Martin Duberman: Life of an Activist Historian

Published in: January-February 2010 issue.

BORN on August 6, 1930, in New York City, Martin Duberman graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1952, and earned a masters and a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1953 and 1957. His first book, a biography of Charles Francis Adams, won the coveted Bancroft Prize in 1962, after which he spent nearly a decade teaching at Princeton, while also debuting his first play, In White America, which portrayed the Negro experience in the United States. It opened to critical acclaim and had over 500 performances Off Broadway.

Duberman came out as a gay man in 1972, in one sentence of his book Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. Like Merle Miller, Howard Brown, Kate Millett, and Dave Kopay, Duberman’s coming out in the early 1970’s as a minor Dubermancelebrity made him a de facto community leader and hero. In that decade, he brought his talents to the National Gay Task Force (as it was then called) and the Gay Academic Union, before turning his primary attention to research in lesbian and gay history as well as developing a curriculum for this new field of study. In the late 80’s, he founded the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) as an institute of the City University of New York. This was a first.

In addition to his many books on GLBT history and biography, including books on Paul Robeson, Lincoln Kirstein, and the Stonewall Riots, Martin Duberman has written three autobiographies: Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (1991); Midlife Queer: Autobiography of a Decade (1996); and, most recently, Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985–2008 (2008). Before interviewing Marty, I reviewed all three to renew my sense of the continuing journey of my friend, who has lived a most extraordinary life during a fascinating period of American history as it pertains to GLBT issues.

Paul D. Cain: Who is Naomi Weisstein [the person to whom Duberman dedicated Waiting to Land], and why is she “the most courageous person I know”?
Martin Duberman: Naomi Weisstein is an old, dear friend who’s been bedridden with chronic fatigue syndrome for some thirty years. Before being incapacitated she was a prominent feminist and a professor of psychology at SUNY.

PDC: What happened in your life from 1981 [end of Midlife Queer, Duberman’s second memoir]to 1985 [beginning of Waiting to Land, his third]? AIDS, of course, but anything else? Why doesn’t Waiting to Land go back to 1981?
MD: Unlike my other two memoirs, Waiting to Land (mostly) omits material relating to my private life; it concentrates on political matters (as I say in the introduction). The years 1982 to 84 were extremely difficult ones for me personally—serious health problems, my mother’s prolonged, agonizing death, and so forth. For three years I withdrew almost entirely from political participation and also did almost no writing. I did make an occasional diary entry, but about private feelings which would have been totally out of place in a politically themed book. I only write in my diary when I strongly feel the need to record some significant event and my reaction to it. What’s difficult—as with any kind of writing—is finding the words to convey the feelings.

PDC: In Waiting to Land’s Preface, you write: “The gradual evolution of the once radical gay movement of the early 70’s into a more narrow conformity with mainstream values is part and parcel of the natural history of social justice movements in this country. The originators of a given protest often express intense opposition to the dominant culture and its power arrangements, but their radical perspectives give way in fairly short order to more centrist-minded leadership; the goal shifts from demanding structural change to demanding inclusion in the halls of power, the rhetoric from ‘Not me!’ to ‘Me, too.’” What are the prospects for a return to a more liberationist model?
MD: I think the best hope that we can return to a more radically oriented movement resides in the young—both gay and straight. Every poll I’ve seen shows the 18 to 25 age cohort as the most progressive. On the local level they’ve already formed organizations that, however understaffed and under-funded, have radical goals in mind—like Queers for Economic Justice in New York City.

PDC: If you had graduated in 2007 instead of 1957 with a PhD from Harvard, do you still think you would have chosen a teaching career? Is teaching the career that you’ve always envisioned for yourself?
MD: Yes, I’d still choose teaching. I’ve always enjoyed it, especially the seminars that focused on GLBT history and culture. The first few years of teaching are for most people all-consuming, but after that phase is over a lot of free time becomes available for writing. As a late teen, I did some touring as an actor, and if I hadn’t been able to teach and write I might have chosen to try for a career in the theatre. To a degree, I’ve had one anyway—as a playwright. But that’s about all I can think of. Politics—a form of public performance—might have been a distant second option, and I have been an activist on the Left in general and the gay movement in particular. The law would have bored me to death (my anarchist streak is too strong to adhere to rules and precedents). And the business world has always repelled me; having had a privileged youth, I never cared about earning gobs of money.

PDC: Do you see a dumbing down in
academic standards over your years of teaching?
MD: Students are no dumber now than when I started to teach fifty years ago. They are less interested in the printed word, and they do get most of their information from other kinds of sources. They’re far more interested in popular culture than my generation was, and far “smarter” than me about, say, digital technologies.

PDC: How does teaching on GLBT topics differ today from, say, thirty years ago?
MD: No GLBT topics were taught thirty years ago, though some few people had begun to research and write about them. When I started to teach in the CUNY system in the 70’s and began to focus my work on such topics, the CUNY Graduate School History Department was horrified by and rejected my proposal to offer a course on “Gay History, Politics and Culture”—they even turned down my more generalized proposal to teach the “History of Sexuality.” As a result, I refused to teach at all at the graduate school. During this same period, the American Historical Association rejected my proposals for panels at the annual conventions on those topics. Last year the AHA gave me its Lifetime Achievement Award—now there’s a measure of how the climate has changed! It wasn’t until 1991, when clags was made an official graduate school center, that I was finally able to teach what I wanted.

PDC: I remember your picketing the 1995 movie Stonewall when it came to New York. Frankly, I thought Nigel Finch’s movie had no more than a passing relation to your book of the same name, upon which it was allegedly based, and was happy you disavowed it. Was there any way you could have had more control over what made it to the screen?
MD: That movie is a sad tale. The director was dying of AIDS, had invested his own life savings in the film, and completed it against heroic odds. He viewed it as his legacy, but due to diminished strength, was unable to carry it off in style. I’d been contractually guaranteed consultation, but the suggestions I made during our one extended meeting were largely ignored.

PDC: Waiting to Land discusses the Chelsea House saga when you were the general editor of this series. I bought several of the books and thought they were great. It clearly drove you nuts on both ends of the project—from both the authors who didn’t produce and the well-meaning but naïve publisher. Any regrets?
MD: I suppose I should have been more aware from the beginning that the project was likely to run aground. The straight publisher—though brave to undertake the series—was concerned with the bottom line and only wanted to commission books about the super-famous. I’d been told, but hadn’t gotten it in writing, that I’d have total control over the choice of both subjects and authors. I suppose I was initially too excited about cracking the young adult market with gay-focused content to heed all the danger signs. My consolation is that fourteen books did get published, and are still out there.

PDC: Your experiences with Paul Robeson, Jr. sound harrowing, to say the least. In the end, was it worth the hassle?
MD: Despite my problems with the son, I remain deeply honored to have been chosen as Paul Robeson’s biographer. He’d long been one of my heroes and he still represents to me one of the rare examples of a famous figure endangering, and ultimately sacrificing career on the altar of principle. In removing his passport, and branding him a subversive, our government successfully silenced him, and even today, sixty years later, he isn’t nearly as well known as his heroic stature warrants.

PDC: I’m still disappointed that your proposed book on Donald Webster Cory [a pseudonym for pioneer gay sexologist Edward Sagarin]never materialized. Any chance you might try again after his widow Gertrude Sagarin’s passing?
MD: No, the long essay I eventually published on Cory sated my interest in him [see “The Father of the Homophile Movement,” The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Fall 1997]. I’m concentrating these days on researching a new book about four GLBT people active in various social movements who remained radical throughout their lives.

PDC: I adored your novel Haymarket! Anything else like it planned in your future writing? It brought a historical story to life so spectacularly.
MD: To the extent I still write any fiction, it comes out not as a novel but in the form of a particularly imagined history-based play. I recently [2008] published a volume of four such full-length plays titled Radical Acts.

PDC: In Waiting to Land, you wrote that in the spring of 2006, after completing your Lincoln Kirstein biography, you felt a need to throw yourself into the next project or else be “swallowed by depression.” Even approaching eighty, do you feel that can’t you permit yourself to slow down?
MD: “Approaching eighty”! I’m a mere child of 78 (well, for a few more months anyway). Lucky for me, my curiosity and energy continue to be strong, though inevitably somewhat diminished.

PDC: You wrote in 1996 that Larry Kramer “has no politics—has never had—beyond narcissistic rage.” Do you think that’s still true of him today?
MD: I don’t know what Larry is up to these days. My harsh judgment of him in 1996 was the product of my then-enflamed anger at his unfair denunciation of others. The anger has died down, and some sort of reconciliation between us has followed—though we’ll never be close friends. Larry’s very real contributions should be remembered and honored.

PDC: Toward the end of Waiting to Land, you sigh: “In reality I’m not a widely known figure ….” Come on! Fourteen non-fiction books, numerous plays, and a novel, for starters.
MD: I’m not indulging in false modesty. Outside of gay, and to some extent left-wing, circles, my name doesn’t much resonate. The proof? The limited sales of my books. The constant rejection of my plays for production. Publishers’ Weekly, the industry’s bible, didn’t even bother to review Waiting to Land. This is not to say that my name doesn’t resonate within gay, and to some extent left-wing, circles. But with the exception of my biography of Paul Robeson, and possibly of Lincoln Kirstein, my books do not reach a mainstream audience.

PDC: In the book, you write with some degree of skepticism, not to say cynicism, about friendship between gay men. My experience is very different from yours, at least here in Reno. I really cherish my relationships with my gay male friends. Could this be a function of New York’s size, or is it a generational thing?
MD: You’re probably right on both counts. In New York City, people operate at such a fast pace that little time remains for cultivating friendships in depth. Lunch with someone once a month is considered a “friendship”; dinner that often is viewed as a major commitment. There probably is a generational component as well. Gay people over, say, fifty grew up in a much more oppressive society. Caution and concealment—which work against intimacy—were generational safeguards against the pain of retribution.

PDC: You write briefly about considering leaving an endowment in your will for gay studies. More generally, what “legacy” do you think you will leave?
MD: I’d like to think it will center on a resistance to all forms of inauthentic “authority,” and opening our ears to the wisdom of outsiders.


Paul D. Cain, author of Leading the Parade Leading the Parade: Conversations with America’s Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men, is a writer based in Las Vegas.