When Charles Kaiser’s pioneering account of American gay history was first published, in 1997, the future for LGBT people (the Q hadn’t quite arrived) remained deeply uncertain.
The liberation narrative that arose out of the events of Stonewall in 1969 had been tragically halted by the HIV/Aids epidemic in the 1980s. Whatever social and institutional acceptance might have been won in the heady days of the 70s was swiftly challenged, even reversed. The project of gay lib, indebted to America’s other civil rights movements, was on shaky ground. Yet one of the pleasures in reading Kaiser – a Guardian contributor – is that he, like other liberal progressives of his generation, is an optimist. He continued to see promise in tomorrow.
The new edition, revised and expanded, continues the story to around 2016 and, as before, Kaiser remains hopeful for the future. “I am alive,” he writes, “at the best time to be gay since Aristotle.”
I finished reading the revised edition, as I did the first, with real encouragement. That is no mean feat since in 1997 we were still living under the shadow of Aids and in 2019 we are living through the dark realities of the Trump administration. For Kaiser, progress often gets impeded but it wins out in the end. That is largely due to the strident and indefatigable efforts of people who insist on social change in the face of staggering odds. These people, often young, are the heroes of Kaiser’s story, documented lovingly throughout his sweeping account.
The concluding pages of the chapter on the 1990s show the ways Kaiser keeps faith with a progressive narrative of America’s best self. Firstly, in 1995 and 1996, the arrival of antiretroviral drugs or “combination therapy” dramatically slowed the progress of HIV and suggested that a “cure” would eventually be found. We might one day awake from the nightmare of Aids, it suddenly seemed.
Secondly, in the landmark 1996 case Romer v Evans, the supreme court overturned Colorado’s attempt to forbid the protection of gay people from discrimination. These two events suggested that a corner might have been turned, leading away from the darkest moments of Reagan’s deeply discriminatory 1980s.
I doubt even a great optimist like Kaiser could have imagined the extraordinary changes around gender and sexuality that have taken place since.
I doubt even a great optimist like Kaiser could have imagined the extraordinary changes that have taken place
“At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, gay progress continued with a dazzling velocity,” he writes, and “politics and culture created an alchemy whose effect were nearly as powerful as the fusion of the 1960s.” (I suspect nothing will ever top the 60s for Kaiser, who came of age in that decade, and that’s fair enough.)
In the past couple of decades, civil partnerships and marriage between same-sex couples have helped bend the norms of straight, civic society. Popular culture seems to get gayer all the time, from the triumph of Will and Grace to Moonlight, and representation in the mainstream is nothing like the lack it once was. In 2019, we have a plausible, openly gay candidate for president.
Perhaps ironically, we are now at a point when the triumph of identity politics has even led to a dismantling of the idea of “identity” itself. A generation of “queer” youth don’t feel the same need to label themselves or organize politically around “gay” or “lesbian”. Indeed, you could argue that the most pressing and urgent debates around gender and sexuality are connected not to gay and lesbian rights but to trans rights and the complicated, challenging questions that arise from trans politics.
When I read Kaiser’s book first time round, I was struck by its erudition, elegance and pacey narrative. The overlapping discussions of well-known and less well-known players in the history of gay liberation are skillfully integrated into broader changes in post-war America. The book was among the first accounts that sought to provide an extended history of gay life (admittedly mostly male) before and after Stonewall. And while the focus is mostly New York, the “gay metropolis” of the title, the book offered much more than a local history.
These features continue to impress and the book has not only survived but remains one of the key popular studies of American social history. Fundamentally, Kaiser’s story is one of ever-forward marching, in which the majority of the country is comprised of people he calls “decent Americans”, people he respects who end up doing the right thing.
The “gay metropolis” is now less literal and more figurative, now encompassing “cities, towns and villages across the world, where every iteration of sexual outsider and gender original has found the courage and dignity to be free.” The “gay metropolis” is not so much a specific place as a state of mind and being, something like a global metropolis of progressive possibility.
Kaiser ends the expanded version with the Obamas, contemporary America’s most potent symbols of progressive hope. But they are no longer in power and their message of hope has been replaced by fear, exclusion, hatred and ignorance. Unfortunately, Kaiser doesn’t really take on Trump and the shift from a forward-moving to a backward-looking political reality. That’s a shame because he is such a sharp political observer.
I expect he might see Trump as a striking aberration in the American story of progress. If gay people can survive Aids, then they can survive Trump, the hopeful logic might run.
More to the point, Kaiser invests a great deal of faith in America’s youth, out of whom new movements for change necessarily grow. It may be in our “queer” youth, rather than our “gay” youth, that the route out of Trump’s deep morass can be found.
Mark Turner is professor of English at King’s College London, where he teaches and writes about queer culture