Pride 2017

Gay historian Martin Duberman on Pride and why we must keep it political

Photo credit: Alan Barnett Design and Photography

Pride season is upon us, and this year we’re ringing it in by spotlighting the folks who make us proud to show up to work each day — the artists, activists, performers and personalities who make our community shine.

Distinguished author, historian and playwright Martin Duberman, 86, has written more than two dozen books on LGBT heritage and culture, icons of the progressive movement and race relations in America. He has received three Lambda Literary Awards and a 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Historical Association. His latest book is a provocative nonfiction novel about the Belle Epoque era of Germany, titled “Jews Queers Germans.” 

Describe your first Pride.

It was 1973, the year that trans activist Sylvia Rivera tried to reach the mic on the stage set up in Washington Square Park (where Vito Russo was the rally emcee) and was forcibly restrained and vigorously booed by the crowd. Sylvia, who was a friend, confessed to me that she’d been stoned, but that hardly excuses the murderous reception she was given. It marked the end of her involvement in the movement.

How has Pride changed over the years?

It’s grown far more confident—and commercial. In the early years we were also a little leery of hostile onlookers tossing a bottle at our heads.

Does Pride feel different this year? 

I think the March this year needs to be, above all, political. Less frivolity and more anger. Trump is no friend to the LGBTQ community and gay people need to make it clear that we regard ourselves as part of the Resistance. It isn’t clear now.

Martin Duberman and Queen Allyson at New York City Gay Pride Parade in 1995. [Photo by Electra O’Mara]
Who is one person from LGBTQ history, alive or dead, that you like to party with at Pride?

Again, it would be Sylvia. In my book Stonewall she was one of the key figures I featured. I interviewed her many times and at length, and got to know her well. She was all at once a remarkably tough and tender person. We stayed friendly after the book came out and I very much miss her electric personality.

What is your favorite Pride memory?

I was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the group then known as The National Gay Task Force. We were founded in 1973 and for the next five years I marched under their banner with movement legends like Bruce Voeller, Nath Rockhill, Ron Gold and Charlotte Bunch.

Press conference announcing the formation of the National Gay Task Force. Front row L-R: Ron Gold, Howard Brown, Bruce Voeller, Nathalie Rockhill. Seated behind L-R: Martin Duberman, Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny.

Why is it important for younger generations of LGBTQ people to stay engaged in the fight for equality?

Too many young gays, it seems to me, have become apolitical. They seem to think that VICTORY (to use one recent book title) has allowed us to forget about protest and political and focus on simply leading our own lives. Yes, there have been considerable advances in our general acceptance, but mostly for those who fit in neatly with the assumptions and outlook of middle class white culture.

Our national organizations—especially the Human Rights Campaign—are focused on still greater gains for that segment of the LGBTQ world that is already privileged. We need to do far, far more on behalf of those “bad” gays who remain outside the charmed circle—like teenagers, sex workers, polyamorists, S/M devotees, and HIV positive people.

Our official movement is disgracefully oriented towards achieving ever bigger pieces of the pie, when what we need in fact is a different pie—one that rages against the massive incarnation of people of color, the grotesque economic inequalities that characterize our country, the belligerent stance of our foreign policy, and so forth. We need to join forces with heterosexual radicals who are challenging the status quo and form a set of alliances that will exert real pressure on the powers-that-be.