This article was originally published in March 1993 and has recently been converted into HTML text format in 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors.
Readers who want to defend and advance the gay and lesbian rights movement will find these three recent books particularly helpful. They document the conditions under which lesbians and gay men struggle for liberation. To read about those conditions and the struggle to overcome them evokes echoes of the movements of other despised and oppressed people. The gay and lesbian liberation movement began with a change of self-image. All three books argue that gay pride is the spark that unlocked the anger and courage necessary to build a movement.
But a stronger theme is that violence directed at gay men and lesbians has terrorized their lives and remains a constant threat today. It is painful to read account after account of verbal threats, harassment, gay bashing, and murder—all still sometimes either condoned or ignored by the police and the courts. It is chilling to relive the 1978 murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk, and to be reminded that those murders occurred soon after the electoral defeat of the anti-gay Briggs Amendment in California. Fifteen years later, more anti-gay initiatives appeal to the voters’ meanest instincts. And in spite of enormous progress made by the gay rights movement since 1978, passionate and violent homophobia still makes gay people the group most often victimized by hate crimes.
Then there is the discrimination, the exclusion, and the double standards that lesbians and gay men face daily within the legal system. Housing and employment discrimination have been taken on by the gay rights movement, but reforms have been piecemeal. The recent uproar over President Clinton’s attempt to legalize the presence of gays in the military reveals the fragility of these reforms. In the attempts of lesbians and gay men to achieve legal recognition for their families, each slight advance is followed by backlash and retreat. Lesbians are still losing custody of their children, and the 1986 Hardwick Supreme Court decision, upholding the right of states to outlaw the private practice of homosexual sodomy, is still the law of the land.
The role played by the Right Wing, especially the Christian Right, in promoting homophobia is a crucial part of the history of the lesbian and gay rights movement. We look forward to the day when a well-researched book devoted specifically to that topic can be featured in The Public Eye’s book review section.
Margaret Cruikshank’s The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement is one of a series edited by Roger S. Gottlieb called Revolutionary Thought/Radical Movements. Cruikshank’s excellent account of the movement is more than a dry historical narration. Designed for students who know little of the movement’s history, it captures its complexity, including the oppression that led to the 1969 Stonewall riot, the spirit that created the movement, and the homophobia that prevents gays, lesbians and bisexuals from living as equal citizens.
One strength of the book is its subtle marriage of an objective academic style with the author’s self-confessed point of view. An important advantage of Cruikshank’s point of view as a woman is that the book gives lesbians a full role in the history of the movement and appreciates the conditions of invisibility and patriarchal dominance that they face. Another strength is Cruikshank’s willingness to take on sex and sexuality in a sensible discussion that begins from the premise that “gay sex is just sex.” All this is done in an easy-reading style that makes the book accessible and useful to anyone interested in a comprehensive overview of the gay rights movement.
Ironically, its accessibility is also the source of one weakness. Cruikshank draws much of her information from the gay press, and is careful to footnote her sources within the body of the text. Too often, however, the underlying source is not noted. One example is a discussion of a Justice Department report that was ignored by the Reagan administration. The footnote gives the source of this story in the gay press, but not the name of the report. This sort of oversight limits the book’s usefulness for those who want to conduct further research, even though there is such poor coverage of gay and lesbian news events in the mainstream media that anecdotes, oral accounts, and letters to the editor are often the only sources of in formation .
Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men is a dissertation-turned-book on the subject of physical violence. Gary Comstock’s research is exhaustive and meticulous, no small feat when hard data is so sparse and studies are difficult to compare because data collection is new and uncoordinated. Comstock has made an important addition to that data with his own study, which when combined with the other data he reviewed, allows him to reach conclusions and make generalizations.
Some of Comstock’s most disheartening findings are that anti-gay violence is unusually brutal, especially in the case of murder, that lesbians of color and gay men of color suffer more violence than others, and that perpetrators are often “just average kids” who are engaging in a kind of socially sanctioned “sport.” Adventure, excitement, and the relief of boredom seem the primary motivations of young attackers; older attackers seem more often to be defending their place in a social order that condemns homosexuality.
In his analysis, Comstock points to gender role socialization as the principal cause of teenage gay bashing. Because young men are encouraged to show skills in dominance and violence at the very time that they lack any real power, conditions are ripe for “mastery” to be shown through violence against vulnerable victims, such as marginalized gays. In the case of older perpetrators, Comstock speculates that, ironically, the success of gay men and lesbians is what infuriates their attackers, who see the lesbian or gay man as a threat to their own status.
In a closing chapter that strays from the dissertation mold, Comstock attempts to draw parallels between the context of the condemnation of homosexuality found in the book of Leviticus and the context of contemporary gay bashing. His prescription for tolerance and support for lesbians and gay men by organized religion is a plaintive call for Christians and Jews to heed the ethical norm of the Exodus story—to see those least favored socially as those most deserving deliverance from slavery to freedom.
Ruthann Robson’s Lesbian (Out)law: Survival Under the Rule of Law is a provocative cry of resistance from within the legal system. A lawyer and law school professor, she is nonetheless a lesbian first and foremost. She is a woman trying to serve both the rule of law, which she clearly respects on an intellectual level, and her commitment to the survival of her community-lesbians. The two goals often seem mutually exclusive, and the reader watches with great sympathy as the tortured twists required to humanize the practice of the law turn back upon them selves in an attempt to force a square peg into a round hole. For women who have been “domesticated” by their professional training, yet have nor been stripped of deep political and emotional commitments to fairness, kindness, and equity, this book will strike a chord. This conflict between the search for a good society and the distrust of society felt by members of an outcast group is often at the heart of identity politics.
Robson is neither a radical lesbian who embraces separatism, nor a liberal lesbian who wants to work in coalition, with feminists. She is trying to find a third path—a legal theory that puts lesbians first, at the center of the law. She knows that in many cases the rule of law can be turned to the service of lesbians, but that more often it is the instrument of their persecution or prosecution. She wants to create a rule of law that cannot be used that way.
It is clear throughout the book that Robson’s political commitments are broad. She has put her career in the service of those less advantaged. The absence of explicit discussions of class and race, however, needlessly deprive the book of a richness and complexity that would have raised the level of its discourse.