Has the Gay Movement Failed?

by Onyx, July 4, 2020

Published in 2018, Martin Duberman has created in "Has the Gay Movement Failed"? an elegant and biting historical critique of the mainstream national gay rights movement. Situating himself in the perspective of the radical "Gay Liberation Front" (GLF) that emerged right after Stonewall, Duberman lays out the sharp differences between the movement’s earlier liberationist agenda versus its contemporary assimilationist platform. He takes a measured and nuanced approach, and keeps an even tone except when he’s hilarious, frank about his personal feelings, and incisive in his criticism.

Now why should this book be of interest to boylovers? I argue that, along with directly addressing B.L. themes, Duberman’s work helps lay a foundation on which to build an effective B.L. agenda.

Duberman’s main tack is to remind his readers of the broad, inclusive, intersectional, and radical politics of the early gay liberation movement, and call the national mainstream organizations to account for failing to live up to that vision. He addresses the conflicts between the gay movement, the Black Panthers, the Cuban revolutionaries, the Young Lords, and the straight feminists. He addresses lesbian separatism, psychiatry and brain science, global cultural practices of homosexuality, the question of “origins,” and what a truly liberated society could look like.

His book also includes a section on “age of consent” which I found fascinating and exciting. It spans ten pages and covers a wide variety of topics, so I won’t examine it all here, but I will outline some key points. Duberman starts out by clarifying that, to him: “Three quite separate issues are at stake here: adults having sex with prepubescent children; adults having sex with postpubescent teenagers; and teenagers having sex with each other.” He’s adamantly supportive of the last two, not supportive of the first one: “As for the first of these—adult molestation of prepubescent children—there can be no rational or moral dissent from the view that the law must be sweeping, airtight, and vigorously enforced.” It sounds rather strange to our ears, immersed as we are in a community that welcomes LBLs and TBLs ("Little Boy Lovers" and "Teen Boy Lovers") equally, and often blends the distinction between the two. I contend that this contradiction is not invisible to Duberman, and that in fact there’s reason to believe he only states it so clearly for the sake of posturing, in order to avoid suspicion or criticism.

This section I think communicates the gist of his positions on those three categories:

"In discussing all these matters, the word pedophilia is thrown around a good deal, often with remarkable lack of precision. The term should be rigorously confined to adult seduction of prepubescent youth—which is overwhelmingly a heterosexual phenomenon that usually takes place within families and is always wrong (though sex play between very young children themselves is a different matter—it’s natural and inevitable). Unfortunately the term pedophilia is often used to describe (and denounce) sex between postpubescent youth between the ages of twelve and eighteen and someone older. Where sex between two postpubescent teenagers need not—as I’ve been arguing—be viewed as problematic, once we introduce a partner age eighteen or older into the equation, the issue becomes trickier."

Duberman does not fully elucidate the tricky issue of adult-teenager sex. Instead he pivots and changes topic so as to keep the reader following. But it can be inferred from the rest of his argument that he offers robust, if subtly-spoken support: he attacks “age of consent” at sixteen for being incongruent with other rights of citizenship, he attacks “age of consent” at sixteen for ignoring dissimilar timetables of puberty, and he attacks “age of consent” at sixteen for feeding into sex offender registries and prisons. He attacks sex offender registries themselves for being incredibly devastating to all aspects of a person’s life, especially in their ability to reintegrate into society. He quotes Judith Levine in saying a quarter of convicted sex offenders are minors, and he questions the entire idea of “consent” as perhaps philosophically meaningless, and argues that the science around it is poor and contradictory, and the messages around it confusing and inconsistent with the lives of children and teenagers.

Finally, he rails against repression and demands to know:

"Why aren’t we talking more about all this? Why aren’t sexual rights being championed (when mentioned at all) with anything like the enthusiasm with which we defend “human” rights? Why isn’t freedom of sexual expression just as important a “rights” issue as, say, freedom of speech? … Why the blindness—or is it indifference?—to the severe consequences that descend on minors caught having sex with each other? Isn’t it perfectly natural that fourteen-year-olds want to explore their sexuality—that such experimentation isn’t a crime or a sin? After all, Freud revealed (in Three Essays) that children much younger than fourteen are curious about their bodies, engage in sex play, and masturbate. The real crime is to tell ourselves that we’re “protecting” the young; they do need protection—from “sexual predators” but not usually from themselves or one another. What we’re protecting when we interfere with and condemn youthful sexual experimentation is our own excessively priggish selves. To punish sexual experimentation in the young is the surest way to turn out yet another generation of guilt-ridden prudes, of adults who associate sex with shame and filth."

With all this bold and rallying support for a broadly youth-centered sexual liberation program, it should be obvious why this work is a significant moment in the mainstream discussion on sexuality, and potentially a very helpful moment for us. For instance, I think that if his critique against “age of consent,” particularly around the immutable innocence of childhood, is actually realized, arbitrary and artificial lines between TBL and LBL will quickly dissolve. In the meantime, his is the voice of opposition against the mainstream LGBT movement people will actually listen to. Overall, the advancement of his politics and vision for a better society would represent a significant improvement in the lives of boylovers and a safer—and more sexually expressive—world for boys and their loves, in general.

The betrayal of the modern gay rights movement has left thousands of us to fend for ourselves against a hostile and dangerous society. It also allows continued violence against the boys we love, suppression of their natural sexual desires, and encouragement to suicide if they realize they’re like us. Books like "Has the Gay Movement Failed"? are absolutely essential if we want to reach a broader audience with a version of our platform that can actually gain traction and make the world a safer, healthier and more just place for us and our boys. While Duberman is no champion of boylove, there is ample space within his rhetoric and politics for us to find a foothold and get a leg up. Let’s take every chance we can get.

 

 

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