March 2011, Week 2


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Book Review - Lives of Courage and Commitment
    Barbara Deming, David McReynolds: two out pioneers
    of the left

By Doug Ireland

Gay City News

March 2, 2011


The Radical Lives of
Barbara Deming and David McReynolds

By Martin Duberman
The New Press
298 pages; $27.95

Martin Duberman, known as "the father of gay studies," is a
distinguished historian, playwright, essayist, novelist, and
public intellectual, and any new book by him is an event in
queer culture to which attention must be paid.

Such is certainly the case with "A Saving Remnant: The
Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds," an
unusual dual biography by Duberman just published by the New

Duberman is a distinguished professor of history emeritus at
the Graduate Center of the City University of New York,
where three decades ago he founded the Center for Lesbian
and Gay Studies (CLAGS), the first such program in any
American university, much emulated since. Duberman's long
struggle to establish that center is recounted in his third
volume of memoirs, "Waiting to Land," published two years
ago (see this reporter's October 15, 2009 review, "Queer
Studies' Essential Man."

Duberman first established his reputation as a historian
with his groundbreaking work on the 19th-century anti-
slavery movement, and later produced stunning biographies of
the likes of Paul Robeson and Lincoln Kirstein, among
others, a body of work that won him the recognition of his
peers, who awarded him the American Historical Association's
Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Scholarship.

Duberman was already well-known as an important public
intellectual whose essays and articles engaged with "the
passion and action of our time" (to borrow Oliver Wendell
Holmes' formulation), and as a prize-winning historian and
playwright, when he became the first major intellectual of
premier rank to come out and join the gay liberation
movement in the early 1970s. As an activist, he went on to
help found the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and,
later, Queers for Economic Justice.

With his new book, "A Saving Remnant," Duberman returns to
the preoccupation with social movements that has been at the
heart of much of his work. And in choosing to recount the
lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds, Duberman has
picked two openly queer Americans who devoted their lives to
the struggles for peace and social justice.

Nothing in their family backgrounds destined either Deming
or McReynolds to become political radicals. Deming, a
novelist, short story writer, and poet who was born in 1917
and died in 1984, was raised in Manhattan by upper-middle
class parents with "traditional habits and opinions." But at
16, she fell in love with her mother's best friend (Edna St.
Vincent Millay's sister Norma) and boldly wrote in her
journal, "I am a lesbian. I must face it." Thereafter, she
refused to conceal her sexual orientation. After graduation
from Bennington, Deming moved to Greenwich Village, worked
at Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, and had a brief affair
with Lotte Lenya, the Austrian actress-singer who was
married to composer Kurt Weill.

McReynolds, born in 1929 and still going strong today, was
raised in Los Angeles as a devout Baptist by conservative
Republican parents. But while in high school he read
muckraker Lincoln Steffens' autobiography and underwent a
political conversion. McReynolds had his first homosexual
experience in grammar school, and when he was 19 came out to
his parents. Although he had some guilt about his
"deviance," that vanished when he was a student at UCLA
after an encounter in a notorious "queer bathroom" on campus
with a young Alvin Ailey, not yet famous as a dancer and

"Alvin's guilt-free attitude toward homosexuality became a
model for David (`I came home walking on a cloud') and the
two became good friends, though never lovers," Duberman

By this time, 1951, McReynolds had become deeply involved
with the Socialist Party. Founded in 1901 under the
leadership of labor leader Eugene Victor Debs, the party
reached its peak of influence in 1912, when, with Debs as
its presidential candidate, it won 6 percent of the vote;
had 100 elected public officials, including several members
of Congress; and a press with a readership in the millions.
But the party's principled pacifism during World Wars I and
II brought it government persecution and decimated its
membership, and by the early '50s the party, for decades led
by Norman Thomas, was a shadow of its former self.

As a well-known, "outspoken and magnetic" campus radical "on
the non-Communist side," the handsome young McReynolds
became a leader of the Socialists' left wing, all while
being open about his homosexuality with his party comrades
in its somewhat Bohemian LA local, but "never taking any
flack for it."

McReynolds, already a committed pacifist, risked prison when
he refused induction into the army for the Korean War, and
it was then that he met Bayard Rustin, the field director of
the principal pacifist organization, the War Resisters
League, later famous as the organizer of the 1963 March on
Washington under Martin Luther King's leadership. At the
time of their meeting, Rustin had just been arrested on a
"morals charge" for a homosexual encounter, and a long talk
with Rustin about homosexuality helped further diminish any
of McReynolds' residual guilt feelings about his own same-
sex orientation.

It is difficult to overstate the enormous courage and
personal integrity required of Deming and McReynolds to be
openly queer at a time in America when homosexuality was
illegal, and homosexuals were condemned to barbaric tortures
to "cure" them by medicine and loathed as degenerate
outcasts by most of society. This was especially true in the
1950s at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunts, when
government was purging both left-wingers and homosexuals
from its ranks and those of academia and the labor movement,
and when homosexuality was frequently identified with
Communism in the dominant rhetoric of the red-baiters.

In 1955, McReynolds was fired from his job on account of
being a "political security risk" and decided to move to New
York where, with help from Rustin, he obtained a series of
"movement" jobs (including a stint with the Brotherhood of
Sleeping Car Porters, where he was the only white person in
its Harlem headquarters) before joining Rustin on the staff
of the War Resisters League, where he remained until his
retirement in 1999.

Deming, while essentially liberal, had remained rather
apolitical until the late '50s, when on a trip to India she
steeped herself in Gandhi's writings and became a convert to
his theory of nonviolence as the path to peace and change,
eventually emerging as a leader of A.J. Muste's Committee
for NonViolent Action. It was on her return to the US from
revolutionary Cuba that Deming began to put her body on the
line and got arrested in a never-ending series of non-
violent direct action struggles, both in the movement for
black civil rights - she spent several harrowing months in
jail in Albany, Georgia - and in the budding movement
against nuclear weapons and for peace and disarmament.

As she later wrote of these militant actions, they
"reverberated deeply a so-called `apolitical' struggle I'd
been waging on my own, in a lonely way up until then, as a
woman and a lesbian: the struggle to claim my life as my

Duberman writes, "Barbara would also come to believe that
nonviolent actions are by their nature androgynous. Two
impulses long identified as belonging to different genders -
the `masculine' impulse of self-assertion and the `feminine'
impulse of sympathy - come together in any individual,
regardless of gender, who adheres to nonviolence."

Duberman contrasts McReynolds' focus from Deming's, saying
he "was no less committed than Barbara to nonviolence, but
throughout most of the 1960s, until the rise of the feminist
movement, he emphasized a somewhat though not absolutely
different goal than she: his concern centered more on the
need to transform social institutions than individuals."

But the path of Deming and McReynolds increasingly crossed
in their activism, as they participated in many of the same
direct actions and causes. In the long struggle against the
Vietnam War, McReynolds' War Resisters League and the
Committee on NonViolent Action, in which Deming was a key
figure, both played crucial roles.

"A Silent Remnant" recounts the history of all this activism
with many details never before recorded. Deming left her
extensive papers at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute, and
McReynolds not only has retained expansive personal files
but is fortunately still around to add his personal
illuminations to Duberman's account of those years. The book
is, as usual with this distinguished historian's work,
carefully footnoted, and includes several dozen photos of
its principals and their activism.

There are chapters on the controversies over the US New Left
(including McReynolds' debates about it with right-wing
socialists like Irving Howe); on the burnout toll that
activism takes on those who choose its demanding path
(including McReynolds' struggle with alcoholism and Deming's
eventually failed attempt to preserve her love affair of two
decades with the artist and writer Mary Meigs); on the
impact of the feminist and gay movements; and on the
disagreements between the two sterling activists on such
questions as pornography and patriarchy.

There are also fresh insights into the history of the
Socialist Party and the debates and splits with which it has
been riven over the last half-century. McReynolds went on to
become the first openly gay presidential candidate as the
Socialists' standard-bearer twice, in 1980 and 2000.

Queers have always played an important role in all the
movements for social justice and social change, and the
lives of Deming and McReynolds are both eloquent testimony
to that fact, but it has largely remained hidden history to
heterosexuals on the left.

At the same time, as Duberman writes, "Radical gay people
engaged with a wide variety of issues besides `gay
liberation' (like the continuing struggle against racial
discrimination) do still exist in the gay community, but
they lack the influence they once wielded in the half-dozen
years after Stonewall." In "A Saving Remnant," Duberman has
given us an absorbing book, radiant with an emboldening and
unquenchable humanity, that has meaningful lessons both for
the left and for today's single-issue gay activists.

Duberman notes, "I'm certain that my empathy, both political
and personal, for both Barbara and David had a lot to do
with my being drawn to write about them in the first place
and may well have affected how I chose to narrate their
lives. Although unsympathetic critics- especially those with
a centrist or right-wing political bias- will perhaps accuse
me of whitewashing my subjects, I've nevertheless done my
best to recognize and record their foibles and

That Duberman has succeeded in doing so renders this dual
biography all the more meaningful and admirable.

[Doug Ireland is a longtime radical political journalist and
media critic, who considers himself a purveyor of what the
great I.F. Stone (at whose feet Doug sat as a lad) called
"investigative opinion." Even those with whom Doug has
profound disagreements respect him--like Christopher
Hitchens, who wrote (in the May, 2004 Vanity Fair) that Doug
"is one of the country's toughest and brightest radical

Doug got his start in journalism as a lad on the New York
Post (in the pre-Murdoch days, when the paper was still
owned by Dolly Schiff and was the most liberal daily in the
country), and as a young man worked for a wire service. He's
been a columnist for the Village Voice (serving for seven
years as its chief media critic), the New York Observer, New
York magazine, and the Parisian daily Liberation, among
other publications (and for the late, lamented SoHo Weekly
News). He lived for a decade in France, writing on European
politics and culture for a wide variety of publications on
both sides of the Atlantic, visits France whenever he can,
and often writes about French and European politics for a
Stateside audience. He also currently writes a column for
the French political/investigative weekly Bakchich. During
the Clinton presidency, for three years he wrote a
syndicated column called The Clinton Watch, which appeared
in alternative weeklies around the country. A longtime
contributor to The Nation magazine, he's a contributing
editor of POZ magazine and of In These Times, and the former
media critic for TomPaine.com. His articles have appeared in
many U.S. and French publications. Among those he writes for
regularly these days is the L.A. Weekly, where his articles
on politics frequently appear. He writes weekly on
international LGBT issues for Gay City News, the largest
lesbian and gay weekly in New York City.

Prior to consecrating himself fulltime to journalism in
1977, before he reached the age of 30 Doug had worked on the
staff of four presidential campaigns for liberal Democrats,
and successfully managed the campaigns that elected
progressives like Bella Abzug and Allard Lowenstein to
Congress and Paul O'Dwyer New York City Council President.
He managed Bella's campaign for U.S. Senate in New York,
which she tragically lost, by less than 10,000 votes out of
1 million cast, to Pat Moynihan. He also served stints in
New York City and New York State government, and on the
staff of the United Auto Workers and the N.J. Industrial
Union Council AFL-CIO.

Doug has been out of the closet as a gay man since 1973, and
has written extensively about gay political issues. His
partner of a dozen years, Herve Coeurgou, died of AIDS eight
years ago. Doug lives and writes in New York City, but
considers Paris his second home.]


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