The Hope of Homosexual Life
Gay rights demonstration at the Democratic National Convention, New York City, 1976. Image via.
“Most of us internalized the going cultural definition of who we were — sick, criminal, deformed, psychiatrically disturbed. Whatever the terminology, it was always negative. I don’t think people growing up today, at least in the big cities, are aware of how much that kind of steady treatment damages you. Even after the progress we’ve seen, people who grew up in the ’50s and the ’60s — we are a pretty damaged bunch.”
The first therapist he saw, in 1955, confirmed for him “the hopelessness of homosexual life” and also “managed to underscore all my pre-existing doubts about my — or any homosexual’s — capacity for love and commitment.” Cures tracks [Martin] Duberman’s personal struggles, and his professional successes, alongside psychiatry’s slow move away from branding homosexuality as a pathology, and also alongside such cultural mileposts as the 1968 New York production of The Boys in the Band — to which Duberman gave a negative notice in Partisan Review because, he recounts in the book, the play might “help to confirm homosexuals in the belief that theirs is merely a different not a lesser way.” The review, he notes, “amounted to nothing less than a ferocious attack on my own humanity.”
Writing Cures, Duberman says now, helped him relive such searing moments “and get rid of at least some of the detritus which continued to haunt my life from having been brainwashed by the culture about how sick I was.” The book made an impression on many others as well. “Whenever I am trying to explain to someone why we have a resistance to using the word homosexual, I send them to Marty’s book,” says Warner, the Yale English professor. “If you tell people now, as we often do in the wake of Foucault, that the word homosexual is a kind of pathologizing, clinical, medicalizing term, they hear that as a kind of abstract point. They say, Doesn’t it mean what we want it to mean? Then you send them to the history of people who were treated as patients and thought of themselves as patients because of the force of this word, and it’s very gripping. It brings that abstract point home to the experience of someone who had to go through that torturous attempt at a cure.”
It’s been a dozen years since Duberman retired from teaching, and he says he’s stopped following scholarly discourse as closely as he once did. But he remains deeply interested in the broader political conversation. One of his new books takes on LGBTQ advocacy groups, in particular the Human Rights Campaign. Has the Gay Movement Failed? begins by recalling the sweeping, idealistic goals of the 1960s Gay Liberation Front, which, he writes, sounded “a messianic note when discussing the need to wholly transform society rather than pleading for unconditional admittance to it.” The front’s members, he notes, thought of it “as part of the broader movement for social change then convulsing the country and typified by the antiwar, black, feminist, indigenous, and New Left protests.”
Duberman goes on to ask questions that tend to stick in one’s brain — particularly, perhaps, if one is old enough to remember the 1960s: “How is it that the GLF’s radical agenda morphed, more than 40 years later, into a movement that stresses above all else the importance of the right to marriage — and secondarily to participation on equal terms in killing our country’s enemies?” The Human Rights Campaign, he writes derisively, proved itself “ready and eager to lead the battered and besmirched gay community out of the wilderness and into the Eden of white picket fences and the miracle of monogamy.” Meanwhile, he notes, 45 percent of straight marriages end in divorce.