Insightful, Personal Books Explore the Ongoing Fight for Gay Rights

Fifty years ago, on June 28, 1969, New York City police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The violent clash between the cops and patrons incited fierce protests around the country. It was an explosive turning point in the gay rights movement.

A lot has changed since then. In September 2011, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, making it legal in all 50 states.

But, according to the authors of three insightful and necessary books coming out during Pride Month, these hard-earned wins are nowhere near enough. The writers insist that gay men (and other members of the LGBT community, though unfortunately not referenced here) are still facing similar obstacles as in the past, just in different forms.

For readers searching for a fast-paced, meticulously researched, thoroughly engaging (and often infuriating) look-see into the systematic criminalization of gay men and widespread condemnation of homosexuality post-World War I, cultural historian James Polchin’s first book, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, is a smart bet. Blending key historical markers, such as psychiatrist Edward Kempf’s theory of “acute homosexual panic” in the 1920s and the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s inclusion of homosexuality as a psychological disorder in the 1940s, with gruesome true-crime stories involving Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac and a slew of lesser-known perpetrators and victims, Polchin dissects how medical misconceptions and media biases have stoked Americans’ fear of the queer lifestyle, perpetuated the stereotype of gays as abnormal and immoral hedonists, and condoned violence committed against “homosexual hoodlums” for decades.

James Polchin is the author of “Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall” (Counterpoint; 256 pages; $26).

In later chapters, Polchin rightly shifts his focus to hint at the seeds of progress in the struggle for gay equality. While they were never meant to be a salve for past atrocities or a panacea for future problems, milestones such as the 1948 Kinsey Report and ONE magazine’s 1953 pledge to “counter narratives of homosexual criminality and mental sickness in the popular press” both point to America’s nasty predilection for finger-pointing and remind us, as Polchin states in the book’s press materials, “that the legacy of criminalizing queer citizens is one we continue to live in, and one we (should) continue to fight against.”

Picking up roughly where Polchin’s book leaves off, psychotherapist Walt OdetsOut of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives begins in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. At the time, most of his clients were gay men grappling with the “uncontrolled, deeply stigmatizing fifteen-year plague” that was decimating their communities. By the end of that decade, more than 90,000 people in the U.S. had died of AIDS, including Odets’ partner, Robb.

Odets’ therapy work over the next 30 years informed much of the research for his book. In it, he uses a combination of case studies and critical analysis to redefine the meaning of “homosexual” and gay relationships (hint: It’s not just about men having sex with other men); explore the psychological and emotional effects of the ongoing AIDS epidemic on three generations, including Millennials who face new challenges thanks to sex-at-the-minute apps like Grindr and the advent of PrEP; and ask an array of provocative questions. Among them: whether legal marriage — the “crown jewel of the heterosexual social plan” — should be the end goal for gays, or if a broader, more inclusive model should replace it.

Some sections skew overtly technical, mostly in the chapters that use psychiatrists Erik Erikson and Judith Herman’s theories to expose the long-reaching impact of negative early-life experiences and gay men’s responses to stigma and shame. But as a package, Odets’ trifecta of social commentary, memoir and therapeutic analysis is an astute statement on how to overcome trauma, loss and isolation to live a proud, self-actualized and fulfilling existence as a gay man.

Perhaps the most resonant (and tears-inducing) segments of Out of the Shadows are Odets’ recollections of personal traumas, including the death of his mother when he was a child. The final two chapters in which he describes the long road to coming out and his deep love for his lifelong companion, Matthias, and Matthias’ partner, Hank, are some of the most on-point and beautifully written thoughts on love, acceptance and family I’ve read in some time.

For a raunchier yet no less incisive take on the intricacies of gay sex, romance and search for community, Alex Espinoza’s Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime takes readers on an inspired, greatest-hits tour of public bathrooms, bathhouses and wooded areas in cities the world over to reveal the scintillating backstory of anonymous gay sex and its evolution, from Greek antiquity to the present. Whether for the newbie reader or the well-initiated, the slim paperback is a balanced compendium of lesser-known tidbits and often-reported pop culture moments (the Sen. Larry Craig scandal or George Michael’s arrest and rebirth as a gay icon, for example) that demonstrates the author’s enthusiasm and respect for his subject and provides a jumping-off point for further research.

While some portions of Cruising feel glossed over — such as the early pages on the origins of cruising in Greek and Roman societies or the abhorrent treatment of gays in more restrictive places like Uganda — other sections crackle with detail. Espinoza’s discussion of the influence of Bob Damron’s “Address Book” — a “gay yellow pages” of gay-friendly bars in the U.S., the chapters addressing the AIDS epidemic and the ways in which technology has advanced and inhibited modern cruising practices, and the author’s references to his own coming-of-age as a closeted Mexican American boy in “hypermasculine” San Gabriel Valley are especially noteworthy and offer up cruising as not only a “radical pastime,” but also a lifesaving, self-affirming activity that should be both preserved and celebrated.

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 13, 2019)

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