Book Review: The Gay Revolution

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle. Lillian Faderman. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2015. 816 pp. $11.99 (Kindle). $27.63 (cloth). $20.00 (paper).

My grandfather Umberto loved opera. And he taught me to love opera. “This is YOUR music,” he would tell me after taking me to see Madame Butterfly. “Love it.”

And so, over my teen years I found that, unlike any of my peers, I actually did love opera. But as I grew older, my taste diverged from that of my grandfather. More contemporary operas embraced me with their magic. Both the San Francisco opera, in California where I used to live, and the Cincinnati opera, in Ohio, where I live now, offer some of these gems every year. From John Adams’ Nixon in China or A Flowering Tree, to Sir Michael Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage, or Alban Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck, I fell for the music of the modernist and post-modernist zeitgeist.

Here in Ohio, I often introduce friends to these “odd” operas by taking them to performances as my guest, as my grandfather once took me. Recently, the Cincinnati Opera premiered a new piece, Fellow Travelers, with exquisite music by Gregory Spears and a deft libretto by Greg Pierce. Set in Washington D.C. in the 1950s, the opera is about a gay man who comes to work in the State Department at the height of “the McCarthy Era.” Senator Joseph McCarthy is an actual character in the opera. The young gay man finds love, heartbreak, and betrayal. And familiar political memes from Communism to Richard Nixon thread themselves through often modal music, sounding sometimes like what many would identify as “sacred” music.

The friend who accompanied me is a student of music, a musician himself, a singer, and a composer. He is in his early twenties, one of the friendly baristas in my favorite café, but also a concert companion for unusual music. He was delighted to see “a musical premier.”

As we talked while driving home, however, I realized something that bewildered me. My friend and I had seen two entirely different operas. As a non-gay person, he spoke technically of intervals and harmonies. He mused on the musical quotations of John Adams’ percussive style throughout Spears’ score. I, on the other hand, a gay man of a certain generation, saw my very life on that stage — one of love, heartbreak, and betrayal. I wept frequently during the piece, moved by the interfused stories of the opera and my heart.

I praised the composer when I met him in the lobby afterward, for his music was gorgeous and moved me deeply. The deeper truth was that I could not much distinguish his troubadour-inspired music from my own emotion-elevated breathing. It was all of a piece.

Lillian Faderman’s book, The Gay Revolution, affected me in the same way. It wasn’t in any way like reading a biography of Channing, or of Queen Isabella Sforza of Transylvania. After all, I never met them. But I told my friend Doug that my shock upon reading this book was to note how many of the people in the book I had unexpectedly met in my remarkably fortunate decades as an adult: Harvey Milk in his camera shop; Troy Perry at a conference; Sally Gearhart at a funeral; Cleve Jones here in Ohio after a talk; Cecil Williams many times; Huey Newton, with whom I had sat many times at the Buttercup Café in Oakland sharing morning coffee; and Andrew Sullivan, a good friend of Doug whom I mentioned earlier. And, though I never met him, I sustained a moving email correspondence about “love” among gay male friends with Larry Kramer.

And of course, there was the Unitarian Universalist minister Steve Fritchman. When I read in Ms. Faderman’s book that he invited the homophile Mattachine Society to hold a large conference in the Los Angeles Church some 63 years ago, I raised my hand, exclaiming “Way- to-Go-Steve!” But it was my own memory that supplied the visuals: Steve’s bobbing, bald head, when he preached a downright side-splitting Installation Sermon for Peter Hans Christiansen in 1977.

So I found myself personally in The Gay Revolution, even as I found myself personally in the gay opera, Fellow Travelers. That opera portrays a page of my life, and this history portrays pages in my life. Both provide unique experiences for my heart. And, unlike any other history book I’ve read recently, I’ve lived within the context of this book. I have lived inside “the gay revolution” long before the book was written, as undoubtedly did the author, who was born in 1940. For example, I originally heard the story of the Stonewall uprising as oral history, a first-hand account from a man named Jerry in the San Francisco congregation. He had watched the whole thing from his window just across from the action…a play-by-play he told me with the vividness of an film-maker.

I also remember conversations with John Kyper, a New England Unitarian Universalist who spent some time in San Francisco and came to our church there. It was he, confirmed my Canadian gay and lesbian friends, who tried to bring print editions of Boston’s Gay Community News into Canada in his car and was banned from ever coming to that country again. Local GLBTQ folks in Canada, outraged, found in that embarrassing event the spur to help create, in that great nation, a more just society for sexual minorities—and to re-open the border to John.

There are other Unitarian Universalists mentioned in the book, although the word Universalist never actually appears. I cannot be sure if the author even knows much about UUs. Her way of talking about us suggests that she sees us as a capital C Church, a denomination of Christendom, not an Association of self-governing congregations without a common theology.

But even in a book of 800 pages, I was surprised to find any mention of us at all. We are religious small-fry in this majestic history. This is true of most religious institutions. There is no mention of Bill Johnson, a gay man ordained to the ministry in the United Church of Christ long before I was ordained. Although the Episcopal Church figures more prominently than we do, there is no mention of the late and in influential gay priest Malcolm Boyd, whom I met in 1979 the day before preaching a “coming out” sermon at the Mt. Diablo Church in Walnut Creek, California. After I told him what I was going to do the next day, he tenderly kissed me and laid his hands on my shoulders, to bless me in my task. A great encouragement to me.

Some religious organizations do appear throughout this book. On the positive side, there is the effective Council on Religion and the Homosexual. On the negative side, there are the loud protests against same-sex marriage offered by religious conservatives. But Unitarian Universalists are not major players in this book, and it is only at the hour of the same-gender marriage ruling by the Supreme Court that our presence in this history becomes more significant; even then, it is muted.

If we are not mentioned much, it may be because our attitudes toward same-sex realities of all kinds developed alongside those of other religious groups, and not far ahead of secular struggles. I am always amazed when folks who have only been part of our congregations since the 1990s imagine that our attitudes toward same-gender marriage, or ministry, were always open and affirming, all the way back to William Ellery Channing or Olympia Brown. This is not true. Even though Unitarians were not burdened with the millstone of an uncritical interpretation of Leviticus/Vayyiqra or the New Testament book of Romans, it was a several decades-long struggle for most of our congregations to accept gay or lesbian leadership, especially in the ministry.

After I had been turned down by several of our congregations, specifically for that stated reason, the Rev. Diane Miller, Interim Senior, invited me to be her Assistant Interim minister, since a congregational vote was not required. “You have to get your shoe in the door…this will be on your resume now. It can make a difference to search committees to see that you served well for almost two years.” It did. Bless Diane. And San Francisco, my first congregation, ordained me in 1979, with my partner at the time, Phil Porter, dancing joyfully on the chancel. I officiated at my first gay “union,” or marriage, as we say now, a month later.

But just as in society at large, the emergence of positive attitudes toward sexual minorities among UUs took some time and involved years of deliberate support from people we now call “allies” paving the way. Many colleagues, like Tom and Carolyn Owen-Towle, expressed their support early on. But institutionally, it began with Rev. David Pohl and Rev. Chuck Gaines, at “Headquarters” in Boston.  They took seriously the unhappy experiences of those of us folks searching for settlement at the very beginning of those years. We shared these unhappy experiences with each other first. We met on Sunday afternoons during football season, so we amused ourselves by calling ourselves The Fruit Bowl. Lucy Hitchcock, Charlie Kast, Barbara Pescan, Anne Tyndall, Anne Heller, Lindi Ramsden, and I were the mainstays, as I remember. Search committees that had interviewed us, and sent us packing explicitly for that reason, had asked frustrating questions: “Won’t calling you as our minister turn us into a gay church where the rest of us would feel uncomfortable?” or “That’s all you’ll really be talking about, right?” or “How can we possibly explain that you have a same-sex lover when our church hosts the interfaith Thanksgiving Service?” We decided to respond to these questions thoughtfully, despite our aggravation, and together, we crafted careful pastoral answers. Revs. Pohl and Gaines made sure a cleaned-up copy of our responses went out to all search committees in advance. It was an amazing and supportive thing to do. A small, but concrete step that ultimately led to affirmative programs.

These gestures of support, for the group of us wanting to serve in the Unitarian Universalist ministry, proved to be the small, hidden seeds that eventually blossomed into the open culture that we experience today, where many of our congregations delight in their lesbian or gay ministers, having called them without hesitation. There are still some hesitations about bisexual and transgender ministers, but even in cases such as these, there is notable progress.

The Gay Revolution made clear to me that what we did in our Association mostly paralleled what was going on in society. Small seeds planted, sometimes in very hard soil, eventually grew and produced the more accepting culture we now celebrate. Though the 2016 election results give me pause, I believe we must remain positive about what has been achieved.

We Unitarian Universalists were not leading the revolution by any means, but wrestling with these issues at the same time that progressives among Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, the Society of Friends, and Jews in the Reform, Humanist, and Reconstructionist traditions were engaged in the same process. I remember the jolt I felt when I read the progressive Methodist student publication, Motive Magazine, which offered the first religious writing to affirm homosexual realities in the church that I had encountered … back in 1971! We Unitarian Universalists had begun conducting gay weddings as far back as 1958, but this was done secretly (see Jeff Wilson, JUUH, vol. 35, pp.156-172). We eventually made faster, more universal progress, but we hardly left our fellow religious progressives in our dust. We practiced our principles, respecting the worth and dignity of every person, and we struggled to understand. As The Gay Revolution has made clear to me, it is the struggle that has made our gains real.

Ms. Faderman’s historical approach is to tell discrete stories about individuals in their local communities. Some of these people are well- known even to generalist historians—Harvey Milk and Del Martin, for example. Some of them, however, are unfamiliar, even to me, who studies this history often. The stories are remarkably balanced, featuring women and men, people of various ages and ethnicities, woven, story by story, into a majestic overview of the last seven decades.

In structure, Faderman’s book does not resemble any historical study I have read. She supports her storytelling with a collection of well-researched sources that are cited in the endnotes, which make up nearly a quarter of the volume. Her focus is sharp and close, so that the stories come across as intimate, like chamber music rather than the complex sweep of an opera. Each story she relates centers on one, or at most, two figures in the grand procession of years. As I read, I often felt as if I was in the room with someone mimeographing a newsletter, or protesting in front of the White House on a hot summer day long before the Stonewall event. The stories are all connected by the vector of a time-line, but each section could almost survive on its own. Certainly, I found her prose both clear and flowing, enjoyable to read for how she said things, as well as for what she said.

Some of Ms. Faderman’s statements proved to be at odds, however, with what I learned when I subsequently researched them. Her description of what the psychologist Albert Ellis said about homosexuality at a psychology conference differs from his own and other reports of the event. It is clear to me that Ellis, like so many others of his generation, saw same-gender attraction as pathological early on, changing his mind only later.
Its certainly possible he remembered the date of his transformation as having occurred earlier. But I do not think the incident is a clear as Ms. Faderman makes it.

In any case, it is clear that it took a lot of work, by a few courageous psychologists (one of whom hid his identity to protect his career,) to get the various professional associations to remove homosexuality from the category of psychological disease.

No history book is exhaustive. So its no surprise that some stories in this one are consigned to footnotes, like the contributions of Edythe Eyde (aka Lisa Ben, a clear anagram for lesbian). Lisa Ben gets a fuller treatment at an Instagram site, @lgbt history, which I found helpful on other occasions as I was reading this book. Despite Faderman’s editorial decisions, which I do not dispute, I was pleasantly surprised by how many stories of the struggle she did assemble into the pages of this volume.

What surprised me repeatedly was how so few people accomplished so much. Such people included brilliant professionals, like Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was foolishly fired by the government when his sexual orientation became known. Despite this blow, Kameny was indefatigable and single-handedly went on to accomplish what would seem like the work of ten. And though the Stonewall riot has now achieved mythic status—so that the name of the bar is enough to convey
the significance of the events that occurred there—Faderman rightly clarifies that it was the prior work of many small groups of folks, again and again confronting New York City of officials, that ultimately made the street rebellion so effective. Moreover, the thousand small steps that emerged after the riots led eventually to the second March on Washington in 1987 with 700,000 or so participating, according to police estimates.

One other thing I noticed as I read these stories was the extent of conflict and disagreement that marked the relationships between folks involved in the struggle. Many of these individuals, both women and men, did not particularly like each other, or they became easily irritated or resentful over strategies. Some, it seems, were ahead of others in their vision, or saw their needs differently, and conservatives chafed against those who appeared to be more radical. There has been similar conflict today. Resistance to same-sex marriage has not been confined to religious fundamentalists; some gay men and lesbian women continue to vocalize their distaste for the whole concept, and not for religious reasons. And, while some resist the idea of marriage due to philosophical objections, others maintain committed relationships, while refraining from legal marriage as part of a general trend in which marriage is seen as an unnecessary formality.

Faderman’s preface refers to the many identity labels that have been added to the titles, “gay,” or “gay and lesbian,” assumed by the Stonewall generation. She offers the most recent acronym LGBTQQIAAP, or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies and Pansexual. And though her book includes transgender episodes, Faderman points out that including the T in the acronym LGB was initially resisted by many gay men. Since this book was published, events such as the passage of anti-transgender rulings in North Carolina have raised new awareness of transgender issues. Finally, there is scant mention of the more fluid and ambiguous gender identities embodied particularly in the conversational lives of younger generations today. Faderman’s simple title, “gay revolution,” is based on her idea that while every generation prefers its own terms, ranging from the Sexual Invert of Havelock Ellis, to the Homosexual of nineteenth-century sexologists, “gay” endures as the tent that includes them all. Her argument for this is part of an ongoing conversation that may never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

In my last year in California, I saw another gay-themed opera: Harvey Milk. I had marched with 30,000 others on the evening after Milk’s death, so this opera was as emotionally charged for me as Fellow Travelers had been. The opera’s accurate portrayal of Milk’s political career, which concluded tragically with his assassination, is made more poignant by its opening. Harvey’s mother begins the opera by teaching him as a young boy about the light of Sabbath candles. The opera concludes, after Harvey drops from the bullets shot by Dan White, with his mother returning to the stage holding the Sabbath candles. She is followed by hundreds holding similar candles, a re-enactment of the original candlelight march in which I had participated long ago. At this point in the performance, I could not control my weeping. Then, when I left the theater to take the subway home, I was undone to see thousands of people holding candles, walking down Market Street outside the door of the opera theater. I had unconsciously chosen to see the opera on the anniversary of Milk’s death, when every year, that candlelight walk is performed as a ritual of honor and remembrance. All at once, I realized, with tears, that history, art, and my life were, to quote May Sarton, “wound and bound together, and enflowing.”

As I finished my first reading of Ms. Faderman’s beautifully written book, I found the power of those two operas echoing in her words and once again experienced that trilogy of history and art fused with my life. This book certainly won’t produce that feeling for every reader, as my barista friend made clear to me … but to sexual minorities of a certain generation, it probably will.

Rev. Dr. Mark Belletini
Minister Emeritus First Unitarian Universalist Church, Columbus OH

Mark Belletini

The Rev. Mark Belletini is minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio. He served as chair of the Hymnbook Resources Commission, which produced the 1993 UUA hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. He is the author of the 2008 UUA Meditation Manual, Sonata for Voice and Silence: Meditations and the pamphlet ​"Worship in UU Congregations;" and Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Colors of Grief (Skinner House, 2015).