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Martin Duberman: History Lessons

Martin Duberman: History Lessons

Author: Frank Pizzoli

September 1, 2013

“You don’t want to constantly stand out, constantly contradict, and constantly be the outsider. You want to belong. I think assimilationism is what is going to proceed. I don’t think the Sarah Schulmans or the Martin Dubermans are going to win this battle.”

Martin Duberman has the style of a public intellectual of a bygone era. I can easily imagine him in a living room with Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhorentz (before his conversion to Neo-Conservative ideals), the early Norman Mailer, during a time. for better or worse, when ideas mattered.  For five decades, Duberman has tackled the complex and the inconvenient and produced definitive biographies (Paul Robeson, Lincoln Kirstein, and Howard Zinn), essays, books, plays, reviews, and commentary. He founded the nation’s first graduate program in LGBT studies and is well known for his book Stonewall (Plume), close up portraits of six participants of the event that gave birth to the modern gay movement. His latest book, The Martin Duberman Reader (New Press) compiles the core of his most important writings and in the process give readers an overview of our lives and times. His essays provide a new generation of activists, scholars, and readers benchmark understandings of what has come before us.

Your latest book is The Martin Duberman Reader: The Essential Historical, Biographic and Autobiographical Writings. Since you are so prolific, how did you select the table of contents?

Well, when the title says “essential,” you’re never sure if a given volume accurately represents one’s work. Selection is very tricky because you don’t know what your readers know. For example, if you start talking about Paul Robeson does the average reader, whoever that is, have enough background so that you can get straight into Robeson and Communism or must you cover all the background as well? Selection can be difficult especially in this country because so few Americans know any history; many approach a book without having any built-in context. Basically, I chose sections that pleased me and which I thought best represented the book at hand. That was my process.

Regarding history, a Reader essay delineates a genealogy of gay and lesbian politics during the 1960s and after. You helped found the National Gay Task Force, later renamed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to recognize the role of women. Let’s go through some organizations and issues and try to assess their politics at the time, left, center, right or something else.

My answers will reflect how I currently perceive those organizations, though at the time they formed I may have perceived them differently.

What about The Gay Liberation Front (GLF)?

It was formed just after Stonewall, 1970 probably, a direct result of the riots themselves. It was the birth essentially of a new movement. GLF was in contrast to the homophile movement, as it was called then, which preceded and is represented by the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

Next came the Gay Activist Alliance. Did that group have dotted lines back to the gay men and women in the 1960s anti-Viet Nam war movement? Did they apply what they learned to their political circumstances?

I think without the 1960s having happened there probably would not have been the Stonewall Riots at the end of the decade. And by that I mean we were all being enormously influenced by developments during the 1960s. Without being fully conscious of it, or in some cases only partially conscious.

I regard the Black Movement as the granddaddy of all the movements that followed thereafter. What blacks were saying then about themselves also applied directly to gay people. Blacks were saying, “Yeah, we may be different but that doesn’t make us inferior. In fact, in some ways our differences may make us superior to mainstream white values.” Thus the slogan “Black is beautiful.” And even though at the time I was still in therapy trying to get cured, trying to turn heterosexual, I heard that sentiment. During the 1960s all this was repeated over and over again. So eventually, even if your ears were closed, the message did get through that it’s okay to be different.

Does the experience of being different—gay, black or both—suggest a level of superiority or insight because the ignominy of oppression makes one stronger?

I would say if oppression doesn’t kill you, there’s the chance it will make you stronger. The gay movement also learned from earlier outsiders like women in the 1960s. The Women’s Movement began before Stonewall and we got those messages, too, about gender non-conformity, about androgyny being the ideal model rather than dividing up human characteristics between one gender and another. They held that everyone should aim at incorporating all those characteristics within oneself, whether or not one’s genitalia was male or female. Overall, the 1960s was an enormously creative and challenging period. The period made everybody who was at least partially available to listen rethink who we long thought we were.

In a Reader essay, you write about the 1950s, when youth were criticized as inert, and the 1960s, when they were portrayed as too passionate. “Youth culture,” created by Hollywood back then, was a huge cash cow. Many people rushed to see James Dean and Elvis movies. Is that Hegel’s dialectic at work? A thesis, antithesis, and eventual synthesis or rejection? Does one decade nurse the seeds of the next?

These rigid divisions between decades don’t make any sense because along with James Dean there was, of course, the Beats, Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac. There were also the Beatles. They were all subversive elements but the overall tone, I think, of the 1950s was the tone set by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. People were afraid of being “exposed” as deviant in regard to mainstream values. So you did your best—remember too that most people did their best in the 1950s to conceal aspects of themselves that they thought were unacceptable to the mainstream.

Demarcations of decades are not rigid or arbitrary. You often read that the 1960s began with the assassination of JFK in 1963 and that’s when the 1970s actually began. Demarcations are fluid…

Regarding demarcations, surveys and anecdote indicate many men like to have sex with other men yet do not identify as “gay.”  I’ve heard guys say “no rainbows, no parades” but that they still want to have sex with a guy. They often have a wife and kids or a girlfriend.  Without trying to be politically correct, how do we explain this phenomenon?

Well this is especially true in minority communities. Many black and Hispanic men will not adopt the label gay because it’s white identified. From its inception, the organized political movement has been dominated by whites. Black and Hispanics have sometimes formed their own groups, but they have remained small in comparison with, say, the National Gay Task Force or the Human Rights Campaign.

So it’s a refusal of an identity that doesn’t resemble their life experience rather than a disagreement about behavior; it’s all the same behavior but their cultural encoding of it is different?

Also, I think the newest generation, that is, people currently in their 20s, are behaviorally more fluid than we were. They don’t believe in labels to the same extent we did. Usually a minority sets the tone for how we view a given generation. And I think the minority that’s setting the tone today for the newest generation, people in their 20s, are much more relaxed. I mean, all the polls that I see in reaction to questions like gay marriage indicate they throw up their hands and say, ‘”What’s the big deal? Who cares?” There are so many other issues that are more important. I find great hope in that reaction.

By more important, do you mean larger social justice issues around the economy, the growing concentration of wealth?


In the gay community, white men, a few women, still define class issues. Let’s take NYC Mayoral candidate Christine Quinn’s position on paid sick days, minimum wage. Although now tempered, she started out against adding sick days to low paying jobs as an olive branch to the business community. How could her position have helped a lesbian couple, or any couple, with kids to raise and who work more than two jobs?

I haven’t talked to anybody who is gay or lesbian who is voting for Christine Quinn. Now, that may reflect the circles I travel in. My friends tend to be political and radical and they consider Christine Quinn, at best, a centrist. They’re almost all voting for Bill de Blasio, the city’s official Public Advocate. A lot of these people are older, maybe not as old as I am but they’re not in their 20s. They are people who grew up with stricter political definitions than maybe others did who are in their 50s or 60s, who might automatically vote for an openly-gay candidate. In my circle, they’re voting for the candidate who comes closest to sharing their politics.

Does this change in voting habits signal maturation within our own community? To consider policies, not people?

I think it does. It’s an awareness that simply because a candidate shares your sexual orientation, or same gender, that that person is automatically kin to you. I mean they’re not. You and the candidate may be at loggerheads in regard to many other aspects of being alive.

Class differences come into play, not only shared sexual identities? Will assimilation blunt or sharpen the class differences within the LGBT community?

Some of it depends on how you define class. If you define it in terms of income, job status, level of education, whatever, assimilation is not going to help those people who are at the lower economic rungs of the ladder. I mean many gay people, which the organized gay community doesn’t seem to be aware of, are not only working class but are part-time employees who are living at or below the poverty level. And you’d never know from the agendas of our national organizations that these people mattered because our agendas don’t address their issues.

Like the Human Rights Campaign?

The Human Rights Campaign manages to get comfortably affluent gay people accepted, but that’s not going to help those who are economically marginalized. And it’s not simply about economics. But also race.  Currently I just finished working on a manuscript I’m tentatively calling The Battlefield of AIDS which is essentially a dual biography of activist Michael Callen and black poet Essex Hemphill, but it covers the whole period. I knew them both slightly, but only slightly. Callen was an outsider even in relation to the AIDS movement. I mean, he was active very early. He and Richard Berkowitz are sort of the granddaddies of safe sex guidelines. But in terms of ACT UP, Callen was more radical in his lived politics. Even though ACT UP, as part of its founding principles, talked about racial equality and gender equality, in practice they had committees like the Minority AIDS Committee and a woman’s caucus. And the politically radical elements in ACT UP migrated to those committees. But the guiding spirit of the organization was the Treatment and Data Committee, people like Peter Staley and Mike Harrington, who eventually formed the Treatment Action Group, still in existence.

And thus far the history of those years is mostly focused on all those fine looking, upstanding white men, all of whom, except for Spencer Cox, survived. And why not? Everybody fights for his or her own life. Who can blame these guys?  I don’t blame them. It’s just that they don’t represent all of what was going on in those years of the early AIDS struggle.

Callen and Hemphill both died of AIDS but they were not TAG types at all. In fact they were antagonistic to ACT UP. There is more story yet to be told about those years. Essex, for example, would have nothing to do with the organized gay movement, ACT UP or otherwise, because it was so white oriented and dominated. Essex and most minority gays were not were not interested in the primarily white gay political movement of ACT UP.

They didn’t participate in ACT UP or Treatment Action Group or all of the groups that spawned to do good work?

ACT UP did do good work, lots of it, but it centered on its constituency–middle and upper class white men primarily.

More than three decades later, CDC says if current trends continue 50% of African-American men who turned 18 in 2009 and have sex with men will be HIV+ by age 35. Fifty-four percent of all men who have sex with men will be HIV-positive. Thirty-two years later we still have 50,000+ new infections a year.

I think there are various explanations. Many younger people have bought into the notion that HIV is a manageable disease. To some extent it is. Drugs that control the virus now exist, and many HIV+ people are living normal life spans. But the problem is we don’t yet know about the long-term effect of those drugs.  We don’t know their natural history. There’s enormous individual variation in how the drugs work for each individual.  A lot of people don’t get tested, I mean a lot. I don’t have the figures for you but I know I’ve read it innumerable times. They don’t want to get tested. [CDC: In 21 cities across the country, second and third tier cities, 20% of young gay men, 18 to 36, are HIV infected, most of them young men of color, and 44% don’t know they’re infected.]

Your friend Sarah Schulman’s work has recently focused on “homo-nationalism” or “pink washing” as a theme, based on the work theorist Jasbir K. Puar. Essentially the idea is that we tend to evaluate Western democracies based on their level of LGBT civil rights. The more incrementally LGBT people become assimilated, and accepted for a place at the table, the less willing they may be to criticize their nation’s other policies—about war, the economy, and the civil rights of other oppressed groups within their own nation and in other countries. They fear their hard-fought-for rights may somehow be revoked if they don’t toe the line.

I agree with her that’s one of the costs of assimilation—along with denying your own specialness, and what it is that you truly have to contribute to the mainstream society. With assimilation there is pressure to become a good, upstanding, patriotic American, meaning, for example, if Israel is our “greatest ally” you’re expected to support everything the Israeli government does. And a lot of what Israel is doing is not okay. I applaud Schulman for bringing all that up.

Is the idea that queers should resemble the dominant, heterosexual culture—get married, raise kids, join the Armed forces—a lingering remnant of internalized homophobia?

Yes, I believe so. We’re accepted to the extent we manifest mainstream values. And express our gratitude for being allowed in.

In other words perhaps one aspect of assimilation plays out like “How could I be so rude to object”?

Right. Being rude enough to point out some of the negative features of our own country—like the appalling class structure, the lack of access to health care and education, the huge disparity of income between the top 1% and everyone else.

In your writings, you mention special gay experiences. Are gay people Shaman? Some among our thinkers and writers believe we are. That we are capable of perceiving the world in ways that are different from the mainstream and therefore useful to others.

Well I don’t like the word Shaman because it connotes spirituality and I’m an utterly secular type. I wish I had the belief gene but I don’t. Whatever it is, I didn’t inherit it, gene or otherwise. But leaving aside the term Shaman, I do feel that because gay people have had a different historical experience we have a different perspective on mainstream institutions, a different set of attitudes, even a different set of—what to call it—not habits, but maybe social structures. I don’t want to overplay this, but you know there’s a real analogy to be drawn with Black Americans. The same sort of dialogue is also going on and has long gone on within the black community: Do we really want to become whites or pseudo whites? What are the costs of assimilation? As James Baldwin put it, ‘Why do we go on begging to rent a room in a house that’s burning down? Why don’t we build a better house?’ And I think it’s exactly the same dialectic that’s going on in LGBT circles right now. For example, the Log Cabin Republicans drive me nuts because they accept mainstream values at face value as if they embody truth. They don’t. You’ve got to be a historian of the United States, as I am, to know just how often we have deviated from the mottos that we emblaze on our banners. Our history of imperialism alone dispels the notion that we are the “most humane” of nations.

The myth of American exceptionalism?

Right. But going back to the other point, I think more gay people need to acknowledge that we have had a different experience growing up and therefore our relationships are somewhat different and our general stance on the world is much more ironic and anti-authoritarian than the mainstream, which believes wholeheartedly in church and state. For example, “camp” is essentially ironic, making fun of established pieties. There are many truths about mainstream America that the mainstream itself doesn’t recognize. What bothers me so much is that they’ll never recognize what it is that gay people have to contribute by way of special insight if we go on denying that we have any special insights.

What special insights do we have?

Insights into a host of values and institutions—gender, friendship, “family,” marriage, monogamy, etc. etc. I’m not very hopeful that more gay people will acknowledge, both to themselves and in general, that they’ve had special experiences and they may have special insights to contribute. I’m not very hopeful simply because life is short and hard. And what most people want is to feel reasonably comfortable in their environment, which means you go along with what seems to be most acceptable to the most people. You don’t want to constantly stand out, constantly contradict, and constantly be the outsider. You want to belong. I think assimilationism is what is going to proceed. I don’t think the Sarah Schulmans or the Martin Dubermans are going to win this battle.

Stonewall is a battle won. When you look back on your book Stonewall is there anything would you write differently? What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

I still deeply admire those who immediately stood up and fought back. I admire what originally, initially came afterward in terms of new organizations and new attitudes. I think it all quickly devolved into what I call liberal organizing rather than the original radical organizing. I mean the confrontations, the riots themselves were clearly radical. And The Gay Liberation Front was clearly radical. Then slowly we start the descent into assimilation as our sole concern. And I’m part of that. I don’t exclude myself.  I was on the original board of The Gay & Lesbian Task Force and I did have my doubts from the very beginning. I said, you know, what is this exactly?  I mean we seem to be working for acceptance on mainstream terms rather than working toward asserting our own specialness. I was uneasy, but I was very much a part of it.  So I’m well aware of the attractions of assimilation. I mean I’m essentially a middle class mainstream guy. That’s how I was brought up, in suburbia no less. My head is far more radical than my lifestyle.

Has age changed your point of view?

As I get older I get still more radical. Maybe groups like The Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign are all that one can hope for in a country as basically conservative as ours. If you look back at the history of social protest movements in this country, that’s what you see: social protest groups initiated by radicals that then quickly devolve into mere “liberalism”—at best. By “liberal” I mean those who believe we already have the finest set of institutions in the world and the only change needed is marginal. By contrast, “radicals” believe that inequality has become institutionalized and what is needed is a top-to-bottom renovation.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had as much energy for opposing the Vietnam War as he did for racial problems…

And for which he was widely denounced.

…but somehow then the next generation, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)…

SNCC was to the left of King but they self-destructed. Unlike so much of Western Europe, in this country we simply don’t have a sustained history of radical protest. We don’t even have a sustained history of powerful workers’ unions. Therefore, it’s very hard to believe that we’re going to have the kind of transformative politics needed.

And why would the LGBT movement be any different?

Exactly. No group has ever managed it. And I think the culprit here, and I say some of this in some of the essays in the Reader, is that most Americans continue to blame themselves for whatever it is in their own lives that they define as unsuccessful. They tell themselves that if they didn’t become “successful,” however they define it, they blame themselves, their own personal failings: “I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t get enough education, I deceived myself about where my gifts actually lay.” But they don’t blame “the system.”

Nothing larger than themselves can be held accountable?

Right. I think enormous suffering comes with that way of explaining the world. Citizens of Western European nations have managed to blame an aristocracy, a theocracy or a monarchy. If you can blame someone other than yourself at least you can tell yourself you didn’t get ahead because there were all these built-in obstacles. I wasn’t born into the right family, the right class, whatever.: “there’s no way somebody born into my circumstances would ever have gotten ahead. The economic obstacles, the institutional obstacles were simply too great.” But Americans don’t do that. They turn it all on themselves and their own failings.


Meeting Martin Duberman
His email reply to my interview request came quickly. True to form with all but one similar request of icon writers, he felt warm and unimpressed with himself in a refreshing way. He greeted me in his NYC Chelsea apartment and made us iced coffee from an earlier brewed pot.  Relaxed, he allowed time for us to gel before beginning our interview. He was attentive to my comfort in setting up a small electronic recording device.  An unnamed man came and went quietly through his living room as we talked.  I respect boundaries and didn’t inquire.  As we discussed his work, opinions, deeply held beliefs, he was quick in a non-defensive way to point out his own inconsistencies, but not at his own expense. He’s just an honest guy.

Photo Martin Duberman

Photo Credit: Donna Aceto

Frank Pizzoli photo

About: Frank Pizzoli

Frank Pizzoli is a writer, editor, and producer. His work has appeared in Lambda Book Report, White Crane Review, Instinct, POZ, Rivendell’s Q Syndicate and Press Pass Q, HIV Plus, AlterNet Syndication, Positively Aware, Body Positive, New York Blade News and Washington Blade. He is the publisher and editor of Central Voice newspaper and founder of nonprofit Positive Opportunities, Inc., a Points of Light Foundation award winner (2001).

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