BOOK REVIEW : A History of Gay Lib: Humorous, Human : MAKING HISTORY, The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990, An Oral History <i> by Eric Marcus</i> , HarperCollins $25; 532 pages
At the very outset of “Making History,” an oral history of the gay liberation movement, author Eric Marcus acknowledges the assistance of “my spouse, Barry Owen.” The matter-of-fact quality of his acknowledgment, as we quickly learn, is a measure of exactly how far we’ve come toward achieving freedom of sexual preference in America.
“I’m thinking of a young woman who came up to me and said that when her parents discovered that she was a lesbian, they put her in a psychiatric hospital,” recalls a heterosexual psychologist who carried out a revolutionary study of homosexuality in the early 1950s. “The standard procedure for treating homosexuals in that hospital was electroshock therapy.”
About 50 men and women, gay and straight, speak out in the pages of “Making History.” Only a few are famous. Columnist Abigail Van Buren, for example, recalls her own early efforts to treat homosexuality with compassion: “I tell you,” she says, “the Bible-thumpers really let me have it over the years.”
Former Congressman Robert Bauman talks about the gay prostitution scandal that drove him out of office: “The whole experience was like having root canal every day, 24 hours a day.” And NFL player David Kopay tells how he began to assert himself in the locker room: “This is one queer they’re not going to intimidate.”
Even more illuminating are the reminiscences of less celebrated men and women who speak with candor and good humor about what it is like to grow up gay, to struggle for a place in American society and to cope with the terrors and torments that are visited on them, everything from employment discrimination to the scourge of AIDS.
In a sense, “Making History” is a revisionist social history of America, and Marcus allows us to understand that a parallel universe of gay experience existed even during those unenlightened times when it was confined to the closet. The GIs who fought in World War II, we are given to understand, included a fair number of gay men.
“In the Army, during the war,” says Chuck Rowland, an organizer of a pioneer gay organization called the Mattachine Society, “I met lots of wonderful people and had three marvelous gay love affairs when I was a staff sergeant.”
Marcus seeks to elevate the experiences of his various informants to the stature of history--"a rich, heartbreaking and ultimately heroic . . . struggle,” as he puts it--and much of his book is devoted to eyewitness testimony on the organizational politics of the gay movement, the literature of gay life, the years of activism and protest that peaked in the so-called Stonewall riot of 1969.
“We had the feeling that the revolution was right around the corner and that we were part of the vanguard,” says Martha Shelley in her recollections of the Gay Liberation Front during the heady days of the late ‘60s. “I’m smiling when I say this now because we were young and idealistic and wonderful and brave and naive. . . . And I’m smiling because we were right. We just had the timetable wrong.”
But Marcus does not neglect the most intimate and private emotions of the gay men and women who contributed their stories to his book. One woman recalls a lecture on lesbianism in a course on “mental hygiene” at nursing school: “I said to myself, ‘Oh, gee, I’m one of those things!’ ” A man describes how he realized at the tender of age of 4 that he “liked men” when a stranger lifted him for a better view of a band concert at the beach:
“I was in heaven,” the man relates. “I knew you weren’t supposed to let strange men pick you up, but this was just so wonderful.”
There’s much pain and anguish in these pages. But there is also a celebratory spirit, a fierce pride and a sense of humor that sometimes crosses into outright hilarity. Marcus’s book is intended as a contribution to the scholarship of gay activism, and it succeeds in that serious endeavor. But Marcus succeeds, too, in giving a human face to what we are invited to regard as a historical phenomenon.