The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America

Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney

Simon & Schuster. 716 pp. $30

Reviewed by Jim Marks

For years, I've parroted the Gay Activists Alliance's explanation for choosing the Greek letter lambda to represent gay liberation. It was, they said, a scientific symbol for energy, and thus a fit image for the energy released by the struggle for gay rights. But from Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney's Out for Good I learned that the real reason for adopting the symbol was that the image appealed to the imagination of a graphic designer who thought it looked like a figure kicking open a door. It doesn't have the claimed scientific meaning at all! I also learned from this thoroughly researched book that gay marriage was a prominent issue for the modern gay civil rights movement almost from its inception, as was the question of gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.

Out for Good attempts a definitive account of the political movement that marks its beginning with the Stonewall Riots in New York's Greenwich Village in 1969. One of the genuine merits of the book is that, although it begins in the Big Apple, it ranges throughout America and pays close attention to what happened on the West Coast as well, particularly Los Angeles. While the authors don't put it quite in these terms, their research demonstrates that three pillars of the modern gay movement -- church, politics and journalism -- were either born of, or significantly shaped by, people and events in that city.

Indeed, perhaps because their model was Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, this book is close to unique in placing the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the gay religious denomination founded by Troy Perry in Los Angeles, near the center of the community's development. Easily the most moving chapter is "New Orleans: Fire Upstairs," which tells of a fire, almost certainly deliberately set, that swept through a New Orleans bar on a Sunday night in late June, 1973. The fire killed 33 people who had gathered in the bar's cabaret space for Sunday services. Nearly as horrifying as the account of their deaths is the story of the aftermath, in which the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans rebuked the rector of a French Quarter Episcopal church for hosting a prayer service for the victims, and forbade him to allow another.

Yet in the midst of this dismal event -- one fire victim, a school teacher, was informed that he had been fired from his job while he was in the hospital dying -- there was a moment of ecumenical charity, when a Methodist church opened its doors for a memorial service. And there was also a moving act of courage, when the mourners all elected to leave the church by the front door, where their faces could be captured by the waiting television cameras. Outside of New Orleans and the MCC, virtually no one had any inkling of the tragedy.

Equally vivid are Clendinen and Nagourney's accounts of a good half-dozen events in the gay movement's early years: for instance, the rancorous, chaotic debates at New York's Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance meetings, where the community made and unmade itself in the days and months following Stonewall, or the carefully planned "zap" (how quaint the word now seems) performed on an American Psychiatric Association convention in Washington's Shoreham Hotel, which set off a chain of events that resulted in the APA removing homosexuality from its list of psychiatric diseases. There are vivid portraits of movement pioneers like Bruce Voeller and Jim Fouratt and Frank Kameny, former friend-of-Bill David Mixner and Advocate publisher David Goodstein, and of the few women who managed to muscle their way into the leadership ranks, including Jean O'Leary, Virginia Apuzzo and, particularly winning, young Rita Mae Brown. Steven Endean, one of the activists in this book whom I knew best, is a central character, from his rise in Minnesota politics, to his creation of the Washington-based Gay Rights National Lobby (GRNL), to his fiery ouster from the movement's center stage for GRNL's failure to adequately address the emerging AIDS crisis.

Of course, in a work of this size and scope there are bound to be small errors. For example, the authors claim that the Washington Blade, D.C.'s gay newspaper, wrote an editorial opposing Steve Endean for mishandling AIDS. Since I was working for the Blade at the time, I know that it did not (and still does not) publish editorials, although then-editor Steve Martz authored a number of news stories strongly critical of Endean.

As the book approaches its conclusion (it ends in 1987, with the founding of the AIDS organization ACT UP and the death of L.A. political kingmaker Sheldon Andelson), it grows scattershot, even frenetic. A wonderfully colorful character, D.C. political consultant Alan Barron, is introduced, only to be forgotten for the remainder of the book. For the most part, the account of the AIDS epidemic is Randy Shilts's And The Band Played On warmed over and spiced up with gossip about Shilts's private life.

The book's larger failure is that, for all their research and skillfully told vignettes, the authors have failed to find a conceptual framework. Why end in 1987? What is the point of an epilogue featuring presidential candidate Bill Clinton's appearance at a Los Angeles fund-raiser in 1992? There's no story here, no big picture.

Here's what I think is the big picture. When I read Timothy Garton Ash's accounts of the changes in Eastern Europe during the last years of communism, I was startled by how exactly the creation of a civil society in Poland and Czechoslovakia mirrored what I was seeing all around me. The proliferation of literally hundreds of gay and lesbian organizations in the Washington area alone -- religious groups, running clubs and rowing teams, bridge and garden clubs and fraternal organizations, like the Defenders, a gay, Catholic motorcycle club (our Knights of Columbus) -- means, I believe, that the struggle for political rights has led to the creation of a far broader and wider community, one whose survival does not depend on the passage or failure of any one gay civil rights ordinance.

It's hardly fair criticism, of course, to fault a book because it doesn't advocate my theory of the gay community. But without some guiding structure, the authors' research and writing ends up burying the gay rights struggle under a sand heap of names and actions, leaving unfulfilled the title's promise to depict a political movement aimed at benefiting society as a whole.

Jim Marks is executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation.