How Gay Americans Went From Criminals to Brides, Grooms

'Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution'
"Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution" is written by Linda Hirshman. Source: HarperCollins Publishers via Bloomberg

Linda Hirshman’s “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution” is harder-headed than its giddy title suggests.

Most Americans over 40 have experienced the forward march of gay rights as the product of a gradual change in the social air. Hirshman, a retired professor and labor lawyer with a Ph.D. in philosophy, is more interested in the movement’s legislative and judicial ups and downs, and she’s got an opinion about every one of them.

She flays the obvious villains (Lewis Powell, Sam Nunn) and a few surprising ones (Tom Hayden). She goes after some of the heroes, too, for making strategic decisions she considers inept.

Nor does she get misty about the otherwise courageous men who laid the foundations of the movement in the frightening days before Stonewall but were tone-deaf to feminism and, in some cases, just plain didn’t like women.

Her style is breezy (sometimes gratingly so), but her research is very solid; most of her best material comes from the more than 100 interviews she conducted. Her analysis of what makes social movements succeed is always thoughtful and sometimes profound.

No Pleading

Hirshman, who is straight, doesn’t insult the reader by “defending” homosexuality or making an argument for equal rights; the day for that kind of pleading, her approach implies, is over. Anyway, she doesn’t have time.

She’s writing for a general audience, not an academic one, and she refuses to plod, covering a century of struggle in less than 350 pages of text. The result is always entertaining and frequently exhilarating.

As a lawyer, Hirshman is especially lucid on the Supreme Court -- more lucid, sometimes, than the court itself. In the notorious 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick, it upheld Georgia’s right to criminalize sodomy, dismissing gay claims to equal protection as “facetious.”

The decision had the paradoxical but predictable effect of electrifying a movement dispirited at that point by thousands of AIDS deaths and the Reagan Administration’s indifference to them. A year later, the furiously inventive AIDS protest group ACT UP initiated a new phase in the fight for rights.

The antigay forces eventually went too far. In the 1996 Romer v. Evans, the court overturned an outrageous initiative that Colorado voters had passed depriving homosexuals of a whole gamut of legal protections that, it held, were “taken for granted by most people ... in a free society.”

Clinton Years

That decision led the way to the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas, in which the court finally (if belatedly) overturned the repulsive Bowers v. Hardwick.

Hirshman chronicles the gloomy origins of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell early in the Clinton administration and the tortuous path to its abolition last year.

She shows how the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), restricting marriage to opposite-sex partners, “sailed through Congress” in 1996 and was signed into law by a cowardly Bill Clinton during “full campaign season.”

After considerable squirming, the Obama administration backed away from the law; at the end of May, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional.

Approaching Victory

Although Hirshman acknowledges that “Victory” is a title open to misinterpretation, her rationale for using it is clear. Her book demonstrates that the reversal in social attitudes toward gay men and lesbians, despite various (but always temporary) political and judicial setbacks, is itself irreversible.

When the question of marriage lands before the Supreme Court, it could disgrace itself with a repeat of Bowers v. Hardwick. But Hirshman very skillfully shows that, even if it does, down the road a court drawn from a less bigoted generation will inevitably send such a warped decision into the dustbin of history.

“Victory” is published by Harper (443 pages, $27.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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