In the beginning of this year’s gay pride week, I noticed the front pages of two free Boston newspapers. One announced, to the right of its name, “inside: the official guide to Boston pride 2009.” The other, to the left of its title, suggested “let us be your Pride Guide.” The first paper was the gay-oriented Bay Windows; the second was the general-audience Boston Metro.
Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this if it weren’t for recent development in my life. Approaching 65, I have chanced to be in touch with several people I haven’t seen in over 40 years—fellow members of Queens College Congress of Racial Equality and of Students for a Democratic Society, who were planning a reunion in conjunction with the college’s commencement ceremonies. Coincidentally, another, unconnected, reunion was happening—this one of the original members of the Gay Liberation Front, which had begun in response to the rebellion of gay men at the Stonewall bar in New York.
I discussed this with a longtime friend, an activist in all three organizations, and we bemoaned the loss of our old selves in what seems to be a post-movement America. “We had hope then,” my friend said sadly.
He was right. We’d had hope, and, sustaining that hope, we’d had faith. “We shall overcome,” we sang, and we believed it. In the ‘60s, we would overcome racism and war-mongering; a few years later we would overcome sexism and homophobia. But we didn’t overcome, and as we grew older our movements seemed to fade. We despaired of the younger generations that seemed to have no room for what we had called, proudly, “the struggle.” They grew up in a society bent on self-destruction that had, increasingly created the tools to succeed--a society that had neatly amputated social conciousness from sophistication. Liberal chic had died out; the sexual revolution given way to a pornographic consumerism. All our symbols had been co-opted and defanged. Che Guevara t-shirts. Ubiquitous images of women “liberated” by upward mobility and a hundred shades of eye liner. Concern over social ills was dismissed with sneering accusations of “political correctness.”
Somehow too we’d lost the clear-cut images of earlier days. We’d revered Guevara as a martyr; ‘we’d chanted of the North Korean leader, “Ho Ho Ho Chi Min; NLF is gonna win!” Now, though our country was still doing things that horrified us, its enemies couldn’t be romanticized. Who could mourn an executed Saddam Hussein, or cheer for Osama bin Laden? We knew who the bad guys were, but who were the good guys?
Further, we had discovered the complexities of our own movements, and of our own human inconsistencies. The “contradictions” dear to leftist theory, had become all too apparent. Gay racists, homophobic feminists, sexist African Americans....multiple conflicts within and among all of the movements. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We grew old and tired. Many of us simply despaired.
But perhaps the despair has taken too strong a hold. Yes, the enemy is “us.” But so is the ally, the friend, the moral thinker, the questioner. So are the role models and teachers of a new generation of young people in the new century—people spurred to hope by the new presidency.. I ff we didn’t fully succeed, we certainly didn’t fully fail. We have lived to see the Obama candidacy—incredible in itself, astounding in its success. Not the revolution, no. But something that had not—that could not have-- happened before. Six states have gay marriage, and the rest of America is debating it. Abortion, assaulted as it is, is legal.
It isn’t what we thought we would have back in the 60s and 70s. As abortion providers go about their work, they do it in the knowledge that they are risking their lives, that what was done to Dr. Tiller might be done to them. There will be more Matthew Shepards beaten to death for being gay , even as gay marchers yearly celebrate their pride. America’s most important job is filled by a black man, but black men remain disproportionately underemployed and underpaid. Our successes are partial and compromised.
They are nonetheless successes. A friend wrote me in solemn jubilation after the Queens College reunion. One of the speakers had been Representative John Lewis, the lifelong activist who had worked closely with Martin Luther King. He told the group that without them and the work they had done, Barack Obama would not be president today. My friend had lived his life in the effort to change history. Listening to Lewis’s words, he writes, “Only now I realize that I have succeeded in my goal.”
Since I began this article, more things, good and bad and mixed, have happened. One of the most heartbreaking and inspiring is the spontaneous uprisings in Iran. The protesters are quieted now, having been predictably savaged by the government’s thugs. But they know, we all know, they will be back. Maybe they’ll only be knocked down again; maybe they’ll be defeated; maybe they’ll give up and sink into despair. Or maybe not. Maybe it will take years to discover what they have triggered. But in their thousands they marched, publicly, knowing what might happen to them. In the face of such courage, how can we have the gall to despair?
Every movement for social change in history has been attacked, co-opted, betrayed its own ideals—and still left some things better for their existence. The Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, even the American Revolution. The Civil Rights movements and feminist movements and gay movements. If there’s a perfect world, it’s in some sort of afterlife. In our world, we can only have human beings choosing to fight for the betterment of life, in the terms we embrace, in the struggles we embrace, in the daily decisions to help ourselves and others, where we see the need.
So I hang the picture of the Iranian rebels on my wall, and it’s a sort of holy picture, inspiring hope, perhaps a little courage, and even a little faith. They remind me of who I was and who I am, and who I’ve failed to be. They remind me of my old friends, still in the ways available to them trying to change the world. Maybe one day another generation actually will overcome. And we will have been part of the reason.