A future project of mine, one of many that I’ve planned but do not yet have time to implement, is the creation of 30-minute LGBT history lessons for use in high-school GSAs. I have wanted to do this for over a year, although it remains on my back burner, because history is important — knowing history allows us to fully inherit the legacy of those who came before. (It also allows us to learn from past mistakes, and as such is a crucial part of any strategic planning for social change.)
Teaching the history of struggle gives LGBT teenagers something to believe in, a knowledge that their inheritance is rich with life and possibility — greater than hatred and misery.
It also does a damn good job of exploring the complexity of LGBT communities, and avoiding the lionization of particular time periods that occurs when one has only a weak conception of our historical arc.
I’m thinking of this right now in the context of “the marriage debate,” which is often very silly and rife with strawmen (nobody actually believes that gay marriage is the last battle), but also obnoxiously ignorant of history.
The mythic narrative about the U.S. gay rights movement that I’ve seen reproduced amongst “anti-assimilation” folks, notably including Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, goes something like this:
With the sexual revolution and the dawn of the gay liberation front etc. fighting against police brutality and overt discrimination, the gay renaissance began, with the 1970s being a time of sexual freedom and liberation. Then, AIDS killed off a lot of people and left the rest traumatized; the rise of the Professional Gay Activist Organizations from this represented a selling out of gay identity, commercialization, and sex-negativity. The push for gay marriage is a traumatic aftershock of the AIDS years, a very recent development aiming to coopt gay identity as a radical force — and an attempt to stifle the sexual freedom that is part of gay culture.
Many people who espouse an “anti-assimilationist” perspective (people who have articulated such a perspective, rather than simply using buzzwords) explicitly desire to go back to the days when gay culture was more fun, when it was more free, when it was more explicitly sexual. When it was constantly transgressive (as though same-sex love was never scandalous enough).
Of course this understanding of gay history is flawed. Extremely so. (it is notably limited in its focus on white, cisgender gay men; lesbian history, black gay history, and transgender history bear no similarity to this arc at all.) It’s a myth, as much an idealized fiction as the 1950s suburbia idolized by some on the right.
Throughout history gay men and lesbians have married, using local marital customs, and taking the relationships as seriously as they do now. Lesbian weddings occurred fairly openly during the Harlem Renaissance. Jesse Walker writes in Reason of a weird “amnesia” on the subject, noting that advice columnists wrote about gay weddings between two men in the 1970s. He’s targeting the right with this for their refusal to consider that gay marriage is actually an old, lived reality for many gay couples — but the same oversight is committed by “anti-assimilationists,” who are often a hair away from arguing that gay marriage was concocted by straight people and the HRC.
What changes with recognition of same-sex marriages is the protections granted these marriages by the government. Of course, with that comes a certain social respectability and expectation, but let’s be real: This social respectability was already increasing, regardless of gay marriage’s legality. Gay marriage can just speed it up a bit, especially for those sitting on the fence.
(On a side note: there are some people who honestly believe that social acceptability is the enemy. I’m not sure, then, what they propose - a permanent state of pushing the envelope, moving ever more to the extreme as society becomes more tolerant? Smug self-righteousness?)
Moreover, there were deeply problematic elements of the 1970s gay culture. Hate crimes were common, but there were even troubling things on the inside of gay “sexual liberation.” Many of the participants were closeted, and they certainly weren’t all bohemian radicals (Peter Staley, the ACT UP hero who quit his Wall St job when diagnosed with AIDS, comes to mind). Some scenes devolved into widespread drug abuse, ever-more-extreme sexual practices, and the cult of the body; the “femmephobia” that many “anti-assimilationists” decry so passionately was part and parcel of the urban gay milieu, leading to the rise of the “clone.” There is a reason that gay novels written in the 1970s feature characters desperate for spiritual connection and meaning in a world filled with physical gratification.
This is not to hate on that important part of our history. It is to be realistic, to point out that a totally liberated and promiscuous sexual culture that is not materialistic or shallow or harmful or marked by self-hatred has never existed in totality anywhere (although I do not doubt that some small groups had something very close, here and there), and that many gay people — regardless of their historical context — do not desire to be part of a promiscuous sexual culture.
So when people decry “modern gay assimilation,” they are often repeating a myth that gay culture has never born any resemblance to straight culture. They are participating in the creation of a sham history, one that erases the complexity required to build a realistic gay politic.
From a perspective rooted in actual history, the gay rights movement is not falling from grace with a gay marriage push. It is not suddenly taking a conservative turn unseen in queer history. We are not postlapsarian.