Emmerich, released September 25, 2015, raises a similar question. Was it the transgender street kids who fought the cops? Or more conventionally masculine gay men? Who threw the first brick? Who is we, if we fought the cops? We can’t just let some random dude in Hollywood, making a movie, make decisions about the makeup of the mob around the Stonewall door. In some ways, this debate is grounded in differences of method—How do we find out what happened forty-six years ago? Where are the data?—and yet it plays out as if we were discussing theology. What do we believe about ourselves?
LGBTQ are going through the same things that others—the Irish, Black Americans, women, Jews, Hispanics, Native Americans—have gone through before us, searching for our past and documenting as much of it as possible as a way of finding out who we are (proving that we are who we think we are), measured against our faith that we are all created equal, that we are good, that we are inheritors of the earth. Et cetera.
Kerry Eleveld, a gay journalist with The Advocate, recounts the period from 2008 to 2012 when her beat was the Obama Administration’s movement on a range of gay issues. Eleveld finds the President not quite the enemy, but he is, at least, an obstacle to progress. She assumes through all the years that she writes about that Obama was going to have to be forced into doing the right thing.
Analysis of these years—and the subjects we’re reading about in these books and movies—leads to a better understanding of our past and therefore to a better understanding of ourselves. Was Barack Obama a knight in shining armor, who rode into town and brought us marriage equality? Or did he resist our needs, consistently, right up to the moment he gave in to our very fierce activists? What can we learn from these problems, so that we can be prepared for the next set of crises? (We should know that eventually a Republican is going to be elected president who will revive the whole climate of paranoia and fear and suspicion around LGBTQ issues, and we will have to respond. Nobody should be under the illusion that our place in this republic is secure, any more than the place of Black people, or women, or Hispanics.)
On December 29, 2010, DADT had just been repealed. I wrote in this blog that “the greatest share of the victory belongs to President Obama, who has been beating a drum on this issue for the last three years, creating a climate in which it was possible for it to happen, and to the Congressional leaders, who effectively marshaled their forces in the Congress. But many people have been saying that the hardest push was made by grassroots activists, who kept up the pressure on Obama and on Congress, and who made it happen.”
The facts of history are complicated and conflict with our faith in simple truths. Progress wouldn’t have happened without grassroots activists, but it wouldn’t have happened without Barack Obama also. By accustoming ourselves to the complications of the historical record—Obama + Congress + grassroots activists—we prepare ourselves for the future. The point is knowledge. Know what has to be done. Know who we are. Know what we are capable of.
Kerry Eleveld, Don’t Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama. New York: Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, October 6, 2015. 368 pages
Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, The Story of the Struggle. New York: Simon & Schuster, September 8, 2015. 816 pages.