Magazine article The American Prospect

It Didn't Start with Stonewall: A New History Deepens Our Understanding of the Origins of the Gay Rights Movement and the Transformation It Has Brought About

Magazine article The American Prospect

It Didn't Start with Stonewall: A New History Deepens Our Understanding of the Origins of the Gay Rights Movement and the Transformation It Has Brought About

Article excerpt



Simon & Schuster


Lillian Faderman's The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle begins with the late-1940s story of E.K. Johnston, a beloved professor at the University of Missouri who was considered a likely candidate to take over as college president. But everything changed when his name came up in the kind of police interrogation common in the day: one homosexual bullied into giving names, and those people intimidated into giving more names.

On no other evidence, Johnston was arrested, smeared in the media, fired from the university, and threatened with jail. Hoping for mercy, he pleaded guilty, and received a fine and a sentence of four years' probation. A condition of his probation: "cessation of all homosexual practices."

In an epilogue some 650 pages later, Faderman squeezes in a going-to-print mention of the Supreme Court's June 26, 2015, ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land nationwide.

In the riveting intervening pages, The Gay Revolution tells story after story of lives destroyed by anti-gay prejudice brutally enforced by societal and governmental institutions--and of individuals-turned-activists who fought to win recognition for the sanity, dignity, and citizenship rights of LGBT people by taking on what early Mattachine Society activist Dorr Legg called the "Four Horsemen of the Gay Apocalypse": the social, the scientific, the religious, and the legal.

At the end of the prologue, Faderman recounts the 2012 ceremony in which Army Colonel Tammy Smith was promoted to brigadier general. Following tradition, the stars were pinned to each epaulet by two individuals most important to her. One was her father; the other, not so traditionally, was her spouse, who was also a woman. Writes Faderman:

   What long-fought battles, tragic
   losses, and hard-won triumphs
   have brought us as a country
   from the days when a much loved
   and gifted professor could be
   disgraced, thrown in jail, and
   hounded out of his profession
   as soon as his private life was
   revealed, to the days when a
   military officer could marry the
   woman she loves in broad daylight
   and be promoted, in a very
   public ceremony, to the rank of
   general with her wife by her side?

It is these battles--with enemies and sometimes between allies--tragic losses, and hard-won triumphs that make Faderman's book compelling reading. Drawing on years of archival research and more than 150 interviews, Faderman tells this history of social and political change through the experiences of individual people, those who found themselves in trouble and those who dedicated themselves to making constructive trouble on behalf of the rights and dignity of LGBT people.

For LGBT people not familiar with their own history, the book is an essential reminder that progress was not inevitable or easily won. The struggle for social respect and legal equality began in earnest more than 50 years ago, and was built on even earlier acts of courageous resistance.

One crucial early battle was waged through much of the 1950s by the publisher of One magazine, whose attorneys challenged a series of rulings from the Post Office that articles about homosexuals were by definition "obscene, lewd, lascivious, and filthy." The 1958 Supreme Court ruling that the topic of homosexuality was itself not obscene, and that the Post Office had no right to confiscate copies of the magazine, "made a remarkable social statement, tacit as it was," Faderman writes. "Homosexuality was not unspeakable."

But it was cause enough for all kinds of persecution.

Faderman describes the earlier case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's trusted aide Sumner Welles, whose drunken proposition of railroad train porters in 1940 was used by his political enemies to engineer his downfall. …

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