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Linda Hirshman: Gay Rights On Road To 'Victory'


Now, we turn to the ongoing fight for civil rights for LGBT Americans. June is recognized by millions of Americans as Gay Pride Month and, for the first time ever, the Pentagon is holding a gay pride event today. It comes less than a year after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell", the policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Here's a clip of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Gay Pride Month message.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I want to personally thank all of our gay and lesbian service members, LGBT civilians and their families for their dedicated service to our country. I remain committed to removing as many barriers as possible to make America's military a model of equal opportunity.

MARTIN: This is an achievement, not just for gay Americans, but for all Americans, according to author Linda Hirshman. Her new book is titled "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love and Changed America for Everyone." In it, she writes that the decades-long battle for gay rights has changed how the nation treats culture, gender and family and she argues that those changes have benefited millions of Americans who are not part of the LGBT community.

Hirshman based this book on some 200 interviews with activists, reams of archival material and court documents and she's also a longtime scholar of social movements - other social movements, I should say, and she's with us now.

Linda Hirshman, thanks so much for joining us.

LINDA HIRSHMAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I just read the full title of the book and I'm not going to read it again, but I think some people might have heard that and say, whoa. There's "don't ask, don't tell" being repealed. Yes. Homosexuality decriminalized. Yes. But same-sex marriage is the law only in six states and the District of Columbia and, in every state where it's been put to a popular vote, it's lost. So is it really time to claim victory?

HIRSHMAN: Well, I don't say that it's mission accomplished. I was not thinking that some gay or lesbian activist would land on an aircraft carrier with a banner behind them that said, mission accomplished. But I think that a critical line has been crossed. I think that, absent some ghastly counter-revolution in America, the gay and lesbian rights are only going to roll forward.

So I think that the basic concept that gays and lesbians and transgendered and so forth people are going to be accepted as full and equal American citizens is now baked in the cake and it's just a question of how long it takes before it reaches its full realization.

MARTIN: And, you know, obviously, you wrote a whole book about this, but I wanted to ask if you could just name a couple of events in the gay rights movement, pivotal events that perhaps most Americans are not aware of yet.

HIRSHMAN: I would like to call attention to a communist - a recent ex-communist, Harry Hay, founded the Mattachine Society in California and that was the first time that someone self-consciously brought political consciousness to the gay community. It had always been a community and there had been individuals who were conscious of the political wrongdoing that was being done to them, but Harry Hay founding the Mattachine Society in 1950 was, to my mind, one of the most important events in the history of the gay revolution.

The other...

MARTIN: Oh, can I just stop you right there?


MARTIN: We actually have a clip of him.


MARTIN: Yeah. We have a clip of him from an interview from the early 1980s. It was for the show, "Our Time," and he was talking about, you know, his message to the straight world or the heterosexual world. Here it is.

HARRY HAY: I also can say to the hetero world, well, thank you very much. I have learned a lot of how to organize and how to reach people. You have taught me what it means to live as an outlaw in your society, legally, when I had been an outlaw sexually all my life, anyway.

MARTIN: Well, does that kind of capture him?

HIRSHMAN: It does sort of capture him. He was absolutely insurgent on behalf of gays and lesbians and you can hear the indignation in his voice at being an outlaw and he was the one who realized or made it manifest that the decision to outlaw gays and lesbians was a political decision. It wasn't a fact of nature. It was not the rule of God. It was a conscious political decision that the society made to make gays and lesbians an oppressed minority.

Harry Hay got that insight from his long training as a communist and he brought it to bear on the problem. He brought what we call oppositional consciousness to the community and that was crucial.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with author Linda Hirschman about her new book, "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution."

You said there was another important event that you wanted to talk about.

HIRSHMAN: I would like to remember on this day Franklin Kameny, who just died a year or so ago and who, in 1957, was fired from his job with the Army Mapping Service. He was an astrophysicist and, unlike the many, many gay and lesbian people who had been fired for being gay before and had just slunk away or even, in some terrible cases, killed themselves, Frank Kameny said, I'm going to sue you and make you give me back my job.

And he had been a soldier in World War II. He had fought for America. I believe it was in the European theater. He would be, if he were alive today, particularly gratified by the events at the Pentagon.

MARTIN: You make the provocative argument in the book that the gay rights movement has actually achieved more than the civil rights or the feminist movements and you said you're a student of all of these. I'd be interested to hear. Tell others why it is that you believe that.

HIRSHMAN: Well, I believe that because they had to come from further behind. They were considered crazy, subversive and disloyal by virtue of being gay or lesbian. Their very act of sexual congress, which defined them, sodomy, was criminal in all of the states in the union when they started the movement and they were considered sinful by the church.

So these are - I call it the four horsemen of the gay apocalypse. These are enormously heavy burdens for a social movement to carry because it means that you can't say to the larger society, as you heard in that Harry Hay clip, I'm like you.

Remember Martin Luther King, Jr. said it's not the color of our skin. It's the content of our character. That's a very powerful argument and it was one that the gay revolution could not claim for a long time.

MARTIN: Because, by definition, you are saying that the character of gay people was impugned as being...

HIRSHMAN: Exactly. They were criminals.

MARTIN: ...you know, depraved and so forth.


MARTIN: You know, but I think other people would make the argument that it may be very costly to hide or keep secret one's identity and that the fact that you can do so in a way you can't keep your race or gender - well, for the most part - hidden.

HIRSHMAN: It actually makes a movement harder because the more people can hide, the more they can free ride on the handful that are courageous enough to come out. Free riders - people who get the advantage of a social movement, but don't actually sacrifice for it - are a big problem for any movement and the cause. It made it actually easier.

MARTIN: Interesting. I hadn't thought about that. You know, finally, I did want to ask you about one of the pivotal pieces of your argument, the final clause in the title, how the gay rights movement changed America for everyone. How do you see the movement as having expanded the opportunities for people who don't identify as LGBT?

HIRSHMAN: You know, I think the Pentagon example is such a wonderful example and so timely today because, when President Clinton first suggested ending the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the military, one of the great sources of the resistance was that soldiers are, by definition, heterosexual, macho guys and the last thing that they were going to be willing to do was accept gays and lesbians into their midst.

And that model of what it means to serve America in the armed services was very, very hard on women, including straight women. People in the armed services before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell", used to sexually harass straight women and accuse them of being lesbians if they wouldn't put out for the guys that were harassing them. So that is a very good example of how the gay and lesbian movement actually made America better for everyone.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you mind if I out you as straight? And I wondered if your own identity as a heterosexual woman affected how you pitch this book or who you hope will read this book or - do you know what I mean?

HIRSHMAN: I am hoping that all Americans of good will read this book because this is a great American story. This is one of the three great social movements of the 20th and 21st centuries and it has too long been sort of the stepchild of social movement literature. I am hoping that people will - straight and gay - will read this book to learn how you build a successful social movement.

However, since the book came out, I have been quite touched by the large number of ordinary civilian - not activist, not famous - gay and lesbian readers have commented on the various websites about how meaningful it has been to them to hear their story told in full.

MARTIN: Linda Hirshman's new book is titled "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution" and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Professorr Hirshman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HIRSHMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.