Martin Duberman on Kirstein and Cures

Published in: July-August 2007 issue.


By coincidence, this issue of the G&LR spotlights two topics with which Martin Duberman is closely associated: the life and times of Lincoln Kirstein and the application of various therapies to change the sexual orientation of gay people. His first memoir, Cures (1991), documents his experiences with the latter endeavor in the 1960’s, as he found himself caught up in a psychiatric establishment that thought it could “cure” people’s homosexuality through a variety of novel techniques. His new book, whose publication coincides with Lincoln Kirstein’s hundredth birthday, represents the culmination of years of research on the great Kirstein’s life and works. This interview was conducted on-line in early May 2007.


Gay & Lesbian Review: First a few questions about Cures. You spent quite a few years working with several psychologists, one in particular, who thought they could use depth psychology to make you go straight. Can you describe this experience briefly?
Martin Duberman: It was miserable, inducing even more self-hatred than the homophobic general culture had already bred in me. The “treatment” was also wholly ineffectual. I remained at the end what I was when I started: a rock solid Kinsey “6.” My therapist insisted this was because I had “refused to get on the side of my own health.” I was, he added, “the most defiant human being he’d ever known.” Luckily for me, I am defiant—that is, when being arrogantly dictated to by guardians of official morality. I cherish that kind of defiance. It’s what allowed me to survive.

G&LR: Viewed from the standpoint of today, these attempts look pretty misguided and even laughable. One is tempted to ask, what were they thinking? What was the theory behind these “cures”?
MD: They weren’t thinking. They were applying boilerplate Freud, but Freud as misinterpreted by the conformist needs of 1950’s American culture. Besides, they didn’t know any anthropology or history. (Today’s more enlightened therapists still don’t know nearly enough.) If they had known about different cultures across time, they would have seen how utterly parochial and unrepresentative our own “sickness” model of homosexuality was.

G&LR: What finally brought these attempts at a cure to an end?
MD: The advent of the gay movement, with its alternative model of homosexuality as a normal variant. I was ripe for the message and tuned in instantly. Within a few years after Stonewall, I’d not only left therapy but had plunged into the fledgling new movement, serving on the founding boards of the Gay & Lesbian Task Force and Lambda Legal Defense and helping to organize the Gay Academic Union.

G&LR: There’s a lot in this issue of the magazine about the “ex-gay” movement and similar attempts to “repair” gay people’s sexual orientation. Do you see a connection between these efforts and your own experience? Will it ever end?!
MD: So long as the desperation some young people feel when rejected by their families and friends because of their sexuality continues, there will always be “expert” sharks around to feed off of it. And beyond that, there will always be pressure exerted, in any society, to make people conform to majoritarian values. Our job is not only to resist those pressures but to affirm at the same time that we are as different in our history, values, and relational patterns as they fear.

G&LR: Lincoln Kirstein was a force of nature who lived hugely and had a gigantic impact on the arts in New York and nationwide; yet most people today have probably never heard of him. What brought you to Kirstein as the subject of a rather massive biography? When and how did this come about?
MD: Somewhat mysteriously and magically. I was between projects when he suddenly popped into my head as the perfect subject for a biography. “Perfect” because I’d always distantly admired him and because we matched up in enough categories—Jewish, gay, involved in theatre and the arts, etc.—that I thought I might be able to do him justice. At just the point that I thought of writing about him, the person who’d been working on his biography for two years gave up the project. Happily, the executor of the Kirstein Papers (housed at Lincoln Center) thought Kirstein and I were “a good fit,” and he promptly gave me exclusive access to his diaries and archives.

G&LR: The vastness of Kirstein’s interests and accomplishments, not to mention his writings, must have made this a daunting task. How did you go about it? Did you rely heavily on interviews? Firsthand sources?
MD: Indeed daunting. I’ve always based my historical books largely on primary sources, and in Kirstein’s case they were vast. Besides his own enormous archive, I researched dozens of others and interviewed a wide variety of people. In a number of significant cases, people let me see correspondence still in private hands.

G&LR: In addition to his accomplishments as a writer, an impresario, and so on, Kirstein pursued an active gay sex life in New York long before Stonewall or gay liberation. How unusual was this? Was there a well-established gay underground, or did he pretty much make this up as he went along?
MD: Kirstein’s self-image was not as conflicted as it might have been, say, in the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was coming along. In general, the 1920’s and 1930’s was a time when homosexuality wasn’t automatically branded (as in the 1950’s) as an “illness,” and in cities like New York there was a fairly extensive—nothing like today, of course—network of bars for cruising.

G&LR: Steven Watson quotes Kirstein as saying late in life, “Everyone was homosexual.” When you look at the cast of characters involved in dance and related arts (notably music) during this era, it’s hard to argue with this. What do you make of the fact that so many of these guys were gay?
MD: By “everyone is homosexual,” I suspect Kirstein meant potentially so, much as Freud had suggested earlier. I can’t provide a satisfying answer for why so many gay people, then and now, are active in the arts. But I don’t believe any kind of biological or genetic explanation holds water. Much more likely, queers are drawn, subliminally, to fields where sexual unorthodoxy is ignored or accepted.

G&LR: One could perhaps force a connection between these two topics. You were treated for homosexuality in the 60’s because it was viewed as a mental illness; Kirstein suffered from an undiagnosed disorder, manic depression, through much of his life. Is there a message here about the American psychiatric establishment?
MD: The message extends beyond psychiatry. Its essence is that one should scrutinize and challenge, rather than automatically accept, expert opinion in all areas. It’s the presumed experts, after all, who got us into Vietnam and Iraq; who for centuries told us that blacks were born inferior, divinely designed to be the servants and slaves of their white superiors; who told women that they lacked the capacity to reason and to think abstractly, whose natural place was in the home, raising children and catering to the needs of their superior husbands.

In regard to orthodoxy and authority, Americans need to hold in mind Jefferson’s insistence that we need a revolution every twenty years. In my opinion, too many gay people have become mere assimilationists. They want in, they claim to be “just folks.” I don’t buy it. We’ve had a different historical experience, and as a result have developed a unique subculture with a special set of values and perspectives. That subculture has much to teach the mainstream in regard to a host of matters, including sexuality and relationships, the importance of friendship, and how best to raise children. The mainstream is much in need of what we have to offer. But that interchange will never happen if we continue to put issues like gay marriage and gays in the military at the top of our agenda. We should instead be affirming non-monogamous adventuring, the periodic blessings of singleness, the joy of not being imprisoned in traditional family structures. Similarly, we should be assailing the war-making machine instead of begging to be allowed to join in the killing.