Photo by Alan Barnett
Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at City University of New York, where he founded and directed the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. He is the author of numerous award-winning histories, biographies, memoirs, essays, plays, and novels, which include Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey; Paul Robeson; Stonewall; Midlife Queer: Autobiography of a Decade, 1971–1981;Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community; The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein; Jews/Queers/Germans; and more than a dozen others. His latest book, The Rest of It: Hustlers, Cocaine, Depression, and Then Some, 1976–1988 is the untold and revealing story of how he managed to survive and be productive during a difficult twelve year period in which he was beset by drug addiction, health problems, and personal loss.
You’ve written two other memoirs (Cures, 1991 and Midlife Queer, 1996) but until now you’ve rarely written about this period in your life. Why tell the story of these difficult years now?
I’m at the point in my life when I can “come clean” without fear of repercussions. And that means telling the FULL truth about some of its less “seemly” aspects—which, I believe, is important to do. Many people seem to view me as someone who’s had a charmed, problem-free life. There is no such thing. That I was blessed with many privileges and advantages is unquestionably true, but I grew up gay in the 1950s, probably the most repressive decade in history for those who were “different.” Enforced secrecy and harassment take their toll. I think it’s important for the new generation to realize that such conditions can return—and to be prepared.
While your personal life was extremely difficult during this time, your professional life was very successful. How did your personal challenges impact your writing and activism?
Being gay, I believe, sensitized me to all forms of injustice. Before coming out I devoted a fair amount of my time to the black struggle—my play In White America, for example, ran for a year and a half off-Broadway and toured Mississippi during Freedom Summer—and much of my writing throughout my life has addressed issues relating to the history of “outsiders.”
How did being openly gay—at a time when that was not very common in academia—affect your career and your professional life during these years?
I already had tenure as a full professor when I came out and could only have been fired for “moral turpitude.” At the time many would have included homosexuality under that rubric; some still do. Fortunately, the universities I taught at did not. Also protecting me was my record of publications. However, there were consequences. Before coming out I’d been widely asked to contribute essays and reviews to various national publications. Those invitations ceased almost completely.
How did you come to write Paul Robeson’s biography? What were the best and worst aspects of working on that book?
Paul Robeson’s son invited me to do the biography and was willing to open the vast and previously closed Robeson Family Papers to me, as well as to cede all control over what I ultimately chose to write. Since Paul Robeson was one of my heroes, I accepted with alacrity. Nonetheless, the seven year long process proved difficult on many counts. Sons and scholars tend to have quite different agendas and what started as a cordial relationship didn’t end that way. All this is recounted at length in The Rest of It.
You were active in the nascent gay civil rights movement during this time and also working to raise awareness about AIDS. How has your activist work grown and changed since then?
In the immediate post-Stonewall period, the gay liberation movement was radical in its tactics and scope. It was not a single issue movement but rather one that spoke out against other oppressions based on race, class, and gender. It also sought alliances with movements speaking in the name of those oppressions—such as the Black Panthers and the feminist movements. Since the mid-seventies, however, the gay movement has gradually moved towards the center and to single issue politics. Basically national LGBTQ organizations like the Human Rights Campaign argue that we’re “just folks” (except for this insignificant matter of sexual orientation)—in other words that we share mainstream values and believe in the structural soundness of our institutions. In my view, this view denies the reality of gay cultural values AND the important contribution our different perspective has to make on issues relating to gender, sexuality, the nature of “coupledom,” and the “family.” All the studies have shown, for example, that gay men are far more sexually and emotionally expressive than straight men and far less bound by traditional strictures regarding monogamy and the closed unit of the family.
In the years following those covered in The Rest of It I continued to do “activist” work, but of a different sort than earlier. For ten years (1986-1996) I served as the founding executive director of The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, and in my writing, I turned primarily to recounting the lives and politics of RADICAL LGBTQ people—for example, in my books Left Out, Radical Acts, A Saving Remnant, Hold Tight Gently, The Emperor Has No Clothes, and Jews/Queers/Germans.
What do you consider your most important achievement during the decade covered by The Rest of It (1976-1988)?
I have to go for two rather than one: (a) completing my biography of Paul Robeson and (b) starting up what became the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
What is your greatest regret from the period?
My inability to express the love and gratitude I felt towards my mother before her death.
Want to read a bit of The Rest of It? Check out an excerpt in The Advocate. You can order The Rest of It from your favorite local or online bookstore (print and e-editions available) or save 30% when you order directly from Duke University Press. Use coupon code E18REST at checkout to save.