A few years ago, I had the great honor of meeting writer and activist Lillian Faderman at a talk she was giving about the struggles of gay rights from the mid twentieth century to the landmark Obergefell versus Hodges decision of 2015. She would also be signing copies of her new work, The Gay Revolution, which I was hesitant to grab at the time.
I was taken by her unyielding passion, poise, and the emotional quality of a speech that gave the audience some sense of the prosodist in their midst. It was clear that her scholarship and knowledge in the arena she has chosen would be nothing less than encyclopedic. Nevertheless, I did not pick up the book she was promoting at the time, but instead, chose a volume that was more in-line with the area of study with which I was then involved.
Several weeks ago, I decided I’d finally pick up The Gay Revolution: The Story of The Struggle in print as well as on audiobook given its near eight hundred pages of text, worrying that I would need to adjust my habits and patterns to accommodate such a tome. I need not have worried. While the book is quite exhaustive, it never becomes uninteresting. It is a study of the struggle, divided in parts, and each part is independent of the other. This makes the book unique in that you are able to skip around without losing the thread of the narrative. I have found this quality to be both rare and surprising – and truly quite a feat.Tweet for #TheResistanceClick To Tweet
Many sections of the book stand out to me as a noted achievement in holding my attention. The first, of no surprise, is the story of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambassador to Cuba, Sumner Welles was accused of soliciting sex one drunken night from a porter on a Pullman car during a long train ride. Faderman illustrates in this chapter how FDR took great pains along with J. Edgar Hoover to cover up the story, believing the best of their long-time friend and successful ambassador, to bury the story in the way that only history’s politicians could manage. She recounts how FDR’s advisor, William Bullitt, a homophobic man with a vengeful bent took up the cause with the president only to be summarily dismissed. Bullitt then took his case to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who was more in agreement with him, and more likely to write Welles off as a criminal needing to be removed from his position with the state. When they involved Senator Owen Brewster of Maine, FDR was forced to ask his friend to resign, but not without FDR getting his own small piece of revenge against Bullitt. When Bullitt was contemplating a run for mayor of Philadelphia, FDR withheld his endorsement, telling Bullitt;
“If I were the angel Gabriel, and you and Sumner Welles should come before me seeking admission into the Gates of Heaven, do you know what I’d say? I would say ‘Bill Bullitt, you have defamed the name of a man who toiled for his fellow man, and you can go to hell.’ And that’s what I tell you to do now!”
Faderman flawlessly sews this juicy quote into a larger picture of how the homosexual witch hunts led by Harry Truman saw their start. At every turn in this work, she sinks in these little shots of victory before it feels like the rug is pulled from beneath you. She speaks of the Mattachine Society near-successfully arguing a case against a Los Angeles police officer while trying to trap a man into a solicitation charge, right before she writes about how this led to courts across the state cracking down on homosexual activity, deeming gays and lesbians ipso facto criminals based on nothing more than sexual habits. She talks about how gays and lesbians in Philadelphia ran a successful leaflet campaign and sit-in against a coffee shop that had refused to serve gay teens. After this tidbit, she remarks on the dearth of coverage of the large and meaningful event. No large media covered it, it was as if the teens did not matter at all.
I believe this sort of authorial legerdemain has me so intrigued because it so accurately mimics the course of history, indeed, especially the history of social movements like the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements. There are these bright flashes of buoyant progress – a moment in time where it seems as though a leap has been made – followed by a fall backwards, be it steep or shallow, it smacks of a course correction foisted upon the determination of the righteous. Marriage equality may be the law of the land, but the president terrifies a contingent of soldiers in a burst of furious tweets, creating a fictitious narrative bemoaning cost and oversight to hide his hatred of other and the strings that pull his limbs and hand that operates his mouth.
Thankfully, though, as Faderman closes her epic, the truth is, the tides, once set in motion, cannot be sent back; “the arc of the moral universe has been trending toward justice.” It is our duty as truth tellers and the moral majority to continue to follow this arc to its conclusion, which is nothing less that full, first-class citizenship for all who identify as LGBT.