Gay liberation changed Martin Duberman's life. In the 1960s, Duberman taught history at Princeton, hardly a bastion of radical thought. Yet he found himself invigorated by nascent counterculture movements and became a champion of the left, penning essays in The New York Times and serving as faculty advisor to the Princeton chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. At the same time, Duberman spent years in intensive psychotherapy in desperate attempts to "cure" his homosexuality. Soon after the emergence of the gay liberation movement, however, he rejected this homophobic vision and embraced a gay identity. His work also became queerer.
Over the years, he has written more than 20 books biographies, plays, memoirs, history texts, and a novel on a wide range of topics ranging from antislavery activism to the civil rights movement and Stonewall. His new book, Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985-2008 (The New Press 352 pages, $26.95), is a combination of diary entries and recollections from the Reagan years to the present. This latest work serves as a window into Duberman's activist and scholarly careers, as well as his critiques of the mainstreaming of the gay and lesbian movement.
SFBG We're approaching the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the symbolic event of early gay liberation, and I'm wondering if you think there's any of this liberationist spirit left in the gay movement.
Martin Duberman Well, I guess it depends on how you define liberationist. In the early days, gay liberationists were aware of a great many other ills in the society besides their own. Their own were real, and they were well aware of that. But there was a lot wrong, they felt, with the system, and their central goal was to challenge many of the established institutions and values. Today most LGBT people seem to think of themselves certainly they tell the mainstream as "just folks," except for this little matter of a separate sexual orientation. That they're patriotic Americans and they want the same things that everybody else wants, etc.
SFBG In Waiting to Land, you cover this assimilationist turn in the gay movement. You talk about the March on Washington in 1993 where gays in the military became the dominant issue. You also talk about Stonewall 25, which happened one year later in New York City, where one of the biggest fundraising events was held onboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, and where corporate sponsorship arguably overwhelmed any celebration of resistance, history, or culture. Has anything changed in the last 15 years?
MD The early '70s were still fueled by the countercultural movement of the '60s, and the early gay movement built on the insights and the demands of, say, the feminist movement or the antiwar movement. I mean there was so much going on in the '60s, and together it all amounted to a challenge to the so-called experts. There was an across-the-board challenging of many traditional views, so finally that began to seep down, or up whatever it is to us. That's the whole trouble, I think, with the assimilationist turn. It denies our own gay past and our culture and our politics. I mean, they're willing to throw all that away in order to make stronger the claim that we're just folks.
SFBG And do you feel like mainstream gay people have become more heterosexualized? I mean in that particular way of embracing long-term committed partnership, monogamy, or now even marriage, as the only type of love or intimacy that's valid?
MD Yeah. Once again, the banner of lifetime monogamous pair-bonding has been raised. Now some of that is the result of AIDS, in which people were scared to death, so they settled down into so-called permanent relationships. Not everybody.