Victory : The Triumphant Gay Revolution
How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love and Changed America for Everyone
By Linda Hirshman
Hardcover, 443 pages, $27.99
Linda Hirshman’s “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution” threads the legal milestones of the gay civil rights movement from being an oppressed and outlawed citizenry to the self-defining, diverse coalition it is today. Hirshman, author of “Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World,” is a lawyer with a PhD in philosophy. She admits, in her introduction to the book, some doubts: as a heterosexual woman, to write this history. But, outside of a few lawyerly rhetorical excesses, she writes with comprehensive authority and conviction.
The work tracks the story from personal journals of gays in the early part of the 20th century to the passage of marriage equality in New York in 2011. From the human side of single acts of defiance by gay men and women to the legal DNA of landmark cases, Hirshman is expansive in scope. She dissects such benchmarks as activist Frank Kameny’s suit again the U.S. government for his dishonorable discharge from the Navy in the 1950s, which he initially lost, but in his challenge to the status quo, the book disseminates the implications moving forward.
Hirshman details such historic Supreme Court decisions as Romer v. Colorado, where it determined that gays cannot be excluded from being a recognized class who can petition the court. The morbidly homophobic Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) that upheld sodomy laws and its repudiation in the Lawrence v. Texas (2003) decision that led to the abolishment of sodomy laws. Occasionally, Hirshman can go off on legalese that reads like summations and be abstract to the lay reader.
In her chapter called “Red in Bed,” so much is happening in the post WWII era with gay subcultures forming urban eras, and Hirshman details events outside of the well-known history of the Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis and other pre-Stonewall groups. In addition to luminaries like Mattachine founder Harry Hay, Hirshman profiles unsung heroes like Jose Sarria, a waiter and drag performer who ran for San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961.
Many gays were working on their rights by being involved in the black civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements, and there is deft cross-referencing in the chapter about the 60s activism. Hirshman’s chapter on the Stonewall riots busts through some of the mythmaking, after so many contrasting accounts. It is concise and otherwise full of streetwise veracity.
As technical as Hirshman is on the legal politics, she writes with both political passion and emotional restraint about such real life tragedies like the Matthew Shepard murder in Laramie, Wyo. Meanwhile she can easily distill the inner workings of beltway politics as they played out, for instance, during the debacle of Clinton’s DADT policies and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). She gets inside the political hubris of an ostensibly pro-gay President Clinton, who buckled under the backlash from the rabid right wing, which was systematically taking over the Republican Party.
“Victory” is very much about a rights movement as an intractable new order that confronts core Constitutional issues of individual freedoms and the rights of anyone being defined by others as an excluded class. It is also the history of the antigay movement, more pronounced now because their powers of specious oppression and are being stripped away by the courts, if not the legislatures. Indeed, institutional homophobia is weaved into Americana and, as Hirshman confirms, the many fights have just started. For this reason alone, this is vital legal analysis and a survival guide for all GLBTQ Americans and their still-evolving rights movement.