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What’s a Straight Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

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A special essay for us by Linda Hirshman, who's book, "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution," comes out from Harper Collins today.  I asked Linda to explain what got a straight grandma to write a history of the modern gay rights movement?  Below, she explains.

What’s a Straight Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?
By Linda Hirshman
Author of “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution,” available Tuesday, June 5 in hardcover and Kindel versions.

"Victory," my political story of the gay revolution will come out, so to speak, on Tuesday.

John has asked me to write something about how I came to write it and what it meant to me. He may not have had the question in mind, but many people, including Publisher’s Weekly and the eminent gay scholar Nathaniel Frank, have commented on a straight grandmother thinking she should write the big book about the gay movement as it achieves, er, Victory.

At first, I was quite defensive about this question.

A white southerner, Taylor Branch, wrote the definitive history of the racial civil rights movement. I am a trained political philosopher; why in the world not? But I have seen it is asked in good faith, and it is true, in retrospect, that the book probably meant more to me coming to the movement as an outsider than if I had grown up in it.

Like most people, I have gay and lesbian friends. My closest friend since childhood happens to be a lesbian woman; I performed her marriage ceremony to her partner of thirty years last month. But our friendship played no role in the decision. I consider myself someone who does not need to be friends or relatives with people to recognize their humanity and cherish their aspirations to live flourishing lives. PFLAG does good work, for sure using the closer ties for good ends. I, however am no Dick Cheney. That’s what it means to be a liberal (no apologies) – recognizing that all people have certain legitimate claims because they are human, not because they happen to be your daughter.

No, I got interested in the gay revolution after I heard the great Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel use the sodomy cases in a lecture at Berkeley around 1987. The horrible Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick had just come out, and Sandel was arguing that claims to be tolerated in one’s privacy, which were at the heart of the sodomy litigation, would not work.

Instead, the movement had to make, and, Sandel contended, had already started to make, claims that their relationships were manifestations of human love and connectedness and should be respected and admired, not just tolerated. A movement that makes an affirmative moral claim. I’ve been interested ever since.

Space is short, but because I was a stranger, I consciously experienced what many gay people may take for granted: the power of the community.

When I approached the great gay journalist and historian Eric Marcus at the very beginning of my process, I held my breath. Would people like Eric, who had labored on the subject in much leaner times, reject me, the interloper, who comes when the victory is near? Of course, he did not. Instead he opened his Rolodex, introduced me to everyone he knew, including Frank Kameny (in the nick of time), and guided me lovingly through the thickets of who was who.

From Eric to Robby Browne, from Robby to Larry Kramer, from Eric to Ann Northrop, from Ann to Marlene McCarty. Standing outside the courtroom on the first day of the Perry trial, West Coast guru Karen Ocamb “figured out” as she later admitted “that I might be someone smart” and decided to let the California sunshine in to my inquiries. From Karen to Rex Wockner, and so on.

The medium is the message. The way people like Eric and Karen treated me is the living manifestation of why the gay revolution succeeded in being, as the L.A. Times said last week, the fastest moving civil rights movement in American social history. They saw a naïve straight woman as a potential ally. They made it easy for me to do what I could to help.

Had they seen me going badly wrong presumably they would have made my life a living hell, as they so brilliantly did to everyone from Ed Koch to Barack Obama when necessary. As I began to do my research and interviews I realized that’s what all the successful movers of the fast moving movement did.

And in the end, Nathaniel Frank is right. I wrote an adoring history. Not because they were good to me, but because they were good. As the button says.

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