Interview: Martin Duberman

Gay liberation changed Martin Duberman’s life. In the 1960s, Duberman taught history at Princeton, hardly a bastion of radical thought. Yet he found himself invigorated by nascent counterculture movements and became a champion of the left, penning essays in the Times and serving as faculty advisor to the Princeton chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. At the same time, Duberman spent years in intensive psychotherapy in desperate attempts to “cure” his homosexuality. Soon after the emergence of the gay liberation movement, however, he rejected this homophobic vision and embraced a gay identity. His work also became queerer.

Over the years, he has written more than 20 books — biographies, plays, memoirs, history texts, and a novel — on a wide range of topics ranging from antislavery activism to the civil rights movement and Stonewall. His new book, Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985-2008, is a combination of diary entries and recollections from the Reagan years to the present. This latest work serves as a window into Duberman’s activist and scholarly careers, as well as his critiques of the mainstreaming of the gay and lesbian movement.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: [We’ve just passed the] 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the symbolic event of early gay liberation, and I’m wondering if you think there’s any of this liberationist spirit left in the gay movement.

New Press / ISBN: 978-1595584403 Hardcover $26.95, 352 pp.

Martin Duberman: I guess it depends on how you define liberationist. In the early days, gay liberationists were aware of a great many other ills in the society besides their own. Their own were real, and they were well aware of that. But there was a lot wrong, they felt, with the system, and their central goal was to challenge many of the established institutions and values. Today most LGBT people seem to think of themselves, certainly they tell the mainstream that they’re “just folks,” except for this little matter of a separate sexual orientation. That they’re patriotic Americans and they want the same things that everybody else wants, etc.

MBS: In Waiting to Land, you cover this assimilationist turn in the gay movement. You talk about the March on Washington in 1993 where gays in the military became the dominant issue. You also talk about Stonewall 25, which happened one year later in New York City, where one of the biggest fundraising events was held onboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, and where corporate sponsorship arguably overwhelmed any celebration of resistance, history, or culture. I’m wondering what you think has changed in the last 15 years.

MD: The early ’70s were still fueled by the countercultural movement of the ’60s, and the early gay movement built on the insights and the demands of, say, the feminist movement or the antiwar movement. I mean there was so much going on in the ’60s, and together it all amounted to a challenge to the so-called experts. There was an across-the-board challenging of many traditional views, so finally that began to seep down, or up — whatever it is — to us. That’s the whole trouble, I think, with the assimilationist turn. It denies our own gay past and our culture and our politics. I mean, they’re willing to throw all that away in order to make stronger the claim that we’re just folks.

MBS: Do you feel like mainstream gay people have become more heterosexualized? I mean in that particular way of embracing long-term committed partnership, monogamy, or now even marriage, as the only type of love or intimacy that’s valid?

: Once again, the banner of lifetime monogamous pair-bonding has been raised. Now some of that is the result of AIDS, in which people were scared to death, so they settled down into so-called permanent relationships. Not everybody. But many more than had done so in the ’70s.

MBS:When you talk about AIDS in Waiting to Land, it punctures the style of your writing. You’ll be writing something that’s more ruminative, and then you’ll have three or four sentences about a friend who died or a series of friends who died, and then you go back into your thoughts about something outside of that.

: I think that’s right. It’s why I put that subtitle in. I say “mostly political,” because when it came to the death of friends, I did talk about my personal feelings, and my sadness, whereas most of the time in Waiting to Land I’m talking about external events or public policies.

MBS: I’m wondering about the gay sensibility you invoke — I wonder if you think that that particular sensibility is no longer apparent in a gay identity that has become more about imitating heterosexual norms, as much as in a queer identity that exists across gender and sexual identities — identity as starting point rather than identity as end point.

MD: I think part of this queer sensibility, we have a very ironic stance on the world and especially in regard to so-called established truth, with a capital “T.” We’re skeptical, we’re much more likely to challenge than to accept whatever is accepted as universally true. And I think that’s an important ingredient.

MBS: Do you think the mainstreaming of the gay movement has made it possible to see that sensibility as something chosen rather than as something innate? Like maybe that’s a window of opportunity in a certain way, in the sense that perhaps in earlier times, before this assimilationist stranglehold on popular representations of what it means to be gay, before then people felt united in that commonality of an outsider status…

MD: I think so, yes.

MBS: Do you think that now that that outsider status is pushed to the margins, maybe one hopeful sign is that then on the margins that outsider status can be more chosen. Does that make sense or does that sound circular?

MD: I’m not sure. It isn’t so much chosen as it’s an accumulation of experience and the more people act assimilationist, the more they’re denying their own rich and anarchic fantasies and impulses. They try more and more to oppress all of that and to behave “like everybody else.”

MBS: You yourself have played a role as both an insider and outsider in a variety of realms. In Waiting to Land, you deliver scathing critiques of the rigid hierarchies and competitive structures of academia. You talk about the homophobia of the straight left, and you talk about the limited agenda of the gay mainstream. You talk about the exclusiveness of establishment theatre and mainstream media. Yet you’ve also worked inside all these structures. So I’m wondering how these institutions have formed your politics and how you’ve helped to form or transform these institutions.

MD: [W.E.B.] Du Bois, the great African American leader, once said something — I think he called it double vision. He said that although he had had a superb education and was accepted by mainstream whites, nonetheless he felt he was a spy in the culture, a spy who was bringing the news about the mainstream back to his own people. And on one level, I have had a very easy time passing — I went to very good schools, I was on the tennis team in high school, etc. Nobody, I think, or very few people, guessed that I was in fact homosexual, and I did my best to play along with that. I was very career-oriented, I was very competitive — I always wanted to be first in my class, win the best prize for an essay, and that’s where most of my energy went throughout my 20s. But then once the counterculture began, I sort of leapt on it. I was immediately sympathetic, and I wrote lots of essays during the ’60s in which I was very strongly on the side of the New Left. And then it took a while longer after that before I realized that of course the same applies to being gay.

MBS: In terms of your role as both insider and outsider, do you feel that that’s helped you to develop stronger critiques of all those institutions, whether on the straight left, in the gay mainstream, or in establishment theater and media?

MD: I think so, because I knew the inner workings of many of these mainstream institutions, and so I was able to see the falsity of many of the attitudes, especially toward people who are not middle-class whites. White men, I should say.

MBS: One thing you’ve tried very deliberately throughout your career, whether as a writer, an academic, or an activist, is to build movement ties across lines of class, race, gender, and age. In the new book, you talk about trying to bring an awareness of queer and feminist issues into the straight left, and an awareness of race and class into the gay mainstream — and feeling mostly like you’ve failed.

MD: I think it’s because the mainstream left is no more receptive — they all claim that, “well of course we believe you people should have your rights, and of course we’re tolerant of your lifestyle.” But when it comes right down to it, you cannot get them to hang around long enough to listen to the ways in which queer values and perspectives might inform their own lives. They don’t believe that for a second. And that hasn’t changed at all. At least, if it has changed, I haven’t seen it.

MBS: What about in terms of the other side of the equation? With the dominant agendas of the big gay institutions centering on marriage, military service, ordination into the priesthood, adoption, and unquestioning gentrification and consumerism, do you think that those particular focuses prevent a deeper analysis of structural issues of racism and classism?

MD: Well, of course they do. Mainstream America is still further behind the gay movement in dealing with any of those issues. So when you’re bending your energy to turning into the mainstream, you’re simultaneously burying your awareness of the class and racial and economic divisions that continue to characterize our country.

MBS: You end this book by saying, “I keep hoping for a place to land, a sustainable community. The dream, improbable though it is, persists.” I wonder, what do you think makes this dream so illusive?

MD: Because most adults are so familiar with their own coping mechanisms that they have developed from childhood on, that have allowed most of them to survive even if not prosper.  They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want to change the patterns of their lives, and often they block out, in order to continue to go on, they block out their own despair about how bad their lives in fact are, and how much better they might be if they ended the denial and joined protest groups who are trying to make things better.  I mean, all that utopianism means to me at least, is you know things can be better for a greater number of people. The evidence is clear-cut and overwhelming and therefore you should devote at least part of your life to trying to make things better. I mean, Horace Mann, the educator, had a wonderful line that has always stuck in my head: “Be ashamed to die unless you’ve won some victory for humanity.”

MBS: To make that question a little more personal, for you who have made a point to challenge these hierarchies and open up space for other people, what do you think also makes that dream of a sustainable community not an actuality?

MD: Didn’t I just answer that?

MBS: You answered it more broadly, I think, but not personally. You answered it broadly in terms of what are the acts that one could do in order to feel more accountable and more participatory in a liberatory process but those are all things you’ve done and yet you still say at the end of the book that you don’t feel like you have that place to land.

MD: Both of which are true. I don’t have that place to land, still, because there aren’t any such places to land. God knows I’ve tried. I mean for a while in CLAGS [Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY, which Duberman helped to create] I felt I had found a home with congenial people who shared common interests.  But all that became fairly explosive, which is true of any gay organization or any organization probably, so you know, the kind of community I would like to live in is not a gated one, you can find plenty of those, but something quite different. I mean there is a newish movement to establish gay retirement homes but I don’t like the segregated factor of that. I don’t like a community being only for gay men or only for lesbians. The two not intermingling nor inviting in heterosexuals who may indeed share their values and their social goals.

MBS: Are you saying it’s the gated nature of these communities that prevents the possibility for having a broader sustainable place to land for people with utopian visions?

MD: In essence, yes. The element of segregation, hanging around only with one’s very own, the people one feels most comfortable with, I don’t think is the path to growth and change.


Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author, most recently, of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly and the editor of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity and an expanded second edition of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.