on lillian faderman

Over the course of the fall I had the chance to check out three books written by gay & lesbian historian Lillian Faderman: Harvey Milk: His Lives and DeathOdd Girls and Twilight Lovers, and The Gay Revolution.

The first is, unsurprisingly, a biography of Harvey Milk; the second a social history of lesbian subcultures in postwar America; the third a look at the modern struggle for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans rights.

I  enjoyed reading the first two books and, to a lesser extent, the third. Faderman’s exceptionally talented at making history come to life, whether she’s vividly sketching the human toll of inhumane policies or tying together disparate events into an absorbing narrative. Her work comes across as inventive and fresh, featuring extensive research, interviews with famous and ordinary figures alike, and straightforward breakdowns of complex court cases. Her prose is simple but brilliant in its level of clarity, and her projects are ambitious in scope and generally well executed.

While I felt that The Gay Revolution whitewashed history, I’d definitely recommend Faderman’s biography of Harvey Milk and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. Both were wide ranging and insightful looks at gay and lesbian life in America, and they make clear why Faderman’s one of the leading voices in her field.

Faderman jacket 222616 with cream background.inddWell researched and well argued, Harvey Milk is a detailed but accessible biography of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. The first half of the book focuses on Milk’s many lives before his career as a successful politician, the second on his service, assassination, and legacy. Faderman attends to the nuances of her subject, and writes in a lucid style; she establishes her claims about Milk early on in the book, and she thoroughly develops them over the course of her work’s four sections. Especially interesting is the author’s suggestion that Milk’s gay politics were as much shaped by his Jewishness as his enemies’ attacks on his flamboyant character were informed by their anti-Semitism. The ease with which Faderman ties Milk’s private life to his public policies and rhetoric is impressive, and her biography is well worth checking out.

fullsizeoutput_2ca1A dated but engaging work of American history, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers charts the rise of lesbian subcultures across the nation over the course of the twentieth century. Lillian Faderman begins by considering the forms women’s romantic bonds took before the formation of lesbian identity at the turn of the twentieth century, but she soon shifts to tracking how robust lesbian communities were established in the decades following the end of WWI. Her research is as meticulous as her prose is clear, and she does an excellent job of consistently differentiating working-class and middle-class experiences among lesbians. Unfortunately, Faderman doesn’t much consider racial differences among lesbians in the middle chapters, and the scope of her analysis becomes limited for some time.

fullsizeoutput_2c6eConcise but broad in scope, The Gay Revolution is a sweeping overview of the postwar fight for LGBT civil rights. Lillian Faderman seamlessly stitches together interviews, biographies, archival research, and scholarship into a compelling story of how, over the course of six decades, America transformed from a nation that cast all “homosexuals” as crazy, criminal, and immoral to one on the brink of granting full civil rights to all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. As always, Faderman’s prose is eminently readable, but the book has a couple of glaring flaws. The author doesn’t adequately address the contributions of people of color to the movement, concerning both its assimilationist and radical strains; she also avoids considering why trans identity has formed and exploded in public consciousness since the 1990s. A sense of absence pervades the book, especially in its last third, which myopically focuses on judicial and legislative battles. The book is still excellent as a wealth of information and sources, but the argument the author makes about LGBT equality in America feels incomplete.

3 thoughts on “on lillian faderman

  1. Love your thoughts here Michael, especially your point about whitewashing! So important that we point out when that happens in the queer community so I’m grateful for you for naming it explicitly.

    Liked by 1 person

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